Sunday, June 29, 2008

June 30, 2008 – Muskrats in Your Levee

Last week the Mississippi River broke through the levees holding it back despite the efforts of hundreds of people fortifying it with sandbags. What caused the problem? Muskrats. Their burrows in the grounds along the river weakened it to the point that a breach was formed, flooding miles of farm land.

As managers we strive to make sure the project stays within the course set by the river banks established in the Charter and Scope Statement. Usually we are successful in keeping things flowing smoothly but occasionally problems poke enough holes in to create havoc. Here are five muskrats to watch out for on your project.

  1. Slipping timelines. At first they seem harmless: a task runs long but it’s finished the next week. Unfortunately that pushes the next task back 3 days to when Bill is on vacation, costing you another week. Tracking the project at the task level allows you to see potential slips and make adjustments quickly. Most projects can survive by tracking weekly but more agile methods require checkpoints daily to make sure people are working on and completing the right things, right now.
  2. Competing projects. As resources are stretched further, many people are required to work on multiple projects simultaneously. When things heat up on one project, the other projects suffer. Keep tabs on how many projects your team members are working and coordinate with the other managers to make it work.
  3. Negative Rumors. Perceived pending bad news can demoralize a team, kill productivity and, if unattended, cause people to seek employment elsewhere. Rumors can actually cause more damage than the reality they represent. Work quickly to kill false rumors. If there is truth to the rumor, get it out in the open and show how your are dealing with the problem.
  4. Miscommunications. Sometimes the simplest statements can be taken extremely wrong. The pastor of our church was interrupted once by someone coughing in the audience. He said, “Can one of the ushers please help that man out?” Immediately a couple of ushers descended on him and started dragging him away. “No! No!” the pastor corrected quickly, “I meant give him a cup of water or something!” In this situation everyone spoke English and still messed up a simple thing. Given the global world we live in and the complexity of the solutions we develop, it is no wonder our projects have communication problems. When you think you have over communicated what you need, you probably need to repeat yourself.
  5. Unresponsive Stakeholders. Silence from your sponsor, end users and other key stakeholders is not good. If you are inviting them to meetings and asking for input but getting nothing back, find out why. It could be simply that people are on vacation or otherwise occupied, but you need to understand why and get it fixed. The problem with assuming that silence means consent is that when they finally do speak up it may be to say everything is wrong. Keep the time between feedback opportunities frequent and follow up when you don’t hear from them.

Each of these things may seem harmless at the time, but when the project is flooding the banks any one of them can cause the levee to break.

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