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How to escape the Dilbert Zone February 19, 2013

Posted by thefieldgeneral in funny, Leadership, Project Management.
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When someone attempts to apply a good idea into the vast reaches of a large corporation, strange pockets of policy tend to emerge. The Dilbert comics are largely about these misfit policies. Try as we might, none of us is immune to this effect. What do you do when you find yourself in the “Dilbert Zone”?

Dilbert Zone

As my leaders and I tried to apply a new corporate policy to our organization, one of them remarked, “I feel like I’m in a Dilbert comic.” The problem was the policy we were trying to implement had been corporately mandated, but it just didn’t fit our group well.

When you discover that you are in the “Dilbert Zone” I see five possible options:

1. Fight the Power

Refuse to follow the policy or ignore it.
This technique can work in some circumstances. If you have a powerful executive on your side who either disagrees with the policy or is willing to fight it for you, you have a shot. If the executive leadership doesn’t care about the policy, there may be no teeth in it. If you personally are willing to spend massive political capital, you might stave it off.
I don’t recommend this approach. All three situations have weaknesses: your friendly executive leaves or is fired; the executive leadership changes their mind and decides they do care; a single person with more influence than you decides to put their two cents in. The only gain in this approach is slowing the policy’s advance. Short of policy change, you will have to fight this battle over and over again till you lose or become CEO.
I took this stance for a time on a financial policy I felt had questionable ethics. I fought the battle a half dozen times before I was given a clear explanation of the corporate decision by those who were in a better position to understand it.

2. Sneak around the Power

Pretend to follow the policy, but don’t. Do the minimal.
Sometimes this is an approach to take, but only when you can maintain your integrity. Some policies are written with large holes in them intentionally, so that those parts of the organization which should slip through the cracks do. Be careful here though, you are putting your integrity on the line. If there is any ethical question, it’s not worth it. Leaders and project managers can only be effective if they are trustworthy. I wouldn’t generally recommend this approach except in special cases.
I have used this as well. For years our organization had a very strict “use it or lose it” policy on days off. This created problems for employees who were prevented from taking days off due to corporate needs. We “worked around” the policy by allowing employees to keep a couple days off the books to be used early the next year, if company needs prevented them from taking their time.

3. Bow to the Power

Don’t ask me why, just do it!
Sometimes you just don’t have an option. . The problem with this approach is that the manager comes off looking either stupid or powerless. It tends to have a temporary negative impact on employee or team morale. The advantage of this approach is it is often where we end up anyway. The team can confront the emotional impact and move past it.
I’ve used this several times. The problem is that Dilbert Zone policies tend to have a cumulative effect, slowly desensitizing the employee to what is worthwhile. I have seen organizations where the project managers have been so tied up in mindless red tape that their ability to actually shepherd  projects successfully was deadened. Even after the red tape was removed, the PMs retained their lack of project focus.

4. Attempt a Compromise with the Power

If you have access to the decision maker who required the policy or the person who is implementing the policy, you may be able to find an agreeable compromise.
This can be a great solution. Often the difference between good policy and bad is in the implementation. The problem is, of course, that if the contact you have changes, or changes their mind, you may find yourself right back where you started.
A good example of this was a recent EPMO Audit we went through. In our audits, project documents  are generally deposited in a sub folder labeled for the stage of the project. (Initiating, Planning, ect…) We talked to the EPMO because for our smallest projects we only had 4 documents required. They went into 3 different folders. The folder structure which helps auditors find a document when they are looking through dozens of docs, was excessive in our case. Our compromise here was a single folder, where all 4 docs would go.

5. Find a way to make the policy benefit your group

I think this is the best option. The corporation’s job is  not to make policy fit into your projects. In a way, they don’t care about your projects. They don’t know enough or have the right perspective to make the policy help you. Generally the policies have broad goals such as consistency or quality. It is up to us as managers and project managers to find ways to make corporate policy benefit us.
I have 2 examples. In the first example, the organization had essentially Bowed to the Power. Policy was treated as check boxes required to get to the other end of projects. Executives saw EMPO policy as an annoyance and regarded project managers primarily as those who kept that annoyance away. What we did was find ways to have EPMO policy benefit the projects, the project managers, and the executives. This helped morale and made the policies something more than they were.
The second example is with the organization I lead now. EPMO has delivered more requirements. We have so far leveraged this change into giving us greater visibility into activities across the base. We are hoping to find ways to leverage the new documents to improve our customer facing activities and leadership visibility. That is much better than another useless requirement.
What do you think is the best way to deal with the Dilbert Zone?

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How to Manage the Zombie Apocalypse February 11, 2013

Posted by thefieldgeneral in funny, Leadership, Project Management.
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I’ve always said that Project Management can be applied to nearly any problem. What about something unique, say the zombie apocalypse.

