The Unattainable Deadline

It is a project manager’s worst nightmare.   Well, maybe one of them.  Due to some factor, another project, project participants having less time, or a hundred other things, you are not going to be able to accomplish all of your goals.


Believe it or not, though, this is when you can really show your value to the team.

Discuss potential issues affecting the project team as early as possible. And there are really three things:

  1. Identify risks as early as possible
  2. Discuss those risks and mitigating actions with your project sponsor and team early
  3. Try to ensure that you keep the foundation goals and delay the later, flashier goals, if necessary

Since it is your role to have the highest level view of the project, you will be among the first to know if there are any risks to accomplishing your goals.  At least you better be.  One way to find out what is coming is to frequently poll your team for anything they see in their areas that might be a risk.  You also want to talk with your executive sponsor to see if he or she knows of any potential risks.  If there is a group of project managers, make sure you are keeping in touch with them so that if priorities change you all know right away.

And then, unfortunately, even though GI Joe says knowing is half the battle, in your case, knowing could be 10% to 90% of the battle. Now, if after a discussion with your executive sponsor, you realize there has to be a change, comes a time when you have to reset expectations.

This could be very simple if everyone agrees that a change to the project land is needed, or it could be very tricky to wade through if you have a disagreement from some of your project team or, even worse, your executive sponsor.

This is where you draw upon your formidable project manager skills, sit down with your team and slash or project sponsor and work things out.  Just like everything else in a project I believe this should be done by an open and honest discussion. Let people throw out ideas and let them discuss them. It may be well for you to warn them that if there is a
deadlock, then the executive sponsor is going to make the decision.

Probably the best thing you can contribute to the discussion is to encourage the team two complete the foundation goals, even if they are not as flashy or rewarding as the later project goals.  And be wary of shortening time frames.  They were probably tight already.  It is much better to put out a solid product without the bells and whistles than one that seems great but is fraught with problems. In the former way you still do a solid job and you have built a base to start the next phase from. Rushing or skipping steps puts you huge risk of rework when of project is restarted, as well as a bunch of ongoing trouble for you your project team and everyone else involved.


Recognition – Do You Know What It Looks Like?

Are you taking the time to recognize team and individual accomplishments? Are you identifying and rewarding people that have done a great job?  Lets’s talk about the how and why of this.

In general, there’s a lot of work to be done.  And that work will get done, but as it gets time, take the time to recognize the people that are doing it for the good work they’re doing.   This can be an afterthought because there is so much to do that this seems like a minor thing that is a waste of time and resources.

There are a several phases to a project.  The end phases are the self rewarding ones.  Building, testing, implementation and then optimization.  These phases are much more fun because things actually get because there are results to see at the end of each phase.

But generally, in each project there is planning, gathering information, doing background work, and grinding through the things that don’t necessarily yield immediate results, but need to be done to build the foundation of the project.  This is the time you should be especially vigilent, because you are also setting a tone.

There are two reasons to recognize people for their contributions all through the project.  The first is that it demonstrates two that team members what you are expecting from them and what good work looks like.

This second reason is that it keeps people motivated. When they put in hard work, and especially when they go above expectations and exceed requirements, that should be rewarded. If they come up with great ideas that can be implemented, especially if they to start taking the steps to implement them that should be rewarded.

Now, how do you reward them.  The rewards can be virtually cost free. You can recognize them in front of the group, you can tell their manager what a great job they are doing, you might have a small budget for gift certificates or something like that.  You might pull them aside in private and tell them they are doing a great job.  You might send them on a trip to Hawaii.

It all depends on what you have the budget for and, this is important, and what kind of recognition really motivates that person. Some people a lot of recognition in front of a group, other people would much rather you call their manager or told them in private.

You can make this a lot of fun.  You can hand out certificates or print your own award documents.  The sky is the limit. I have read about and actually worked with some people that award one or more people at each meeting based on how much they participated and how much they added to the discussion or project at that meeting.

