Thursday, December 21, 2006

Another Practical Leadership Opportunity

For many, tomorrow is the last working day before the holiday break. Don't forget to wish your team a good holiday. Let them go home early if you can. Thank them for the successes of the last year. Don't waste these opportunities.

Happy holidays to you all, my extended leadership team.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Motivation to Lie

I have recently been intrigued by the phenomenon of leaders committing to dates that are obviously too aggressive. Everyone can tell that the committed date is highly unlikely, but the world seems to conspire to force the commitment from the leader and accept that commitment as realistic.

I've been trying to understand what is going on here. The leader must also understand how aggressive and unlikely the date commitment is. While some of these commitments are met, a 10% likely date can only be met one in ten times. Some managers and customers push for this aggressiveness in a belief that the project team is somehow padding their schedules. They believe that the schedule is not really too aggressive if the team would put their shoulders to the task. Their belief is that a good project leader can meet an aggressive schedule.

Another reason managers and customers push for aggressive dates is a belief that they have no choice. Someone else, such as their own managers and customers, are pushing for an aggressive date from them. They said "yes" to their own aggressive delivery, and now are desperate for ways to meet their own overly aggressive commitments.

These factors help to explain why someone might push for an aggressive schedule. Unfortunately, they don't help us understand why a good project leader would agree to an overly aggressive schedule. I have tended to believe that good leaders would value meeting their commitments enough to withstand these pressures.

One thought comes to me: Perhaps it is easier to agree to a date and miss it than it is to set a realistic date and meet it. Leaders understand that there are costs to the team missing their date commitments. Those costs include the re-planning costs, the difficulty of telling the stakeholders about the schedule slip, some loss of credibility and possibly some negative accountability.

On the other hand, leaders understand that there are also costs to not agreeing to an unrealistic date request. In the worst case, the team looses the project to a lower bidder. More commonly, those costs are disappointing the customer, sometimes angry pressure to concede, and spending more time explaining why the date is later than hoped for.

I'm wondering if leaders perceive that avoiding the up-front pain is worth the potential future pain. That is, the prospect of missing the date is less daunting than the prospect of admitting you can not meet it to begin with. This may be a basic inability to evaluate risk and consequences, but I don't think so. It may also be an over-valuing of "hope" as a success strategy, but I think this is more of a result than a cause. I think the cause is that some managers and customers actually make the consequences of not agreeing to a date greater than the consequences of missing a date.

Remember that if the leader doesn't agree to the date, there is a chance the team will lose the project. That is a pretty big consequence. That chance is often much greater than the chance of losing the customer after a date slip. We see this in the number of public works projects that grossly miss their dates, but were the result of a lowest-bid contract.

But I don't think we have to use this drastic example. This problem persists even when there is no chance of losing the job by giving a realistic date commitment. This occurs primarily when the accountability model for missing a date is not really clear. A leader who sees that he or she is accountable for the consequences of a missed date will value making better commitments.

I am not suggesting that we need to set up better punishments. Accountability is simply the other side of the coin of responsibility. The effective leader needs to feel that he or she has to live with the result of missing a date, whether that consequence includes future loss of business, reduced market penetration, or simply lost opportunity cost.

The question we need to ask ourselves is "Do we give our leaders sufficient accountability to motivate them to set dates the team can meet, or do we make it easier to agree to unreasonably aggressive dates?" Would you rather say "no" or be late?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Whiny Middle Manager Quiz

I have to share Wayne Turmel's tongue-in-cheek management quiz. It's funniest answers sting a bit too hard with truth. Here's the leadership training question:

4) Leadership training is a required part of all managers' development because:

  • We believe in growing people from within
  • Just on the off chance we see actual leadership, we'd like to recognize it
  • We want to spot the troublemakers early on, the darned showoffs
  • Everyone else is doing it

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

My Leadership Philosophy

George Ambler has an article advocating The Importance of a Clear Leadership Philosophy. In this outstanding post, he recommends that leaders write down the philosophy behind their leadership approach including:
  • What you believe about people ...
  • What you believe about life ...
  • What you believe makes groups and organizations effective ...

