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Bargain Basement Project Managers

Blue-light-specialEvery once in a while, I run into potential clients who just don't get it.

They assume a project manager is a commodity that they can take off the shelf, spray, wipe, and put away, thereby fixing their organizational messes on an ad hoc basis.

Let me give you some examples:

  • The head of a financial services firm hired me to manage the launch of a new product for him. I had to drag him kicking-and-screaming through the project plan to create something feasible and usable. Once he had a project plan documented, he let me go stating he could "manage it from here."
  • A strategic consulting firm kept stringing me along that they were going to engage me but "now is just not the right time" because "we're just not quite sure how you'll fit into our plans" yet they kept pinging me with various questions to help them market to their clients.
  • On a rather large and involved software project, a major client kept delaying until their next major milestone, stating they wanted to wait to bring me in so they could save money by doing as much of the up-front work themselves.

Let's just say that all three wound up in various levels of failure. Project management is a full life-cycle engagement. A solid project manager will understand the business needs creating the project up front, will be able to merge tasks and resources into a usable plan, and will be knowledgeable enough to execute against the plan they've created. Take away any one of those three, and it's like removing a leg from a 3-legged stool.

As project managers, sometimes (even in a rough economy) it's in our best interest just to walk away. Sometimes politely by saying, "I don't think this project is a good fit for me at this point in my career." Sometimes it takes harsher language. It's always OK to fire a client (even a potential client) who doesn't get it. Sometimes I'll let the client think that firing was their idea. Regardless of how it's done, I'm not going to waste skills and talents on a client who won't appreciate them and maximize them. (To my current client, don't worry, you're safe.)

As professionals, we all owe it to ourselves and our respective industries to protect our craft, our accomplishments, and our skills.

Is it time to fire your client?

Jobs Stimulus Package

Apple-logo Today I downloaded an album onto my iPod. There's nothing unusual about it. Except today it felt different. Solemn. Reverent. (Good thing it was an album of hymns.)

It's been 24 hours since my wife texted me with the news of Steve Jobs' passing. I don't think anyone was surprised. His failing health and resignation from his own company 6 weeks ago have been the topic of news headlines for quite a while.

I've watched with interest the plethora of articles, the replay of YouTube advertisements, the references to his Stanford address, and the number of quotes... all paying homage to a man who probably changed the last quarter of a century moreso than any other.

I think back to my own initial introduction to Apple... my very first Apple IIC, which got me through four years of college typing papers for people. Even back then, Steve Jobs ignited my entrepreneurial spirit.

In the 1980's, Jobs promised us something more. His 1984 commerical was viscerally groundbreaking, and served as a foreshadowing of the Apple brand.

In the 1990's we all pretty much mocked Apple as it went through its dark era. Microsoft ruled the world. Apple was relegated to educational artsy-fartsy types and obscure applications nobody would use in the "real world" ....

Wait for it ....

The new millennium arrived and with it a regenerated Apple and a recharged Steve Jobs. Apple took the computing world to new places with smaller, faster, better-built laptops. Jobs revolutionized the music industry by allowing us to fit entire libraries ranging from classical to heavy metal into our pockets. Our phones became truly smart with apps and capabilities that once again revolutionized an industry and set the bar excruciatingly high for competitors.

But let's forget the Steve Jobs of commerce for a moment.

Let's, instead, focus on the Steve Jobs of the masses.

In his Stanford address, he encouraged to us to live original lives full of passion and meaning.

In his advertising, he challenged our concept of what was crazy vs. sane.

In his products, he blurred the lines between "what is" and "what if."

In his presentations, he was a showman who turned technology into theatre.

Steve Jobs was a master of industry, but at his core, he was a mental blacksmith. He made tools to enable others, forging minds of the strongest steel. At the risk of becoming political here, Washington wants us to think that throwing money at a problem makes a good Jobs Stimulus Package... but like everything else in his too-short life, Steve Jobs already set the bar too high. He proved the best way to stimulate someone to greatness is to provide them with the tools to THINK... and THINK DIFFERENT.

Thank you, Steve. You gave our generation the best "Jobs Stimulus Package" ever... our own imaginations.


Guess Who's Thumbing the Winner?

Bad_Authority_Figure Sigh.

I like to maintain a baseline level of confidence in society.

I like to think that people - at their core - have qualities that benefit others.

I like to believe that all bosses are inherently good... kind of like Luke Skywalker believed there was still good in Darth Vader.

The problem is that Luke Skywalker was right.