It’s really up to you and top two what you think would motivate your team the best.  The key is that you actually do recognize people when they’re doing good work.   People like to hear that they are doing the right thing when they are.   So take the time to recognize that people are doing a great job.  Your team will work better, their skills will improve,
and everyone will have a better time while making your project soar.

Strengthening Your Team By Pushing Them (A Little)

A successful project is not just about the processes, but it is about people and how they work together to do it.  The people are more than just roles and positions.  Find their strengths and weaknesses.  Find ways to enhance their strengths and nudge them to address some of their weaknesses.

After all, you are doing great.  You have put together a mighty project full of fantastic ideas and you are ready to implement them and, just possibly, change the world.

That is half of what you need to do.  Now comes the implementation.

The team that you are managing is full of individuals who will be responsible for that implementation and the future processes and changes and derive from it. Over the time that you work with them, you are going to see how their personalities work, their strengths and weaknesses, their passions and the things that they are more ambivalent about.  You probably don’t have the authority to determine exactly how the team will be structured when the process or project is complete, but you do have a lot of influence in the beginning.  You should take the opportunity to examine these personnel issues and see what you can do to add strength and resiliency to the people, not just the process.

For instance, you may have someone who is the fantastic leader and whom you think will do a great job keeping things moving after the implementation phase.  This person may just emerge or need to be nominated. But when you see it happen, something that
you do have influence over is addressing areas where this person may not have much experience or strength. For instance they may not be a great organizer. You can help address that by making them making that person the note taker for your meetings or in charge of some phase of the project that is very detail oriented.

You might have someone who is the opposite, who is very detailed but absolutely does not want to be in a leadership role. It is highly likely that if they are involved on the project team that they will have that leadership role thrust upon them sooner or later, even if it is just in a small way. So, put them in charge of some phase of the implementation or get them to lead meetings or work with them in some ways to enhance and develop their leadership abilities of the top of their other skills.

This means extra work for you, because you’ll have to be more aware of how things are being handled. But, when you are ready to move on and assign that project to the project team, you are going to have a much stronger team.  That will correspond to a higher rate of success.  And you personally will benefit as well, from a well run project to being responsible for projects that keep working well.

How Do You Determine The Good Ideas?

I can come up with a lot of ideas.  A lot.  But, unfortunately, not all of them are good ones.  So I need a way to separate the winners from the, well, non-winners.  Here are a couple of ways to do that.

College researchers (I am sorry, I don’t have the reference to who came up with this) ran an experiment where they presented a series of logic problems to a group of people. What they found was most people missed most people answered one or more questions incorrectly. But when they grouped people into groups of three or more, they answered all the questions correctly, even if they had all previously answered the one or more of the same problems wrong wrong.

This shows the power of teams. That simple discussion in the group was the edge needed. When everyone is working together for a common goal it lead to marked increases in the ability to get the right answer, not just in logic problems, but in everything.

That is the first way to determine if ideas are good ideas. If you have nodding in agreement and discussion that further refines an idea, it is probably ready to be implemented and released to your test group.

Be alert, too.  Through this process of simple discussion, the idea may even morph into something radically different than it was when it was initially proposed, and that is great too. As long as at the end of the discussion you have a group consensus on that idea,  you can be pretty sure you have a winner.

When you have a list of ideas and are trying to figure out which to start on, a second way you can evaluate them is to just put them on some type of grid. This is commonly used in
Kaizen events and an example is shown below.

VSM Lean Value Stream intro

The grid is really easy to make.  The Y-axis denotes the ease of implementation and the X-axis denotes the anticipated benefit.  All you need to do then is to take the team’s list of ideas and plot them on the grid in relative terms of ease of implementation and projected benefit. Once you have this will give you a very nice graphical representation of your proposed ideas. It can help you to determine which ones you want to implement first and which ones will be most effective.

You may see ideas that look like they will be very effective but will take a long time or a lot of effort to implement. That doesn’t mean you ignore those ideas.  This is just a tool
to get an idea of the relative cost to benefit.  Depending on your project, you might find that this is all you need to do or you may also find that this is just a first step in organizing ideas in order to implement improvements.

