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Carpet Factum

Carpet tanLast fall, an unfortunate flush of the toilet at the worst possible time created an "indoor water feature" in our newly remodeled family room beneath the aforementioned toilet. This sent us on a three month ordeal to completely gut and remodel the offending bathroom, as well as restore the family room to its prior glory. Always the project manager, I assumed most of the responsibility for selecting fixtures, dealing with the insurance company, and communicating with contractors. For the most part, the project ran smoothly with the exception of the carpet.

When we remodeled our family room the year prior, my wife went through painstaking research to find the perfect carpet, balancing texture, color, and a zillion other attributes. I even dealt with the same carpet company during the current fiasco, providing them with an exact sample of the carpet in order to match it perfectly. So imagine our surprise when the carpet laid was not the same as the carpet we already had down. When we pointed this out to the flooring company, they attempted to pull a few tricks to weasel out of their mistake, but because we had samples from the prior carpet and the carpet they laid, the differences were undeniable. When we went in to reorder, the "realization suddenly dawned" on our salesperson that our prior order might actually be in their computer system and - lo and behold - it was. (Duh! I only told her multiple times we had ordered our carpet from them just 15 months prior.)

In projects, we often ignore the "current state" of things because the project solution represents something new, something exciting, something different. The "as is" represents the old and stale status quo, so why bother with it? Our carpet salesperson didn't bother to consider what we had; she wanted to focus on what we would be getting. This mindset can be lethal for a project manager, as there are many valuable aspects to investing in understanding where you are before you define where you're going:

  1. Pain motivates. Plain and simple. If people understand the pain associated with the current state, they will have greater appreciation for the new solution. The greatest resistance I've encountered on projects is from those who do not associate the status quo with organizational pain. Doing this well will generate appreciation rather than resentment from your stakeholders.
  2. It's not all bad. Occasionally, things are being done well currently. In our rush to a new project solution, we are tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Such was my experience on a recent software conversion project. I came in at a point where the commitment to the new solution was made, and my job was to execute. The former brass had not bothered doing a solid stakeholder analysis and didn't realize there were many desired features in the old system which wouldn't be in the new system. Through workarounds, communication, and change management, we were able to resolve this, but a thorough current state would have revealed features worth keeping in a new solution.
  3. A numbers game. As the old quality adage goes, "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it." Helping a daughter through algebra, it's obvious that to measure a distance, one must have a starting point. Not knowing your beginning makes it really hard to figure out if you've arrived at your destination.

Virtually any process improvement model will prompt you to create a current state document. While it may seem like a waste of time up front, it's actually a sound investment to prevent wasting time at the back end.

As for our carpet, we eventually got everything figured out, and another installation later, we had our family room back to its former glory. I just wish our salesperson had known the importance and value of current state analysis before she ordered the wrong carpet. Oh well. Live and learn.

Hack School Project Management

Take 11 minutes and watch this video...


It's refreshing to see a kid like Logan communicate so eloquently. Having taught graduate school for 12 years and consulted for over 20 years, I can honestly say most of the adults I meet can't articulate what they want to be when they grow up.

I've pretty much figured out that being a contented accomplisher is my calling in life. Sometimes this takes the form of speaker; other times it's being an author. But at my core, I'm always a project manager. And as a project manager, I've figured intuitively how to be "hack school" over the years. Logan's description of hack school is spot on:

Hackers are innovators, hackers are people who challenge and change the systems to make them work differently, to make them work better, it’s just how they think, it’s a mindset...

I take advantage of opportunities in my community, and through a network of my friends and family. I take advantage of opportunities to experience what I’m learning, and I’m not afraid to look for shortcuts or hacks to get a better faster result. It’s like a remix or a mash-up of learning. It’s flexible, opportunistic, and it never loses sight of making happy, healthy and creativity a priority.

Picasso QuoteOnce, I was brought onto a client because a person wanted to learn from me as I managed a major project for her organization. A couple of months into my contract, this individual took a seven-week online project management class. Voila... the class turned her into an instant "expert" in project management. She started taking glee in pointing out all the things I didn't do according to her instructor and text book. The problem with her approach was that I was actually getting results by doing things my way. I knew how to do things "by the book" but the difference between knowledge and wisdom is knowing when drop the book. (Purely unrelated, I'm thinking of switching physicians... do you know anybody who completed medical school in seven weeks online?)

