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Puppy-Proofing Your Project

Fergus_PuppyA few months ago, I reported that our furry family member, Zorro, had gone that great Milkbone Factory in the SKy.

Since we are "dog people," I figured it wouldn't take us long to add another pet to the mix. We had discussed waiting until spring to get a dog, figuring potty training would be a lot easier. However, when this adorable pooch arrived into the world (on Abby's and my shared birthday, no less), we knew it was fate that Fergus Geronimo Johnson would be a part of our family. And so the week of Thanksgiving, he entered our lives and we haven't looked back.

It's been a while since we've had a puppy in the house. After Zorro, I quipped that I like my dogs as I like my cars: certified pre-owned. So we've all had some adjusting to do over the past couple of months to keep Fergus and our belongings safe and sound. As with most things in life, this experience got me thinking about new projects within the organization, and there are some parallels to acclimating a puppy to the house and getting your project onboarded smoothly:

Alpha Dog - your puppy will probably latch onto one person in the house as the "leader of the pack." Fergus looks to me for a lot of his commands and needs. In the same way, your project needs an alpha, preferably your project manager, although one could argue the sponsor is an even better alpha. An alpha's job is to protect the puppy and provide guidance and direction.

Toxic chemicals - we have tried to lock up all the dangerous chemicals around the house to keep Fergus away from them. This is an area where many organizations fail in protecting their puppy of a project. Toxic employees can kill a project as well as the morale of the project team. Get rid of them or isolate them if they won't change their ways. By the way, people do not become toxic overnight; they've probably been that way long before your project came on the scene. Do something about them before you bring the project into the organization. In the same vein, a new project is a good way to find out which company policies and procedures may not be safe for your organization's new accomplishments.

Put away the valuables - puppies can do a lot of damage with their sharp little teeth, so putting up shoes and spraying furniture and picking up miscellaneous toys and papers is a good play. The puppy doesn't know it's causing harm; it's just doing what puppies do. In the same way, a project introduced to an organization is trying to accomplish its scope, but it may not realize what harm it's doing to other parts of the organization. Running pilots or prototypes before rollout can allow your puppy project to wreak its havoc in a safe environment.

The Kennel - many puppies are "crate trained" as owners work during the day. The kennel is the puppy's safe haven. It contains the chew toys and bedding. Provide your project team with a safe haven where they can work together without distraction. A dedicated conference room or office for higher profile, more involved projects can help a team considerably.

"Accidents" - there will be times when the puppy can't hold it in any longer. When accidents occur, simply redirect the puppy to the correct actions and don't freak out. Eventually, the puppy gets it. In the same way, things go wrong on projects. If you play the blame game and freak out with every issue or risk event, people will learn to hide their messes rather than learn from them.

So congratulations on your organization's new project. Give it lots of love and direction and consistency, and it should flourish into a happy, fuzzy accomplishment.

Polar Vortex

Polar_vortexBaby, it's cold outside.

Yes, right now in the Upper Plains states, we're getting hit with highs in the negative numbers with wind chill factors hovering in the -30 to -60 range. BRRRRR.

I love how the Weather Channel and other news sources have dubbed this a Polar Vortex (as opposed to the most generic "cold snap" or "arctic blast" we usually get). After all, it sounds so much cooler (pun intended) to say we've been hit with a polar vortex. We forget cold snaps; we remember polar vortexes. An arctic blast is a dime a dozen; a polar vortex is unique.

In 2014, you'll be naming more than a few accomplishments. In so doing, you will be creating an effective brand for each project. Here is a link describing a great process for naming your project.

Even though I love using acronyms for evil purposes to suit my own entertainment needs, I strongly recommend avoiding them for a project which is on shaky ground with your organizational stakeholders. The last thing you want to do is give them any more fodder for mockery.

Hope your year warms up for some amazing accomplishments!

Project: Gratitude

Thanksgiving_prayerHappy Thanksgiving from Carpe Factum!

Looking back over my life, I'm reminded of many blessings, things that have shaped me, challenged me, and defined me. Sure, there are the obvious ones: My home, my family, my career.

