Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stop Picking the Flyshit Out of the Pepper!

When I was growing up, I got a lot of guidance and knowledge from my father. I loved him dearly, but what is more I truly valued and respected him. I also go a lot of great sayings from him, many of which have stayed with me throughout my life. I’ve found most of them eminently useful to describe common situations. One of my favorites is, “Stop picking the flyshit out of the pepper!”. Not only is it a very colorful and attention getting expression, it is also illustrative of a common situation found in many companies and organizations. It is basically another form of the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”, and means that you’re concentrating so much on the minutiae that you’re missing, and not working on, the big picture. 

How often have you seen this occur in your organization? You’ve got an incredibly demanding project underway with tight milestones and schedules. There are many, many elements to the project, yet you’ve got people who are spending their valuable time and effort in building the best and most perfect “mousetrap” in the world, when a perfectly acceptable “mousetrap” is available that does the job in a fully satisfactory fashion and is readily available and useable as is. What’s more, the “mousetrap” is one of the most minor elements of the project and one of the least critical to the project’s success. Yet try as you might, and despite repeated requests, demands, and threats, every time you turn around some of these people are back to polishing their “mousetrap” (also known as "polishing a turd"). These are good people, but they just can’t see the big picture. They’re picking the flyshit out of the pepper!

Here’s another example. You’ve received reports of major problems with your most popular and best selling product, and more and more customers are calling in to complain about this problem. It’s time for “all hands on deck” to find the source of the problem and get the fix back out to the field as quickly as possible. Your people are able to quickly find the major root cause of the problem and have a fix identified and ready to go. However, in the course of identifying the cause, they’ve uncovered another very minor problem that can occur in very rare circumstances, but they can’t seem to find a solid fix to this rare problem. They are unwilling to release the major fix until they fix this rare problem, and customers are getting quite angry. Again, they’re picking the flyshit out of the pepper! They can’t seem to recognize that they need to stop the bleeding now (triage) and come back later to fix the minor, non-critical nuisances.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished!

A few years ago my wife and I were in the process of selling our house, and as part of that process we were required to fill out a “Seller’s Statement of Property Condition” that lists any issues that may exist with the house that the prospective buyer should be aware of. We tried to be diligent and honest in filling out this form. We still feel this is the best thing to do, but we found that items we stated on this form raised questions and concerns substantially greater than warranted by the conditions we described, and resulted in price reductions or extra work larger than were warranted for “problems” that almost certainly would not have even been noticed had we not disclosed them. We got through all of it, but it was stressful and caused us to lose money. The moral of the story: be honest and get hammered, or, more succinctly, no good deed goes unpunished!

My daughter encountered a similar situation in one of her jobs. She tries to go out of her way to help people who have critical needs or are encountering difficult problems. She puts in many extra hours so that she doesn’t fall behind on her own work, ends up with an overflowing plate of “highest priority” tasks to do with insufficient time to do them (see When Everything Is High Priority, Nothing Is High Priority!), and then gets chastised by the same people who asked her to “do them a favor”. Again, no good deed goes unpunished!

This phenomenon happens all the time. You see a problem, report it, and you end up being called the bad guy rather than the person who caused the problem. You stop by a car disabled at the side of the road and get yelled at by the person you are trying to help, or get hit by debris from another car passing by at that time. You’re a doctor just walking on the sidewalk when a total stranger drops to the sidewalk. You administer medical aid to help the person, only to end up getting sued when problems arise that existed before you stopped and were not a consequence of your actions. No good deed goes unpunished! It’s almost enough to make you act like a turtle and withdraw into your shell and let the world pass you by.

