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Holy Things-I-Didn't-Know, Batman!

1349626232_alfredauntharrietGood old Aunt Harriet.

You Batman fans remember her from the 1960's television show. That lovely, doting busy-body really had no clue that her nephew and his playmate were superheroes, right under her own nose. Her blue blood personification made us smile. After all, many of us had an Aunt Harriet (albeit one who wasn't filthy rich).

But do you REALLY know Aunt Harriet? More appropriately, do you know the actress who played her, Madge Blake? Ms. Blake passed away soon after the series wrapped up, but it was her life BEFORE acting that astounded and surprised me. Every once in a while, I will go on a Wikipedia rabbit hunt, whenever curiosity gets the better of me. Batman reruns were such an integral part of my childhood that I decided to do a little research on a show based primarily on two superheroes, a butler, a clueless police force, and four recurring villains (with a new villain thrown in from time to time to keep it interesting).

What I discovered about Aunt Harriet was Madge Blake didn't take up acting until the age of 50 (so there's still hope for my career change in a couple of years). Prior to that, she and her husband were integral workers on the Manhattan Project, helping in the construction of the atomic bomb detonator and testing critical equipment. Both received citations from the US government.

BAM!  POW!  BIF!  ZONK!

I was bowled over like the Joker in the last five minutes of an episode.

You work with a lot of people day in and day out. Certainly you've come to your own conclusions about their "story" (or for most of us egocentric primates, their role in YOUR story). But here's my question for you: Have YOU taken the TIME to really LEARN about those PEOPLE in your life's STORY? Are you fascinated by them or bored with them? Do you feel you know everything you need to know, or are you still curious?

If you've lost that curious edge, it may be time to open up the relationship, check behind the bookcase, and yell, "To the Bat Cave!"

Fifty Shades of GRRR

50ShadesofGreyCoverArtLet's be clear: I've never read the book, Fifty Shades of Grey. I don't plan on seeing the movie by the same name. But the title does make excellent pun-fodder for me to post a list (in no particular order) of some of my top project management pet peeves:

  1. Indecisive decision-makers
  2. Passive-aggressive business analysts
  3. Developers who don’t follow requirements and specifications
  4. Project stakeholders who throw people under the bus
  5. The buses that keep hitting project stakeholders, thus requiring risks be written if this event happens.
  6. Status reports that read like stereo instructions
  7. Methodologies (outside of common sense and experience)
  8. Methodologists who act like Cubicle Pharisees
  9. People who drive slow in the passing lane (I’m sure there’s a project tie-in somewhere)
  10. Quality assurance analysts who refuse to log defects
  11. “Well, it’s technically done…”
  12. Micromanaging executives
  13. People who accuse without adequate fact-checking
  14. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I leave you off that distribution list on that message affecting your project?”
  15. Blatant incompetence
  16. Posers who are more interested in climbing than doing
  17. No clear scope statement… and no desire to research it either
  18. No compelling rationale for the project
  19. Passionless projects
  20. Forgetting a stakeholder
  21. Making assumptions with no valid basis
  22. Not documenting the assumptions made
  23. Those who wish to make estimating an exact science
  24. Executives who hold teams exactly to their estimates
  25. No time to plan properly
  26. Not providing the correct resources to develop the plan
  27. Not providing the correct resources to execute the plan
  28. Turning a lessons learned session into a witch hunt
  29. Inability to prioritize (especially where the triple constraint is involved)
  30. Holding a meeting only because it’s Tuesday at 9:00 AM
  31. Scheduling a meeting for Friday at 4:00 PM
  32. Leaders who can’t facilitate a meeting
  33. Blatant, unchecked dysfunctionality
  34. People who talk too much in meetings
  35. Forgetting to say “thank you”
  36. Lacking a sense of humor
  37. Fill-in-the-blank templates… where half the blanks are required but irrelevant
  38. Executive temper tantrums
  39. The genetic cross of the Peter Principle and Weebles: they’ve hit their point of incompetence but keep bouncing back
  40. “Not my job”
  41. “We can’t do that”
  42. “We’ve always done it that way”
  43. Those who equate project management with filling in blanks on a project plan
  44. Those who don’t consider project initiation and planning to be “real work”
  45. “That person” in meetings
  46. Conference callers who don’t know the difference between “on hold” and “mute”
  47. Those who have more stupid answers than intelligent questions
  48. Overabundance of ego
  49. Dog haters… I don’t mind if you love cats, but if you hate dogs, take your Gantt chart and move along
  50. Those who don’t understand project management skills are universal; you can put a seasoned project manager into any well-adjusted team in any industry/environment/organization and they will thrive

What forms of torture would you add to the list?