There are more subtle points - events, opportunities, people - which played a role in my life. I may not have realized it at the time (and generally didn't), but looking back, they served a key role. Here are just a few:

Paper Route - from ages 11 through 15, I carried the Des Moines Tribune (the now defunct afternoon sister paper to the Des Moines Register). I had an average of 40 customers who expected their papers promptly, placed exactly where they wanted it. By the time I was a teenager, I had the basics of customer service and customer facing down. I learned self-discipline and responsibility. I learned to appreciate what was going on in the world (watching headlines change throughout the entire Iran Hostage crisis).

Family on the Farm - both of my mom's siblings (and their families) farmed. From birth, I was exposed to livestock and crops, to dirt and creekbeds. I listened to family discussions about market prices and government programs. I was able to experience sights and sounds and smells to instill an appreciation for nature. It's served me well in seeing the systems in the world around me and exactly how much everyting is connected.

Healthy Drama - I was a bit of a theater geek in high school and college. I got to learn from some awesome coaches and teachers about acting, creating a character, setting a mood, and appreciating really amazing writing. These opportunities shaped me as a teacher, an author, a creative, an office politics consultant, a project manager, and a dad. Always let your imagination come out to play.

Sunday School - I have pretty fond memories of my childhood church and what it represented back then. Learning Bible stories from different teachers, framing my values system, singing songs... it broke down the mysteries of religion and provided me with a framework for how I view the world. As I grew, I was able to add on to those building blocks, to interpret scripture in light of its original context and how its timelessness applies to an ever-changing world today. I'll be forever grateful to those faithful ladies and gentlemen who took the time to teach Bible stories to us kids.

Dogs - What can I say about Sam, Casey, Zorro, and now Fergus? Their love, their humor, and their needs taught me the basics and the complexities of taking care of other living beings. I observed their ability to listen. I saw them communicate without words. I viewed what excited them, what scared them, and what motivated them. Seeing the world through a dog's eyes is inspirational and honest.

So this Thanksgiving, I'll enjoy the trappings and trimmings of family and food. But I will have an eye on the past and its many blessings. Enjoy the holiday!

It's Bigger On The Inside

TardisMy older daughter has been working feverishly at turning me into a Doctor Who fan this year. (Actually, given most of the crap that passes for television viewing, I'm a thrilled parent to find her interests lie in British sci-fi and mysteries.)

For those of you not familiar with the Doctor Who series, the Doctor (generally with a companion) travels around time and space battling nefarious aliens and underworld creatures who seek to destroy the human race. His "vehicle" of choice is called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) and is cleverly disguised as a 1960's police call box. However, when mere mortals are invited inside, they see how vast and advanced the inside of the TARDIS is. Their first line of incredulity is almost always, "It's bigger on the inside."

With the advancing 50th anniversary episode called "The Day of the Doctor" coming this weekend, this observation about the TARDIS got me thinking about some of the projects I've managed over the years, as well as others I've observed. One of the biggest pitfalls of project management is scope creep, where the amount of work seems to grow once the project has begun; hence, "it's bigger on the inside."

In addition to just having sound change control procedures up front, I've learned a few tricks over the years to predict whether scope creep may be an issue. Here are my top tips to use at the beginning of the project before you travel into the future and see what's really inside the TARDIS:

  1. Can the Executive Sponsor articulate the scope? When I interview the sponsor, I like to see if they can succinctly sum up the purpose of the project. If I find them droning on and on and not coming to a point, that's a big warning flag.
  2. Can the Sponsor tell me what "Done" looks like? In addition to the purpose, I want to see their vision of successful completion. In other words, "we will be finished with this project when _____." If the one signing the checks can't recognize completion when s/he sees it, how do they expect the rest of us to know what it looks like?
  3. How many outcomes are expected? I'm of the Thoreau camp of "let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand." The fewer deliverables expected out of the project, the better the focus will be for everybody involved.
  4. Are the Business Analyst(s) and Programmer(s) doers or accomplishers? This is tricky, but in getting to know my team, I like to determine the orientation of those doing the work, so I'll ask them questions about their jobs. Those who talk about accomplishments rather than tasks and work, are generally more focused, where those who talk about the doing over the completing tend to allow more work to creep in than necessary.
  5. Do they "know no"? Prioritization is key in projects, and my favorite quote has always been "the quality of our YESes is determined by the quantity of our NOs." In the Midwest, we've had customer service pounded into us, and the overcommitment of "yes" gets a lot of projects in trouble. I'd rather take the heat for saying "no" and getting done on time with the critical tasks.

