Navigating Traffic: How your daily commute can help you solve problems

What does your daily drive to and from work look like? Is it very far? How long does it take? Do you go the same route every day?

I ask these questions, because I had an epiphany the other day as I was driving home. The distance was only a few miles, but sometimes, it could take me 30-45 minutes to go those few miles. I was navigating my way through traffic when I noticed that I was making the same adjustments every single time I drove. Those adjustments were saving me time. I knew, when traffic started to back up, that if I switched lanes, I would keep moving forward, even if at a slow pace. I also knew, that if I actually exited the highway and tried to go the back roads, it would take me longer. As I pondered, this epiphany, I started to pay closer attention to my route. I noticed if I made a few additional adjustments, I could save even more time. I was managing a problem to navigate in such a way that I could have the best possible outcome.

Problem management in the office is a lot like navigating rush hour traffic. If you take the time to really think about the issues, you can navigate the problem more smoothly, and efficiently. At the same time, you can work to avoid the knee-jerk reactions that so many people are plagued by. Think o f exiting the highway to avoid the traffic jam only to be plagued by stop lights and the other drivers who thought the same way you did. Swift can have it’s advantages, but only in the short term and only if done smartly. If you take the time to really solve the issue, then that resolution can have long lasting effects. Pay attention to what is going on around you. What are some trends you are seeing, good OR bad? Take the time to think about what little adjustments you can make in your behavior or your team’s behavior to make a positive impact.

I had a problem in that I wanted to spend more time with my family. My kids are only going to be this age a little while and I want to give them as much time as I can. I estimate I saved over 40 hours a year by putting a little extra thought into my route. That is more time with my family … and less time getting upset at the long line of cars that are not paying attention. That, of course, is another topic on its own. Wow, it looks like I solved two problems . . . see what I mean?!?!

What do you think? How do you navigate problems at work or with your projects? Do knee-jerk reactions hurt you organization?

Change Your Directions!

What is Your Communication Style? I don’t mean do you talk softly, loudly, often or little. I’m thinking about how effectively you communicate. Is your style good enough? I was talking to a colleague the other day about team communication and realized that we really aren’t very good at it. Sure, there are communication plans for various levels of stakeholders in a project, but how do you communicate directly with the project team? Do you give direction the same way with everyone? Do you find it frustrating when your directions aren’t followed the way you’d like? Do you have team members that are consistently missing the mark?

Sure, the team member might have underlying issues that are effecting their performance and could follow directions better with a little extra effort, but maybe it’s you. There might be an opportunity for improvement on your part which can assist them in better performance.

Think of it like this, we all learn in different ways. Some people can learn by simply hearing (audible), some by reading (visual), and yet others learn by seeing or even being coached with hands-on activities (kinisthetic). More often than not, we hear of these learning styles with children, but do we grow out of this as we get older? I would say, probably not. Sure, as adults, we learn how to cope with changes in learning environments, but is that really efficient at all to simply know your weaknesses?

As a project leader (or any type of leader for that matter) how well do you actually  know your project team? While it is your teams job individually to listen intently and understand the directions they are given, it is YOUR job as a leader to ensure the team has the tools they need to succeed.

I recommend trying an exercise over the next month or so. DISCLAIMER: Please keep in mind I’m a project manager, not a phycologist, so the durrations may be inadequate or too much but you get the idea. Give your team directions in different ways, utilizing the three methods, and make mental or even written notes on how the team performs as a whole. Which way is the best way for your team to receive direction? Do you notice a boost in performance?

Take it a step further, talk to your team individually. You can try the same exercise as you did with the whole team, or, you can go even one more step further and actually talk to them. See if they can or will tell you how they learn best. Note: Make sure they understand that you are not trying to give them any criticism, even constructively as they might start to get nervous and shut down, or even quit. Tell them what you are doing and what it is that you are trying to accomplish. I believe they will respond positively and your productivity will increase for the simple fact you actually care about them.

The whole premise here is we sometimes think of ourselves as the absolute authority when it comes to giving or receiving directions. I assure you this type of thinking is a recipe for failure and you are setting yourself and your team up for poor performance. Go the extra mile, pay attention to your team and give them the tools they need to hit a home run!

Do you have a favorite method for delivering directions? Tell us, maybe we can learn a technique we didn’t know before.

Dealing with Risk

What is risk? Risk is defined as an exposure to the chance of injury or loss; hazard or dangerous chance.  There are probably other words to describe it, but this works pretty well.