Nationwide is on your (Blind) side

Wow. Just wow.

Sitting there. Watching the Super Bowl. Loathing the Seahawks. Bemoaning the already mediocre set of commericals. And then the Nationwide commercial came on.

 

Now I'm not going to go down the road of how much of a downer it was. I'm not going to dog-pile on Nationwide for their insensitivity. They claim their goal was to start a dialogue about safety in the home. Very noble. Very necessary. As a parent, I've spent the last 15 years being neurotic about my children.

Two words: audience and setting

Whenever we try to communicate ANYTHING - from commercials on the Super Bowl to telling our kids to take out the trash, from a sales pitch to win a multi-million dollar account to an uncomfortable meeting with your project sponsor when things aren't going so well - one should always consider, beside the content of the message itself, the audience and the setting.

With the audience, to whom are you speaking? (Yeah, duh, but stick with me here.) Is it one person or many? What do they care about? What are their hot buttons? Why should they listen to you? Why are they in YOUR audience? Why should they listen to YOU? What's your past relationship with them? How much credibility do you have?

With the setting, you're looking at the broader context of the message delivery. Are people in the right mindset to hear what you have to say? Are they stressed about other things? Are you using the right channel? The right words? The right tone?

Nationwide failed on both of these tests. When watching the Super Bowl, we expect to see commercials about the misuse of Doritos, about puppies and horses making us want to buy beer (okay, I still struggle with that connection), and about what happens when a Viagra drops into the gas tank of a Fiat (my personal favorite of the evening). We want to laugh, to be amused, to be entertained, and (maybe) to be informed about the actual product.

I can't say whether heads will roll at Nationwide, but the decision-makers need to do a better job of explaining how they dropped the ball on both audience AND setting. They certainly seemed to be blind to both.

Who Writes This Stuff Anyway? (And Who Reads It?)

Notebook_image_368131A year.

Over a full year since my last blog post.

No excuses, but an explanation.

The past year has really been about a self-imposed experiment of sorts. I was curious if I would even miss blogging. What would happen if I just focused on the other areas of my life (and there have been many)?

A lot has happened in the past year. Our family moved to a new house. My older daughter started high school. I began a new contract project. In the world at large, we saw a Republican sweep of Congress, a massive Ebola scare, a couple of major plane crashes, visible police/racial issues as close as a state away, as well as other conflicts in multiple corners of the globe. All of these were blog-worthy, and yet my keyboard sat quietly.

Why?

  1. Well, as I mentioned before, I had a lot going on in my personal life. As I approach the 50 milestone in a couple of years, I'm finding that the mind and body do have a limited bandwidth. It's difficult to express oneself creatively (and do it justice) when the day-to-day life activities are bearing down. Obviously the house move was the big one. Now that it's over and life is getting back to "normal" (insert laugh track here), I hope to have more time and energy to devote to this craft.
  2. I forgot my audience. I remember reading an article about Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin & Hobbes) talking about the importance of creating for yourself as well as others. I forgot myself. Blogging had become a chore because I kept trying to figure out what would please all of you. The last two years of blogging prior to my hiatus were somewhat joy-less because of that. I apologize to you who read those blog posts. To me, the lack of energy was palpable.
  3. But you all take some blame as well. In the past few years, I've found those who read and respond to others' content have become far less civil. Blame it on Facebook or Twitter or on forums which allow anonymous commentary. The verbal vitriole I've observed on the topics of politics, police, celebrity, well - you name it... it's become energy-sucking. That's why I began moderating my blog comments years ago: to avoid the trolls. I love dialogue and exchange of different ideas; I loathe conflict when civility and respect are missing.
  4. Content congestion was my final reason. I love LinkedIn, and I've had much professional interaction there. Over the past couple of years, they've allowed people to start posting articles and content there. I've read some great articles, but now it seems to be a tsunami of words... a one-up-man-ship of "I know more than you" or "I'm more influential than you." Pffffft. Who needs that? I have my forum here. If what I'm writing is good enough, people will find me.

So here we are. I'm back (whatever "back" means). I will start blogging again, but it may or may not be what you want to read. And I've decided I'm fine with that. It will be what I want to write. Time to fall in love with my blog again.

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!)

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