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Sometimes You Manage The Project And Sometimes It Manages You

Many projects consist of people with specialized roles who are unlikely to take responsibility for things that are beyond their limited scope or that fall between the cracks of their role and someone else's. Perhaps more problematic is that most of us avoid conflict. It's often the PM who has to question people, challenge assumptions, and seek the truth, regardless of how uncomfortable it might make others although the goal is to do this in a way that makes them as comfortable as possible.

PMs have to be willing to do these things when necessary. Many times situations that initially seem untenable or intractable crumble underneath the psychological effort of a tenacious project manager. A classic story about this attitude is the Apollo 13 mission. In his book Failure Is Not an Option Berkeley Publishing, , Gene Kranz describes the effort that went into fixing the life-support system on the damaged spacecraft. It was one of the hardest engineering challenges the team faced, and there were grave doubts among those with the most expertise that even a partial solution was possible.

Kranz took the position that not only would they find a way, they would do so in the limited time allotted. He refused to accept any easy way out, and he pushed his team to explore alternatives, resolving their disputes and focusing their energy. All three versions of the story, the film Apollo 13 , Kranz's book, and Lost Moon Pocket, by Jim Lovell the mission captain and Jeffrey Kluger, provide fascinating accounts of one of the greatest project management and problem-solving stories in history.

Effective PMs simply consider more alternatives before giving up than other people do. They question the assumptions that were left unchallenged by others, because they came from either a VP people were afraid of or a source of superior expertise that no one felt the need to challenge.

The question "How do you know what you know? The success of the project has to come first. In my years in the Windows division at Microsoft, I worked for Hillel Cooperman, perhaps the most passionate and dedicated manager I've ever had. I remember once coming into his office with a dilemma.

My team was stuck on a complicated problem involving both engineering and political issues. We needed another organization to do important work for us, which they were unwilling to do.

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I had brainstormed with everyone involved, I had solicited opinions from other senior people, but I was still stuck. There didn't seem to be a reasonable solution, yet this was something critical to the project, and I knew giving in would be unacceptable. After explaining my situation, the conversation went something like this: How could you possibly have tried everything?

If you've tried everything, you'd have found a choice you feel comfortable with, which apparently you haven't yet.

Manage Change Before It Manages You

He then asked if I wanted some suggestions. Of course I said yes. We riffed for a few minutes, back and forth, and came up with a new list of things to consider. Email isn't good for this kind of thing. And of all the people on the other side—those who disagree with you—who is most receptive to you? How hard have you sold them on what you want? Should I get involved and work from above you? What about our VP? How hard have you pushed engineering to find a workaround? As hard as possible? Did you offer to buy them drinks?

Did you talk to them one-on-one, or in a group? Keep going, keep going, keep going. You will find a way. I trust you, and I know you will solve this. He did two things for me: As tired as I was, I left his office convinced there were more paths to explore and that it was my job to do so. My ownership of the issue, which he'd reconfirmed, helped motivate me to be relentless.

The solution was lurking inside one of them, and I just had to find it. Like the dozens of other issues I was managing at the same time, I eventually found a solution there was an engineering workaround , but only because I hunted for it: Among other lessons, I learned from Hillel that diligence wins battles. If you make it clear that you are dead serious and will fight to the end about a particular issue, you force more possibilities to arise. People will question their assumptions if you hold on to yours long enough. You push people to consider things they haven't considered, and often that's where the answer lies.

Even in disagreements or negotiations, if you know you're right, and keep pushing hard, people will often give in. Sometimes, they'll give in just to get you to leave them alone. Being pushy, provided you're not offensive, can be an effective technique all on its own. Being relentless is fundamental to making things happen. There are so many different ways for projects to slide into failure that unless there is at least one emotional force behind the project—pushing it forward, seeking out alternatives, believing there is always a way out of every problem and trap—the project is unlikely to succeed.

