Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Best Laid Plans ... and Then Life Happens!

You've been working hard at planning and carrying out your new project or program. You’ve put a great team in place (see Hire Adults, Expect Results!). You’ve put together a great project/program plan that takes into account contingencies and plans for the unexpected. You’ve thought about the known knowns, the known unknowns, the unknown knowns, and even the unknown unknowns (see Plan Based On What You Do Know, and On What You Don’t!), or so you think. You think you’ve got everything covered … and then life happens! A critical person on your team gets sick or injured in an accident. The spouse or child of key person suddenly becomes seriously ill, and the care of that person takes priority over everything else. The downturn in the economy forces funding and support for your project to be significantly cut back or even put on hold. Your primary (or worse, only) customer decides they want to go another way or that they want something significantly different from what you had planned. A technology you were depending upon develops problems that make its use uncertain, impractical, or impossible. A huge storm hits and power is out in the entire area for weeks.

In work and in life the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. You can try to anticipate the unknown, and whatever you do in this regard can often help greatly, but all of your advance planning and anticipation generally won’t cover personal emergencies, company or customer changes, catastrophes, or acts of God. What do you do? How do you keep your head while others around you have seemingly lost their minds? How do you regroup, rethink, replan, and restart? What can you use and what must you scrap?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Can You Pass The Red Face Test?

You've just taken over responsibility for a project or program that seems to be slipping or just not going right, and you need to understand what is really going on and where and why problems have arisen so you can begin to take actions to correct them. How do you do this when the questions you raise don’t seem to provide useful answers? If people aren’t giving you helpful answers to your questions, maybe you’re asking the wrong questions.

Several times in my career I’ve had to give depositions and testimony in legal cases, mostly patent related, and I learned some lessons in getting ready for and during these cases that are directly applicable to project/program management. These include determining the right questions to ask to get the information you really want, and “reading” the answers and body language of the people responding to these questions.

In preparation for giving depositions our attorneys told us repeatedly that when a question is asked, you should answer the question honestly but only answer specifically what has been asked. The example they gave, which has stuck with me to this day, is that if their attorney asks you if you know what time it is, and you do, the proper response is, “Yes.” You are not under any circumstances to respond, “The time is 3:12 PM”. In giving this response you are going well beyond the question asked, and you are not to do this. This has broad application to the situation above, where people may honestly answer your question, but where you haven’t really asked the right question. I’ll expand on this shortly.

Further, our attorneys stated that, when asked questions, you must be able to pass the red face test. What this means is that you must be able to answer the questions responsibly without your face turning red. Most people who try to lie, or stretch the truth, or move out of their comfort zone tend to get a bit red faced, which indicates to the opposing attorneys that they should challenge the answers being given or statements being made to try to sort out the real truth from what is being said. Passing the red face test is always important for project/program development team members, and again means you need to ask the right questions, and then properly follow up on those questions. It’s not that you are trying to “interrogate” your people, but you need to gather the real facts if you are to get things back on track.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Looking Down versus Looking Up

My wife and I provide “doggie day-care” for our daughter’s dog, Jasmine, an adorable black cocker spaniel. One thing we’ve noticed about Jasmine is that whenever we’re eating, she sits next to the table, looking down. She is looking at the floor, waiting for some food to fall there that she can then quickly scarf down. Since we are not particularly sloppy eaters (usually), little if any food falls off the table, and we prefer not to feed her from the table. We expected that she would look up to see what we’re eating, whether it looks like it could fall from our hands, forks, or mouths, and what it is. But no, she just stares at the floor, looking down.  She also loves it when we blow bubbles, pouncing on them just before they hit the floor. But again, she is always looking down, and so misses most of the bubbles coming down just over her head or around her. So, Tom, while this may be interesting (or not), what can this possibly have to do with workplace insanity or with work in general? It is my proposition that this actually defines the difference between people who simply go through the motions (“looking down”) and people who look beyond what “falls on the floor” to help determine their own future (“looking up”). “Looking down” versus “looking up” can make the difference in your “just getting by” or succeeding greatly in your career.

So what are some examples of people who are always “looking down”? If you always wait for your boss to give you your next assignment and simply take that assignment without question and seldom raise questions about it (see What Horse's Ass Said You Should Do It That Way!), you are simply “looking down”. If you accept an assignment from your boss, but don't really care that much about it or don't really take full ownership of it (see Own Your Job! All of It! and Show True Professionalism!), you are simply "looking down". If you work on your assignment without noticing or caring about what others around you are doing or working on (see Herding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist Bastard and Herding Cats 6: Complainer/Whiner, Eternal Optimist, Gossip, Cheshire Cat, Loner, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole), you are simply “looking down”. If you prefer to always work alone (and shut others out by words or actions), and ignore how your assignment fits into the overall project or program or product, you are simply “looking down”. If you wait to hear from your boss on whether your work is acceptable or not rather than checking with others whose assignments interact with yours or with others who use or test your work, you are simply “looking down”. If you would prefer to work at home or stay in your own workspace at work having little or nothing to do with other members of your team, and have little or no interest in how your assignment fits into the whole of the project or program or product you’re working on, you are simply “looking down”.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Like Trying to Change Tires on a Fast Moving Car!

You’re in an organization undergoing rapid changes. New changes seem to be quickly coming at you every day. You try to understand the changes so that you can more effectively participate and help to achieve the desired goals, but while you recognize that rapid change is taking place and that you want to help, the goals of the changes are not well understood, and some of the changes may even seem to be contradictory. You’re confused and you suspect you’re not alone. You talk to your friends and acquaintances and realize that they don’t really understand the changes or the goals of the changes either, or different people believe the goals are different (see Does Everyone Really Understand?). The changes are coming so fast that it’s becoming disorienting (see The Sky Is Falling!). 

It’s like trying to change tires on a fast moving car, which isn’t even possible, and what’s worse, it isn’t even clear which tires need to be changed! You start to realize that if something isn’t done quickly to clarify the situation, one or more of the tires on this “fast moving car” will likely suffer a catastrophic blowout!