Tag Archives: planning

Don’t Fix It, Prevent It

Most managers got where they are being good under pressure, reacting quickly without flinching in the face of adversity. Most managers get their juice operating in the red zone.

The best managers are most effective by sensing pressure before it builds, preventing blow-back that requires extraordinary effort (and overtime). They don’t flinch because they meet adversity early on when there are lots of options. The best managers stay out of the red zone through planning, anticipating, cross-training, delegating and building bench strength in the team.

It is not extraordinary effort that makes a great manager. It is ordinary effort looking forward. It is not heroically fixing a catastrophe, but creating a sensitive feedback loop that prevents the catastrophe in the first place.

Routine Grooved Behaviors

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In the Four Absolutes, under Required Behaviors, you talk about habits. How do you interview for habits?

Response:
Habits are routine grooved behaviors kicked in by the brain in an approach to problem solving or decision making. To set the context, here are the Four Absolutes (required for success in any role).

  • Capbility (stated in time span)
  • Skill (technical knowledge, practiced performance)
  • Interest, passion (value for the work)
  • Required behaviors

Under Required Behaviors, there are three strings attached.

  • Contracted behaviors
  • Habits
  • Culture

To be successful in any role, there are some required behaviors. When I interview a candidate, I examine the role description, in each key result area (KRA), I identify the critical role requirements (required behaviors) and identify the habits that support and the habits that detract.

We all have habits that support our success, we also have habits that work against us.

Reading the resume
Habits are patterns. Read the resume from the back page to the front page. Most resumes are written in reverse chronological order, very tough to see a pattern going backward.

Identify the habit, then look for it
When I hire for a project manager, one habit I look for is planning vs improvisation. Improvisation is fun, but creates chaos. Improvisation may get the job done (once), customer may be very happy, but the cost is organizational body bags and friction, negatively impacting project profitability.

Effective project managers possess the habit of planning. Planning is a behavior that I can interview for. I will look for patterns of planning behavior as I move through the resume from past to present. Then I specifically look for planning behavior with specific questions.

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project where planning was required?
  • What was the project?
  • How long was the project?
  • What was the purpose of the project
  • How many people on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • At what point during the project did planning begin?
  • Step me through the planning process for the project?
  • What was the form of the plan? written? whiteboard? verbal?
  • How was the plan used during the course of the project?
  • How often was the plan referred to during the course of the project?
  • How were revisions to the plan handled during the course of the project?
  • How were revisions to the plan documented during the course of the project? written? whiteboard? verbal?
  • What were the results of the project in comparison to the original plan?
  • Step me through the debrief (post mortem) of the project in relation to the plan?
  • What did you learn from the project debrief that impacted your plan on the next project?

Habits are those routine grooved behaviors automatically initiated by the brain in response to a problem that must be solved or a decision that must be made. -Tom

Real Learning

“And that concludes my report. A well-thought out plan, perfectly executed.” Martin smiled. I knew he was lying. His plan may have been well-thought out, but life is never that perfect.

Carla was next up. She was nervous. Her plan was solid, but her team had hit some rocky patches. “I guess things didn’t go the way we thought,” she reported. “We had to make several adjustments as we went along. Our project required three additional meetings. In the end, we made the deadline and came in under budget, but it was tough. I will try to do better next time.”

Carla got a quiet golf clap from the room for her efforts. I moved up to confront the class.

“Carla thinks her project didn’t go so well. Carla thinks she should have had a better report for class tonight, but here is why her report is so important.

“You read these management magazines out there, about CEOs with well-thought out plans, perfectly executed. Some reporter shows up to write about every target flawlessly achieved. No pimples, no bumps, no bruises. Whenever I hear that, I know I have to get the guy drunk to get the truth.

“But, look at Carla’s report. Her team started out toward their first objective, they got off course.” I drew a line across the page with an abrupt turn. “It took an extra meeting to figure out where they went wrong, to get back on track.

“They met their first target, but immediately things went south again. Another meeting, another adjustment.” My line on the flipchart meandered across the page with another hard turn back to target number two.

“And it happened again, before the project was finished.” The flipchart now showed huge jagged lines criss-crossing the page. “And this is where the real story is. Not the neatly wrapped perfect execution. The real story is out here, where the team cobbled together a solution to an unanticipated event to get back on track. And over here where the client threw them a curve ball.

“And that’s why Carla’s story is so important. And that’s where real learning exists.”

Slow Down to Go Fast

“If habits are connected to competence, why is that so important?” I asked.

“Sometimes, when I am faced with a problem, especially a new problem, that is difficult to solve,” Muriel was thinking out loud. “Competence is the ability to bring my thinking and resources to the problem quickly. Not just quickly, but easily. Almost like an instinct. Only I know it’s not instinct, because it is something I learned and had to practice,” she replied.

“Give me an example,” I said, looking for clarity.

“Okay, planning. As a manager, I know it is very tempting, when faced with a problem, to just jump in and solve it, dictate a course of action and move on. What I found was, that whenever I did that, I would fail to notice some critical element, misdirect my people and end up with my team losing its confidence in me.

“It took me a while to learn that I needed to slow down, get to the root cause of the problem, then create a plan. It was painful, in the beginning, because planning was not me.

“I would have to stop everything, clear the decks, drag out my books on planning. It was excruciating, worse, it took too long. Sometimes we would miss a deadline because the process took too long. It was difficult not to go back, jump in, dictate a course and move on, even if it was in the wrong direction.

“It was only when I committed the planning model to memory, that things began to change. Once I had it in my head, I could access the steps without having to look them up in my book. I began to break down every problem this way. Planning became quicker and quicker. Better yet, I was able to involve my team in creating the solution by using the steps. We seldom overlooked critical items. The best part was that everyone was on-board when we finished planning.