A few years ago, Dr. Delaney Kirk sent me an article about the main reason fire fighters die when working on wild fires: When surrounded by flames, they focus too much on saving their tools and equipment and not enough on just running to save their own lives. That really sums up my project management "hack school" mindset. I love tools, by the way. A great project plan can save months and dollars to an organization. A well-written status report can bring critical issues to light. Issues logs cut through office politics. I love tools, but I don't rely on them. What I rely on is the ability to accomplish a successful end result.

So what about you? Are you more "by the book" or "hack school"? How can you start dropping your tools? Who knows? By doing so, you might just grow up to be happy and healthy.

Phantom of the Oprah

Oprah_winfrey One of my students recently made me aware of the Living Oprah Blog, created by writer/actress, Robyn Okrant, who started an experiment to see if she could live her life for a whole year according to all the principles of Oprah Winfrey:  food, finance, exercise, clothing, relationships.  It sounds a lot like the "What Would Jesus Do" push only a lot more holier-than-thou with a heaping side dish of overbearing.  Her general observation very quickly arrived at living like Oprah is exhausting and is more than a full-time job.  To which I respond, "Well, DUH!  How much of that does Oprah actually do herself and how much is farmed out to her labrat minions to try for her so she can go and tout it on her show?"

Don't get me wrong... I like watching the occasional Oprah in those exceptionally rare moments when I have absolutely nothing else better to do... ok, so I NEVER watch Oprah.  But I know she has some good resources and her show, and she shares a lot of neat ideas which people can try to apply as they see fit.

Oops... I let out the secret, didn't I?  "CAN TRY to apply as they SEE FIT"?  Guess what?  You don't have to do EVERYTHING Oprah says you should do.

So why do I bring this up?  Well, we have a lot of Oprah-esque people running around our workplaces in the form of consultants and knowledge experts and hired guns.  They tout things like Six Sigma, Lean, Open Door Management, Open Book Management, Project Management... but you have to do EVERYTHING exactly like they tell you or your life and your career will be a complete failure.

A lot of my colleagues and friends accuse me of being anti-Lean or a Six Sigma Cynic... the reality is that I think each one has some great principles that can work; they're just generally led by people who are so myopic and dogmatic that you have to do things their way.  Then they throw up difficult roadblocks which make doing it their way unbearable.  ICK.  I am NOT a methodology-monger; more accurately, I'm a big fan of common sense.

So the next time you want to live like Oprah in your workplace, ask yourself some simple questions:

  • Does this make sense to you?  What doesn't sit right?

  • Are there other ways of getting to the same result?

  • Will this fit your organization's business need and culture?

  • Is your senior management really on board or is this just the flavor of the month to get quick fix results?

  • Are you balancing direction with freedom?  Can you tell the "expert" that you'll take their opinion under advisement?

  • Is the resistance you're feeling from others simply resistance to change and trying something new, or can they tell common sense better than you can?

  • Have you asked for a "second opinion" from others who have already done this?

Worshipping the Hammer

Big_hammerIt's been rewarding to hear comments about my upcoming book from those who have read it already.  Rosa Say has already provided a sneak peak at the importance of systems thinking after reading an advance copy.  When writing about this topic, however, I couldn't help but make a couple of playful swipes at Six Sigma, Lean, Agile and UML.  Mind you, I have nothing against these tools per se, but I have taken exception with the people who worship use them.  As I was sharing with Mike DeWitt, I've really developed a cynicism over dogmatic consultants who salivate over tools and methodologies.  Try to make a disparaging comment about Six Sigma and "them's fightin' words, boy."  Challenge them on an element of Lean Manufacturing and be prepared to "take it outside, son."

Part of the challenge is the mindset of those who use these tools and methodologies.  In systems thinking, the focus is to get people looking at desired outputs first, then the inputs needed to get them there, and finally the process which will help in the journey from point A to point B.  While any of the techniques mentioned above can assist in this endeavor, those I've encountered are so enamoured by their precious use cases and DMAIC cycles, they've lost sight of the output.  And they end up chasing down some undesirable rabbit holes and waste valuable time, dollars, and energy focusing on the process over the outcome.

HammerLet's keep focused, folks.  Are you spending more time arguing about process than you are about outcomes?  Are you posturing and positioning on methodology more than you are on results?  Then there may be a problem.  As Carl Sandburg so eloquently put it almost a century ago:

I have seen
The old gods go
And the new gods come.

Day by day
And year by year
The idols fall
And the idols rise.

I worship the hammer.

Are You Botox-ing Your Organization

Joan_van_arkThe other morning, I paused to really look at myself in the mirror.  And there they were... crows' feet, laugh lines, frown lines... WRINKLES.  And you know what?  I just chuckled and went on with my day.  I figure I've earned every single line on my face (and with two daughters who haven't yet hit teenage years, there are many more to come).

