It Is Always The Season For Gray

“Shades of grey wherever I go
The more I find out the less that I know
Black and white is how it should be
But shades of grey are the colors I see.” – Billy Joel, Shades Of Gray

Have you ever worked on a project where the lines of responsibility were extremely clear?  Projects on which there was never any doubt as to who was responsible for every different part of the project and exactly who would accomplish which task.  If you have, it was probably because you were the only one on that project.  But in real life, that never happens.

We can start with the project plan.  Everyone on the project needs to contribute to that, but the amount of each person’s contribution will not be clear until it is done.  As you go forward, decisions will need to be about tasks needing to be accomplished.  Some or most of them will be very clear who has responsibility and who is accountable.  But any time there is work that crosses a boundary from one person to another or one team to another, then the project has entered the grays zone.

If you have read earlier posts, like this one about team interactions, or this one about handoffs, you will see that the gray zone is a happy, powerful place to be.  You’ll also see that it is a potentially dangerous place to be.  These are the places where your communication skills are most needed and the place where you need to make sure your team members are communicating and collaborating fully.  This is where you need to get involved in the details, the follow-up, and all the things that you do to help your team members in your project manager role.  You may not be writing the process documentation or the work plan, but you are reviewing it very thoroughly.  This means you need to have enough knowledge to do that intelligently.  This might mean there is a  research burden on you here.

With a good team, the people working in the gray areas will work together and figure out their individual roles and tasks.  Everyone involved will accept responsibility for those areas.  With a newer team, or one that is not used to sharing as well, it is going to be up to you to work with them to turn them into a good team and make sure everything is getting done, reviewed, and cleaned up.  You have more communication responsibility, but that is just part of the zest of being a project manager.

Don’t be afraid of gray areas.  Dive right into them.  They are a big reason why you are involved, and this is where a project rocks or fails.  Yours will rock!


Scope – Keeping It Clean

I am going to start with yesterday’s example.  Let’s say you are planning on going to Aruba.  You have your tickets and are doing all the other thing if you need to do.  Then your spouse or traveling companion decides that it would be great if you stopped off at Lego Land for a day because, well, everything is awesome.  That might cause some difficulty with your trip.  What turned out to be a relatively straightforward goal has now been changed dramatically.

In the world of projects, this is called scope creep.  You have a set of goals that you’re working towards and then, quite likely through good intentions, another goal gets added. This complicates the work to achieve the original goals or causes a lot of extra work that was not planned on.  Watch out for it.  Because it can be insidious.

Suppose you are working on a new patient protocol and determining which people you want in the room with a patient what equipment you want and how you’re going to proceed.  The goal is to set up guidelines that this specifically focus on this type patient contact.  But while you are in the room, you realize that the guards on the sides of the beds, the ones that prevent patients are rolling out, really could be better.  This is a noteworthy finding and this is something that it would be good to follow-up on, but is not part of your project.  If the guards were causing a problem, preventing you from accomplishing your project goals, that would be part of your project.

But it is still important.  So what do you do?

If it is something that is related to your project, and it is going to cause additional work or delays, then it should be discussed among your project team whether it will be added your project and what adjustments to tasks, budgets, or timeline need to be made.  If it is unrelated to your project, a separate project and a separate charter should be created for it or the work should be done by whoever is responsible if it is big enough warrant a project.

But distractions for this like this will pop up over and over.  When you are looking to improve a process, you will notice lots of other things that are happening in the same area.  This is great, because you are really looking deeply into things that are going on, but you will be much more effective finishing one project at a time than adding a lot of extra tasks to existing projects.  Other things might become more important, but any time you have to change the scope of the project, everyone on your team, including your sponsor, should be involved.

So, again, enjoy Aruba and/or Lego Land.   Just keep your focus.

A Project Is A Journey

When you plan a vacation, do you figure out the details or the destination first?  Most people do the latter.  After all, it is easier to say that you are going to Aruba and then figure out how to get there, than to get in your car with a random collection of clothes, food, and supplies and start driving, hoping you will get to somewhere fabulous.

