Solving Problems Isn’t Hard

Solving problems isn’t hard. Once you know what you’re trying to achieve, then for most problems you can see a few ways to get there, so it just comes down to choosing the best course of action and following through.

Problem definition, on the other hand, can be damn hard.

When you’re facing some problem and it’s driving you crazy, sometimes you’re best to stop and wonder whether you’ve really defined the problem accurately. What are you trying to solve? What is the original problem? Why is it such a problem? How else could you frame it? What description would make it more tractable?

If you can get the problem definition right, your chances of finding an optimal solution are greatly improved. Don’t keep soldiering on down the wrong path, refusing to acknowledge that failure is also an option.

Quick Tip: Text Yourself

Ever get a great idea and then forget it because you didn’t have a pad and paper to hand? Ever wake up in the middle of the night with the solution to your biggest problem and then in the morning have nothing left other than that nagging feeling that you’ve forgotten something?

This used to happen to me all the time. First, I tried carrying a hipster PDA, but remembering to take it EVERYWHERE was difficult. Then I realised that I already had something that I always carried with me — my mobile phone!

Now, I have a very simple process: any time I get a good idea, whether it be for a blog post, a solution for a wicked problem or an idea for a great new site, I send myself a text. Try it — it works great!

Starting Out in Project Management

Although I won’t do a full repeat of my talk at BarCampLondon2, today I wanted to talk a little bit about starting out in Project Management. Most folks don’t start their career as a project manager … they come to it later, having been in an operational role or part of a project team first.

One of the difficulties for a first-time project manager is that being a great project resource (i.e. team member) is what gets you the job as project manager, nine times out of ten. Unfortunately, the characteristics of a great project resource are not necessarily the same as those of a great project manager. Standing out in a project team is about getting more done than your fellow team-mates, knuckling down and “getting on with it”. By definition, this focuses you on the executional level of the project — getting tasks done, once they’ve been assigned to you.

In contrast, being a great project manager requires excellence at all the OTHER parts of the project — planning, communication, dealing with stakeholders, managing risk, seeing the “big picture” and so on. There’s also a big part of project management which is more about management than about the project — your team will function best if they are left in peace to do their work and move the project forward, so making sure they don’t NEED to worry about all those factors is paramount.

In traditional project management, there are a number of stages: Initiation, Planning, Execution, Control and Closure. The crux of my talk last weekend was that the real success or failure of a project is determined in the Initiation, Planning and Closure stages, whereas most of the focus is traditionally on the Execution & Control phases. This is not to say that these are the most time-consuming phases — nor that the Execution & Control are not important! — just that they are the structure that allows for success .. or not.

In my experience, some of the most typical mistakes first-time project managers make are in these stages:

  • INITIATION — not making sure everyone is 100% clear and aligned on the purpose of the project. Realising this later on when the software “doesn’t do what we wanted it to do” or when the savings/value promised are not delivered is much more costly.
  • PLANNING — thinking that the plan, once written down (as thousands of lines in MS Project) will be followed to the letter. Plans are not robust. Task planning is especially fragile. If you spend your time worrying about the fact that task #137 is only 70% complete, then you’re not keeping your eye on the rest of the project.
  • CLOSURE — if you think your project is finished and others don’t, then you have big problems. There are a number of reasons this can happen (probably fodder for another blog post), but the most frequent are either that you haven’t met everyone’s real objectives for the project (see above) or that you haven’t provided for the future of the area you’ve been working on. This leads to the “undead stakeholder” phenomenon that seemed to strike a chord with everyone I mention it to.

So, what can you do if you’re managing a project for the first time? Or even if you’ve already managed your first project and weren’t happy with the results? There are a few things you can do:

  1. Educate yourself. Even though Project Management may not seem as real or worthwhile as development or design, it is still a valid skillset and there is a lot of information out there, notably some great books.
  2. Think back. When you were working on projects, who were the best project managers? Who do you remember fondly? Who do you definitely NOT want to emulate? Learn from their mistakes and adopt their best practices.
  3. Ask around. There are probably other young PMs in your organisation. Maybe you could even meet up and swap horror stories.

UPDATE: I’ve since written a book aimed at those just getting started in project management — have a look at The Principles of Project Management.

