Monthly Archives: June 2012

Failure Sucks. Work smarter not harder.

We often discuss the inevitability and true necessity of failure as a foundation to greatness and innovation. And as painful as this reality can be, it does seem fairly intuitive when you think about it. If the answer you are seeking was really so valuable, don’t you suppose that it would already be in use? So if we can agree that failure is in many ways, directly and indirectly a precursor to growth, let’s turn back to another point we can likely agree on, failure sucks! Putting all of your heart into an endeavor to come up inches or miles short is tough to swallow even once, much less hundreds of times before your breakthrough. So instead of beating your head against the wall one more time hoping for a different outcome, let’s consider the old adage of “work smarter, not harder”.

Nowadays a lot is made of professional athletes using the latest technology and cross training to advance their core competencies. Even going so far as to take performance enhancing drugs to better their efforts. What if we were able to gain the wisdom from failures without experiencing the sting? We’ll call this PM cross-training.

What are you doing today to get better? Are you in the trenches bleeding, sweating, and straining your way to the top? Good for you. With a little luck and a lot of blood sweat and tears, hopefully you’ll get there someday. Or are you in the trenches part-time and cross-training the rest of the time. Is it an MBA? Are you studying for your PMP? Or are you simply reading (or watching this blog)?

If all you are doing today to get better is working hard, you are probably going about it the wrong way. Don’t get me wrong though, there is no magic “failure pill” out there for you to take. You are going to have to earn your stripes, but save yourself some lumps and get online. Get back in the classroom. Learn from your peers and mentors and watch your rate of improvement increase.

What to do when you’re Flat Out WRONG

“I was wrong.” Sound familiar?

A truly ubiquitous notion and an effortlessly simple concept. Now add a dash (no, a ton) of competition and about 7 zeros to the bottom line. Now how does your response sound? The same?

Unfortunately, probably not. Let’s take a moment then to go back to the fundamentals. Perhaps some of us learned this as early as kindergarten. Others, well, you’ll get there. So any way, you’re flat out wrong…what do you do?

  1. Blame someone else
  2. Question the determination of ‘wrong’
  3. Cover it up
  4. Accept and downplay
  5. Admit and work to improve

Above is my bulletpoint gambit of possible reactions for you to choose from then next time you are flat out wrong. On the off chance that you have been flat out wrong before, perhaps recently, can you remember which reaction you chose to display? Are you even qualifying your response in your own mind right now with some extraneous circumstances?

Seriously! People talk about innovation like it is the Kool-Aid of the decade, but acceptance of our own daily and or epic failures just gets glossed over like it really did stick with us since Kindergarten. Thousands of high profile corporate examples show us that this is not the case. Admitting when you are wrong and promptly working to improve yourself is really damn hard. And innovation (specifically the cycle of failure required for innovation) doesn’t work without it!

So before you get back on your soapbox to discuss failure or innovation or both with your teams, please take a moment to consider the career altering consequences these stakes can place you in and the sleepless nights that may precede an individuals’ decision. Start by validating this anxiety. To trivialize the stakes or your team members’ desire to succeed is to basically lie. They want to do a great job and to them, this is a big deal, so yeah, admitting when you are wrong is really damn hard. Next set the stage to alleviate this anxiety by example. When you choose option number 5 in front of your team, you are sending a strong message regarding what is acceptable and what is expected.

As always, lead by example and then watch as your team becomes more accountable, less risk-averse, fails just as often, yet creates more value.

Constraints – What can you REALLY Change?

As a PM or a team member, you are probably getting fairly adept at recognizing and defining your project constraints. Starting perhaps from the largest and working your way to the smallest (i.e. has to be a road, has to be a two-lane road, and has to be a 24.5’ wide to lane road…) you begin to zero in on your finished product. While much of this and many blogs are dedicated the pursuit of innovation, often through the questioning of perceived constraints and the value that can be created when these assumptions are disproven, I wanted to focus for today on the value of constraints.

Without a doubt, every project is going to have legitimately fixed constraints. Whether it is budget, project footprint or scope, or some discreet deliverable, many things are beyond questioning and will drive a project more than any other element. These are easy to manage within. The difficulty comes in discerning where the line is between what you can change (for the better) and what you cannot (or at least in a manner which creates value for the project). While many (including myself) love to preach about how you must ‘question everything’ and re-write the rules, I believe that the ultimate blend of project management execution and innovative leadership lies, in part, within the ability to sift through the shades of grey, predict the future to some extent, and guide the team through a daily exercise involving; pushing their limits to create more than what was thought possible, yet focusing their efforts away from quixotic ventures of innovation lore.

Maybe you’re paid as a PM to deliver. Maybe you’re paid as a leader to create value. How can you do both?!? Start by practicing your balance between pursuit of innovation and change versus the bottom line value within constraints. That’s right, value within constraints. Straightforward algebra has fundamental comfort in its consistency. The same is true on projects. While every constraint should continue to be initially questioned, your optimum performance as a PM is often predicated upon your ability to balance the extent to which this line of questioning should continue and then the finality of the conclusion of this line of questioning. That is, push every constraint to their limits, then decisively draw the line so as to move the team along in a timely and steadfast direction.

So please, continue to start your conversations with, “Why?”  Just practice keeping those conversations to a set duration and ending them with a constraint. I believe you will find value while achieving your project goals.