 I recently went on a cruise to the Caribbean. There were two things instantly working against me mentally: the recent sinking of the Costa Concordia in the Mediterranean Sea and the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Don’t think for a moment that my friends overlooked these two facts prior to my departure. They took every opportunity they could to rib me about it. Add to these the fact I have never been on a cruise before and this was a seven night adventure and the fact I was going to countries known for disliking Americans (Honduras and Mexico). Friends also kept telling me how sickness spreads on these ships quickly. Some might say I was taking a huge risk.

 Do you think it was risky?

Perhaps, but I say no. The reason I think it isn’t is because I practiced risk management techniques to minimize these risks or the affects. One, I did research on current vessels to ensure they are safe, looking up sailing to accident ratios. I wasn’t worried and we were not headed into iceberg infested waters. Two I familiarized myself with the ship’s layout including where life vests were located throughout the ship. I knew where to report to in an emergency and how to report one if I noticed it first. I also participated in the ship’s muster drill to find out how I was to get on the lifeboat if anything did happen. I wore a motion-sickness patch and washed my hands often to minimize other smaller risks. I also took into account that even though I was going into countries that were not necessarily great for Americans, I knew we were not going near hot-spots and would be protected fairly well. The consequences could be dire, but the likelihood was low so these were acceptable risks to take.

What does all of this mean and how does it relate to project management? Risk Management is an often overlooked part of project management. This brings me back to the definition or at least part of it: hazard or dangerous chance. Yes it is dangerous! It is dangerous to overlook such a simple process that doesn’t take much time or effort, but can save you time, money, or even your job if things go really bad. Negative things WILL happen and if you do not prepare for it, it will sink you and your project.

So how do I do it, how do I practice risk management? Follow these simple steps and at least get started. There are tons of resources available for purchase or even free in various places on the Internet. But whatever you do, don’t overlook risk management ever again. Enough with the doomsday talk, let’s get to it.

 Step 1: Brainstorm a list with your team on every negative thing you can think of that might happen. Sure, this list can be long and sometimes seem a bit trivial, but believe me, it is not. By practicing step one, you have gone beyond what most will do in this arena and it has already prepared you somewhat for what might happen simply by thinking about it.

Step 2: using a scale from 1-10 (or use whatever granularity you wish) rate how big of a deal that risk is. For example, if dealing with a paper cutter at the office, you might rate a paper cut as a 1 (no big deal). Conversely, you might rate losing a finger as a 10 (HUGE deal).

 Step 3: using the same scale as step 2, rate how likely that risk is to occur with 1 being unlikely and 10 being highly likely.

 Step 4: use some sort of math (I add the numbers together) and determine a threshold for what is acceptable and what is not. For example you can have numbers ranging from 2-20. So, you could rate any activity with a total number of 10 or under as minor risks. Likewise, you would consider anything over 11 as more severe risks needing more planning and perhaps scrutiny. Again, create your own thresholds here.

Step 5: Create your action plan. You can:

  • Accept the risk as it is, taking the chance and dealing with whatever consequences might arise (not recommended for risk totals on the higher end of your scale)
  • Avoid the risk altogether, change your plan so that this risk doesn’t even come up on the radar (these are recommended for the risks with totals on the higher end of your scale)
  • Mitigate the risk, how can you make the impact less on your team or project
  • Transfer the risk to another stakeholder or third party to deal with

Step 6: Train your team on the warning signs. Knowing what to look for is another critical part of minimizing the impact from a risk-turned-event. This step is often overlooked as well. Keep in mind, if you don’t train what to look for, the team might miss the risk coming to fruition.

However you decide to put together your plan, the bottom line is do it. I went on my cruise and had a wonderful time. I stuck to the plan, stayed safe, and enjoyed the great vacation with my awesome new bride. We got home safely and brought some amazing memories and photos with us.

 Remember, asking “What if” can help keep you from asking “What do I do now”!

 What do you do on your projects to prepare for risks? Comment below and tell me!

Heated Conversations: Do you Engage?

How do you, as a leader handle heated conversations in your team? Are YOU engaging?

Differing opinions are a part of our daily lives. In fact, in leadership roles, they are essential to the survival of the teams we are tasked with leading. By this, I mean that utilizing different opinions or even different world views will allow us to avoid the damaging and often destructive results of groupthink. While we might think that life is great if everyone agrees with us, it all too often means that something is about to go horribly wrong.

