Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine Flu Reactions are an Abundance of Caution

In watching all the news about Swine Flu, the new catch phrase has become "an abundance of caution." Apparently this is a way to say, "Yes we know we are overreacting, but you can't be too careful when it comes to the little children." We have first hand experience because our own daughter and some friends were sent home from school with flu-like symptoms.

The school administration insisted that they be tested for Swine Flu before coming back. The doctor insisted that they didn't have symptoms to warrant testing, and could go back to school. The doctor's office even called the school to try to calm them down, but to no effect. So here we are with an abundance of caution, asking the doctor to run a wasteful test so our kids can go back to school.

It does seem reasonable to take every precaution to protect the health of our kids, but is it? It is important to keep in mind that every action has a cost. In this case the cost of action is kids missing school, parents missing work, and unnecessary health care. Especially in a time of crisis, our doctors and labs should be focused on the hard work of stopping a pandemic and quickly evaluating truly at-risk people, rather than wasting time assuaging a panic.

In your teams, consider the cost of your risk mitigation actions. It's better to live with some risks than to spend the full cost of an abundance of caution.

Diplomacy is Fun Leadership Training

I just got back from chaperoning a high school trip to Costa Rica. While there, some of the kids put together a make-shift Diplomacy game out of a pizza box top. Playing gave the kids and me fun lessons in leadership and negotiation.

The rules of the game are very simple, but playing well requires players to negotiate alliances. Everyone has to figure out whom to trust and who will stab them in the back.

The simple approach is to make promises to several people and surprise one by breaking your word and attacking them.  Too many lies and no one will work with you, then you lose. I was pleased that our team was able to do very well and never told a lie during a negotiation. I was reminded in this short exercise how effective truth can be in building good relationships. We told the truth even if it was only, "It's not in our interest to support you right now."

I'd recommend trying the game as a fun way to practice negotiation and to try out different approaches to working with people. Its a safe way to see what works best for you.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Richard Anderson on Leadership

Saturday's New York Times has an interview with Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Airlines, on his leadership approach.  I liked his answer to what his most important leadership lesson was, "I've learned to be patient and not lose my temper. And the reason that’s important is everything you do is an example ... when you lose your temper, it really squelches debate and sends the wrong signal about how you want your organization to run."

I have to agree.  If as a leader you really want to squelch debate, just come out and squelch it.  "Okay, that's enough debate" can work just fine.   There is no need to kill ideas accidentally.

The interview is worth a read.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

How to Read a Project Stoplight Report

A project stoplight report is a simple, visual way to show the status of projects.  Green shows the project is good, yellow shows it is in danger, and red shows it as in trouble.  Unfortunately, that doesn't help much beyond giving a summary.  Managers often ask for these reports as a simple way to understand the status of portfolios of projects, and focus on the red and yellow areas.

Project leaders, though, understand that a yellow or red indicator could be taken as showing weakness in their own project leadership skills.  In this case, the project leader is inclined to show a troubled project as green and hope they can fix any problems before they are noticed.  There is also a dynamic that red and yellow projects require more work from the project manager to explain what is going wrong and to do extra tasks to fix the problems.  When the project is already in trouble, this extra work is the last thing the project leader needs.  This is another reason to shade projects toward green.

Instead of this, managers could set the meaning of green, yellow and red differently, such that they get more value from the stoplight report.  I suggest that green can mean, "The project is going well, we don't need help from management."  Yellow can mean, "We are starting to worry about some aspects of the project and want some advice from management about how do proceed."  For yellow projects, the project leader should give options to the management team for a decision rather than just present the problems.  Then red can mean, "This project is in trouble and needs action from management to fix it."  In most cases, red projects should have been escalated to management as soon as they turned red, so if they are still red at the project review, that should mean that the project leader has yet to receive the support they needed from the managers on the project.  Red becomes a reminder to the management team that the project needs their help.

With a better use of the project stoplight report, management reviews can become a useful working session rather than a tedious meeting of blame passing.