The use of discussion is a great way to refine ideas. The second way is a quiet great way to rank ideas.

The third way, combining these two ways, will lead to places you can only dream of in the beginning of a project.

Ownership – Encourage It

When there is something you really want to do, did the idea usually come from yourself or somebody else?

I am talking about those super are exciting projects that you think will change the world. Or at least change your world.  If you are going to be honest with yourself, the idea most likely came from you.  Maybe you are adapting someone else’s idea, but most people tend to get a far more excited about something they have thought of themselves than by following advice from someone else.

You can use this to your advantage.

One thing that is very important is that when you are managing a project is that you want the people involved to feel like they are owners. You want them to have pride in and feel responsibility for the outcome. In short you want them to feel like it is their process or project.  The more people feel like something is theirs, the more they want to see it taken care of and handled correctly.

So here it is a key.

When you are brainstorming for ideas of how to build projects or improve processes,
try not to be the one that comes up with the solutions, but rather the person who has the leads others to the answers.  Even if you have what you think is a breakthrough idea, try
to lead the the group there. If it really is a breakthrough idea, they will probably get there on their own and because they are the experts, will probably improve upon it. Be subtle and give nudges in that direction. But don’t be hyper focus on the idea.  Allow that beautiful group dynamic to blossom.

Use leading questions.

The questions can be very simple:

  • I have already written about asking “Why?”
  • “How else would you/we do this?”
  • “Where is the weak point?”
  • “Where are we strongest?  How do we utilize that strength?”
  • “What would you do differently?”
  • “In a perfect world how would you design this?”

As the project manager, you already own the project. Whether it succeeds or fails, your name is attached and you have some responsibility, just like everyone else on the project team.   You want the team members to take that ownership.

As the team that has works through the project or the process, the more each person contributes and the more of their ideas that are implemented, the more ownership that person is going to take. They are going to be more committed and more involved.  You want all of that.

Remember, you are the project manager. At the end of this project you are likely going to move on to other initiatives leaving the other members of the team to carry forward with the results of their project.  Let them take ownership up front and then is very easy for them to keep it running when you are done. In fact, if they get to the point where they think your participation is superfluous (in a good way), you have really done your job.

Meetings – What Are They Good For

Oh, meetings, I despise
‘Cause it means the waste of precious time

Meetings means tears to thousands of employees
When they go off to sleep and lose their lives

I said, meetings, huh good god, y’all

What are they good for?  Absolutely nothin’.  (Sing to War, by Edwin Starr)


Our meetings necessary evil?

I believe that they are necessary and that you can take the evil out and make them good.

The first thing to think about before having a meeting is what you want to accomplish.  If it requires a meeting or would strongly benefit from a meeting, then the meeting is going to inherently be a good thing, if it is well run.  There can be a thousand good reasons for having a meeting, so just make sure it is one of those.

Make sure you have a goal and that you make sure to meet that goal during your meeting.  Your goals can can range from simple discussion and sharing of ideas all of the way to making a conclusive decision or completing a task.  Everyone attending the meeting should know what the goal of the meeting is before the meeting even starts.  That will enable you to all share it from the beginning and work towards the same end point.

When you hold your meeting you need to be flexible.  As I have alluded to in earlier posts about teamwork, you may have a group that is very focused on a topic that moves forward in a very linear fashion.  You might have a group that likes to make a lot of side comments and laugh a lot.  You might even have a group that seems like they are being a bit belligerent to each other.  They key is to know your group and run your meeting accordingly.  As long as everyone is OK with that, then it is your job to work with that dynamic.  Just keep your hand on the tiller so that you keep going in the general direction of the goal.

That seems like pretty vague advice, but it works.  If you try to force your model of a meeting onto a group, it is not going to work as well as if you can flexibly provide the structure, the outline, and set the goal that is relevant to the team.  Then watch to see how your team works within that framework, nudging here and there as needed, and allow them the flexibility they need to accomplish their task.