Good PMs are that force. They are compelled to keep moving forward, always on the lookout for something that can be improved in a faster or smarter way. They seek out chaos and convert it into clarity. As skeptical as project managers need to be, they are simultaneously optimistic that all problems can be solved if enough intensity and focus are applied. For reasons they themselves cannot fully explain, PMs continually hold a torch up against ambiguity and doubt, and refuse to quit until every possible alternative has been explored.

They believe that good thinking wins, and that it takes work to find good thoughts.

What’s the difference between managing a risk and managing an issue?

But being relentless doesn't mean you have to knock on every door, chase people down the hallway, or stay at work until you pass out at your desk. Sheer quantity of effort can be noble and good, but always look for ways to work smart rather than just hard. Be relentless in spirit, but clever and savvy in action. Just because you refuse to give up doesn't mean you have to suffer through mindless, stupid, or frustrating activities although sometimes they're unavoidable. Look for smart ways around a problem or faster ways to resolve them. Make effective use of the people around you instead of assuming you have to do everything yourself.


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But most importantly, be perceptive of what's going on around you, with individuals and with teams. A fundamental mistake many PMs make is to forget to assess who they are working with and adjust their approach accordingly. Navy Seals and Army rangers are trained to carry out missions on many different kinds of terrain: Without this training, their effectiveness would be limited: The first lesson they learn is how to evaluate their environment and consider what tactics and strategies from their skill set will work for where they are.

The same is true for PMs. Instead of geographic environments, PMs must pay attention to the different social, political, and organizational environments they are in, and use the right approaches for where they are. Here's the savvy PM's rough guide to evaluating an environment. These questions apply to an individual you might be working with or to the larger team or group:. Depending on the answers to these questions, a PM should make adjustments to how she does her work.

Every time you enter another person's office, or another meeting, there should always be some adjustments made. Like a Marine, assess the environment and then judge the best route to get to the project goals. Avoid taking the hard road if there is a smarter way to get where you need to go. Being savvy means you are looking for, and willing to take, the smarter route.

Priorities Make Things Happen

The following list contains tactics that I've used successfully or have been successfully used on me. While your mileage may vary with them, I'm sure this list will get you thinking of other savvy ways to accomplish what needs to be done to meet your goals. Some of these have risks, which I'll note, and must be applied carefully.

Even if you choose never to use these yourself, by being aware of them, you will be savvier about what's going on around you. The Art of Project Management: Common ordered lists By always working with a set order of priorities, adjustments and changes are easy to make. The three most important ordered lists, shown in order. Priority 1 versus everything else Typically, these ordered lists have one important line dividing them into two pieces. Priorities are power Have you ever been in a tough argument that you thought would never end? Here are some sample questions: What problem are we trying to solve?

If there are multiple problems, which one is most important? How does this problem relate to or impact our goals? What is the simplest way to fix this that will allow us to meet our goals? Be a prioritization machine Whenever I talked with programmers or testers and heard about their issues or challenges, I realized that my primary value was in helping them focus. Master the many ways to say no Sometimes, you will need to say no in direct response to a feature request. To prepare yourself for this, you need to know all of the different flavors that the word no comes in: No, this doesn't fit our priorities.

If it is early in the project, you should make the argument for why the current priorities are good, but hear people out on why other priorities might make more sense. They might have good ideas or need clarity on the goals. But do force the discussion to be relative to the project priorities, and not the abstract value of a feature or bug fix request.

If it is late in the project, you can tell them they missed the boat. Even if the priorities suck, they're not going to change on the basis of one feature idea. The later you are, the more severe the strategy failure needs to be to justify goal adjustments. No, only if we have time. If you keep your priorities lean, there will always be many very good ideas that didn't make the cut. Express this as a relative decision: If the item is on the priority 2 list, convey that it's possible it will be done, but that no one should bet the farm assuming it will happen.

Sometimes, you can redirect a request back onto the person who made it. If your VP asks you to add support for a new feature, tell him you can do it only if he cuts one of his other current priority 1 requests.

