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What to do when another department is screwing up. September 25, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Leadership, Project Management.
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In business we often work in silos. When a businesses is segmented like this, it can make it very difficult to resolve problems. What do you do when you have a problem with another department?

Thanks to Vic @http://www.flickr.com/people/59632563@N04/

When problems crop up between business units the temptation is to shoot off an angry, frustrated email explaining your position. Don’t! This is almost always the wrong solution no matter how strongly you feel that your team is in the right. In these cases I have found that there are 3 basic steps that will provide you maximum control of the situation.

1. Assume responsibility for what you can
One of the standard fallouts from interdepartmental problems is “finger pointing”.  A key piece of information here is that often the accusations flying back at you are true. The other department probably has as many problems with what you are doing as you do with them. You need to beat them to the punch. Look at your own operations. Where have your failures made the problem worse? Identify them, document them, and own them. If you find that you have no problems, look harder. You missed something.

In one project a team of mine was having issues with the technical team correctly carrying out their requests. After they complained to me about it, I asked the lead of my team to look at the requests themselves. We found that they were often poorly written and unclear. They were also frequently submitted later than ideal. Understanding this led us to the conclusion that there was a lot we could do to alleviate the issues.

2. Change what you control

The thing that you as a manager need to remember is that you are not a victim. In most cases you can either resolve or mitigate the problem internally. Take mitigation steps. This provides you 2 major advantages. First, you can execute the internal changes more rapidly with less resistance. Second, if the problem escalates, you can show clear intent and action to address the issue.

Once, while doing a series of system implementations, we found that an internet banking group we were working with was consistently miss-configuring their side of the system. We reacted by adding a preemptive quality evaluation to the configuration. We added a double check of our requests to make sure our communication was clean. Then we wrote a document with the step by step implementation steps. It was their problem, but we were the ones dealing with the fall out.

3. How to change what you can’t personally change.
If you’ve identified your issues and implemented your solutions, but you still are having significant problems, it may be time to change the other department. Remember, this is only if you are still having significant issues. Every time you go out to change another group you are taking on significant risks.  If you upset or anger the other department with your meddling, you may end up with even bigger problems. The conflict could spread to an even wider group of departments. Managers talk, and your issue with a department of a business group could spread to the whole group. Beyond the risk, also keep in mind that you are spending personal political collateral to make the change. If you push a minor change now, you may not have the political strength to get a major change pushed through later.

If you are determined to proceed do this:

  • Carefully document the ongoing instances of the problem. The needs are different based on severity, but you need to be able to show that the issue has happened over time (I’d say a month or two in most cases) and is not a fluke (at least 3-4 cases or 10% of cases)
  • Setup a personal meeting with the manager of the other department
  • Outline the issue, what you have identified as issues on your side,and what you have done to mitigate these issues
  • Outline the evidence showing that this is an ongoing problem, and not just a fluke
  • Ask for the managers help in solving the problem. Do not suggest a solution unless they ask you for suggestions. They are the experts in their field and you will be surprised how often they will offer something better than you expected.
  • If they refuse to help, let them know (nicely) that you will need to escalate the issue. Inform your boss of the intent to escalate and repeat the above procedure with the other department’s boss. A lot of managers hate escalations, but it’s hard to get angry at you if you’ve given them plenty of opportunity to act and given them a heads-up.
  • Finally, whether they help or not, the other manager may have additional mitigations or issues for you. You don’t need to address them at the moment, but you do need to address them. This shows that you are willing to act on the other department’s behalf, which builds you significant political capital.

This may sound like a lot, but it keeps relations between the teams good. More importantly it works. Most of this process can be used for interpersonal conflicts as well.

Have you tried any of these techniques to deal with interpersonal or interdepartmental conflicts in the past?

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What to do when you fail September 19, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Uncategorized.
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Recently I was in a meeting where I realized one of my projects was failing. It was ugly. It was well exposed to my boss. I came away embarrassed that we were failing. I came away feeling that I had let people down. Now that the anger, embarrassment, and sulking are done, what are the next steps? What do you do when you fail?

Thanks to Kevin Jarrett @http://www.flickr.com/photos/kjarrett/

There are a lot of approaches to how to react to failure. Some people hit it head on. Some people avoid responsibility and redirect blame. For me the right approach is to quickly try to analyze the problem and then take a different direction. I find that failure means one of two things: either there is something for me to learn or I’ve gotten slack.

If there is something I need to learn, the solution is easy. Analyze the process for what failed and correct it. I see this in about 90% of the cases. By gradually improving my personal processes and my department’s processes, I see growing success both in my career and in my company.

In the second case, some kind of corruption has set in.The decay has allowed something we are usually good at to deteriorate. This can occur at either the team or individual level.It is much harder to deal with than the simple learning situations.Still there are a few steps that can help:

1.       Set aside time to specifically deal with the issue

Failures due to process corruption must be fixed quickly. They are like a disease and rapidly spread if not dealt with. You need time to do the remaining steps and without designated time your day will be absorbed by less critical problems. Time needs can vary widely from 10 minutes to 10 hours to 10 days.