How about at your workplace?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Schedule Estimate Extortion Game

Throughout our careers we are often called upon to plan for various projects . Our bosses, of course, will want to know when the projects will be completed, so they can pass this information along to their bosses. If the project involves only you, this may be a simple matter of stating when you expect to complete the required work. More typically, however, projects involve multiple people from multiple (often geographically diverse) organizations, internal and external resources including people, equipment, logistics, and much more. A lot of effort is involved in putting together a project plan that involves complex pieces, efforts, complexities, dependencies, testing of outcomes, and much, much more. As a Project Manager or anyone else tasked with planning a a complex project, have you ever been caught up in the schedule estimate extortion game? This game works as follows:
  1. Boss asks Project Manager for project schedule estimates.
  2. Project Manager in turn asks the key parties involved for their estimates, and working jointly with them, develops what he/she believes to be aggressive yet realistic schedule estimates.
  3. Project Manager submits the schedule estimates, and Bosses at each level of the management hierarchy wince at the estimated date of product release and delivery, which they disparage as way too late.
  4. The bosses respond vigorously (“That date is simply unacceptable! You need to do significantly better to “improve” the schedule estimates!”). [Note: Of course in this case their use of the code word “improve” means to shorten the date (the bosses may actually suggest the shortened date that they feel must be met), not to increase the accuracy of the schedule estimates. Shortening the date almost always actually decreases the accuracy. What is extraordinary about the entire game is that time and energy is spent to decrease the accuracy of the schedule!]
  5. In response to coercion from the many Bosses, the Project Manager tries to “improve” the schedule estimates to eliminate the Bosses’ wincing. In presenting the “improved” schedule estimates, the Project Manager lists all of the caveats, assumptions, feature changes, necessary pre-conditions, etc. that are required in order for the “improved” schedule estimates to possibly be met.
  6. The coerced and extorted “improved” schedule estimates that give the desired outcome are redefined by the many Bosses as precise commitments of schedule, costs, market share, sales targets, etc. The lists of caveats, assumptions, feature changes, necessary pre-conditions, etc. are promptly forgotten and/or ignored, and requests for help and assistance go unanswered.
  7. The real world happens (see The Best Laid Plans ... and Then Life Happens!) and these schedule estimates are missed. Few if any of the caveats, assumptions, feature changes, necessary pre-conditions, etc. materialize, and other unanticipated problems develop along the way.
  8. The Project Manager and the others involved are blamed and shamed for missing their “commitments”. The fact that the caveats, assumptions, feature changes, necessary pre-conditions, etc. failed to occur is ignored (“This is your schedule, not mine!  I didn’t force you to make these commitments!”). The Project Manager and the others involved are punished for their failure to deliver.
  9. The Bosses talk about what a great job "they" did in planning a good project, missed only due to poor execution by the Project Managers and others involved.
  10. Strong sales roll in despite the delays, and the Bosses take big bonuses. The Project Managers and others involved do not because they didn’t deliver as they “committed”.
OK, so maybe the game described above is just a bit on the cynical and sarcastic side (OK, maybe more than a bit), but there is still truth (often too much truth) in that cynicism and sarcasm. Something along these lines happens all too often in planning and carrying out projects. When it does, part of the problem is certainly due to the extortion and coercion exerted by the bosses. However, a significant part of the problem also clearly lies with the Project Manager and the others involved for caving in to the extortion and coercion.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

TMI - Too Much Information!

You've just joined your coworkers for lunch after successfully achieving a critical and challenging goal on a project you’re all involved in. The lunch is going well with high spirits and humorous interactions, with everyone feeling good about themselves, each other, and the job they’re doing. Then one of the people decides to launch into a personal tale unrelated to the job, which just hits most of the people as inappropriate or even borderline offensive. It gives insight into the person telling the tale, but not in a good way. You wish there was a way you could “unhear” it, but you can’t. Everyone feels a bit queasy and suddenly doesn’t want to be there any more. You have just been exposed to “too much information” or “TMI”, and it is simply uncomfortable. One bad instance of TMI can inadvertently disrupt what had been excellent working relationships.

TMI creeps into many common workplace activities. You’re attending a meeting about a critical project or issue, waiting for one or a few more people to arrive, when one person, just trying to make small talk, starts talking about something having no bearing whatsoever to the topic at hand. This veers in a direction that is not only off-topic, but off-putting; something that makes everyone in the room uncomfortable. Too much information! Or, people are standing outside of your cubicle having a too-loud but work-related conversation that is a bit disruptive to you, but harmless, when they swerve into something personal and awkward. Too much information! You get the picture.