Thanks to Britt Selvitelle@http://www.flickr.com/photos/bs/

Thanks to Britt Selvitelle

No, I am not decrying the evils of TV and what it does to your brain. I am asking you to prepare for the inevitable. Whether it comes from a mad cow like bacterial infection, or some strange umbrella corporation experiment, or even aliens, it is coming. Don’t believe me? Did you know that the CDC has a site dedicated to zombie apocalypse preparedness? Whether you believe or not it, is a very interesting project management problem. How do you put together a project to maximize your chances of survival in the case of the end of the world.

As project managers, we seem to be at a strong disadvantage for survival in Zombieland. Project Managers are not (most of us) Navy Seals or survival experts. What we are, however, are trained, expert strategists who specialize in moving people safely through change. What could be a bigger change than the walking dead in the streets. We just need to approach this as a standard project with ramp up time, execution, and closing.

1. Scope
Like any project we need to understand the scope. Is survival the goal? How long will we need to survive? Is it part of our plan to try to rebuild society?

Let’s say that our goal is to survive 3-4 years. This should be enough time for defacto governments of at least a feudal type to reemerge. We also should consider that members of our team need to have sufficient skills to be highly valued in that society.

2. Tasks

Now that we have our target, probably our second most critical question is what sub tasks need to occur to achieve the goal. Essentially this is our work breakdown structure or task list. Here are some ideas:

  • During ramp up get healthy. 
    Medical services will be defunct during a zombie invasion and may not recover for decades or centuries after the zombies are gone. Get your team as healthy as possible pre-event. If possible also develop high levels of cardio and strength fitness to better cope with the strain of the collapse itself. After all the old adage applies, I don’t have to outrun the zombie, I just have to outrun you. (See rule number 1.)
  • Secure Physical Resources during ramp up.
    Stockpile some food, weapons, and medical supplies. Batteries, gas supplies, and other power sources can be critical as well. Water is a must. You can’t go overboard here because you don’t know the commencement date of the disaster and do not have infinite money. Do so quietly as you don’t want it widely known that you have supplies when everyone else is scavenging.
  • Secure personnel resources.
    Pick a team that you can trust. Ideally the team would have diverse skills: medical, combat, logistics, cooking, engineering, and sanitation. The team has to be small enough to feed for an extended length of time but large enough to provide some degree of security.
  • Secure knowledge resources.
    Books on mechanics, first aid, weapon maintenance, gardening/farming, chemistry, and other documentable skills could be useful during and post collapse.

3. Create a Plan
Put it all together. Who are the resources? What are they to do pre-rampup, during the collapse, and post collapse. Document it, print it, and put it somewhere safe. Post z-day there is likely to be no electricity to pull that document off your laptop.

4. Train/Prepare your resources
In any project, other than creating the plan, I think this is most important. Given decent moral and a good plan, resources generally perform as well as they are trained. Look at your skills and close gaps with training. First Aid and basic boy-scouting skills are invaluable. Combat and hunting skills will keep you alive and fed. Every resources needs to know how to handle a firearm. I’m sure you can think of other things. Remember, as project mangers, our skills will not suffice to DO the project work. We need to augment them to make us effective (and survive).

5. Execute the plan.
When the collapse occurs it will need to be recognized and reacted to. Will you hole up in your home? Travel to some secure location?

Have a first, second and third preferred options. Plan the work, then work the plan. This gives you the opportunity to focus on flexibility in the moment, not planning.

6. Closing the plan
What’s your endgame? Sustainable living somewhere? Joining up with a large enough local government that recovery is possible? Have a target in mind. You may have to adjust this as things play out, but having a target will help you make quick decisions.

Project Management can be used to help manage any change, even the end of the world. The key is thoughtfulness and preparation followed by strong leadership.

What have I’ve missed that you would do to execute this most important of all projects?

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Why all project managers should love Mondays and hate Fridays. November 5, 2012

Posted by thefieldgeneral in funny, Project Management.
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Why does everyone love Fridays? I hate Fridays! Fridays are the project manager’s bane. Not only is it impossible to get anything done on Fridays, but Murphy’s Law goes into overdrive. Say TGIF if you will, but when I wake up on Friday I say OMGIF.

Thank you to beau-foto @http://www.flickr.com/photos/belkins/

OMGIF is a military project term loosely related to FUBAR. FUBAR is the post project disaster term used when someone explains to you after the fact that a disaster has hit. Your response is, “How did that happen? My project is FUBAR!” OMGIF occurs when you discover an impending project disaster you cannot avoid as in “What do you mean that is happening? OMG I’m F’d.”

Most TGIFers seem to be driven by the mistaken notion of the end of the work week. The problem with this is that a large portion of the population still does school or work on the weekend. Some estimates are that 35% of the U.S. population works each weekend. The rest of the estimates say the number is higher. As service industries move more and more to 24/7 operations, it will only get worse. Think about all those poor people working next time you shout TGIF.

Here are the 5 reasons I love Mondays and hate Fridays.