The problem is that differing opinions can sometimes create tense moments during a meeting or even just during an otherwise calm part of the day. Let’s face it, there are many people out there passionate about their work and about their opinions. It is our job, as leaders, to keep that passion somewhat controlled and pointed in a positive direction. If the argument gets heated, or worse, the meeting, whether formal or informal, it needs to stop right then with encouraging words that all disputes can and will be resolved amicably. It is critical that all of our team members feel safe coming to work (emotionally or physically).

In the end, it is important for teams to have differing opinions but in a controlled environment. The biggest thing I can leave you with as a leader is to not engage in such heated discussions. If you get into a strong disagreement with a team member, you either need to take it to another, closed-door room or just table the discussion for another time when you both have had a chance to calm down and reset your passions. Keep in mind that it is possible that you DON’T have the best idea, be sure to set your ego aside too.

Different opinions are essential to business. Without them, we would all wear white shirts with blue pants, regardless of gender, age, race, or nationality. All cars would be white 4-door sedans with gray interior and all houses would be white with blue trim. We don’t live in any such society, not even the ones with the harshest of homeowner restrictions. That doesn’t mean we have to box our neighbor’s ears when we want to paint our house a different color.

The most important single ingredient in the forula of success is knowing how to get along with people.” ~T. Roosevelt

What tricks have you used to stop heated debates at the office? Comment below.

Project Communications

Project communications are perhaps the single most important aspect of your project management plan. It is also one of the most overlooked from a planning perspective. This could be because project managers have a tendency to think they know what to communicate to whom and when. The truth is, communication is something that has to be talked about and planned in advance.

The PMBoK Guide – Fourth Edition (A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge) breaks communications management down into five sub categories:

  1. Identify Stakeholders: Identify all people and organinzations that will be impacted by the project as well as their specific involvement and impact on project success
  2. Plan Communications: Determine what each person or group actually needs to be made aware of and in what form. For example, you will perhaps send daily detailed communications to the project team via electronic communciations, but only a weekly wrap up via staff meeting to a project sponsor or executives
  3. Distribute Information: This means that you actually do what you said you were going to do in the previous item.
  4. Manage Stakeholder Expectations: Pay attention to your stakeholder’s needs. You don’t want to give them too much or too little information. Give them only what they need which may mean removing or even add to the information identified in step 2.
  5. Report Performance: Periodic analysis of baselines versus actuals during the project. This includes analysis of performace, risks and issues, work completed, upcoming tasks, summary of the approved changes, and others.

Communication is a critical piece of the project health. We are always communicating with our teams and other stakeholders. If we neglect to plan the communciations up front, it is almost guaranteed that something will get missed. When things get missed, we lose out on opportunities to make vital corrections, learn of a new direction, or even a pat on the back every now and then.

I know I have simplified things a bit, especially as they relate to the PMP exam, but for daily business, these are the basics. Sometimes, the projects are small and greatly simplified. This doesn’t mean that these steps should be overlooked. It merely means that the steps are that much easier to follow.

Happy Communicating!

Earned Value Management Part 1

There is a lot more to earned value than what should be described in a single blog, so I am going to break it up over several over the next few days. In the PMBoK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) Fourth Edition, Earned Value Management (EVM) would fall under a few of the knowledge areas. Mostly it will fall under: Project Time Management, Project Cost Management,  and Project Communications Management. We can and will dig into these a little deeper, but for now, you’ll just need to know that it covers these three main knowledge areas. Probably the biggest, in my professional opinion, is Project Communications Management.

Why? Simple really . . . the whole reason for EVM is for tracking the actual earned (completed) progress of your project. EVM gives you an in-depth look directly into the heart of your actual progress. The end result, if desired is a graph that you can review for trends or use to report your excellent progress to the project sponsors and other stakeholders. Here is an example of an earned value graph for a project over a year long. As you can see, this project was in trouble from the start but the adjustments that were made will end this project almost perfectly with an SPI of 1.02 and a CPI of well over that (more on those later).