“Now, planning is a habit. My team does it all the time. It is a competence.”

And We Have a Winner!

“We have an idea for a new product line,” Alicia sounded off. “It’s a logical extension of our core product. We all think it will be a winner.”

“How are you going to fund the startup and who are you going to assign to this new project?” I asked.

“Well, that’s a problem. We are currently under a hiring freeze and while we have a budget for development, actually ramping into production is going to pinch,” she grimaced.

“What are you going to let go of?”

Alicia was a bit surprised. “We hadn’t really discussed shutting anything down.”

“Alicia, the biggest mistake that young companies make is that everything looks like an opportunity. Before long, all their resources are spread thin and their product portfolio is a hodgepodge. They can’t figure out if they are in the shoe business or the construction business.

“To be truly successful, the company has to decide on its focus, and create a discipline around that focus. Especially in times where resources are tight, we have to make sure we have enough staying power. This requires an approach of systematic abandonment. As you adapt to the market, it is important to cut off those projects that are no longer returning value.” -Tom

But, It’s Our Reputation

“But the project you are talking about abandoning is a service that we have provided for more than a decade. Our customers have come to expect it. Heck, part of our reputation stands on it,” Byron protested.

“So, is it your moral duty to continue something that is no longer producing results? Or can you accept that, what you are known for, once served a market, but that market was temporary? And that proud service no longer satisfies a customer need.” -Tom

Dead Horse

Byron was thinking back. “I think we have done what you suggested. Every year, in our annual business plan, we look at the cost structure in each of our project areas. And each year, we find one or two things that don’t quite measure up.”

“What was the last project that didn’t measure up,” I asked. “And what did you decide about it?”

Byron’s curiosity turned into a muffled laugh. “You’re right. Now that I think about it, the people involved, in the last project going south, negotiated more time and actually spent a ton of market research money to find out that there wasn’t as big a market as they thought. Their dwindling net profit went underwater the more they studied it.”

“And now?”

Byron shook his head. “They are still holding on to some hope that the market will turn around.”

“The answer is NOT, how can we make another research study? The answer is, how can we get out of this? Or, at least, how can we put a tourniquet on the bleeding?” -TF
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The failure to accomplish a goal does not prove that more efforts and resources are needed. The failure to accomplish a goal may indicate that efforts should be stopped and a different path should be taken.

Old Indian saying, “When the horse is dead, it is time to get off.” -Tom

Breeding Overhead

“I know how to say NO to new things coming up, but most of our troubles are from decisions we have already made,” Byron confided.

“Each year, don’t you review your decisions about what you will and will not do, including the cost structure for each of those decisions?” I asked.

“You mean, our budget?”

I nodded. “Yes, your budget. When you look at each budget item, whether it is a direct cost or an indirect cost, you have to ask this question.

“Is this absolutely necessary?

“If the answer is NO, get rid of it, dismantle it, idle it.

“If the answer is YES, move to the next question. What is the absolute minimum necessary to perform this function to our spec?” -Tom

Managerial Leadership is About What You Do

David was not surprised, but his disappointment was strong. “I don’t understand,” he started, then abruptly changed his pitch. “Yes, I do understand. I hired this guy, Marty, for a management position. He interviewed well, had all the buzzwords, you know, teamwork, synergy, empowerment. Heck, he even kept the book, Good to Great propped up on his desk the whole time he was here.”

“So, what was the problem?” I asked.

“The problem was, he never actually got anything done. We would meet, be on the same page, but the job never got done. The progress, during the time he was here, quite frankly, stood still.”

A few seconds ticked by. David looked up. He continued.

“You asked about the difference? I think I know the answer, now. The difference is execution. Words are fine, theories are fine, planning is fine, but the big difference in success is execution.”

“David, I often see this in my management program. Students come into the class thinking they will listen to a series of lectures, get the latest management techniques and life will be good. I talk about how education is often understanding certain technical information. I talk about how training is often motivational to make a person feel a certain way. But in my class, the focus is on execution. Quite frankly, I don’t care how much you know. I don’t care how you feel. I care about what you do.

“Some students,” I continued, “are surprised to find themselves, no longer sitting comfortably in their chairs listening to a lecture, but standing at the front of the class. I want them on their feet, out of their comfort zone. Leadership starts with thinking. Leadership is about who you are. But ultimately, managerial leadership is all about what you do.” -Tom

Time Span of Intention

This week, I shared a planning document (you can download it below), with the headline, “What is your intention?”

Elliott closed his last book with this notion of intention, in a drawing he described as, the most important illustration of his book, the Axis of Intention.

Planning is simply the documentation of your intention.

We have two dimensions of time, the past and the future, separated by the nanosecond of the present. Events that occur are measurable by a stopwatch. The melting point (time to melt) of a metal at a given temperature is predictable, can be scientifically documented. It is known, concrete, tangible.

In life, the Axis of Achievement (the past) is overlaid by the Axis of Intention (the future). What is your intention? What is the time span of your intention?

I get pushback on planning.

  • We don’t have time.
  • Actual results never meet the plan.
  • We might be held accountable for what we said.

We don’t have time to plan. Then what is the time span of your intention, that you don’t have time to consider your intention?
Actual results never meet the plan. Of course not, but actual results are shaped by the axis of your intention.
We might be held accountable for what we said. Accountability is output. Accountability is the reconciliation between these two dimensions of time –
The past, axis of achievement.
The future, axis of intention.

The linchpin is this understanding of time span. What is the time span of your intention? That is what will shape your world. -Tom

You can download the planning document here. 2017 Planning Template