Scale and Consistency

One of the things that becomes a problem as your company (or product or service) expands is how to ensure a consistent experience across the board. Whether it’s that you’re operating in multiple countries or just spread across multiple servers, quality of experience can start to vary, not just for your customers but also for your employees.

This is why in huge companies, “procedure” can come to dominate. You want to make sure that all your employees get equal access to career progression, training, personal development. So you mandate that all your people managers follow certain procedures — annual reviews, work plans, etc etc. You want to make sure that anyone who calls customer service receives pleasant, friendly and above all useful service. In an attempt to standardise quality, you give people scripts, mandate that phones must be answered within a certain number of rings, and so on.

Many of us have felt the impact of these kind of procedures — the call centre guy who can’t wait to get you off the phone, because a “successful” call must be finished in less than 3 minutes; the manager who sits you down for a stale, scripted “career discussion” that makes you feel more like leaving the company than going for that next job or promotion.

My theory? These procedures are written in with the best will in the world. The need to write them down is the problem however — the “spirit” gets lost. People become slaves to the letter of the rules.

Have you seen this happen? Ever seen it combated in an effective way?

Using the Best Plan Format

The most frequent mistake I see in Project Planning is what I call “premature Gantting” — going straight to creating a huge Gantt chart (often in MS Project).

Why is this a mistake? Because a huge Gantt chart, with many lines of tasks, all precisely allocated to specific dates looks very authoritative. It gives the impression that you’ve spent hours working out the exact dependencies, estimating the length of tasks and precisely scheduling all the work that needs to be done and who needs to do it.

If you truly have done all that work, then perhaps you’re fine. But the reality is that most of us have ACTUALLY spent half an hour scribbling on the back of an envelope, or at best on a flip-chart, to get some rough stages and some key dates. All the detail was then made up when the Gantt chart was created, primarily because the software demanded it.

What’s the solution? Let the format of your plan reflect the stage of development that it is at. Internally, I will frequently go into a meeting and DRAW the plan stages on the whiteboard. For communication with the customers/stakeholders, I’ll create a simple plan (sometimes even a flowchart) that reflects the reality of the situation.

So far, everyone involved has appreciated the honesty — and it’s prevented projects going wrong at a very early stage in the game.

Tools Don’t Matter

Every time I do a talk about project management, someone asks me what the “right” software is for the job. I love being asked this, because it’s an important topic.

My honest belief is that tools don’t matter.

Project management is about people. Picking some all-singing, all-dancing piece of software is not going to make things magically go right. It’s only when your processes are already working that the right software can help you make things run more smoothly and efficiently.

Net, focus first on getting the processes right. Then worry about selecting the best software for the job.

Keep in mind, however, that adoption is of supreme importance when selecting tools for project management. At the end of the day, you may need to compromise on features for the sake of pragmatism. It doesn’t help anyone if you have a fabulous project plan that no one can read, or an issue list that no one will update!

Geek Project Management @ Refresh Edinburgh

I’ve just done my talk on Geek Project Management at today’s Refresh Edinburgh event. It seemed to be fairly well received (fingers crossed anyway!). Some of the content was pretty similar to my BarCampLondon2 presentation, but I’ve done a fairly significant rework on it so I think it’ll be a lot easier to take away some immediately useful tools.

If you’re interested in seeing the slides, then here you can find them in Powerpoint and PDF form.

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Performance, Image, Exposure

One of the most interesting concepts I came across when I was just starting out in my corporate career was the PIE model – Performance, Image, Exposure. Typically this is represented by a pyramid diagram or a pie chart, depending on how pun-driven the explainer’s sense of humour is.

In terms of an individual’s career, the 3 segments represent the following:

  • Performance: The actual work you do, the results you deliver.
  • Image: The impression that others have of you (obviously this can differ from person to person).
  • Exposure: The people who get to know about a) your results and b) your image.

At first, it was a concept that really didn’t sit well with me. It didn’t seem FAIR. Surely one’s career should really just depend on the results that you deliver? If you’re good at your job, you should do well, right?

If I’m honest, that feeling stayed for quite a long while. I resisted the concept that you needed to care about your image, about your exposure. I believed that I could just do my job and that the results I delivered would be what mattered. I wouldn’t need to care about image or about getting known by the decision-makers.

All that changed because I was asked to write some feedback for someone. The person in question was someone I actually hadn’t worked with as directly as others for whom I had written performance evaluations in the past. I realised that since I hadn’t been working directly with them, I didn’t really KNOW about their real work and their real results. Strangely, though, I still had definite opinions, both of what they were doing well and what they could improve on.

This is what made me realise that image and exposure are both important — and factors that you should ignore at your peril.

Whether you like it or not, only a limited number of people will get to work with you directly. Even those that do will get a fairly narrow view of the real results that you deliver. On the other hand, many many more people will form an image in their minds of what you’re like — perhaps that you’re a safe pair of hands, maybe that you’re very smart or very ambitious. Some may form a very negative image — that you’re a bullshitter or unreliable or untrustworthy. The combination of that image that people have of you (Image) and the groups of people that share that view of you (Exposure) can make or break your career.