Let's give it a try:

  • All people are good in their own sight. They behave according to what they think is right, just and fair. In disputes, most people see themselves as good and the other guy as bad. This is ego driven by a lack of self-confidence. People who excel in one area tend to excel in many areas. I believe this is also driven by self-confidence. People want to be successful and part of a successful community. They want the safety of a leader they can trust. People who feel self-confident, valued and safe can be mentored to do almost anything.
  • Life is a journey in pursuit of happiness. Life's journey is infinite, continuous, chaotic and shared. Because it is infinite, we should strive for lasting happiness. We should value long-term success over short-term. Because life is continuous, we should seek the happiness in our current situation. While we should make sacrifices for greater success, we should not put off happiness for later. Because it is chaotic, we recognize that life includes sadness. Life is not scriptable or predictable. Bad things happen, and we deal with them when they do. Because life is shared, we pursue happiness for our communities as well as ourselves. Those communities include our families, friends, coworkers, larger communities and humankind as a whole.
  • I believe organizations are successful when they have shared values, a clear vision of success, motivation to succeed together, and respect for the various roles required to succeed. Shared values help avoid irreconcilable differences. While the vision must be clear, the leadership needs to be flexible. The world changes, and successful organizations need leaders who can guide them through those changes. Every member of the team must be motivated to participate in the team's success, although different people may have different motivations. One of a leader's roles is to understand those motivations and address the needs of the people on the team. One critical shared value is recognition of the importance of every person's role on the team. When people don't feel valued, they loose motivation to support the success of the team.

That was a good exercise. I'm sure I'll revisit it in the future. Thanks for the challenge, George.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Leave Room for a Miracle

This Christmas season, we are reminded of miracles. But that expectant feeling is available to us all year long. All we have to do is set our project schedules for the earliest possible delivery date. Then we can wait for the miracle to happen so everything goes perfectly. If you want that Christmas feeling all year long, leave just enough room for a miracle in your project schedules.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Where Practical Leadership Takes You

Out of curiosity, I did a Google search of where "practical leadership" takes you. Some interesting sites come up:

By the way, this blog also shows up.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Criticize in Private

Giving criticism is a delicate dance between being clear and being heard. Most people have a natural reaction to criticism of throwing up defensive and protective walls against potential attacks. This is true even when we present the feedback using all the positive, constructive and nurturing techniques of good communication and leadership. We would like to believe that if we speak truth with a kind and loving heart and a spirit of edification in just the right way, then our message will be received as we intended. This is just not the case.

People do get defensive, no matter what we do to mitigate it. And yet, as leaders, there are situations where we need to give feedback and criticism to the people on our teams. It is critical that we recognize that our role is not to "give" criticism, but rather to "communicate" the criticism. That is, we need to take the leadership of not only presenting the feedback, but making sure it was heard.

One of the ways we make sure feedback in heard, is to remove as many of the obstacles to being heard that we can. One of the biggest obstacles preventing people from hearing feedback is pride. When a person is in a group of other people, they are much less able to hear criticism because of the potential hurt to their pride. They do not want to look bad in front of other people. It is bad enough that they feel bad in front of you, the leader.

I often find myself in situations where I recognize behavior that is hurting the team's ability to succeed. Part of my job as a leader is to bring that behavior to the fore, so we can improve the likelihood of the team's success. For example, when one team member gives a customer presentation, I sometimes see another team member interrupt to correct an error in the presentation. Sometimes this works, but usually it sets a tone of discord in front of the customer that is counter to the team's success. This behavior needs to be addressed.

The worst thing I could possibly do is mention this problem right in front of the customer. That would be doing more of the same. I might consider raising the issues during the group's debrief of the meeting. (You need to have these kinds of debriefs if you don't already.) If it is a pervasive problem across the group, that might be the right solution. But, if the problem is really with one or two individuals, they will not be responsive to the criticism in the group setting.