Following these simple tips at the beginning of a project can save you a Dalek-attack-load of trouble once you hit execution. Now, Allons-y! Geronimo! (And when it comes to scope creep, Exterminate!)

Attention: Book Clubs and Training Leaders

Final_CoverAs I've been preparing for my next business book in the coming months, I've been contemplating combining it with my existing books and coming out with a single hard-cover edition with all four stories. Doing this allows me to create some continuity among the three existing books and possibly add in some arching story-lines.

CoverIn order to do that, I need to lower my current inventory, so I'm going to make an insanely great deal for the next couple of months. I'm going to sell sets of three (Race Through The Forest, GUST, and SWAT) together for $25/set (includes shipping to the lower 48 states). The minimum required to get this price is four sets (or I'd get nothing else done but fulfill little one and two orders). This is approximately a 50% savings from what you would pay with Amazon.

RTTF_2nd_EdAlso, if you'd like only sets of either Race through the Forest (Project Management) or SWAT (systems thinking and accomplishment design), I'll extend the offer for these books (basically, a set of twelve copies for $100, shipping included).

For higher bulk orders (over 20 sets), ask me about coupling a Q&A phone call or even speaking with your group.

This is perfect for book clubs or for training managers trying to creatively work within year-end budget constraints. Contact me to find out how to make this happen.

The Horror of Surprise

The defenseless couple walk along the dark hallway, dim lights flickering among the cobwebs. Eerie music crescendos as they near the door at the end, unsuspecting of any possible harm as they slowly reach for and turn the knob.


Sorry, that's as scary as we're going to get this Halloween season. Unless you're a project manager. And you're blindsided by the unexpected. Like some hideous monster jumping out from behind the shadows, there are always creepy-crawly things waiting to scare you:

  • Indecisive executives
  • Changing business landscapes
  • New or forgotten requirements
  • Office politics gone awry
  • Sudden staff changes

I saw a t-shirt this summer that said "Life is all about how you handle Plan B," and that's especially true if you're a project manager. But with all of our risk and issue planning, few project managers TRULY give thought to Plan B and how it plays out.

What are the elements to creating a solid Plan B?

  • Trigger Event - what has to happen among all your risks in order for you to jump away from Plan A? Define events, thresholds, or variances that must be present for you to go to your Plan B.
  • Outcomes - what do you want Plan B to accomplish? Don't assume it's the same thing as Plan A. You may need to scale back features and functions of your scope to get done on time. You may need to sacrifice time or budget.
  • Roles - what skill sets will help you achieve the Plan B outcomes, and which available staff have those skills? Avoid the temptation to simply reassign your Plan A team (after all, they may have been the ones who got you into the mess).
  • Tasks, Dependencies, and Estimates - create your Plan B project plan to show how you will use the ROLES to achieve the desired OUTCOMES once the TRIGGER EVENT has occurred.
  • Stakeholders and Accountability - who cares and how are we going to keep them apprised of our progress? How will we define "done" to ensure people are accomplishing Plan B?

So the next time you go sneaking around dark passageways on stormy evenings, make sure you have your escape route marked. Go Plan B!

Lessons From The Storm

2013 Wind Storm 2Last Thursday afternoon seemed fairly normal. After a day of running around doing this and that, I had picked up my daughter from school and we were watching a little Doctor Who and chatting when we heard thunder. I had seen on the radar that a storm was coming so it wasn't a huge shock. To be on the safe side, I ran upstairs to shut the garage door. What happened next was unreal. I could tell the wind was a lot stronger than usual as I hit the button to protect my car from the elements. It was then my daughter yelled that a branch had fallen in our yard. By the time I came back downstairs, our very mature silver maple was snapping off limbs like little twigs. Our yard looked like a war zone in a matter of seconds.