Earned Value

There are a few pieces to earned value which will all be discussed over the next few installments (again, I don’t want to hit you with it all at once). Things that I will discuss are:

  • Planned Value
  • Earned Value
  • Actual Cost
  • Cost Variance
  • Schedule Variance
  • Cost Performance Index (CPI)
  • Schedule Performance Index (SPI)
  • Estimate at Completion (EAC)
  • Estimate to Complete (ETC)
  • Budget at Completion (BAC)
  • And last but not least . . . Variance at Completion (VAC)

Yes, there are a lot of accronyms in there and there are quite a few formulas as well, but don’t let them scare you. The formulas are straight forward and easy to you, especially if you set the up in some sort of tool that you use all the time such as Microsoft Excel. I will give you the formulas and show you when to use them and how to use them. I even have a tool that I’ve setup that I use on a daily basis that I will share with you if you desire. It is somewhat proprietary to my time and cost tracking systems, but we can work together to make it work for you as well.

BTW, back to the numbers that I showed you above, the Microsoft Project plan (not using EVM) shows this project as ahead most of the time. Can you imagine? I would have been telling management that my project was just fine (thinking that the whole time myself) while the project was actually in dire straights from the beginning. Using Earned Value allowed me to make serious adjustments and get this ship back on track. It wasn’t easy though, I assure you, but at least I knew issues existed early on so they could be corrected in time.

More on this topic later . . .

Evolution of a Project Manager

I was reading another blog post on PMI’s official website and came across a post that asked if project management made me happy. The immediate, and overwhelming answer is and has been, YES! but as I read through it, it got me thinking . . .

Searchers – defined as the group who is looking for the next thing, enjoying the freedom. This group is better at starting a project.

Wrestlers – defined as the group of project managers that really works hard to the very end – passionate about doing the job until it is finished.

Balanced – this group is, as the title indicates, a balance of both in equal parts

This got me thinking, where am I in this picture? I absolutely know the answer a year ago. I used to tell people that I love being a project manager because I call myself ADD, loving to start new things, but often not really finishing them. Then, I would LOVE getting them started and would finish, somewhat begrudgingly. Well, this past year and a half, I’ve been working a huge project that has taken most of my time. This project, while great in the grand scheme of things, has been a real eye opener for me. I have learned a great deal about becoming a wrestler and the balance that needs to occur. I guess you could say I have matured as a PM. Do I still love to be the searcher? Absolutely, it really is my first passion and I enjoy the project initiation and planning. At the same time, I have learned to love the end product as well. If done correctly, there is a good pat on the back at the end waiting on me.

How do you measure up?

Here is the link to the original blog by Jorge Valdes Garciatorres, PMP : http://blogs.pmi.org/blog/voices_on_project_management/2011/08/does-project-management-make-y.html

April 19th: I will never forget

April 19th, 1995, I was sitting in a college class in Oklahoma City when the building seemed to shake. We barely noticed it and most of us assumed that it was caused by something going on in the construction area just outside. What I would later find out about that rumble would change my life forever.

At 9:02AM a bomb exploded in downtown Oklahoma City. At first, the cause was was unknown. Some thought it was a ruptured gas line. It turned out to be the worst terrorist attack on American soil which has since been eclipsed by September 11th. It still is the worst domestic attack.

At the time, I volunteered with a local emergency management group. Our main function was weather spotting, but we were also trained in traffic control and disaster assistance. I left my class early to see if there was anything I could do to help, knowing my team would be called for assistance.

I arrived just before noon at the bombing site. What I would see would affect me in ways I didnt’ think possible. As I wandered around the site waiting for orders, I found myself standing on a sidewalk next to where the YMCA playground once was, looking at a deformed tree surrounded by burning cars. I remember vividly looking at the tree with its new shape as decided by the blast and finding hope. I remember specifically thinking that this tree is a survivor.

The devistation was unbelievable:

  • 168 lives lost – 19 were children under 6
  • Almost 700 people injured
  • Over 300 buldings damaged or destroyed
  • Countless lives affected including my own

I was there for the first two days, making myself available for anything that was needed. It was so amazing to see the countless volunteers giving of their time selflessly. Oklahoma City came together to show the world that our will cannot be broken. The conspirators who performed that terrorist act may have broken our backs, but they did not break our spirits. In fact, they made us stronger.

Since then, I have only been able to go back to the site twice. Once after the memorial was first opened and once after the museum was opened. It is an emotional place for so many. It is so quiet, even in the middle of a busy downtown. I have driven by it many times and get the same feeling every time. I want to go back to see again, to pray, to remember, and to hope.

Here is a link to the official Oklahoma City National Memorial: http://www.oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org/ 

To all the victims, families, and volunteers of the Oklahoma City bombing, I will never forget you or your suport.