This shifts the point of contention away from you, and toward a tangible, though probably unattainable, situation. This can also be done for political or approval issues: What if he does convince Sally? Or worse, realizes you're sending him on a wild goose chase? Assuming you are working on a web site or software project that will have more updates, offer to reconsider the request for the next release. This should probably happen anyway for all priority 2 items. This is often called postponement or punting. Some requests are so fundamentally out of line with the long-term goals that the hammer has to come down.

Cut the cord now and save yourself the time of answering the same request again later. Sometimes it's worth the effort to explain why so that they'll be more informed next time. The web site search engine will never support the Esperanto language. Know the Critical Path In project management terminology, the critical path is the shortest sequence of work that can complete the project. Always have a sense for the critical path of: The project's engineering work as described briefly earlier The project's high-level decision-making process who is slowing the team down?

The team's processes for building code or triaging bugs are there needless forms, meetings, or approvals? The production process of propping content to the Web or intranet Any meeting, situation, or process that impacts project goals Making things happen effectively requires a strong sense of critical paths. Be Relentless "The world responds to action, and not much else. Be Savvy But being relentless doesn't mean you have to knock on every door, chase people down the hallway, or stay at work until you pass out at your desk. Being savvy and environment-aware is most important in the following situations: Motivating and inspiring people Organizing teams and planning for action Settling arguments or breaking deadlocks Negotiating with other organizations or cultures Making arguments for resources Persuading anyone of anything Managing reports personnel Here's the savvy PM's rough guide to evaluating an environment.

These questions apply to an individual you might be working with or to the larger team or group: What communication styles are being used? Are people openly communicative, or are they reserved? Are there commonly accepted ways to make certain kinds of points? Are people generally effective in using email?


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  • Are decisions made openly or behind closed doors? Match your approaches to the ones that will be effective with whomever you're talking to. How broad or narrow is the group's sense of humor? What topics are forbidden to laugh at or question? Are arguments won based on data? Logical argument through debate? Adherence to the project goals? Who yells the loudest? Who has the brownest nose? Consider making arguments that use the style, format, or tone most palatable to your audience, whether it's a lone tester down the hall or a room full of executives.

    Pay attention to what works. Who are the stars? Who gets the most respect? How are they thriving? Who is failing here? Why are they failing? In terms of actual behavior, what values are most important to this person or group? What behaviors are least valued or are deplored? Programmers and managers might have very different values.

    Know what the other guy values before you try to convince him of something. What is the organizational culture? Every university, corporation, or team has a different set of values built into the culture. If you don't think your organization has one, you've been there too long and can't see it anymore or maybe you never saw it at all. Some organizations value loyalty and respect above intelligence and individuality.

    Others focus on work ethic and commitment. Guerilla tactics Being savvy means you are looking for, and willing to take, the smarter route. Go to the source. Don't dillydally with people's secondhand interpretations of what someone said, and don't depend on written reports or emails for complex information. Find the actual person and talk to him directly. You can't get new questions answered by reading reports or emails, and often people will tell you important things that were inappropriate for written communication.

    Going to the source is always more reliable and valuable than the alternatives, and it's worth the effort required. For example, if two programmers are arguing about what a third programmer said, get that third programmer in the room or on the phone. Always cut to the chase and push others to do the same. If communication isn't working, switch the mode. Instead of email, call them on the phone.

    Instead of a phone call, drop by their office. Everyone is more comfortable in some mediums than others. Generally, face to face, in front of a whiteboard, trumps everything. Get people in a room with a whiteboard if the email thread on some issue gets out of control. Don't let the limitations of a particular technology stop you. Sometimes, switching modes gets you a different response, even if your request is the same, because people are more receptive to one mode over another.

    For anything consequential, it's worth the money and time to get on a plane, or drive to their office, if it improves the communication dynamic between you and an important co-worker. When you talk to someone privately, her disposition toward you is different than when you talk to her in a large group. In a meeting, important people have to craft what they say to be appropriate for all of the ears in the room. Sometimes, you'll hear radically different things depending on who is in earshot.