In the group setting they will throw up their walls of defensiveness. They will argue about the importance of fixing the mistaken information we gave the customer. They may go silent, disagreeing in their heads, and not being open to changing behavior. If you can meet with people individually, you remove pride in front of their peers as an obstacle to hearing and addressing the problem. Your job as a leader is to "communicate" the issue. That means making sure that the issue is heard.

Back to the customer situation: you can always agree in the meeting debrief what the right information the customer needed to hear. If the customer needs an update, you can use it as an opportunity. Use the update to call the customer. Tell them the mistake. Build in them a sense of trust that when your team makes a mistake, they are proactive about fixing it. That is a whole lot better than building in the customer a sense that you have a team in discord.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Testing Your Vision

I won't enter the debate on the distinctions of calling it a vision, strategy or mission. This vision thing is not a magic incantation. It is a tool for leading your team to the successes they want to achieve. Here are some simple tests to see if your vision is a good tool for your team:
  • Will this vision motivate me to lead my team?
  • Can I clearly and concisely communicate the key points of this vision?
  • Can I sell this vision to my team and the other stakeholders?
  • Is this vision about the team’s goal and not my personal goals?
  • Will this vision motivate my team toward the goal?
  • Will this vision allow my team to make progress without direct assignments?
  • Will this vision help us prioritize our work?
  • Does this vision tell us what not to do?

It comes down to a few simple points: Test that your vision is clear, shared and actionable.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Increase Your Date Granularity

I recently sat through a status presentation. The team lead explained that the project was late and they would complete it in December. That was not the best news, but it wasn't too bad: just about a month slip. Or was it?

What was the project leader trying to communicate by saying December? When we give dates with a month granularity, such as December instead of December 18th, we play a little game with our audience. We are trying to give ourselves until the end of the month, while allowing the audience the hope that an earlier date is possible.

In this case, with the date only a month away, there is no excuse for the project leader not to have a better handle on the schedule and provide finer granularity on the date. Note that with a December date, November is early and January is late. But with a December 18th date, December 12th is early and December 22nd is late.

My challenge to leaders is not to fall back on the trick of giving dates with month granularity. If you want to give yourself leeway to use the whole month, show some integrity and say December 30th. This gives full notice to your audience to object if the 30th is a problem.

You can also extend this to quarter granularity estimates. Rather than saying Q4CY07, say December '07. Note that in this case the date is far enough out that you may really want to communicate that slips are on the order of months not days. By saying December '07, you are communicating that a schedule slip moves you out to January or February. Saying Q4CY07 is not a commitment to get the project done by the end of the quarter at all costs. It sets a granularity of a quarter on the accuracy of the estimate. That is, a slip could be out to Q1 or Q2CY08. A project leader shooting for the end of the quarter at all costs should be giving estimates of either October '07 or November 30th, 2007.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Welcome Your Team Back from Thanksgiving

You have a opportunity for practical leadership tomorrow. Build personal relationships by welcoming your team back from the Thanksgiving holiday. Visit everyone personally, and ask how their weekend went. Care enough to listen to their answers. Personal relationships are important to the success of your teams.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Cost of Criticism

Those of us in leadership positions frequently find ourselves with opportunities to give negative feedback. We learn quickly that there is a cost to giving negative feedback even when it is completely constructive. That cost comes in the form of a drop in our team member's morale and a reduction in the quality of his or her relationship with you.

Each time you incur this cost you need to pay it off with what Stephen Covey would call a deposit in the emotional bank account. You need to earn back increased morale and a positive relationship. Thankfully, this is something we can earn in advance of needing it. One effective currency is to balance our feedback with healthy doses of positive feedback and appreciation.

The other aspect to consider in giving negative feedback is to decide if it is worth the cost. Not every bit of feedback that comes into our minds is worth conveying to the people on our teams. It is noteworthy that the most trivial feedback often comes at the highest cost. That is because it can come off as condescending and runs the risk of highlighting "stupid mistakes."