Projects are the exact same way.  The very first thing if you need to know is where you want to go.  The second thing is where you are.  And where you want to be is probably the more important thing.  Because you have to figure out is whether it is realistic and important to you.  If you want to go to Aruba, do you have the money, the time, someone to watch the kids/house/animals?  Are you sure that your spouse wants to go to Aruba?  These are all things that need to be answered before you even start.

It is no different than running a project with some customer satisfaction, patient care, or financial goal.  You first have to figure out if you have the means and the skills to get there.  This doesn’t mean you have to have them in place right at that moment.  If you want to go to Aruba, you may need to save money for a couple of years to pay for it.  The same with any project.  You may need to acquire the their resources, whether financial, material, or personnel, to make it happen.

That leaves two the second part.  Where you are now.  That means taking stock of your current situation, of your current process, your current people and trying to estimate how long it will take to work from your current situation to your goal.  You also need to determine the means to get there.  Unless you already live there, you’re not driving to Aruba, but there probably is some driving needed to get to the airport.

Now, once you have your destination picked out and have determined that this is a worthwhile endeavor, it is time to fill in some details.  For a vacation – where you are going to stay, what you want to do while you’re there, any special details you want to add to this trip, etc.  Again, it is the same with your project.  What kind of specific improvements do you want to see?

What I’m describing is usually contained in a document called a Project Charter.  It is a high level overview of your project with the goals, the major steps, and the justification for the project, like the world and your organization will be better places when you are done.

Let’s be clear.  There are 1000 details (your project plan) to fill in after you have gotten to this point.  That is for a small project.  For a big project, you have about a million details.  That’s OK though, because you have already figured out where you are, where you’re going, and how important is to get there.  It was a lot of work to get here, and the work is not close to half done, but it makes all the subsequent steps easier because you now have a goal that all of your actions should lead to.

So when you get to Aruba, spend some time snorkeling for me.

How Am I Doing?

Unfiltered feedback.  It is like drinking the orange juice with pulp in it.  Actually, it is like the bottom of the container where all of the pulp has settled, so it is mostly pulp.  Some people like it, but they are in the minority.  Even though it is probably the healthiest part.

Do you ask for feedback from people on your project teams?  Do you ask for feedback from your customers as your project is moving along?  How about your peers?  Do you ever ask for another project manager to attend some of your meetings to critique you?

The answers usually range from:

  1. No.
  2. Not unless I have to.
  3. I never thought about it.
  4. There is not enough time in people’s schedules.
  5. Yes! All of the above and they work for me!

If your answers are anything but 5, consider some benefits of soliciting feedback and making sure that you act upon it.

First, you show yourself as open and ready to make improvements.  If people have issues with the way you work or any confusion as to your methods, this is a great way to have a discussion about that.  There might also be some areas where you are not as strong as you thought and this gives you a chance to make corrections before a bad situation can develop.

Second, your team and your peers, in general, will respect you more.  Any time that you acknowledge that someone else has value and may know more about something than you do, you validate that person’s skill.  You make your team stronger and you establish a relationship in which you are going to listen to people and they know it.  This will create a powerful dynamic which will only make your team better.

Third, you get more participation out of members of your group.  Sometimes, because of the fact that you are the organizer and facilitator, you become the leader of the group.  In large part, this is due to the fact that you are the center of the group web.  You are responsible not only for putting together agendas, organizing meetings, and keeping people adhered to their tasks and schedules, you might be the only one talking individually to everyone else.  Asking for feedback is a good way of letting people know this role is not going to your head and that your job is to keep things organized and moving, not be the decision maker.

Try to give people a way to do this publicly, privately, or anonymously, if you can.  Different people will prefer different ways.

One note: don’t expect to get feedback from everyone, at least not right away.  There are different reasons people will not give it.  They are shy, they don’t care, they don’t feel they have time, they don’t want feedback about themselves, or for many other reasons.  That is OK.  If you get good feedback from one or more people, you know you can count on them to give you honest opinions as you move forward.


Decision Time!

