Two piles: things to care about…or not

Scott Berkun has had a few recent posts that every new leader should read. The first is here: How project managers establish power.  In this post, Scott highlights one of the most important things to do as a leader —  help your teams and their leaders clear away the clutter:

He gave me clear priorities…. It was amazingly empowering. I could slice through all of the work being thrown at me from across the team and the company, and divide into two neat piles: a) things to care about, b) things not to care about.

Everyone knows that one must prioritize one’s work, but how to do so?  Scott then uses a “There are only two teams at Microsoft to care about, Windows and Office” anecdote to illustrate how prioritizing one’s stakeholders makes it obvious what is to be done:

The problem was working on Internet Explorer during the browser wars, every one of the 100 teams in the company wanted something from me, and every other PM on the team…. There was a huge pile of people who wanted to influence the work I managed. My phone rang all the time and my inbox was always full. If I treated everyone equally I’d be doomed. Couldn’t be done. I had to ignore, or say no to, most of the people who wanted something from me.

Deliverables, work packages, and the schedule

This temptation to fix a schedule and get to work is constant in enterprise IT.  It is particularly alluring for any application tied to a SOX-compliant landscape — some governance models only allow two opportunities/year to deliver — where project durations strongly suggest themselves and time is always “a-wasting”.

Of course, as Glen Alleman reminds us here, starting with the schedule  is wrong.  I won’t recapitulate his post here, but I’ll borrow from his comment to another post which points out the fallacy in this kind of thinking:

[M]any…process improvement projects have failed, along with Enterprise IT, because the WHY of the effort is not established or well understood. The principles establish WHY we should be doing something. The practices of course tell us HOW.

This rush to “get working” short-circuits on of the most important functions of a WBS: stakeholder management.  Properly defined deliverables and work packages aren’t simply inputs to the schedule, budget, etc.  If nothing else, a WBS  is the most accessible framework for a discussion with one’s stakeholders that ensures that the what of the project supports the why of the project.  Wouldn’t it be a good idea to make sure that why and what are elaborated and priorities agreed upon — even at just a couple of levels — before getting down to who, when, where, and how?

Bridging the PM/Management Gap

I like the title of Sanjay Saini’s post on the lack of communication between project managers and senior management — “Make the Effort.” One can quibble with his specific suggestions, but his exhortation to communication more regularly, frequently,and transparently is right on:

Reviewing progress and profitability should not be something that waits until year’s end. Instead there should be some monthly or quarterly checkpoints in between. This regular communication should also include client feedback–both good and bad.

PM Quote of the Day — John Singer Sargent

Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend.

PM Quote of the Day — Samuel Johnson

Actions are visible, though motives are secret

I’ve found two meanings in this little saying of The Great Cham:

  1. Our actions — even unconscious tics or posture — can betray a meaning we don’t necessarily mean.  What may be fatigue for us may look like boredom to another.  I know that one video of me presenting was enough to make me acutely aware of how my carriage and affect undermined my message.  I also realized that the same principle applied to all of my interpersonal relationships.
  2. A little innocence about motive isn’t entirely naive.  With some people that may require complete suspension of disbelief; however, delving into motive is a tricky and time-consuming business.  I try not to let my default trust setting become “suspicion” — actions will reveal what needs knowing in the fullness of time.

Corner Cutting Survey Results: Risk Monitoring

The corner cutting poll’s third answer (at a low 12 percent) is “On-going risk monitoring and control”.  That result was quite a surprise to me.  Neglecting to perform risk activities beyond initial identification and analysis is one of the most common project mistakes that we see.  Surprise at when risks become issues — or when they become so likely to happen that they should be managed as issues — is a consistent marker of troubled projects.

In our experience, we get a great start in risk management and start our projects with an excellent list of risk events.  Furthermore, we usually will have done good quantitative and qualitative analyses, though appropriate risk response planning is less systematic (which is why it was a poll question).