2.       Identify why the corruption has occurred

When I talk about process corruption this simply implies that something that used to work no longer does. There are numerous possible issues. Perhaps you or your team has become careless because you are good at this process. Perhaps you have a morale problem. Perhaps external factors are interfering with the normal process flow. External factors can range from personal issues such as a death in the family or depression to 3ed party issues such as interdepartmental strife or uncoordinated changes by other groups.

3.       Correct the core issue

Once it is identified we need to correct the core issue. Personal issues may require counseling or at least a reminder that personal issues cannot impact work performance. External issues may require meetings or realignment of resources. Moral issues may require a look at team dynamics and how to improve.

4.       Correct the resulting failure

The initial failure that let you know there is a problem left a mess that now needs to be cleaned up. Depending on the severity of the failure time frames can vary.

5.       Look for other related failures.

Process corruption is nasty stuff. The root-cause addressed in 2 and 3 above can often impact other projects and processes. Look at what you or your organization does with a high level focus and try to determine if any other processes or projects have been impacted. If they have, correct them.

Here is a case I have dealt with:

I had a meeting which revealed that a project was out of control and the planning was far weaker than I had led myself to believe. Given that I am a strong project planner and analyst and also given that I saw nothing to indicate a lack of knowledge caused this failure, I concluded that I had slacked off and allowed process corruption to sneak into my daily routine.

1.       I immediately scheduled about 2 hours a day for the next week to isolate and solve the problem

2.       I concluded that a slow schedule and relative quietness had lulled me into a more careless management style. I was allowing uncritical and personal items to creep more and more into my daily schedule.

3.       I restructured my schedule and hardened my prioritization process to make sure I was keeping the critical items in perspective. I intentionally allowed my personal schedule to take a hit until I was convinced that my work process was successful again.

4.       I spent a number of hours analyzing and pushing the behind project until it caught up with where it should be.

5.       I looked over my whole schedule. The strengthened prioritization process in 3 above made sure that critical items stayed at the top of the list. I did find a few other items that had also suffered some neglect and moved them up in priority.

What is a situation where you have discovered process corruption in your organization or yourself? What did you do about it?
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The Final 10 Percent September 13, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Uncategorized.
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Success and failure are a breath apart. In writing most people quit right before their big break. In leadership and project management, it’s the last 10 percent that make all the difference. Here are three thoughts on how to achieve that critical 10 percent.

Thanks to Paul Jerry @http://www.flickr.com/photos/paj/

Proverbs 12:27 tells us “The lazy man does not roast his game, but the diligent man prizes his possessions”. My pastor once taught on this little bit of wisdom and gave it a whole new light to me. How much work is roasting the game compared to the rest of the effort involved in hunting, killing, skinning, and dragging game back home? It is very little work, perhaps 10 percent. Yet a person who doesn’t do that last step loses all the rest of the effort. Roasting the meat tends to preserve it, while the raw meat spoils.

How often do we miss out on success because we didn’t do the final ten percent? More importantly, how do we as leaders guide others to push through the last 10 percent? I would suggest 3 ideas:

1. Establish quality as an expectation and inspect what you expect.

I started my career in quality assurance. Later, I moved into development and delivered my work to QA, quality assurance. I still remember the leader of the QA group. He had an expectation of a certain level of quality testing before an item was shipped to QA. In development like so many craftsmen’s arts we tended to tinker with the code right up to delivery. We sought to make it just a bit cleaner and a bit more efficient.

That QA lead saved me embarrassment dozens of times. I would do some final tinkering. Then, I would be tempted to send the code out without re-testing. After all, I had tested the code thoroughly before that last change, and the change was minor. However, the thought of that manager finding failed code and asking me “didn’t you even test this”, caused me to run one more validation. So many times that last tweak broke the code. It was annoying, but it took my code to another level.

What was operating here? Very simply there was a manager who had high expectations (of everyone, but in my mind of me especially) who simply wouldn’t accept anything less that high quality. I knew that the work would be inspected and flaws would likely come back to haunt me. So I made sure every i was dotted and t was crossed.

You can achieve this too. Define high quality. Inspect the work for that quality.

2. Search for the missing 10 percent

A lot of times the problem is that people either don’t know how to roast the game, or don’t realize that they are not doing it. Part of process and project refinement is discovering where this 10 percent is missing. How do we improve our quality?

Every failure is a learning experience. If you treat it this way instead of shaming or punishing your employees, you will find more information and honesty coming your way. You will be able to spot and correct the errors. Finally, your people will become tied to you. There is real personal capital in forgiveness. “Holding someone accountable” for something they had little or no control over simply causes mistrust.