Dr. Egon Spengler: I have a radical idea. The door swings both ways, we could reverse the particle flow through the gate.
Dr. Peter Venkman: How?
Dr. Egon Spengler: [hesitates] We’ll cross the streams.
Dr. Peter Venkman: ‘Scuse me Egon? You said crossing the streams was bad!
Dr Ray Stantz: Cross the streams…
Dr. Peter Venkman: You’re gonna endanger us, you’re gonna endanger our client – the nice lady, who paid us in advance, before she became a dog…
Dr. Egon Spengler: Not necessarily. There’s definitely a *very slim* chance we’ll survive.
[pause while they consider this]
Dr. Peter Venkman: [slaps Ray] I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it! LET’S DO IT!


You have gotten together with your team, presented and discussed all the options.  Now you need to decide what to do.  There are basically for ways to go about this:

  1. Authoritatively – the person in charge makes a decision.
  2. Consultatively –  everyone contributes and then the person in charge makes the decision.
  3. Democratically – the options are presented and everyone votes.  The most votes wins.
  4. By consensus – everyone discusses the issue and provides input.  The decision is something that everyone agrees on.

I am going to focus on consensus in this post.  The other three decision-making processes have their place but my preference in a project settings is to use consensus as much as possible.  The advantage of making decisions by consensus have two big advantages:

  1. Everyone’s opinion and as much data as possible are included in the decision
  2. Everyone has ownership of that decision.

But there can be disadvantages to decision-making by consensus as well, including the fact that it takes more time to come to consensus, and it may be difficult or even impossible to reach consensus on all issues.  But there are strategies to mitigate the disadvantages while maximizing your damages.

First, as the team leader or project manager, you need to make sure everyone is included in the process.  I have touched on that in previous posts but it is incumbent on you to make sure there is the free and open exchange of ideas.

Second, if you cannot reach consensus on everything, try to reach consensus on smaller things and chip away at the big goals.  If you can reach consensus on 75% of your goals than finalize them and you can focus on the last 25%.  It is OK to arrive at solutions in pieces.

Third, you can establish a fallback position that is either temporary or permanent, but it is an agreed-to outcome in the case that members of the group cannot come to full consensus.

Fourth, you can establish ground rules, like if the group cannot make a decision in a certain amount of time the person with authority will make the decision based on the group’s input.  That would be falling back to the consultation model.

Any and all of these are acceptable alternatives give in the situation.

Decision-making by consensus is not for all situations.  For relatively minor issues, like what order to discuss things, or table an issue for later, then a democratic method is fine, because the outcomes of those decisions are not that important and you want to move along.

There are situations also where the consultation or authoritative model makes more sense than as well.  The executive in charge of a project often has more information often has a different scope of information involving a the areas of the business which may have to be taken into account without time to discuss them.  In that case a consultation of model would be of great benefit.

But in terms of getting the decision right, that consensus model is almost always your best bet.  I have done the math in a previous post and it is very clear.  So in the absence of a compelling reason to make a decision by some other method, strive for consensus.  You’ll have a happy, engaged team and the best odds of doing the right thing.

Huddle Up!

Have you ever watched a football game where the offense did not huddle before each play?  At least long enough for the quarterback to call a new play?  If you did, you probably a watching your kids play in the backyard.

The reason for the huddle is that the players all want to be running the same play.  You don’t want them running back to think he is getting the ball when he is not and have two receivers going to the same spot.  That is a recipe for failure.

If this method of communication is good enough, even necessary, for the best athletes in the world, why are you doing it?

It is really easy.

Every morning, yes, every morning, whether you work in a software company, a service industry, a factory, or anywhere else, this will benefit you.  Gather your team together for as little as two minutes, go around the group and ask people to contribute two things.

The first thing is what they will be working on that day, if there will be challenges, any impacts from their work that might affect others, or any assistance they might need.  This is a great way to prevent duplicate work and to make sure people are not working at cross purposes.  It is amazing how often those both happen, from a simple lack of communication.

The second thing is any news they have that might affect the rest of the team.  If they were talking to someone in a different departments, a customer, or heard some big news events that they think might affect their coworkers, the group, or work, this is the time to bring it up.  This is not the time to discuss rumors.

Other things people might mention is if they are going to have an unusual schedule, like they have a lot of meetings or will be gone for part of the day, or will be out of the office on subsequent days.  This can be grouped under news that will affect the team.