Don't be the leader who rides your team with constant trivial feedback. Give them the opportunity to learn on their own, and the respect of believing they can figure some things out on their own. Consider the cost of every bit of negative feedback and make sure you pay back that cost with praise and thanks.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Leaders Need to Follow

There can be leading in following, too. By following, you give other people a chance to lead. When other people in your team have a chance to lead, the team benefits. Most obvious is the opportunity for them to learn, which expands your teams leadership capacity and thereby its ability to deal with multiple priorities. Not only do they learn about leading, they also get a better sense of what is important to the project. Additionally, when other people lead, it gives them a better sense of ownership in the project. There is no better way to engage them in the vision than letting them take the reins on advancing it.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Adrian Savage's Slow Leadership Manifesto

Today, ChangeThis published a manifesto on Slow Leadership by Adrian Savage. Adrian presents an excellent critique of the current business leadership approach of driving ever faster toward quarter-by-quarter results. He recommends that we move toward a more considered leadership approach focused on long-term success. Slow leadership stands on principles of care in decision making and valuing the humanity of the people in our organizations.

I strongly recommend that you read the entire manifesto. There are extremely important issues to consider for today's business leaders. There pervades a strong sense of truth in Adrian's manifesto. I think these ideas are particularly cogent to leaders of public companies.

I'm not ready to leap onto the slow train. I think there are real obstacles to doing so fully. The principles of slow leadership are well worth your time to read, contemplate and apply where you can. Our best leaders do these things naturally.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Bureaucracy Gone Awry

My lovely wife just brought in the mail and showed me a amazing example of stupidity in banking. She had a check from our bank for $15. Apparently, we accidentally overpaid to our overdraft line of credit on our checking account. The line of credit is directly linked to our checking account. There is no chance that the bank couldn't figure out where to move the money if they really needed to clear out the line of credit.

We are very big users of electronic banking. I can't recall the last time I wrote a check. It's a huge convenience and a minor savings in paper, envelopes and stamps. The bank, though, spent the money to cut a check and send it to us in the mail.

There has to be a leader in the bank who recognizes the folly of this. First, it's hard to imagine that the penalty for not addressing the balance in the line of credit would be greater than the cost of mailing us a check. Second, if they had to clear the account, it certainly would be better for them to just move the money to our checking account with a notice in our next statement.

While there may be many such leaders in the bank, I bet they are stymied by bureaucracy gone awry. This effect recently has become much worse thanks to US Senator Sarbanes and Representative Oxley.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, while well intentioned, has become the leash used by overzealous bureaucrats to restrain what they see as the out of control innovations in their companies. I know of one company that put in place an accounting process to track the granting of $100 recognition awards by managers. The new process costs more than the award and requires interaction by three people in addition to the manager and the recipient.

I've started taking the lead resisting this trend by pointing out such over-bureaucracy where I see it. Perhaps if enough of us do this, we can reverse this trend. Hopefully someone in my bank will read this.

Steps Zero, Two, and Three in Crisis Management

Max Leibman practically wrote my next article in his comments on "Step One in Crisis Management". The second step in crisis management is to form a quick plan to address the crisis. The key word is "quick" as opposed to "ideal." Grab anything that will address the problem quickly: better to grab a stack of napkins than get out the perfect towel for the job.

And Troy Worman chimed in with step zero of have a plan. I think that's not quite right for crisis management. In crisis management I think step zero is to be prepared with warnings and options. For example, to prepare for the crisis of a fire, we have the warning of a smoke alarm, and the options of sprinklers, fire extinguishers and a local fire department. In our spilled milk example, we have a roll of paper towels at hand.

Step three in crisis management is to appropriately clean up the mess caused by the imperfection of step two. Once the crisis is averted, you have time to go into regular project management mode. You have the time to address the problem in a more ideal way.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Step One in Crisis Management

"There is no use crying over spilled milk." However, in this simple, and accessible example of crisis management, we all take the same first step. The first step in dealing with spilled milk, and really any crisis management is to get up out of your chair. It seems to be an obvious first step. It comes before get a towel or move papers out of the way. You have to get up. Translating this simple lesson to any leadership situation, especially in a crisis: you have first decide to act, and then prepare to act. You can decide what to do later, but you have to stand up first.