Change Prep – Expect the Unexpected

A simple lesson learned to be applied to all elements of change or potential change within a project. Clear communication of your most likely expectation! If your team has no idea of the potential change options, or worse, is fairly confident that there will not be any change to an element, introduction of change will be met with resistance, regardless of its validity. To put it simply, set your expectations as clearly as possible. If you know you have three possible outcomes, or 3,000, make that known so that your team can calibrate their expectations accordingly.

I recently had the opportunity to attempt an outdoor team meeting as I have shared on this blog and had been considering for some time. The results were mixed and as I considered why exactly that was I realized that the most significant reason for the mild opposition to this meeting format wasn’t the fact that it was held outdoors, but more fundamentally, it was that this was a change that was entirely unexpected by the team. An element of the project (as simple as a meeting venue) which is perceived by the team to be 100% fixed – and then changes – is difficult for even the most innovative groups to adjust to. Even though I had been considering and planning a change in venue to our weekly meetings for sometime…I had not shared this possibility.

So on a small scale, I wanted to share this experience with you all in the hopes that you might translate it into the planning of your next outdoor meeting as well as on a larger scale regarding change and expectations on your projects.


Transparency and Vision in Project Management

In many ways, this topic is at the root of virtually all project management fundamentals. Whether it is regarding the various Plans involved in a successful project (written in advance, reviewed, endorsed, executed, monitored, etc.) or simply the voluminous recordkeeping required and highly advised in every step of the project, written documentation creates a transparent trail of decision making dating back to the original scope and every twist and turn along the way. But what about all of those grey areas that don’t seem to require such a level of documentation…at the time? The fact of the matter is that these grey areas are what can shape a project from one direction to another and can jeopardize the final outcome and leave the transparent nature of the project management in question.

It is usually fairly intuitive as to which decisions require higher approvals and written documentation. It is often only much after the fact that we realize the other topics and decisions where we were too lazy, too trusting, or just unlucky that we wish we had to do over again. If not to do over again, we wish we had better documentation to support our outcome. Be it poor, we at least have a defensible trail to limit liability.

Still further, we will find that there was never one momentous event or decision which took us off track, and therefore nothing specific to create greater documentation of. It is within these innocuous daily moves when the PM, rather than taping a reality show of the project for posterity, must reflect on the Project Vision and Mission.

A specific decision may not warrant an act of congress, or even a memo to file. But each and every project decision should be consciously vetted through the Project Mission Statement. At the end of the day, if you are left holding the bag without a paper trail of approved decisions, can you stand tall that each of your decisions were made in clear support of the Project Vision? These decisions don’t get documented because they do seem so small. Your mandatory litmus test must be that core vision statement at a minimum. Do this on a regular basis and you will be pleased by how much it helps guide not only yourself but the many directions on your team. Lose track of this foundation and you will be surprised by how far off track you can get before you realize it.

You’re Not Giving Yourself Enough Credit

It’s been a great day…it’s been a terrible day. Regardless of the results, chances are you’re not giving yourself enough credit.

Let’s start with the more frequently discussed side of the coin; failure. Many a leadership blog out there has discussed the need for more responsibility to be taken by the team leaders and less blame to be a part of any project failures. Internal locus of control. First take a look in the mirror and question how you could have done things differently and contributed to a more successful outcome. Did you not explain the objectives clearly enough? Were these outcomes too nebulous and immeasurable? At the end of this introspection, the correct determination is that it was your fault. That may be a bit of a harsh characterization, but essentially it describes the point. Something, somewhere along the line, you could have improved upon, leading to a more successful result. It is only within your true believe in this conclusion that you will find meaningful improvement within yourself; and ultimately within your teams.

Conversely, the same exercise should be conducted in the event of a more positive outcome or success. And frankly, the same conclusion should be reached. This is typically a downplayed side of the internal locus of control coin in my opinion. If ultimately at the root of failures are your actions, so your actions must be at the root of successes. They are.

It is right to emphasize the need for humility, teamwork, proper recognition, etc. but let’s not lose sight of the fact that all of the hard work and lessons you have learned from your past experiences and failures have substantially contributed to today’s outcomes.

So the next time you are disappointed, take a long hard look in the mirror before you assign any responsibility other than your own to the outcome. AND the next time you are pleased with an outcome; don’t sell yourself short. I believe that people often have a general tendency to sell themselves short…whether the results are good OR bad.

The Persistent PM

I wanted to talk a little bit today about the extremely undervalued trait of plain old persistence. Other blogs might discuss determination, perseverance, self-motivation or other more glamorous traits, but today I wanted to just dial it down a notch and frame these attributes as simply persistence.

To me, persistence is an understated determination.

The inner fire burning within each of you overachievers is often in dire need of a governor. That is, you (myself included) often come on too strong, push our agendas too aggressively and conversely take our failures like a shot to the gut. At times, the solution to this dilemma is in the form of persistence. Not too strong, not to light, but always positive, always striving to do the right thing and generally unflappable.

This air of calmness will garner allies in most teams. When the sky is falling, you will help the team stay their course through the issue of the day. When the deadline is aggressive, you will be a voice of reason with a firm underlying tone. When the answer is ‘No’ you will be back next week with a different, yet equally reasonable spin on the same agenda…and the week after that, and the week after that. You are not discouraged easily because you are confident in your position yet open to evolving approaches. There is not just one solution that you must fight for, but an elusive optimum that you are constantly, persistently pursuing.

It’s not about the ten miles you ran today or the 8 minute pace you did it in. It’s about the 2 miles you ran every day for the past 100 days at just the right pace. Think about that for a second the next time things escalate a bit and walls seem to be closing in. Do your best today and leave it at that. Just make sure to bring it again tomorrow!