There does not have to be a lot of discussion, but if you should encourage your team to ask questions of each other to clarify issues.  If it looks like a longer discussion is needed for a subset of your team, ask them to handle it after the huddle.

Huddles are not meant to cover strategic, long-term goals, but rather immediate issues facing your group.  Discussion of bigger issues should be the topic of more structured team meetings.

And one more thing about this meeting.  Don’t call it a meeting.  Call it a huddle, a stand up, a daily status brief, call it anything except meeting.  For some reason, maybe because people have been to too many bad ones, there is a negative stigma attached if you say you’re going to have a meeting every day.  And if you are facilitating them, make sure they are quick and that people stick to important topics.

These are great for any kind of team whether you are a manager or a project manager.

So make sure everyone is on the same page of the playbook, clear away any short-term issues, go out there and score a touchdown every day.

Agendas – Don’t Meet Without Them

Have you ever sat through a meeting and at the end of it wondered what it was even about?  Have you ever been trapped in a conference room really, really hoping you could be doing actual work?  Have you ever been in a meeting that seems to wonder everywhere and go nowhere?  Sure, the person holding the meeting has an idea of what they want to get done, but it would be really nice if they shared it with you before the meeting.

No one is watching you right now.  You can admit it.  You have been there.

The answer: Agendas.  They are not just for people trying to take over the world.  If you want to be the type of person who looks like they get things done, or, better yet, the type of person who actually gets things done, make an agenda.

It doesn’t have to be complicated.  You only need the three things:

  1. A list of topics you will discuss during the meeting
  2. Your goal or goals for the meeting.
  3. Action Items – Who is doing what, when.

That’s it.  The first need to be written down and distributed to everyone before the meeting, so that everyone has the same expectations of what topics will be covered and what the point of the meeting is.

There is one more thing that will really make your meeting stand out is action items. When the meeting ends, decisions that made and there is work to do.  This will be included in your action items.

The action items should be:

  • Specific – there should be a concrete action to be accomplished that can be measured easily
  • Accountable – one person is responsible for making sure the task is accomplished.  They might not be doing the work, but they are responsible for the completion.
  • Given A Timeframe – assign a due date or time when a task should be completed.

At the beginning of your second meeting in a project, go through the open action items from the first meeting.  Keep checking them at meetings until they are completed.  If this means you bring them up every meeting, so be it.  If they are long-term tasks, it is worth mentioning them, but do not spend time discussing them.

One last thing:

Make sure the agenda is distributed at least a day before the meeting.  This makes sure your attendees have the opportunity to put their thoughts together on the action items,   discussion points, and goals.

By spending as little as 5 minutes on the day before a meeting,  you have a sanity check to make sure that you’ll cover the important topics and accomplish what you’re hoping in the meeting.  That is very little investment for a very significantly improved outcome.  But that little bit of time in.  You will not regret it and people will actually like coming to your meetings!


Show Me The Data!

Ring.  Ring.

Inexperienced IT person: This is IT.  How can I help you?

Caller: None of us can print and we have customers coming in 5 minutes.

Inexperienced IT person: OK!  We’ll get right down there.

Ring.  Ring.

Experienced IT person: This is IT.  How can I help you?

Caller: None of us can print and we have customers coming in 5 minutes.

Experienced IT person: What are you trying to print?  How many people have tried printing?  Is this the first time this has happened?  Has anything like this happen before?

This is a relatively common scenario for IT support desks.  And the caller may very well be correct in that nothing is printing.  But in the first scenario, IT has very little information to act on.  In the second scenario the support person has asked some questions, although waiting for answers between questions.  She is going to have a much better idea of where to look first to figure out the problem.  This is a very simple example of data collection.

Gathering data in this scenario is obviously helpful.  It will help the IT department solve the problem more quickly.  It is critical to any kind of project.  You can have all of the opinions that you want.  In fact everyone will be more than happy to share at least one with you.  But you cannot take decisive action until you have data.

This means you need to collect data about the current state of the project, analyze that data and the impact that proposed changes will have, and the present good estimations of what the future will be like.  There are two big reasons for this.  First, everyone’s perception of a problem will be will be different, as I have touched upon in a previous post.  Secondly when you are ready to present your recommendations, your sponsor and the people affected are going to want to see the data to back up your decisions.  That goes a long way if data shows them that their new goals are realistic.