Lead on.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

We've Got Windows to Break

Another thought from Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. We've all seen abandoned warehouses with busted out windows. You may even have thrown a rock or two to try to break the remaining few panes. Why? What makes us willing to break a window on someone else's building. Gladwell calls it the broken window phenomenon.

If no windows are broken, it appears to us that someone cares about the building. We certainly wouldn't be the first to vandalize it. But, once a few windows are broken, and nobody comes to fix them, it appears to us that nobody cares. We somehow feel that we have permission to join in the window breaking fun.

I saw the same phenomenon in practice this weekend. I was driving to a local fair and the traffic was awful. We waited on the same straight stretch of road with cars as far as we could see. After forty minutes, one driver near the crest of the hill gave up, broke out of the line, and turned around. He had no more information than anyone else, he was just fed up with the wait. Within two minutes, four other cars did exactly the same thing. The rest of us moved up five cars and continued to wait.

The other four cars gave up because of the broken window phenomenon. They probably were grumbling about the wait, but they didn't want to look foolish to the rest of the anonymous drivers by being the first to get out of line. Once another driver took the lead, (oh, now you see why I'm talking about this) they were free to do so as well.

When someone else takes the lead, it suddenly becomes permissible, possibly even cool, to follow. Look into your own teams. What windows are they waiting for a leader to break so they have permission to join in the window breaking fun?

As a postscript, when we got about twenty-five yards from the fair entrance another car pulled out of line. Nobody followed it. There's a leadership lesson in that too.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Leadership's Football

I've always loved the story of when Vince Lombardi started coaching the Packers. He wanted to make sure the team had a good foundation so he got them together and said, "Let's start at the beginning. This is a football."

So, let us start at the beginning. The foundation of leadership is to lead. Try to wipe away all the nuance you have in your head about the word "lead." At its foundation, "lead" means to go first. A leader needs to go first. He or she needs to show the team the direction by going there first. Be out in the front of the pack. Set an example of the behavior you want to get.

Instructors have a concept called the six-second rule. When you ask a question in a class, it takes people six seconds to process the question, decide if they can answer, and get up the courage to answer. If I really want an answer in a class I'm teaching, I have to wait the whole six seconds to get it. On the other hand, if I just want to look like I want an answer, I wait just four or five seconds.

Leaders, as a group, don't tend to wait the full six seconds. They tend to answer early. This demonstrates the first principle of leadership: leaders lead. If you want to build a more dynamic environment, break the six-second rule. To do this, you need to break the inhibition you have about going first. You need to get over the fear of leading, that is being out in front. Break all the six-second rules you come across.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Crazy Senior Managers

Sometimes it seems that the more senior a leader is the crazier they act. I've usually attributed that to people having very little insight into the kinds of issues senior leaders worry about. The bigger the gap, the less insight people have into what a senior leader does.

Less kind people claim the Peter Principle as the cause of crazy senior leader behavior. Perhaps that's as good an explanation.

I was talking to someone at work who suggested two other factors. These seemed like plausible explanations as well:

  • First, the more senior a leader gets the more likely people are to show deference to what they say. After a while, a senior leader may be so used to hearing people say that their crazy ideas are right that they start to believe that all of their crazy ideas are right. We all would do well to guard against this error of self-perception by encouraging (and listening to) real feedback throughout our careers.
  • Second, and I hope this isn't true very often, senior leaders are more likely to get into competitive situations with their peers. And those peers are more likely to sit back and watch each other fail with their crazy ideas, even hope they will fail. I hope none of us find ourselves in such an organization.
  • As we advance up the leadership ladder, we will have crazy ideas of our own. Certainly we should guard ourselves against thinking too highly of ourselves or putting our own success ahead of the team's success. With any luck, we'll keep learning and beat the Peter Principle. But if I'm right about people not understanding what their senior leaders do, we need to be extra diligent in communicating the whys behind our actions. People deserve to feel safe under our leadership.