The big light bulb moment for me was when I accepted that Image and Exposure were going to matter whether I cared about them or not. Of course Performance is also important and always will be — I firmly believe that folks who try to make it all about the image and the exposure are playing a dangerous game of smoke and mirrors and will eventually be caught out. But the difference between two colleagues with comparative performance, one of whom cultivates the type of image they want and makes an effort to get the right exposure and the other who ignores these facets completely … well, it can be very significant.

Busy != Productive

The people I really respect are those who can get mountains of work done and deliver amazing results … and still have a life.

It’s really easy to mistake “busyness” for productivity. The folks always rushing around, having meetings and complaining about how busy they are certainly LOOK like they’re doing a lot. But the reality is that effort and output are not always related. Productivity is about getting loads done — how you spend your time should be up to you.

Some busy people are also productive; some productive people are also busy. There are times when you’ll see me running around like a maniac, juggling half a dozen projects and priorities. But if you measure (and therefore reward) “busyness” as opposed to results, then you won’t get what you want. You’ll get an army of employees who are too busy to talk to each other and potentially on the verge of nervous breakdowns, who actually don’t achieve very much.

Measure results. Measure the outcomes, not the actions. Don’t reward someone for working night-and-day on a task, reward them for producing the deliverable at the end. Reward the person who gets the same work done in less time MORE than the person who is missioning for days and days. That way, you’ll encourage your team to be more productive, rather than just busier. They’ll find their own ways to improve the way they work and the entire team will benefit as a result.

Invest in Yourself

A recent article about refactoring your career made me think back to when I first read “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”. For those who haven’t read it, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” is a personal finance book — some of the advice is a bit variable (e.g. he recommends against diversifying your investments, which I 100% disagree with), but there are some good concepts in there.

One that struck me at the time as making a lot of sense was the thought that you should always pay yourself first. In the financial world, this means contributing to your savings and investments and pensions and so on BEFORE you pay your bills or buy any “extras”. This disciplines you into saving/investing regularly.

The same is true in terms of your career. You NEED to invest in your own training and development first, in order to have a dynamic and rewarding career. Concepts like Google’s 70-20-10 rule are similar to this — you need to not only focus on what is making you money now, but also what will make you money tomorrow and next year.

In terms of your career, this means that you should be setting aside time for training and development — some of which is focused on making you better at your current job and some of which is focused on getting you towards the next step in your career … and some of which should move you towards your long term goals.

How do you include training & personal development into your life? Do you find it hard to find time to invest in yourself? Share in the comments.

Management By Optimism

Parkinson’s Law says that “work expands to fill the time available”. If you don’t have much to do, it doesn’t inspire productivity. If you have loads to do, it often inspires procrastination, but I digress.

Today, however, I want to address the corollary to this. Some people seem to believe that since work expands to fill available time, work will also CONTRACT to fit the available time. It usually plays out like this:

Project Team Member: Getting the environment set up took two weeks longer than anticipated, so now we don’t have enough time to test. I think we need to move the go-live date.
Project Manager: No, no, I’m sure you’ll manage it.
Project Team Member: As I said, I think compressing the testing down to just 2 days is a serious mistake. We’d be risking the whole project!
Project Manager: Listen, I’m sure you understand this is a really important project. We MUST make that date. You’ll just have to make it work.

This, my friends, is Management By Optimism. It is probably the most dangerous management trend in evidence today. When you see it, start to worry, because it is probably the biggest threat to your projects and to your careers.

Management BY Optimism is very different to being optimistic. Being optimistic is seeing the cup as half-full — trying to think the best rather than the worst in a given situation. Management By Optimism, on the other hand, is about IGNORING potential failure. Just because the impact of a particular risk is severe, the risk is regarded as extremely unlikely. Rather than facing the problem and dealing with it, it is ignored until a catastrophic point is reached — or until the relevant manager can jump ship and blame the sinking on the crew.

So what can you do if you worry that Management By Optimism will scupper your project? Well, firstly, look out for the signs. Failing to consider real risks, reacting adversely to the suggestion that the plan or schedule is unrealistic are both big warning signs. Secondly, try to address the problem in a constructive way. Sometimes we all delude ourselves into thinking things are better than they are. Holding a team risk-assessment meeting can help — just get everyone to rate how severe and how likely they think a risk is. It will quickly become apparent if the team cannot envision a successful outcome when the leader is dead-set upon it (and vice versa).

Or, if there is no other option, bring in the big guns — take it as an issue to the Project Board and make clear that there are real concerns about the chances of success. Much as “it’s going to be late/over budget/under quality” is unlikely to be POPULAR news, any senior manager worth their paycheck should realise that early warning is significantly better than unanticipated failure.

Do you have some examples of Management By Optimism and perhaps other ways to combat it? Share in the comments!