I get it, it complicates your life, but you become known as the person whose meetings people want to attend.

Célébrez La Différence

Dr. Egon Spengler: I have a radical idea. The door swings both ways, we could reverse the polarity 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 it could work! LET’S DO IT! – Ghostbusters (1984)

You have an idea.


You have a great idea!  It is revolutionary.  It will change the way things are done.  It will stand your existing processes on their heads, make them do one of those super complicated yoga poses, and bring enlightenment.

You present your idea to your team, coworkers, friends and their response is…meh.  But you know in your heart that this is a great idea.  What is going on?

Something to remember when talking with others is that, just like I mentioned in a previous post, no two people think the same way.  No two people will do things the exact same way.   And the ability to harness these differences in thoughts and actions is a tremendous skill for a project leader or team leader to have.  But just like any other thing in life, there is a potential downside, which is that that if you explain something in a way that makes sense to you, there is only a certain probability that’ll make sense to others.  Depending on background and the concept being discussed, this could be very high or a could be very low.

We all remember teachers in school who were very good at explaining concepts and others who sometimes spoke or taught at a level that was the students were not ready for.  You probably think back on the first group with more fondness.

It is the same thing that you need to be as a project or team leader.  You need to break down concepts into pieces that are easy to understand and look at them from the point of view of your audience.  It is great to have a computer infrastructure solution that saves hundreds of thousands of dollars, but if you cannot explain to your front line users how this actually helps them, they are going to be lukewarm on the idea at best.

On thing that I find, along with making sure you introduce relevance for your audience, is that using analogies is a great way to impart understanding.  Your analogy is don’t have to be perfect but a close analogy can really help.  I used the the flow of customers in a bank lobby to describe why users are getting slow response times from their computers.  I have compared triage nursing to database indexing.  You can probably guess is that I was trying to explain technical concepts to a nontechnical audience.  And it worked!

The second challenge you have with people thinking differently is that the members of your team all think differently.  And you as a project manager are responsible for making sure people understand each other.  This is more people management.  You need to be scanning the roomm, asking questions, making sure people are involved and responding, and generally making sure that the level of communications is as high as it can be.  This is much easier if you are all together in one place than if you are on a conference call.  But even then, there are tricks to make sure that communication is good.

So, remember, differences in how people think about things are a huge, huge asset to your team.  But it is very easy for that to become a problem as well.  Stay alert to make sure that understanding is happening and watch your team crush it.

Project Management Means People Management

When you are managing a project, your responsibility is not to find a solution and meet all the goals of the project.  Surprising, right?

Your problem is making sure that the project team meets all the goals and finds solutions.

Yes, you have to put together schedules and keep documentation and do the myriad of tasks that a project manager is responsible for.  But your huge, secret, overarching task is to make sure your project team is exactly that, a team.  And that means always paying attention to team a group dynamics.

For instance, in a meeting you are going to have a different types of people with different ideas about how to do things.  That can lead to friction.  And that is OK.  In fact, that is great.  You need to keep those ideas flowing and make sure people are discussing things openly and honestly.  But this can be trickier than it seems.  You have to watch for several things that can either derail your project or limit the effectiveness of your team.

  • Lack of open and honest communication – This can stem from many issues and is probably the root of all of the issues you might have.  You may have a loud group, or you may have a quiet group, but you need to make sure that everyone is participating, contributing, and respecting each other.  I am not going to go into all the potential causes is in this post,  but there has to be an air of respect and openness in your team.
  • Group think – It seems like it would be good enough for everyone agreed on everything.  Because then you can make great progress getting things done.  If you find your team is being too agreeable, that is a big warning sign.  There should be a lot of discussion of alternatives and potential issues.  You may have to push people by asking probing questions.
  • Endless discussion/ Inaction – You want open and honest discussion but you don’t want it to go on forever.  At some point you need to tell people to end the talk and make decisions.  Ideally, at the beginning of a project you will have set up ground rules around how you will make decisions, break ties, will determine when it is time to move on to a new topic or a new task.  If you set those expectations at the beginning of the project, this becomes much easier to avoid.
  • Bad team members – Let’s be honest, sometimes you have someone on your team who does not work well with others, even if they are good people.  Maybe they don’t share or they don’t do anything.  I believe that efforts should be made to work with this person, talking to them about what you need and expect from them, but don’t be afraid to talk with your project sponsor about replacing them, if it comes to that.