This story comes from Eastern Iowa. William Ernst, owner of the QC Mart chain, decided to make a game of firing employees. A judge ruled against him on his little game, stating that he created a hostile work environment, for releasing this memo last spring:

New Contest – Guess The Next Cashier Who Will Be Fired!!!

To win our game, write on a piece of paper the name of the next cashier you believe will be fired. Write their name [the person who will be fired], today's date, today's time, and your name. Seal it in an envelope and give it to the manager to put in my envelope.

"Here's how the game will work: We are doubling our secret-shopper efforts, and your store will be visited during the day and at night several times a week. Secret shoppers will be looking for cashiers wearing a hat, talking on a cell phone, not wearing a QC Mart shirt, having someone hanging around/behind the counter, and/or a personal car parked by the pumps after 7 p.m., among other things.

"If the name in your envelope has the right answer, you will win $10 CASH. Only one winner per firing unless there are multiple right answers with the exact same name, date, and time. Once we fire the person, we will open all the envelopes, award the prize, and start the contest again.

"And no fair picking Mike Miller from (the Rockingham Road store). He was fired at around 11:30 a.m. today for wearing a hat and talking on his cell phone. Good luck!!!!!!!!!!"

(Poor Mike Miller of the Rockingham Road Store.)

One of the questions I generally field as an office politics advisor is: "What happens when it's the boss/leader/owner/authority figure who is exhibiting the bad behavior?"

My answer is generally the same: YOU are still in control of your reaction. YOU can choose to leave. YOU can choose to talk back. YOU can choose not to engage. Or, in their case, YOU can choose to hire a lawyer and fight. Yes, there are consequences to YOUR actions, but the empowering thing is... they're YOUR actions.

We had a situation at a soccer game a couple of weeks back. A child was obviously injured on the field (and this is not my first rodeo, folks... I know the difference between a "shake it off" injury and a "everybody grab a knee" injury). The parents were trying to call the ref's attention to the injured child, and instead of stopping the game to check on her welfare, he opted for yelling at the parents, screaming at him that he knew the rules, and antagonizing instead of managing the situation. Worse yet was the league's decision to side with him without doing adequate investigation into the matter. The parents did what they could; they backed down to his irrational behavior at the game and then reported the referee to the league afterwards. Will this ref ever have a bearing on their lives long-term? No. He was just a man who cared more about his injured ego than an injured child. But the bottom line is this: the parents took the actions that were within their power.

I've dealt with many a bad boss in the course of my career. Nowadays such a person is just fodder for future writing. Nevertheless, it's taken time to learn how to finesse the situation when in the heat of battle. I congratulate those convenience store employees for taking decisive action against their boss. It took courage, no doubt. We'll hope he can learn from the situation.

Remember: when dealing with an ill-minded and/or ill-behaving authority figure, YOU are still in control of YOUR reactions. Never, EVER forget that.

Waving "Buy-Buy" to Change

Best_Buyx2 Recently, in my commute to my client site, I thought I was seeing double. As one Best Buy store was being shelled out to make way for a new Whole Foods Market (my gastro side is giddy beyond belief), a new Best Buy store was being built right next store. What initially looked like a redundant marketing campaign was actually bridging a potential gap for electronics-seeking consumers.

Right now, I'm in the midst of managing a major software conversion for my client. They have the old software, and my job is to get them to new software. We're approaching this change like the dual-Best-Buy approach, but I don't have the luxury of making an obvious sign that points the users to one system one day and another system the next. That's where change management principles come into play.

  • First, my team and I have to assure the end users that when we switch over, they'll have a quality product. We have to build creditiblity through our testing to give them the best we can. Unlike a Best Buy shopper who can buy his or her latest iDrool at one property or another and know it will work equally well, we have to earn that assurance.
  • Second, we have to answer the never ending question of "What's In It For Me?" (WIIFM)  Unlike Best Buy customers, they don't have the option to shop elsewhere during construction. Still, they want to know how their professional lives will be affected. It's my job to make sure those messages go out.
  • Third, we have to bring them along on the journey. Where as passersby got to see one Best Buy sign go up and then the old one come down, my stakeholders will rely on me to tell them where we are in our journey and answer the age old question, "Are we there yet"?

Stephen Warrilow wrote a great piece on resistance to change about a year ago. Slightly different emphases but some great thoughts nonetheless.

The bottom line on change is how you as the change leader bridge the gap from the present to the future. Seizing the accomplishment means more than just hitting all of your milestones and staying within budget; it also means bringing the right stakeholders along for the ride.

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