There have been many interesting stories about celebrity plastic surgeries in the news.  Personally, I think people like Dolly Parton, Joan Rivers, Joan Van Ark, and Kenny Rogers all look like Jack Nicholson's Joker character from the original Batman movie.  In contrast, two of the most stunning actresses I admire are Susan Sarandon and Diane Keaton.  They have aged so gracefully and beautifully, and they embrace their age (inside and out), which in turn makes them all the more attactive.

JoanriversWhat about your organization?  Are you allowing your processes, your tools, and your thinking to mature as your business environment changes and evolves?  Or is your culture suppressing the maturation process by clinging to outdated modes of operation that worked at one time but no longer seem to fit?  There are a couple of organizations in town where I refuse to consult because their culture is so rooted in the past... they're effectively slathering mental botox on their employees and process to prevent new ideas from flourishing.  They have this "not invented here" mentality which prevents the normal lines and wrinkles of wisdom from appearing.

And these organizations don't have the patience to let true change take hold and move forward.  Their quest for results short-changes the natural processes that must occur.  David Anderson of Modus Cooperandi wrote a post talking about how they help their clients with strategic and tactical transitions:

Lasting change takes time. To do it properly can take 9 months to several years. It requires a serious commitment to achieving high maturity - quantitative management, predictability and continuous improvement - from the senior leadership.

What about your company?  Are new ideas embraced?  Are people allowed to earn battle scars?  Are the lines of wisdom shown off or are they artifically covered up to save somebody's ego?

Projects As Hurricanes: A Lesson in Estimating

Hurricaneprojections(Originally Published on Iowabiz.com in June 2007)

It's hurricane season, and here in Iowa I feel safe and snug dealing with the occasional tornado watch and the even more infrequent tornado warning.  I'm always fascinated with the process of tracking hurricanes and, being a Weather Channel junkie from time to time (my wife teases because I know all of the meteoroligists names and that I consider Jim Cantore one of my heroes), I can glue myself to the television whenever a big storm is brewing.  To me, that's real news.

Now, imagine if the folks at NOAA placed one of our "typical" corporate executives in charge of their hurricane center.  I can just hear the conversation now:

Executive:  Jenkins, I see there's a new hurricane forming.

Jenkins:  Yes sir, it's just a tropical depression off the coast of Africa right now, but we'll see how it develops.

Executive:  Screw that namby-pamby generality stuff, Jenkins!  I want to know how strong it will be, exactly where it will hit, and when.  Ever since Katrina, our stakeholders are demanding better information sooner, and you know it.

Jenkins (blinking in disbelief):  But, sir... the fact is that we just don't know all of that information yet.  There are too many variables affecting each storm.  Jet streams.  Air currents.  Pressure fronts.  There's no way...

Executive (interrupting):  You will get me that information by close of business today, Jenkins.  And you'd better be right.  Your job is riding on it.  Now go!!!

Sigh.  We think it sounds ridiculous, right?  After all, we all understand the "cone of uncertainty," and we allow the meteoroligists some degree of latitude over the course of a few days and several thousand miles to provide us with the best information known to date.

Estimating is one of those thorns in the side of project managers and project stakeholders alike.  As a project manager, I understand that there are variables that can affect any given task.  There are risks that can undermine even the best-laid plans.  There are assumptions that need to be made about how long something will take.

A couple of months ago, James Sawyer, a Senior Analyst with TranSystems / Automation Associates, Inc. posted this about estimating in his blog.  Here's an excerpt from his thoughts:

As we get more and more experienced, we're supposed to get better and better at the accuracy of estimating our tasks. But bad things can and do happen during the course of a project, and our estimates don't always line up with what it takes to do the work in reality.  This can be frustrating for us and for the PM, especially when it starts blowing the budget. But why does it happen?  Maybe it's not just that we're horrible estimators (though all of us need to continue to improve in this area), but that there's something inherently funky about the act of estimating itself.