BarCamp London2

BarCampLondon2 Feb 17-18

I’ve just spoken at BarCampLondon2 on the topic of Project Management Basics for Busy Geeks. Obviously the best way to experience this was to have come on down to BarCamp in London this weekend, but for those who are a little far away, I’ll be doing a write-up later on.

In the meantime, for those who may or may not have been here, you can find both Powerpoint and PDF versions of the presentation here. (I used PDFOnline to convert from PPT –> PDF, for those interested)

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Do Not Disturb Strategies

Sometimes you just need to get your head down and get some work done. Do you find that you’re staying late in the office, or coming in really early, just to be productive? If so, you need a “Do Not Disturb” strategy.

In the olden days (i.e. before the introduction of cube farms), getting some quiet time in which to focus was easy — you simply closed your office door. In the modern office, though, there are a myriad attention-seekers. Online, you can choose to shut yourself off — sign off from IM, close down your email (or at least stop it reminding you of new mail every two minutes) or even just unplug yourself. You can turn your cellphone to silent and set your office phone to go direct to voicemail. But what about people coming up to your desk to bug you directly?

Essentially, you need a way to signal to the world that you are busy and getting some serious work done. Pick a hat or scarf or something and wear it whenever you’re “in the zone”. Educate your coworkers and customers that if you have that article of clothing on, then they should turn around, go back to their desk and email you instead. Better yet, get your entire team to adopt such a strategy — that way if one of you is head-down and someone makes to disturb you, your team members will run interference, explaining the system to them.

The most important thing, whatever signal you choose, is to BE CONSISTENT and use the signal sparingly. Some people put on headphones when they want to concentrate, but because they also sometimes put on headphones when they just fancy a little Caliko, noone really knows whether it’s OK to disturb them or not. And when in doubt, chances are folks will go for the option that benefits them most — interrupting you.

UPDATE: This got picked by Lifehacker — great content in the comments there (and now here too!). Particularly it seems that in less of a team situation, having a polite sign can work wonders…

Blitz Your Email

Ever have one of those days when you get to 4pm and have NO IDEA what you’ve achieved? Chances are pretty good you’ve been “doing stuff” … checking your email, dealing with queries, answering your voicemail and possibly even getting the odd bit of work done … but you still don’t feel like you’ve had a productive day because everything has been reactive rather than proactive. Always-on can be fantastic, but being linked in to every possible distraction for every minute of the working day is often not the most effective way to work.

So what can you do about it?

Personally, I’ve had a great deal of success with a very simple strategy that is mainly about dealing with email distraction. Working in technology, I find that most of my communication comes in via email — if your main distractions are IM or phone, then you might want to adapt this.

Essentially the key concept is to do email blitzes. Don’t try to check email every 2 mins and deal with emails one-by-one. Instead, take an hour, or even a half or quarter hour and mission through as much email processing as you can. For each email that you read, decide whether it:

  1. Shouldn’t have gotten to you anyway –> delete it
  2. Just needed reading –> archive it
  3. Needs a response –> do it right then and there, if it’ll take less than 1 minute
  4. Needs a more indepth response –> leave it (or move to a “needs indepth response” folder)*
  5. Needs you to perform some action –> add it to your normal todo tracking system

I find that taking 30-60 minutes, twice a day, helps me to stay 100% on top of my email. The timings of the blitzes are important though — I find first thing in the morning and just after lunch are the best times for me. The former is because I’m in a role where sometimes there are urgent fires to be put out — others feel quite rightly than an alternative strategy can be more effective. The latter is because just after lunch is typically quite an energy lull — especially if you work in the North East where they believe in proper hot lunches!

At other points in my career, when I had different job responsibilities, I used to find that mid morning (after the initial “get stuff done” burst of early morning energy had passed) and mid afternoon (around 3pm, when everyone just wants to get a cup of tea) were the best times for my email blitzes.

Whatever the timings, though, restricting how much of my life I spent in Outlook or Notes or Thunderbird to just a couple of email blitzes a day has improved my productivity immensely.

Want more tips on managing your email? Try these links:

* I just leave things that need a more in-depth response in my inbox, which is against some of the Inbox Zero-style teachings, but then I easily manage to keep my inbox to less than a screen so I’m happy with my own process here 😉 YMMV.