A final thing, your resources and your leaders are going to fail. If you are going to grow them and stretch them, they will fail. We grow many times more rapidly from failure than from success. You’ve got to be a strong enough Manager or Project Manager to accept some of those failures in order to make your people stronger.

3. Create processes that drive the final 10 percent

The key to long term success with the final 10 percent is process. In general the number of lazy people is relatively low. Even introverted people-oriented personalities, who do have a temptation towards laziness, will perform when placed in the correct process or system. Most employee under-performance is due to either a resource that has been placed in the wrong position or a bad process. Three quick things to consider to drive the final 10 percent:

Make sure you constantly improve your processes. Look for gaps and enhance them.

Make sure your team knows these processes. Under trained team members are setup to fail.

Establish project and task reviews to let the employees know that adherence to process will be examined. When you inspect work, you will get what you expect.

What story comes to mind when you hear “do the final 10 percent”?
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This weeks post will be a bit late. September 11, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Uncategorized.
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Gave the keynote speech at PMI Atlanta last night, so I am running a bit behind on the blog. Stay tuned.

How to Keep on Track with Margin September 4, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Leadership, Project Management.
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Integrity is the most important characteristic for a leader and for a project. For a leader it means soundness of moral and ethical principles. For a project it means that the project is whole and unbroken. Both cases mean that the person or project has remained on the intended path. Why then do projects and people get off track?

Thanks to Jessica Merz @http://www.flickr.com/photos/jessicafm/

I love the quote from the Matrix “you’ve already made the choice. Now you have to understand it.” This refers to major decisions. It refers to issues of integrity. The trick with integrity is that it never fails due to one decision. In essence “you’ve already made the choice.” It fails because of a series of small inconsistencies that slowly move the actor towards the edges of the successful path. When a critical decision comes, it is skewed because the person or project is off-center.

A project that is 50% off schedule has usually been slightly off schedule for a long time. A buildup of small delays has become the death of a thousand cuts.

Likewise the major integrity scandals of our leadership didn’t occur because of one bad decision. Nixon didn’t make a mistake with one lie. He had a long standing habit of untruth which made the decision to lie about something important easy. I am certain that Bill Clinton’s indiscretion was only the latest in a long line of less explosive indiscretions. Small moral failings become common place, and larger moral failings seem smaller.

So how do you keep your projects and yourself on the right path?

The answer is margin.

When we drive, we put lines on the road to help us know when we are too close to the edge. The goal is to keep us safe. This same principal can be used in any project and any moral activity. The process is pretty consistent.

1. Identify the critical boundary you must not cross.

  • Example: The budget must not exceed $10,000 on this project
  • Example: I will not have an affair with a woman I am not married to.
  • Example: The project must be done by August 8 and have less than 10 open defects
  • Example: I will be honest.

2. You may need to further define your critical boundary

  • a. The budget must not exceed $10,000 on this project.
  1. This one is pretty well set
  • b. I will not have an affair with a woman I am not married to.
  1. An affair is defined as having any kind of sexual contact with another woman (a chaste hug is ok)
  • c. The project must be done by August 8 and have less than 10 open defects
  1. It’s ok to have more defects in the project, but by the end we need to have <10
  • d. I will be honest.
  1. I won’t lie to my friends or family. I will attempt to be honest in business and everywhere else.

3. Now, establish a margin and set a boundary inside of that margin. This is essentially like the lines of the road. We don’t paint the lines so that they run exactly along the edge of a cliff. Instead we allow 1 or 3 or 10 feet between the edge and the line. This is your margin, so that if you accidentally cross the line, you haven’t crossed the critical boundary.

  • a. The budget must not exceed $10,000 on this project
  1. This one is pretty well set
  2. My margin boundary is a budget where I am under $9500 dollars. If I exceed it in one place, I need to cut in another so that I can keep that margin
  • b.I will not have an affair with a woman I am not married to.
  1. An affair is defined as having any kind of sexual contact with another woman (a chaste hug is ok)
  2. I won’t hug a woman who isn’t my relative or my wife. I won’t be in a room alone with them with the door shut.
  • c. Example: The project must be done by August 8 and have less than 10 open defects
  1. It’s ok to have more defects in the project, but by the end we need to have <10
  2. I want to be 10% ahead of schedule on both counts. I will keep a record of where we need to be on to achieve both defects and time. If ever get less than 10% ahead of schedule, I’ll work with the team to get us back on track.
  • d. Example: I will be honest.
  1. I won’t lie to my friends or family. I will attempt to be honest in business and everywhere else.
  2. I won’t cheat on my taxes. I won’t carry food and drinks secretly into theaters. I won’t take illegally copied CDs or movies.

Does all this sound overboard? Of course it does. If you violate these boundaries, you can see the lines and correct your path. Without the lines, positioned well within your critical boundaries, one slip of the wheel and you may find yourself careening off a cliff.

Where have you have used boundaries to make sure you don’t go off track?
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