Any ideas why this came in so low?  Maybe it’s just that Crossderry readers are very sharp and would never miss something so critical :-)   That shameless pandering aside, I’m wondering whether this result was driven by some characteristics of the poll:

  • Was it clear that multiple answers could have been given?
  • Did respondents understand the implied distinctions drawn among the various risk management processes?
  • Was the answer worded well?
  • Was there another risk-related answer that would have worked better?

PM Quote of the Day — John Wanamaker

I know half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, but I can never find out which half.

I love to quote this saying whenever I’m about to start a propaganda campaign communications effort for an initiative.  There’s a sneaking feeling that a lot of people won’t even bother to open the broadcast e-mail, or won’t read my section of it, or won’t visit the portal page, or are blogging during my Webex session.

Not that I’ve ever done any of that…

This saying reminds me that about half of my audience is tuning out my message.   Ensuring full attention and comprehension will depend on the appropriateness of the channels, media, and frequency that I use.  That’s the whole point of stakeholder and audience analysis. 

A very simple example is given here — graphical views of work breakdown structures typically work well when summarizing for executives and WBS lists usually work best when elaborating the detail for project teams.  This result is to be expected, once we’ve analyzed the attention spans, communication styles, and information needs of the respective audiences. 

Sure, some folks simply won’t get it, at least not without a consistent and persistent effort.  But regardless, the onus is on me and my team to make the connection. 

SOA and Project Management

We’ve discussed the impact of enterprise services and Enterprise SOA on a number of occasions (in many of the links collected here and here especially).  My focus has been on complexity and how Enterprise SOA is part of the transition where “every project becomes a program”.

One of the little discussed impacts — on project managers, that is — is the increased interaction among business process experts, business users, and technical teams.  Demir Barlas has a link rich post on the SOA in SAP topic here.  I had seen some of these links before (Dennis’s post in Demir’s quote below), but Demir has pulled together other good links that serve as primers on the topic.

The impact of SOA on project management practices is alluded to in Demir’s last full paragraph:

Finally, because SOA is right at the heart of both business processes and enterprise applications, it brings together what you might call the suits and the geeks. SOA is making these disparate communities speak each other’s languages, as you can discover on SAP’s BPX forum.

In particular, project managers must dedicate more attention to their stakeholder management practices.  Many of these stakeholder groups are new to SAP projects.  As Demir notes, they don’t speak the same language.  Business and transactional users also have very different expectations about how the project should engage their time and attention.

Before you manage your next SAP Enterprise SOA project, take a few minutes to poke around on SDN and BPX to get a feel for the discussions.

Corner Cutting Survey Top Answer: Not communicating with senior management

Executive body language after cancelling too many meetings

The corner cutting poll’s top answer (at 22 percent) remains Executing planned communications with senior management.  This answer matches our own experience within SAP, which indicates that proper stakeholder management decreases the probability of risk events, shortens their duration, and lessens their total impact. 

In our experience, the most frequent communications mistake was failure to execute planned executive-level messaging, which eroded the project manager’s position in the eyes of sponsors and other leaders.  Such an erosion of a project manager’s position leads to negative second-order effects, including:

  • Mistrust of the PM’s ability to lead and prioritize.
  • Senior management bypassing the PM in favor of direct communication with team leads and vice versa.
  • Exclusion from decision-making bodies or meetings.

Reviving Failed Ideas and Lost Causes

I liked Pavel Brodzinski‘s comment (here) on my networking post.  His point is right on and I wished I had elaborated on the point myself.  As Pavel notes, coming from the outside with fresh energy can revive previously-lost causes.  I also see some additional benefits/approaches to surfacing “already failed” ideas during your initial networking:

  • As an outsider, you can ask open-ended and naive questions about the failed concept without appearing ignorant.  Also, this approach gets people to talk more openly about what really went wrong.
  • Even if you think it is a great idea and you’ve seen it work, listen to the answers first.  To that end, don’t immediately endorse, complement, or promote the old idea.
  • Finally, listening to the answers is a great way to assess these stakeholders.  While Byham’s article emphasizes the need to establish credibility, credibility is a two-way street.

The ideal benefits from taking the these steps are a perspective on the “real” causes of the previous failure, an understanding of whether or not it may work again, and a map of the stakeholders you’ll have to navigate around.

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