1. Traffic

Mondays are the best traffic day of the “work week”. Friday between 5 PM and 6 PM is the worst hour for traffic period. Atlanta rush hour is even worse starting at 4:30 and going till 7:00.

My wife points out, however, that the rush hour is morally valuable. One has to wonder why they call it rush hour when all we do is wait in our cars. They should call it wait hour as sitting in our vehicles, on our tails for 1 to 2 hours not only makes us wait to move, but makes us gain weight due to lack of time to exercise. Then, after waiting, we eat fast food to make up time and thus we gain more weight. If you can avoid rush hour, you can lift weights which causes your metabolism to speed up. Then you might lose weight and attract the attention of fast women. Thus, rush hour keeps you safe from fast women. Moral value is proven.

2. Absenteeism

Fridays are the main day people miss voluntarily for work. Mondays are the other day people take off, but the vast majority of Mondays people take off are holidays. Projects generally take a holiday on holidays. For a project manager, absenteeism is annoying. You cannot get the answers you need, critical meetings cannot happen, and tasks may slip.

The worst thing that can happen is a project emergency that requires your missing expert. Other than during deployment, rarely are there true project emergencies. They tend to be “emergences” instead. Some black beast from the depths pokes its head out of the surface of the still, calm waters that were your project and shambles to shore wreaking havoc on all in its path. These issues can really wait. You should seal yourself in your bunker and hold on tight. But only the most talented and prepared project managers can stave off the screaming, frightened townsfolk (read clients and execs) until help arrives on Monday. Instead the project team goes charging out into the mist with baseball bats and pitchforks where the monster beats the heck out of them with their own limbs and feeds them their toes. Monday, your absentee, the Rambo-nator, shows up with his truckload of AK-47s, body armor, and slimy project monster repellent. He chases the project monster back into the depths in a few moments while you try to salvage the tattered remains of your project and patch up the bruised and bloodied team members. It happens so often and so consistently, I can only imagine that the beastly project monsters are watching us from the depths even now.

3. Running out of week.

Every week starts with lots of opportunities (translated problems). For the fearless field generals that manage projects, this is a time for hope. You will never have more of your most precious resource than you have right now. You have time.

You also have reinforcements. Rambo-nators are pouring into the trenches to relieve the poor limbless, toe-less sods that have been fighting the weekend war. The more conservative Rambo-nators are flush with spiritual renewal. The, uh, less conservative Rambo-nators are flush because of their hangovers, but they get over that quickly. They wait eagerly for deployment and direction from you.

As the week rolls on, hope dwindles. Your list of activities reduces with excruciating slowness and time tic-tic-tics away. By Friday your bulging list is never getting done and you are in frantic triage mode. Rambo-nators are AWoL (Absent with-out leave, or I suppose AWL since technically most have taken leave). The absent Rambo-nators flit through the hills happy and carefree as the still pools of your project stirs and dark things poor forth.

Always on Friday, I find my list less done than I hoped.

4. Fridays are bad for diets and projects

Have you noticed that people always want to go out on Fridays? It is not usually to Larry’s Lettuce Shop either. Olive Garden, Pizza Hut, and other Italian restaurants are the most common. Notice a common theme here? Food that is bad for you.

Besides the diet busters, there are two big things about Friday lunches that annoy me as a project manager. First is the time. Since everybody has to take their 15 man team out on Friday, it leaves no place for my 15 man team. Our time is doubled because of waiting. (It’s Friday, and no surprise, the whole time we’re waiting and sitting, the restaurants call it the lunch “rush”. Now I’m sitting on my butt and eating badly again. At least I’ll never see that fast woman.)

Second, after all that heavy food my Rambo-nator resources are turned into super-sloths. Meetings are late and decisions can be made next week. More resources crawl off in the guise of “heading out early”. I am sure they are going home to sleep off lunch.

5. 4-6 PM on Friday’s are the front line’s Dumping Ground

Note that EOW (end of week) is only one letter from EWW (EWW!) If you have ever been in project management or any kind of secondary support role (tier 2 or higher), you know what happens between 4 and 6 on Friday. The front line wants to go home and they start dumping their issues on your desk. These are issues they have been working on all day, or all week, or God forbid even longer. But at 4 PM on Friday, they know that you are charging towards the door, and they cannot help but stick their leg out to trip you. After all, if you make it out, they will be stuck with their problem. As you face plant, they dump their issue on you, and sprint for the exit. Your job is to grab them by the leg and not let them leave until you can go too. Tit for Tat.

It is real. Nearly every week between 4 and 6 PM on Friday, some disaster shows up on my desk that should have been there (if I’m lucky) hours earlier. If I’m unlucky, it’s been festering for days and has crawled forth from the still waters as an “emergence”, a true project monster. Often, I have no choice but to buckle down and venture into the mist clutching some ineffective weapon and fearing for my toes.

Go ahead say,”TGIF”. But for me it will always be OMGIF.

Tell me what you think about Friday.

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