    Saturday, September 23, 2006

    Three Quick Ideas

    I'm developing a one day leadership class. I thought I'd share some key thoughts from one of the earlier sections:

  • Leadership is granted by the team

    Management status is given by the organization, but a leader derives his or her power by the consent of the team. The team chooses to follow a leader toward the goal that the team wants to reach along the path that the team is willing to take. Force only works for a while. The leader has to earn the team's follower-ship.

  • Leadership is about team success

    Leadership is not about making the leader successful. Leaders need to get people to follow an idea: the idea of getting to a shared goal along a certain path. The leader's ego is not the driver. Leadership is not empire building. Leaders are measured by the success of the team, not by the number of followers they have.

  • Leadership continues beyond the current goal

    Teams don’t end after reaching one goal. Leaders will need to continue to lead future projects. If you burn out your team on the current project, they won't follow you on the next. Success and failure follow you. They are part of the currency that gets teams to grant you leadership.

  • Monday, September 11, 2006

    Choosing Excellence

    Many of us have been reminded about PMA - Positive Mental Attitude. We have a vague sense that this is probably good advice, but nevertheless want to ridicule it. Now, Malcolm Gladwell's new book Blink provides some examples that back up the value of PMA.

    In Blink, Gladwell describes the psychological concept of "priming." The idea is that people can be greatly influenced subconsciously by exposing them to concepts like success or failure prior to undertaking a task. One example he gives is an experiment where students were divided into two groups prior to taking a test. The first group was told to think for five minutes about what it would mean to be a professor; the second, about soccer hooligans. The professor-group did 13% better on the test than the soccer hooligan-group. This is a shockingly large difference.

    Blink got me thinking about the possibility of self-priming. I've always thought that, to a large extent, a person could choose their emotional state. Further, it seems clear that a leader can help set the tone of their group. I never considered just how big an effect this might be.

    Are you having a bad day: Prime yourself to have a good one by thinking about all the good things in your life. That is, choose to have a good day. Is your team in need of success: Prime them to be successful by talking about how great success will be. It certainly isn't all you need to succeed, but what a difference it might make.

    Finally, here's the part that feels too wonderful not to try. Do you personally want to succeed: Prime yourself for success by taking time to visualize success, or think about successful role models. Use this idea next time you have a speech to give, or a big meeting with the board. Why think small; how about five minutes of positive thinking at the start of each day.

    Suddenly, I feel an urge to mock such cheeriness.

    Wednesday, September 06, 2006

    Productivity Verses Hours

    A while back I wrote about management's tendency to ask staff to work extra hours. Occasionally people need to work extra hours, but effective leaders should always be mindful of burning them out.

    Another issue with people working extra hours is the question of how productive they actually are with their time. My experience suggests that productivity may be inversely proportional to the number of hours a person works. I'm not just talking about productivity as work done per hour; I'm talking about work per associate.

    Some managers measure productivity, commitment and loyalty by how many hours their associates work. This drives associates to put in more time in the office, but doesn't drive them to do more work. It may actually make them resentful of the time they spend in the office. I've worked with plenty of 60-hour people. What tends to distinguish them is the amount of time they spend in the halls talking to people or shopping on-line. They do this openly and with impunity as if to say, "I'm allowed; I'm always in the office."

    I find these 60-hour people barely get their 40-hour job done. Often they need to put in 80-hour weeks to catch up during crunch time. Along the way they can be a distraction to the people around them. But, they sure can impress their management.

    On the other hand, I've had a couple of associates who needed to reduce their time to 32 hours a week. This reduction in hours always comes with in a reduction in pay, but I still take a risk of lost productivity. It's practically impossible to make up the lost 8 hours by hiring someone.

    On the up side for me, I've always found that my 32-hour people work steady and hard while they are at the office. Sometimes they even work overtime (but I discourage it). I'm confident that my 32-hour people do more work than most 60-hour people I've known. They even do more work than many of my 40-hour people.

    Now I wouldn't go as far as to suggest reducing everyone's hours, but you should be open to supporting associates who have a need. And, I would caution managers against setting a tone that values hours in the office. This might even mean that the effective leader sets the example and goes home early on occasion. Now that's novel.