I think Mr. Sawyer hit on the key issue:  ESTIMATES ARE NOT REALITY.  They should not be treated as such.  They are important, and they do constitute the lifeblood of the project's cost and duration and resources needed.  However, they should be drawn in sand rather than cast in cement.  Based on my own experiences (as well as advice shared by trusted colleagues), here are my top 10 tips for estimating:

  1. Estimating is a team sport - do no rely on an estimate given by only one person.  Do a Google search, talk to similar professionals, and ask intelligent questions.
  2. Estimates improve as time progresses - revisit your estimates on a regular basis.  As you learn more, you may be able to provide better data to reset expectations.
  3. Do not punish bad estimating - instead, learn from inaccurate estimates.  Why were we so far off?  What didn't we know that we should have known?
  4. Document assumptions - undocumented assumptions resurrect later as excuses.  If you know that an estimate is only true if certain conditions exist (e.g., on-time delivery), then write that down.  It gives you more credibility if the assumption was violated than it does if your estimate was wrong.
  5. Identify risks - new technology, new processes, and inexperienced team members can all affect an estimate.  Make sure you go into your estimates with your eyes wide open.
  6. Apply contingency according to risk - avoid the urge to add 50% across the board.  Look at each task individually in light of #4 and #5, above.  Those tasks or resources that have more assumptions and risks associated with them should be given more contingency time and cost.
  7. Sometimes a SWAG is OK - for those not familiar with the term, SWAG stands for Silly Wild-A**-Guess.  And there will be times when that is the best answer until additional information becomes available.  While there are tools such as PERT to help you, occasionally the best estimates come from the gut.
  8. Estimates are more about communication than math - in reality, setting and sticking to a budget is often-times subordinated to ensuring that expectations are set (and reset) appropriately and that key stakeholders are not blindsided.
  9. Obtain signoff on estimates from resources - make sure that the resource working on the task agrees with the estimate allotted for that task.  If they don't agree, you're just setting them up for failure.
  10. Look at the big picture of the whole project - if your individual task estimates are off, but your project concluded within a reasonable time frame, celebrate the accomplishment.  As discussed in #3, punishment does nothing to improve estimating skills.  Use it as a learning tool for next time, but let the team know how proud you are that the project completed. 

Estimating is only a fraction of the activity which a project manager performs.  Don't misunderstand me; it's an important aspect of project management.  It is not, however, the only aspect of project management.  Following the tips above should make it a slightly easier task.

Carpe Factum!

Rate X Time = Distance

ScrumagileI'm always fascinated by debates over tools and techniques within the project management arena.  Generally, it's wise to stay open to new ideas without "going overboard" gung-ho about the latest messiah.  It's also wise not to dismiss a new idea too quickly without giving it a chance to prove itself; to do so is proverbially to throw the baby out with the bath water.

The whole AGILE/SCRUM debate has captured my attention recently.  In a nutshell, AGILE with SCRUM appears to be helping some companies with large development initiatives get their projects done more quickly than they were before.  AGILE, as the name implies, is speed with grace.  SCRUM is a sporting term which means to get the ball back in play (which implies that it went out-of-bounds in the first place).  The focus is heavy on communication, accountability, and results (big themes in project management anyway, so what else is new?).  Are these companies really getting things accomplished faster, or are they just finally getting things accomplished?

My blog buddy, Kevin Brady, has been adamantly vocal against it.  Another acquaintance of mine, Kent McDonald, falls in the "favor" camp.  I'm still undecided.  I know that as a project manager, an informed decision probably needs to be formulated sometime, but I think I'm still caught up in the "why" of the whole AGILE/SCRUM debate.

From the sidelines, it appears that there are companies who have had excellent results using AGILE with SCRUM.  My questions to them would be:

  • Runner Why are you successful?  What metrics make you think you're successful now?  Are you finally accomplishing something?  Congratulations and Carpe Factum.  (But lots of non-AGILE companies are accomplishing things.)
  • Are you successful because you were that screwed up in the first place that using a methodology is finally giving you results?  If so, is that any reason to rejoice in victory?  Improvement from screw-up may just be a lesser version of screw-up.
  • Are you successful because your executives realize you needed additional attention and a structured methodology and this just sounded cool?  Well, a sound project process framework that has the attention of the executives will do that, whether it's called AGILE or FRED.
  • Or is it that you have genuinely found success with this methodology and that the nay-sayers are just cynically wrong?  If 15 minute meetings and an iterative approach are cutting it for your company, I say "Huzzah" and keep at it.

As you can tell, I'm really in the undecided camp here.  I also have questions for those who have had marginal results, but you're an intelligent blog audience and you probably have the same questions.  I am leary of the fad-du-jour, but I do like to embrace new trends that work.  Maybe I'll just need to keep reading the blog and web traffic on this.  Of course, I'm still trying to figure out how Six Sigma really differs from TQM (other than the fact that the focus is more on Juran's project accountability rather than Deming's 14 points, it has a cooler name, and those who have seen too many Jackie Chan movies finally have a chance to earn a black belt in something without really breaking a sweat... but that's a different blog post altogether).