In comprehensive data analysis at Google, among other places, it has been demonstrated that the biggest key to a successful project is not who is on your team but how that team works together.

So, think of teams like the A-Team.  They might bicker occasionally, but they make their plan and (with a lot of help from special effects) work together to get things done.

Living On The Edge

Yesterday I alluded to the fact that people in structural holes, according to Dr. Bert, are the people most likely to have ideas.  Instead of hole, I like to use the term Edge, which is widely used to describe a place in nature where two different ecosystems meet.  For instance the boundary between a forest and a field or anywhere water meets land.  In and near that boundary area, there will be a huge diversity of species and a riot of growth.  There will be small trees, shrubs, ferns, tall grass, and a disproportionate amount of animal life.  Food, cover, and nesting materials are all very close by.  Animals have access to the resources of the field and forest right nearby.

This edgy area between the forest infield is analogous to and edge between departments.  All of those small trees, shrubs, grass, vines, birds, animals, those can all be considered a new ideas.  And that is a very fertile place for them to grow.

You can create these edges on your project team or in your business very simply.

Find ways for people to interact and share ideas.  Obviously, meetings are one way to do this, but make sure that meetings are set up to discuss ideas and encourage the free exchange of thoughts and experiences.  If you do that correctly, you’ll have amazing ideas and solutions to problems.

Try to create as many edges as you can.  If people and departments don’t normally interact, give them a reason to work together.  Often, it is helpful to include someone on a project that is not impacted that project.  This person creates a value by contributing from a point of view completely different from anyone else involved.  In terms of edges, just including this outside person will create a significant number, because of the new, unexpected interactions with the other members of the team.

Edges are not just important, edges are critical.  This is where most ideas and all of your solutions will come from.  And how people work together at the edges is where you find out if you have a team or a bunch of individuals.

So cultivate the fact is create more edges and be ready.  The hardest part will be trying to figure out which things to do first.


So You Want To Be An Innovator

Watch and listen.

Of the things you need to do in order to become an innovator, those are number one and two on the list.

Number three is to I think about how you can apply knowledge from one area of your life or ideas from a department or group to another department or group.  If you are observant of the different situations in your life, then this will naturally occur.

Number four is to start making changes, start talking with people about them, and start seeing how well they will apply.

Congratulations, you have just become an innovator.  You will now have the reputation end of “thinking outside the box” and “bringing something new to the table”.

Sociologist Ronald Burt, from the The University of Chicago Booth School of Business argues just this.  Creative ideas are not usually new ideas, but ideas that are cross applied.  He states that, “People who live in the intersection of social worlds are at higher risk of having good ideas.”  This is true in my life.  I have cross applied ideas from gardening to my work at a bank and from software development to customer service.

And one of the best things about this is that these ideas do not even have to be yours.  The application of the idea will be yours, but the idea can come from someone else or somewhere else.  And the great thing about that is that there are roughly seven billion other people out there to provide these ideas.  And each and every single one of them thinks differently.  Not just differently from you, but differently from each other.

When you combine that broad array of knowledge with all of the interactions that people have with each other, whether listening to them, watching them, reading an article, watching a video, or even reading a blog, you have the opportunity to take that idea, give it a twist and put it back out as something brand new.  Because it really is.  No one else in your group, or department came up with that idea and applied it in the way you doing at.  So even though the germ of the idea what they have come from anywhere, you own it and you should be proud of it.

So, the next time you think, “Hey, that is a good idea”, write it down or have some other way to remember it because chances are you’ll be able to apply it somewhere else.

And always, always credit your source.