    Tuesday, July 25, 2006

    Honesty is Respectful

    I was impressed today with Johanna Rothman's blog entry With Feedback, It's Kind to be Firm. I've always loved the bad-hygiene discussion problem. I completely agree with Johanna's honest and direct approach.

    Let me add that this approach is not only most effective, it is also most respectful. While people don't enjoy getting these difficult messages, they will understand the respect you've shown them by being honest and direct. It is a deposit in what Stephen Covey calls the emotional bank account. This respect comes not from what you say, but from what they know you didn't say. By being direct, there is a natural perception that you are not gossiping about them behind their back. It is one thing to hear that you have bad breath; it is quite another to think people have been giggling about it behind your back.

    Monday, July 17, 2006

    Trouble with Your Vision

    I was talking to a manager today who was having problems developing a clear vision with her group. The best they could see was that there was little demand for the group beyond the next six months. My typical advice for vision forming is:

    1. Learn all you can by talking to various stake-holders
    2. Take your best guess at a workable direction
    3. Test the vision on various stake-holders
    4. Iterate back to the first step

    Notice that there is never the step "Form a perfectly completed vision." Group vision should be an ever evolving process.

    Anyway, this approach didn't seem adequate to the short-term problem at hand. They were focused on the metaphorical trees. It was time to step back and look at the forest. My recommendation: think bigger. Instead of trying to find a vision that took the group out to the next year, I recommended that she start by asking, "What do you want the group to look like three years from now?"

    This long-term question takes the day-to-day concerns out of the problem. It helps the team focus on bigger questions of success and what the team values. Success creating a long-term vision changes the whole tenor of the short-term problem, turning it into an opportunity.

    When Tim O'Reilly saw a downturn in the technical writing market, he set his pool of writers to internal projects with a long-term vision of creating books that could see the company (and a sleepy black lab) through the bumps in future markets. Now O'Reilly is a publishing powerhouse. This vision turned the problem of market dips into an opportunity.

    My manager friend should be able to create a long-term vision and sell it to the decision making stake-holders. This lets her team treat downturns in short-term needs as an opportunity to advance the longer-term vision. It lets them see the forest and the trees.

    Wednesday, July 05, 2006

    Are You a Manager or a Leader?

    Rear Admiral Grace Hopper made a distinction that I find helpful in teaching leadership:

    "You don't manage people, you manage things. You lead people."

    Deliverables are things that need to be managed. Risks are things that need to be managed. Schedules are things that need to be managed. Budgets are things that need to be managed. You can't lead a deliverable, a risk, a schedule or a budget. People are distinctly different.

    You can't follow a set of defined steps to get people to follow you to the goal. This is one of the reasons that engineers have a hard time making a transition into management roles. They have always been taught that "if step A, then step B, result C will happen." This kind of logic doesn't work with people.

    Another Grace Hopper quote helps us understand better:

    "Humans are allergic to change."

    Leading people is a process of moving them from the familiar and comfortable to the unknown. To successfully lead people, we need to make their desire to change overcome their fear of the unknown.

    I'm also fond of the ideas of John Kotter from the Harvard Business School. He says that management is about making complex things more predictable. On the other hand, leadership is about making unpredictable things, such as change, more comfortable.

    So, are you a manager or a leader? Do you help your people overcome their allergy to change? Do you help your people feel comfortable with the unpredictable? Or, do you treat them as things, and expect them to behave according to an "if A and B" formula? Be a leader.

    Wednesday, June 28, 2006

    A Simple Pair of Risk Metrics

    I was sitting in a project review today and watched the project leader skip over the risk section of the presentation. He had left it blank. We recently changed our project tracking process. In the old system, there was a complicated formula for assigning a risk number to each project. When the advocate of that system left the company, so did all interest in continuing the cumbersome calculation. Instead we were left with a blank spot in the presentation.

