Tag Archives: project-management

A Strong Excuse to Procrastinate

“That was the missing link,” said Jeremy. He explained his meeting with Sylvia. As suggested, he went back to outline the list of next steps for the project he had assigned to her.

“Even Sylvia was relieved,” Jeremy explained. “She agreed. The reason she did not start the project was that she was never clear on what to do first, so she procrastinated. The simple process, to clarify the next steps made all the difference.”

“And how many steps in this project?” I asked.

“Five simple little steps. But until we laid them out, the project was going to sit until it was too late.”

“When will you follow-up on the five steps?”

“Friday, at 3:00pm. At least I learned that lesson, to calendar my follow-up meetings. We will see how she does.”

All in all, it was a good week.

Next Step

Jeremy was not excited after his first project follow-up meeting.

“Why the long face?” I asked.

“Well, I thought by scheduling follow-up meetings, the project would start happening and show some progress. I just finished the first follow-up meeting and found out the project hasn’t started yet. I am still in the same boat as last week.”

“What do you think the problem is?”

Jeremy’s mind was searching for a directional clue. “I don’t know. Sylvia said she was having trouble getting started, but was sure that by Friday, we would see some progress.”

“What does progress mean?” I continued to probe.

Jeremy was puzzled by the question. “Well, you know, she will have started.”

“What is her first step to getting started?”

Jeremy hesitated. His response was only going to be a guess. I stopped him.

“Jeremy, don’t feel bad. This is typical of projects not laid out clearly. She hasn’t started the project because she doesn’t know what the next step is. Heck, you don’t know what the next step is.

“Have you ever had a project that you found difficult to get started. But once you got rolling everything was fine. What caused you to stutter is that you had not defined the next step. Understanding the power of the next step will give you a clue on how to get project rolling. For now, you need to have an interim emergency meeting with Sylvia to lay out the next step. And remember, since she will be doing the work, she needs to participate heavily in the design of this next step.”

Predictability of Unfinished Work

Jeremy pulled me aside as I walked down the hall. “I have the same situation,” he said.

“What situation?” I asked.

“My boss hands all the stuff to me to make sure it gets done, but he never makes it clear that I have to delegate most of the work to other team members. Worse still, he doesn’t support me when I get push-back on some of the assignments. He lets these people off the hook as soon as there is a whimper. I was here until 10:00p last night working on a project that I assigned to Sylvia two weeks ago. I found it on the corner of my desk yesterday with a note.

I didn’t have time to get this done. It is due tomorrow. I talked to the boss and he said just give it back to you. He said you would take care of it.

“I am not the manager, but the boss expects me to make sure everything gets done.” Jeremy was clear eyed, but you could tell he felt pretty beat up.

“Sounds to me like the boss expects you to take care of it. Tell me, how do you like working until 10:00?”

“I don’t. I was so mad, I could have strangled Sylvia.” Jeremy fidgeted.

“So, what are you going to do differently next time?” I asked. “Because this will happen again unless you do something different.”

“What else could I do?” Jeremy sat straight in his chair. “I saw the package at 4:30 and there was five hours of work that had to get done. I had to stay.”

“That wasn’t the question. The question is how are you going to prevent that from happening next time?” Jeremy was stymied. “Let’s take a break,” I continued. “Get some fresh air. I will meet you out in the company courtyard in about ten minutes. I have to check on something. Then we can talk some more. Until then, here is a clue about where I want to focus. What day next week is the next unfinished report going to land on your desk?”

The Glory of Chaos

[Our online program – Hiring Talent 2018 kicks off April 16. More information here. Only two spots left.]

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
You said a growing company has to slow down and describe the work. You nailed our company – we miss deadlines, too much rework, a warranty claim, turnover, morale is tense, managers are nervous. Yet, we have more incoming work than we can handle. And all you can say is – we need to slow down and describe the work?

Response:
Or you can stay in the chaos. Somehow, you will manage to get through the day. You will settle your warranty claim, but the tension will remain.

You cannot work faster, harder or longer to solve this problem. You have to re-trench. This is fundamental blocking and tackling. It starts with describing the work in the role, documented in a role description (fundamental blocking and tackling).

A project manager with three projects is level (II) work. The work is coordinating and scheduling all the elements of the project. There is level (II) decision making and problem solving.