It could feel like a gathering all this data is not doing very much.  It might feel like you’re stuck, doing a lot of work and making little progress.  That’s a trap!  Don’t fall into it.  If you tried to make big changes without the relevent information to let to know where you are supposed to be going, you’ll have a hard time hitting your goals and sustaining improvements after the implementation phase of the project.

Do The Dirty Work

Sometimes there are parts of a project you just don’t want to do.  They are stressful, tedious, or in some other way, no fun.  Pitch in and help with them.  At least the ones you can.

There is a story related in Google Rules by Laszlo Bock about Gerald Ford.  “Ron Nesson, who served as press secretary for President Gerald Ford, shared a story about his boss’s leadership style: ‘He had a dog, Liberty.  Liberty had an accident on the run in the Oval Office and one of the Navy stewards rushes in to clean it up.  Jerry Ford says, “I’ll do that.  Get out of the way, I’ll do that.  No man ought to have to clean up after another man’s dog.” ‘ ”

So when something comes along that you know is going to be painful for one or more of your project team members, find a way to help out.  No, it is probably not in your job description, but it is part of being on a team.  Even if you cannot help with the actual work, find a way to help with coordination, documentation, providing support, even just showing up with coffee, snacks, a gift certificate, or some type of recognition.  If it is a very time consuming job, talk to that person’s boss about how to make life easier for that person.  Find a way to help out.

The benefits to this are many:

  • You help out a colleague, which is always appreciated
  • You will probably learn something new or get a new appreciation of that role
  • You earn points with your team, showing you have their backs
  • The project will get done faster

This does not mean you have to take on everything, because you also have limited time, but lend a hand wherever you can and it make sense.  Getting your hands a little dirty is showing everyone that you care about them and the project.

The Half Life Of Facts

When you are managing a project, you need to make sure that your assumptions are correct.  That may require you to spend a significant amount of time on determining what those assumptions are.  Because facts and situations change and can do so quite quickly.

Have you ever wondered why doctors keep changing their minds every few years about what the best food or exercise or medication is?  Or picked up as science textbook that’s your child is using in high school and realize that’s a lot of the things she is studying are
different than you remember?  That is because new research is constantly occurring which is rendering old facts and knowledge you very irrelevant or just plain wrong.   In fact, in medical school, they tell you half of what you are about to learn won’t be true when you graduate — they just don’t know which half.

Some “facts” that have been disproved over time:

  • the earth is flat
  • the earth is the center of the universe
  • ulcers are caused by stress
  • there are nine planets in the solar system

Think about how fast things are changing now. Think about how you consume information. Only 10 years ago, you were getting all of your information from the Internet through a computer. Now, most people get a very significant part of much more information, and do the bulk of their communication, through their smart phone.  Applications and the software that is available now was unheard of 10 years ago.  There are things like driverless cars and a large number of medical techniques using robots and laparoscopic surgery that surgeons could only dream of 10 years ago.

The same thing is happening in your business. It doesn’t matter which field you are in. Even completely unrelated to the technological realm, even what we know about wild bird nutrition has advanced significantly in the last 10 years.

When you start your project, you need to work from a baseline. And you need to have as much knowledge about that baseline as possible.  Depending on what field you are in or what you’re trying to do this could mean a small amount of research or this could be a significant part of your project.  After all you do not want to end your project with a solution that is obsolete. U especially do don’t want to arrive at a conclusion that was obsolete before you started your project.

And things may very well change during your project. I worked on a software company on a project.  We were about 2/3 of the way through the project we found out that another team had written some really great code with a new version of software that we wanted to incorporate.  That meant an extensive rewrite of the work we had already done.  But it was the best way to proceed at that point to produce the best outcome.

The pace of change and the modern world is incredibly rapid.  There is a high likelihood that you will have to change course on a project because of some technological innovation or change in your customer demographics or some other reason. And
it is unlikely you will get every assumption correct at the beginning of each project, especially the more complex ones. So be flexible and ready for those kinds of challenges.  It is your role as project manager project manager to calmly and safely guide your team through the turbulent waters of change.