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Mind Reading in Braille

LastwillandtestamentI've always been amused by the scenes in movies when people are gathered around an attorney's office for the reading of the last will and testament of a deceased person.  There are usually a bunch of well dressed people sitting in high back leather chairs in a mahogany paneled office with soft music playing in the back ground.  They build up the suspense and then it all becomes pretty formulaic:  somebody inherits something great that they weren't expecting, and somebody else receives some tacky little trinket (or nothing at all) and felt they deserved more.  Then there are a few "You don't deserve that" comments thrown around, a threat or two to contest the will.  Then switch to the next scene.

Now imagine that you're in that scene, and the attorney says, "And to [insert your name here], I bequeath the project I was managing.  Good luck.  You're going to need it."  You sit there, dumbfounded for a moment, your jaw dropping so far down that a first year dental student could get a complete history in one glance.  After you try to trade with the person next to you who inherited the priceless Ming vase, you resign yourself to your fate.  And now comes the really tough part:  you have to figure out what was going on in their mind and try to pick up and move on.

Sometimes you have the luxury of "reaching beyond the grave" and talking to the exiting project manager for a smooth transition.  More often than not, that transition may be an unceremonious handing off of a huge project folder and a pat on the back.  Then you're left flying blind and trying to read the mind of your predecessor.

What do you do next?  Well, this is not too unlike a project rescue and recovery effort in many respects; however, there are a few basic steps you should take in the first week as you are ramping up:

  • Talk to people - don't just send out a mass email introducing yourself.  Schedule an all-hands meeting your first day on the project.  Then follow it up with one on one introductions with the key members of your team.  Get to know them and give them a reason to start respecting you.  I was on a project a while back where the team wouldn't have liked anybody, but it still didn't stop me from trying to build the relationships.
  • Confirm scope - if there are things about the original requirements or tasks that don't make sense, now is your time to correct it.  You don't have to go hog-wild on change requests, but this is your opportunity to kill a sacred cow or two.
  • Review the project plan - if the plan was structured in a way that makes you uncomfortable (i.e., too general), then now is your chance to redo it.  People may be frustrated that you're slowing down the progress of the project, but sell them on the investment of making sure that you're all successful at the end.
  • Revisit assumptions and risks - one major assumption was already violated on this plan:  the project manager left.  There may be a domino effect.  Your job, Sherlock, is to figure out what other assumptions and risks may affect YOUR management of the project.
  • Figure out why the previous project manager left - sure, we all want a challenge, but nobody wants to be set up for failure.  If the issue for their departure is fixable, then fix it (or add it to your risk list so it's documented).  If it is not fixable, then ask whether the project should move forward until the problem is fixed.  (NOTE:  That's a tough discussion to have with senior management, so make sure your back bone is straight and strong.)

At some point, we all have to take over somebody else's project.  Sometimes the transition is painless.  Other times, you have to do a lot of telepathic mind reading.  Whatever you do, just don't go barging in without a little questionning first.  Good luck!

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