A project manager with 50 projects is level (III) work. It requires a system and a team. The decision making is not about project management. There are too many projects. The decision making is about the system of project management. The problem-solving is not about project management. The problem-solving is about the system of project management.

Or, you can stay in the chaos.

Key Areas for a Project Manager

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was in your workshop last week. When you look at qualified candidates for a role, you say “It’s all about the work.” We are looking at a project management role. What do you consider the three most important parts of project management?

Response:
Project Management is a classic Strata II role. From a macro level, it involves the coordination of people, materials, equipment and project sequence. Three core Key Result Areas (KRAs) drive the project forward.

  1. Project Planning (creating a comprehensive project plan including milestones and accountabilities).
  2. Task Checklist (documenting and tracking all the details for completion and quality).
  3. Project Schedule (creating and monitoring the project schedule, prioritizing and sequencing time frames associated with changing elements of a project).

The value adds for Project Management are project control, accuracy to project specifications, timeliness and completeness.

Other KRAs would include –

  • Pre-con Hand-off Meeting (critical meeting where pre-construction hands the project over to project management).
  • Punch List (audit of the project checklist, when everyone else thinks the project is complete).
  • Buy Out (assembling the list of material suppliers and subcontractors, with competitive cost information).
  • Customer Relations (creating the necessary customer relationship that addresses project discrepancies, project change orders and avoids litigation)

All of these would make the basis for a comprehensive role description for your Project Manager. -Tom

How to Interview for Project Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
All of our projects are different. We never know what our customers will want, in advance. It’s almost always a custom solution. So, when we are hiring a project manager, it’s difficult to determine what skills the candidate will need to be successful. That’s why, most of the time, we wing it, when it comes to interview questions. How can we do a better job in the interview, instead of just working off of the resume?

Response:
We may not know anything about the project, but we can still work on preparedness. So, think about behaviors connected to being prepared.

  • Diagnostic questions
  • Project planning
  • Short interval planning
  • Project adjustments
  • Discipline

The only way to work through an ill-defined or unknown project specification, is to define the project. You are accurate, that many customers don’t really know what they want. Sometimes your best contribution, in managing the project, is helping the customer to define the project. What are the problems to be solved and the decisions to be made as the project meanders its way to completion?

Determine questions related to diagnosis, planning and project adjustments.

  • Tell me about a project you worked on where the customer was not clear on what they wanted?
  • What was the project?
  • What was your role on the project?
  • What was the purpose for the project?
  • How did the customer describe the project?
  • What was the real project?
  • How did you determine the real project specification?
  • What changed about the project when it was better defined?
  • What changed about the resources required when the project was better defined?
  • What changed about the budget when the project was better defined?
  • How did you explain the changes in resources and budget to the customer?
  • How many people on your project team?
  • How did you explain the changes to your project team?
  • What mid-course corrections were required?
  • How did you discover the mid-course correction?
  • How did you determine the overall project met the initial purpose of the project?

These questions will get you better data, than just winging it off the resume.

Levels of Work in Project Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Last week, we attended your workshop on Time Span. Your explanation of the capability difference between a technician, a supervisor and a manager, I think, provides a profound clarification for a huge hole in our hiring process. I now understand the difference between the roles. How do I tell the difference between candidates? How do I test for time span capability?

Response:
Don’t overthink this, and don’t play amateur psychologist. Telling the difference between candidates is not a matter of climbing inside the head of the person across the interview table.

We spend a great deal of time in the workshop defining levels of work and that’s the foundation for the diagnosis. You are not trained in psychology, but you are an expert in the work. Play to your strengths as a manager.

The cornerstone document that defines the level of work is the role description. To determine the level of work in the role, I ask –

  • What are the problems that must be solved and how must they be solved?
  • What are the decisions that must be made and what must be considered in making those decisions?
  • What is the longest time span task related to those problems and decisions?

Let’s look at project management.

Can you manage a project with sticky notes stuck around your computer screen? The answer is yes, as long as the project has few problems or decisions, and is of very short duration. For a long duration project, the glue on the sticky notes dries out and notes fall to the floor (or behind the desk). Stratum I level of work.

Longer time span projects will typically require list making and checking deadlines. Sticky notes graduate to an Excel spreadsheet. The problems to be solved will reference documented solutions (like a best practice) that are well-defined (as long as we pick the right best practice to the problem to be solved). Stratum II level of work, project three months to one year.