    If you want a frank and honest opinion, or an in-depth intense conversation, you need to get people alone. Also, consider people of influence: Don't ambush anyone, but don't shy away from lining things up to make progress happen. If something is urgent and you are not getting the response time you need, carve out time on your schedule to stake out the person's office or cubicle. I've done this many times. If he wasn't answering my phone calls or emails, he'd soon come back from a meeting and find me sitting by his door.

    He'd usually be caught so off guard that I'd have a negotiating advantage. Don't be afraid to go after people if you need something from them. Find them in the coffee room. Look for them in the cafe at lunchtime. Ask their secretary what meetings they are in and wait outside. Be polite, but hunt and get what you need.

    However, please do not cross over into their personal lives. If you hunt information well, you shouldn't ever even need to cross this particular line. If you are behind on work and need blocks of time to get caught up, become invisible. On occasion, I've staked out a conference room in a neighboring building and told only the people who really might need me where I was.

    Manage Change Before It Manages You

    I caught up on email, specs, employee evaluations, or anything important that wasn't getting done, without being interrupted. For smaller orgs, working from home or a coffee shop can have the same effect wireless makes this easy these days. I always encouraged my reports to do this whenever they felt it necessary.

    Uninterrupted time can be hard for PMs to find, so if you can't find it, you have to make it. Don't fly solo without a map unless you have to. In a given situation, consider who involved thinks most highly of you, or who may have useful advice for how you can get what you need. Make use of any expertise or experience you have access to through others. Pull them aside and ask them for it. This can be about a person, a decision, a plan, anything. Do you have a few minutes? Any advice on the best way to convince him to cut this feature? Call in favors, beg, and bribe.

    Make use of the credibility or generosity you've developed a reputation for. If you need an engineer to do extra work for you, either because you missed something or a late requirement came in, ask her to do you a favor. Go outside the boundaries of the strict working relationship, and ask.

    The worst thing that can happen is that she'll say no. The more favors you've done for others, the more chips you'll have to bank on. Also, consider working three-way trades e. It's not unethical to offer people things that will convince them to help with work that needs to be done.

    Play people off each other. This doesn't have to be evil—if you're very careful. If Sam gives you a work estimate of 10 days, which you think is bogus, go and ask Bob. If Bob says something less than 10 days, go back to Sam, with Bob. A conversation will immediately ensue about what the work estimate really should be. However, depending on Sam's personality, this may cost you relationship points with him, so do it as tactfully as possible, and only when necessary.

    Good lead programmers should be calling estimate bluffs on their own, but if they don't, it's up to you. Buy people coffee and tasty things. This sounds stupid, but I've found that people I've argued with for days on end are somehow more receptive over a nice cup of coffee at a local coffee shop. Change the dynamic of the relationship: Even if he says "No, why can't we talk here?

    Moving the conversation to a different location, perhaps one less formal, can help him open up to alternatives he wouldn't consider before. I've seen PMs who keep doughnuts or cookies as well as rum and scotch in their office. Is that an act of goodwill? Summary Everything can be represented in an ordered list. Most of the work of project management is correctly prioritizing things and leading the team in carrying them out.

    The three most basic ordered lists are: While the risks to a project will depend in large part on the specific goals of the project, PMs in every industry should follow a few basic best practices: While a project risk is a problem that may or may not occur at some point during a project, a project issue is a problem that is actively disrupting a project or putting its success in doubt. Not every issue can be foreseen ahead of time; however, project managers should have a framework in place that allows them to tackle any issue logically and effectively.

    With these tips, and effective team management strategies, you should be able to identify project risks and issues before they become a major issue. What separates average project managers from superior project managers is the ability to minimize the….

    Every project involves risk. Even the smallest projects require investments of time and money, and…. Most business owners are intimately familiar with the concept of risk management. You must be logged in to post a comment. Helena Bachar on Wednesday, January 25, Related Posts Tips for identifying project risks What separates average project managers from superior project managers is the ability to minimize the….