Anyone care to help me out with this dilemma?  (P.S.  Leave the emotional soap-boxes at home; I would like objective evidence here.)

See Spot. See Spot Vote.

Dsc01111We've all been there.  You've just led a very challenging group through an arduous brainstorming process.  Lots of ideas have been thrown up on the wall (because, in brainstorming, there are NO bad ideas).  You've gone through the list and discussed them, having merged similar items on the list.  Now your mouth has gone dry.  Beads of sweat are breaking out on your forehead.  Your palms are clammy.  You feel faint.  It's time to vote on the list.

This is a very challenging moment for any facilitator or meeting leader.  Inevitably, you will have the following types in your meeting:

  • The outspoken executive - loves to grandstand on any given topic
  • The bully - mantra is "my way or the highway"
  • The "passionista" - give them a cause and they'll chain themselves to a tree for it
  • The scaredy cat - quiet, reserved, shy... butterflies have more volume (unfortunately, this is usually the person who has the most real knowledge of the topic)

So what do you do?  A show of hands?  Yeah, like that's going to work.  Not with this crowd.  Written ballots?  One person, one vote... nah, too linear.

Dsc01113 My preferred technique was taught to me many years ago by the Yoda of facilitators (without the silly inverted sentence structures and annoying voice).  Use the little adhesive dots that you can purchase at any office supply store with the other labels.  Here's how it works:

  1. Brainstorm the list.
  2. Discuss the list, simply for clarity and for combining "like items" - NOT for critiquing.  Ensure that everybody understands each item on the list BEFORE moving on to the following steps.
  3. Count up the number of items on the list and divide by three.  This is how many dots (or votes) each person receives.  For example, if you brainstormed 60 items, then there will be 20 voting dots given to each participant.
  4. If possible, assign a color to each person.  Some facilitators like to give everyone the same color to keep things anonymous.  I prefer accountability over anonymity any day.
  5. Each person spends their votes like currency.  They may place all their dots on a single item if they truly believe it is important.  The bottom line is that it makes people intersect their priorities and their passions.  (NOTE:  NO TALKING DURING THIS STAGE - IT IS AN INDEPENDENT ACTIVITY.)
  6. Once everybody has voted, review and discuss the results.  They may surprise you, but frequently, this exercise gives a clear view of how the group feels about the list.

This is not rocket science, and many who read this blog may have already tried a similar approach.  It's a simple way to keep your project moving forward while keeping office politics out of the way.  While there is software available to vote and rank order, this is a low-tech-high-touch technique which facilitates two of the most important elements of carpe factum:  communication and decision-making.

Tool Softener

Toolbox "When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail."  --Abraham Maslow.

One of the surest ways to create an "office holy war" is to get dogmatic about which tool or technique is THE BEST WAY to solve a problem.  I was reading Kevin Brady's post about Fools and Their Tools.  His tongue-in-cheek assessment of "high gain no pain" promises from project management tool pushers (software, training, templates, consulting) rang so true.

I have one colleague who enjoys "going to the mat" with me over which project management software tool is better:  MS Project or Niku Workbench (now CA Clarity).  I've always been a "Project" guy and have never really embraced the superfluous overhead that Workbench promises; nevertheless, we've come to respect each other's views and have turned our disagreement into playful banter when we see each other.

Recently, a former client of mine contacted me with news that the CEO, after having read my book, is now requiring his management team to provide him weekly reports using a modified version of the SHARP status report.  I emphasize the word modified because he is not requiring Statistics or Highlights; only Accomplishments, Risks, and Projects... I guess that would make it an ARP status.  Regardless, I was thrilled that a busy executive found something in the book that he could modify and make it his own.

However, there are those who think that their one tool or process is the best way.  I've learned how to be polite yet firm with dogmatic types.  After all, dogma is simply passion without all the information.  Asking questions like "Why do you believe that?" and "Have you ever considered...?" at least gets the person to pause and consider why s/he has vested so much passion in ONE BEST WAY.  Sometimes they budge; sometimes they don't.  It's one thing to have preferences (like the project software mentioned earlier); but to allow those preferences to become the perceptual filter that blocks out any other possibility is downright dangerous.

No tool is a silver bullet.  Carpe Factum is not built on dogma.  If there is no flexibility in adapting a tool or process to your environment, your projects, your processes, and your people, then run ... run away... away from the tool, from the consultant, or from the company that is attempting to force their ONE BEST WAY down your throat.

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