But spreadsheets break down when the project becomes more complex. Difficult problems appear with no defined solution. The problem requires analysis. Priorities change, elements in the system are uncertain, yet must be accounted for. Project management software replaces the spreadsheet checklists. (MS-Project is a spreadsheet on steroids). Stratum III level of work, one to two years.

And then we realize that we have more than one project attacking the same set of resources. Everything that could go wrong on one project is now multiplied by several projects. Projects, and their resource allocation, begin to impact each other, competing for budget and managerial attention. Simple project management software gives way to enterprise project management software like Primavera and Deltek. Stratum IV level of work, two to five years.

With the level of work defined, looking at problem solving tools, the next step is to interview candidates about their projects.

  • What was the time span of the longest project?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the planning stage?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the handoff stage to operations?
  • What were the problems that had to be solved, decisions made, in the execution stage?
  • How were those decisions and problems managed?
  • What systems did you use to manage those problems and decisions?

Don’t play amateur psychologist. Play to your strengths as a manager. It’s all about the work. It’s all about the level of work. -Tom

Running One Project Different from Ten Projects

“So, Roger. I want you to think about something. You did well on the first project we gave you. So we gave you another project. That means two projects,” I explained. “You were doing so well, we gave you a third project and a fourth project. With a fifth project, you are beginning to struggle. You short cut the planning, your schedules are breaking down and things are being forgotten.”

“I guess I didn’t realize,” Roger started. “You see, I have been keeping all that stuff in my head. I am pretty smart, have a good short term memory, so keeping track of the details for one or two projects is pretty easy. The more you gave me to do, the more I had to start writing things down. It’s a different way of keeping track of things for me. I used to just remember.”

“Roger, I want you to think about this. I am not going assign you more projects right now, but if I did, if I assigned you five more projects on top of the five projects you already have, what would you have to do differently to manage all of that detail?”

“I would probably have to put in some overtime,” Roger replied.

“No overtime. What would you have to do differently to accomplish ten projects in the same time that you now run five projects?”

It’s Not About Project Buffers

Sharon was perplexed. “We missed the deadline,” she explained. “And my Project Manager doesn’t seem to understand why.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I wanted to know what caused the delay in the schedule that put us behind, and he just shrugged his shoulders. ‘Not my fault,’ he says. ‘Circumstances outside of my control.’ I mean, I know the customer changed the spec on the project, and that we had to go back for another permit, but I expect my Project Manager to anticipate things like that.”

“How so?”

“Projects of this length always have changes, customers always change their mind, that’s why we use project buffers in the schedule,” Sharon sorted out.

“What could you have done differently?”

“Me?” she quizzed. “I’m not the Project Manager, it was his job.”

“Who assigned this project to this Project Manager?” I pressed.

Sharon stopped. She had overlooked that one small detail. “You are right,” she began. “I hold my Project Manager accountable for the output of the Project Team, but I am accountable for the output of my Project Manager. I should have had more interim meetings with him to see how we were using the project buffers, to help him make decisions and solve problems.”

Blame and Excuses

“It’s like they fight all the time,” Sheldon explained. “Each manager thinks they know how to run the whole company, if I would just step out of the way.”

“What’s happening, explain the friction?” I asked.

“Once again, the project was late and when it was delivered to the client, it didn’t work. Pretty simple explanation. It’s the fix that’s complicated. When we only did one project at a time, everything seemed to work well. On time, on budget, never missed a beat. Then we got two projects, three. We now have seven projects in-house and they all have problems, missed deadlines, cost overruns and quality issues.”

“And?”

“The project manager is ripping his hair out. The response he is getting from all the other managers is a mix of blame and excuses,” Sheldon shrugged.

“What do they say?” I prompted.

“Want a list?” Sheldon chuckled.

  • The Sales Manager says he asked Engineering for timetable before he promised a delivery date.
  • The Engineering Manager says there were too many changes in the scope of work.
  • The Ops Manager says the timetable from Engineering was unrealistic.
  • The Accounting Manager says the budget didn’t allow for any profit.
  • The Marketing Manager says that if he had known the priority of the client, he would have put more people into the product rollout.

“So, who is right?” I smiled.

“That’s the problem. They are all right. Every word is true.”