2013 Wind Storm 3Later, we assessed the damage. It's unclear if our silver maple will survive. Our pear tree definitely will not. We lost a few shingles and I'm waiting to hear from the roofing contractor. After a quick drive through our part of town, we realized we fared better than many in the neighborhood. Now a week later, I'm looking back on what I learned:

  1. Gratitude - for me the storm, at worst, was an inconvenience. Many neighbors suffered major damage to their homes and automobiles. I suffered a few days of yard clean-up. I'm also grateful there will be fewer leaves to rake.
  2. Neighbors - never underestimate your neighbors as part of the value of your home. After they cleaned up their own messes, two of my neighbors were helping me out with the debris in my yard, chainsaws running. (Of course, we made our wives nervous when dislodging stubborn branches. Imagine Grumpy Old Men meets Cirque du Soleil, and you have a good image of the activity around our house.)
  3. Accomplishment - often things take longer than estimated or projected. As long as you keep making forward progress, it's all good in the end.
  4. 2013 Wind Storm 5Long View - the storm lasted seconds. It's now a week later and most of the mess is clean. Most of life's storms are like this also. Remember: this, too, shall pass. Right after the storm passed, a beautiful double rainbow appeared in the sky... just a reminder that everything will be alright.
  5. Resourcefulness - I now have a large stack of wood for future firepits with my family and friends. Sometimes storm produce resources you didn't realize you had.
  6. Timing - I was grateful I hadn't yet returned to full-time consulting work so I had time to deal with the effects of the storm. Sometimes things just have a way of working out.

2013 Wind Storm 6City crews are picking up the debris this week. The roof will get fixed. And things will get back to normal. There will be other storms, weather and otherwise. But for a few brief moments, my best teacher was a bit of atmospheric upheaval. What are you learning from the storms in your life?

Tastes Like Check-In

Fried_chickenI spent a great summer away from consulting work this year. After wrapping up an almost two-year project, I decided to take time for myself. There were home organization projects to do, books to read, and calories to burn, so the project deliverable of the summer was... well... me. It felt great to invest time in myself. As Christine Kane once said, "I'm always impressed with anyone who can stop their life when their life starts speaking to you, when things start falling down around you. You know, most of us, we just think it means that instead of ordering a grande at Starbucks, we should order a venti and go a little harder." Not this boy. After all I've been through in the past five years, it was time to take that "self-imposed vision quest."

Anyway, I'm now back on the hunt for speaking engagements and/or contract projects. One lesson I've learned consistently over the years (and am reminded of constantly the past few weeks) is to pay attention to how people treat me during the initial contact and interview process. The "check-in" process is a great indicator of how things will go. If people are combative and caustic during the interview process, they will act that way during the project. If people are hospitable and friendly during onboarding, that's how they generally act throughout the duration of the contract. Indecision and waffling in hiring leads to indecision and waffling when work needs to move forward. Micromanagement breeds micromanagement. Openness breeds openness. You get the picture.

I had a phone interview a couple of weeks ago for something that seemed like an interesting project. I was very up-front with the person about my skills and abilities over our half-hour conversation. The following week, I found out the person came away with a completely different perception of our conversation and what I could/couldn't do than I remember telling him. I withdrew my name from consideration within the day, figuring if a simple half-hour conversation (and a couple of subsequent emails) yielded such disparity, I could only imagine what a multi-month project would do to my blood pressure.

So it has been a fun trip for my inner anthropologist to observe these people. I'm able to get a fairly accurate reading of their corporate culture before I even step foot in the door. And it gives me the opportunity to say "no" before I ever have to say "yes." There's a lot to be said for first impressions. One of my favorite books is Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, and I've shared with a lot of people the importance of "thin slicing," or taking that first impression to draw conclusions. Our brain's experiences coupled with our gut's intuition is generally spot on.

So what can you do to make the check-in process reflect the type of organization you really are? How can you as an individual align first impressions with reality? Because people are watching you, and they're drawing conclusions about you as well.

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