    Obviously, it's bad form to not show risks in a project review. Unfortunately, "high," "medium," and "low" don't seem to communicate much. In thinking about what to fill the blank spot with, I came up with the idea of measuring two simple, but meaningful project parameters:

    Schedule Variability
    The time difference between the first possible project completion date and a reasonably highly likely completion date. That variability is an indication of how many things could go wrong on the project.
    Schedule Aggressiveness
    A measure of how close you set your planned completion date to the earliest possible completion date instead of the more comfortable highly likely completion date.

    The figure below shows a typical distribution of probable project end dates. There is no possibility of finishing on any of the early dates of the project, until you reach the very low probability of finishing on the earliest completion date. Then the likelihood of finishing on various dates goes up sharply. Finally, the probability declines to nearly zero. It goes on forever with some small probability because there is a chance with any project that it will never finish.

    I've marked a couple of key points in the figure. The first point is the earliest completion date. The math savvy will recognize that the probability of hitting this date is vanishing close to zero. The second point comes at the peak of the curve. It is the date that the project is most likely to complete on. The next key date is what I'll call the "over/under date." It's the date at which the project is just as likely to finish before as after: That is, the 50% point.

    It is important for budding project managers to realize that the over/under date is later than the most likely completion date. Put another way, projects complete successfully on the most likely completion date less than half the time. Experienced project managers realize this, but may think it's because people are bad at estimating the most likely completion date.

    The next key point is a comfortable delivery date. It can't be at 100% confidence, because that date doesn't exist, so I backed it off to 90% likelihood. People set their schedule commitment date somewhere in this range. It actually doesn't matter too much where, so long as they are clear where they set the date.

    Another clue for budding project managers: When someone gives you a date commitment, ask them what they mean by that date. Are they telling you the earliest date they can finish, the most likely date they will finish, or the conservative (highly-likely) date they will finish on?

    Wrapping up the risk metrics. The first risk metric is the schedule variability. Measure it by taking the difference in calendar days between the earliest possible completion date and the 90% likely completion date. Over time, as you get closer to the end of the project, the variability-days should go down. This happens because the earliest date slips out as problems occur and because you gain more project knowledge.

    The second risk metric is the schedule aggressiveness. Calculate it by taking the difference between the planned completion date and the 90% completion date then divide that by the schedule variability. 100% aggressiveness means you have scheduled to complete on the earliest completion date: yeah, right. 0% aggressiveness means you plan to complete the project at the most comfortable point.

    Take a baseline at the beginning of the project, then recheck the metric with any updated delivery plans at each project checkpoint. This should be a simple way of describing the risk in your project schedules and showing you how you are managing against it.

    Tuesday, June 20, 2006

    Presenting without PowerPoint

    I've been experimenting with giving presentations without slides for a while now. I did so again today. Coincidentally, today I also visited the AYE Wiki, WhyWeDoNotUsePowerPoint.

    People always seem a bit confused when you don't hook up your laptop for a slide show. They look at you like you came unprepared. Don't fret it much; if you are prepared it will be clear by the end of the presentation.

    It's worth questioning your motives in using PowerPoint slides. After all, the three most practiced types of public speakers almost never use slides: Politicians, preachers and teachers. I try to learn by watching them.

    Slides do have value. They certainly make excellent handouts to take notes on. They appeal to the visual learners in your audience, augmenting your spoken word. They can also be an effective way to show detailed information like charts or even pictures, although, you could just hold up a large chart or picture. That's what politicians do.

    On the other hand, you shouldn't use slides as a script or a memory aid. People get bored watching your read a slide set. Nor should you use them as proof that you have properly prepared. Everyone will know if you prepared by your content and delivery. Finally, you shouldn't use them as an aid to soothing stage-fright. It's much more effective to prepare better. Use a podium instead if you must (but that's another posting).

    I find when I present without slides I get a much better connection with the audience. I can tell what's working and adjust as needed. It helps me to focus on the goals of my presentation, and tailor the delivery to meet those goals rather than fit the confines of PowerPoint. People seem to like it.

    While it's not for every presentation, I'd challenge you to give it a try.