Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Michael Weston, Hero Project Manager Who got Burned?

How many out there watch Burn Notice on USA Network?

I know, we are supposed to be working, not watching TV. But, come on, we have to relax with the family sometime. And Burn Notice is a nice, action packed, thrill filled, family friendly show.

In it, Michael Weston is a spy. Or, he used to be a spy, for the CIA. One of their best field agents. But he started asking too many questions. "Why?", it seems, is not well tolerated in the spy world. (We see this in current events, even.) When his pursuit of answers got to be too bothersome for those calling  the shots (literally telling Michael who to take out next), Michael got "burned".

A Burn Notice is one of two ways the spooks have to fire you. If you are the spy being fired, you probably would prefer this over the other "extreme prejudice" method. It's a little less permanent. And not so terminal as the alternative method. Still, It is only a little less extreme. He's dumped, let's say, unceremoniously, is a town of random choice (Miami, could be worse I guess) with no ID, no money, no phone, no contacts, in short, not much of anything except his wits.

Now, I am sure Michael Weston doesn't see himself as a project manager, and certainly not a hero. Many project managers don't, they just do their financial analyst job, or their construction superintendent job, or their IT systems analyst job, or even their spy job and never give much thought to the fact that much of what they are doing in managing projects.

But, they are very often managing projects, have no doubt about that!

Michael is is prime example. On each episode, and also in various running themes, he deals with problems and challenges by calling his team (trigger-happy girlfriend Fi (now ex, but really?), Sam (the ex-FBI informant who spent his days helping to chase Michael down), Jessie (another ex-spy who got burned), his mother (sweet Madeleine, but don't ruffle her feathers!) and others together to devise a plan for solving the problem. Michael is often the chief planner, but, have no doubt, like any good project manager, he listens to his team when they have suggestions.

Their plans are often intricate, but also at a high enough level to allow for changes. In this, his plans seem to fit well in the Agile framework of project management, with the fore-knowledge that things will happen, plans will change. Michael, as well as his entire team, is an expert at the work-around. When your plan calls for breaching a building with a strong contingent of armed guards, a pervasive surveillance system and no knowledge of what awaits inside, you can bet there will be work-arounds galore. Even work-arounds for compromised work-arounds.

Michael earns the respect and loyalty of his team. There is no possibly dangerous situation in which he asks any of them to do something that he would not do himself. As a matter of fact, his team often spends considerable effort convincing him that one of them is better suited for the task. And he shows them how much he appreciates what they have done. There is never any doubt that he values their contribution.

Michael's team is required to continuously monitor the risks involved in each operation and to evaluate the possible return that will be realized. Often, the probable cost of the risk is very high, but the cost of not taking the risk at all is even higher. Making sure to mitigate, transfer to an appropriate contractor or simply accept (as unavoidable given the circumstances) the risks is a big part of the team's management of each project.

Communications plays a huge role. Not only must the team always be aware of how to keep in contact, they must also be keenly aware of what not to communicate. That hostile sponsor may use something you say to hold it over your head for further commitments you would rather not make. Also, finding unusual and unexpected ways to communicate plays a big role. This may not be something that most of us project managers often are called upon to do, but if we can find a unexpected or unusual method of communicating, it might help us make a point that we would have trouble making otherwise.

Then, there's Lesson Learned. It may look like just a well earned round of drinks at a comfortable outside patio bar, but you can bet that they will be recounting what worked and what didn't. These lessons are the life blood of staying ahead of the bad guys. And staying alive.

Burn Notice along with Michael Weston and his team are wrapping up the series this year with their seventh and final season. it has been a fun, thrilling, exciting, sad, poignant, colorful and even educational run. I will sincerely miss the show.

But, if you have not followed the show and want to check it out to see what I have been writing about, it lives on in reruns and on demand from several sources. For a quick review of what is in store for you, check out the show's Facebook Page. It will be worth the time!

Good bye Michael, Fi, Sam, Jessie and Madeleine. I hope you all find the peace you have worked so desperately hard to find. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Even a Hero Project Manager Needs a Few Tools...

I imagine that even the best of us sometimes lose focus on the task at hand. Even on our goals in general. I know I did. Not that I rate anywhere near the best, but, please give me a little slack.

The last few years of intermittent employment have really tested my focus. I've found myself feeling somewhat disillusioned with the job hunt. And that bodes bad for the future of our family savings.

I'll admit, part of it is that I've always felt that I would much rather face the uncertainties of being my own boss versus working for someone else. And, I may have a remedy for that.

But, that is not what this post is about. Here, I'm talking about how I've gone about gradually regaining my focus in life and as a project manager. In general, this is about Time Management.

My first criteria was to use low cost (read "free") but effective tools. I was reminded by a Toastmasters colleague, Sonia Farace,  about the value of journaling in gaining or re-gaining certain skills and habits. Another friend and colleague from PMI-SD, Jim Franklin, kept suggesting I learn to use mind mapping as a planning tool.

I did finally start experimenting with some mind mapping tools and gradually became comfortable with the process. In my search for a low cost app, I finally settled on Mindmeister as a good alternative. The demo version is free and offers all of the functions I need, and it syncs to my Android phone. The greatest limitation is that I only get three maps with the demo. I suppose I could design a way to include everything I do on one (or three) huge maps, but I'll probably upgrade. It will be a more comfortable path.

You can get an overview of how I set up my main focus map here.

First, I created a node for all of my New Ideas, anything that isn't on here otherwise but that I at least want to consider at some point.

Next, if the idea passes muster, I move it to Action Items where I try to set some date by which I plan to act on it. I review this node on a daily basis to see if any of the items are due for action. If one is ready, I move it to Action Points, Prioritized Items and put it on an appropriate priority node, 1 through 10.

Also on the Action Points node you'll see the Recurring Tasks node with sub-nodes for Daily, Weekly, Monthly and Yearly nodes. The use of these should be pretty self-evident.

Each morning, I start my day with a review of what is due for the day. Mindmeister even sends me notifications when a task is due to start. This helps me formulate my action plan for the day.

It works very well, too. As long as I don't let some other spur of the moment requirement jump the shark, so to speak. Now admittedly, there will always be legitimate reasons to deviate from the plan. But really, did I absolutely have to respond to that email about the next great idea in politics‽ (That's an interrobang, if you've seen one, look it up here.)

That's where the journaling comes into play. In a recent presentation, Sonia told us that the key to building a consistent routine and staying in focus is to remind ourselves what we did well and what we didn't do so well. Journaling is the process for that and the tool I settled upon is Google Calendar. A simple enough tool and it's free for all, and again, it syncs with my Android phone.

You can see my basic setup here.

I created a series of recurring one-hour "appointments" in which I record whatever activities I do during that hour. For the most part I don't get too detailed, but on some matters it helps to capture more detail. I have that flexibility. Recording what I did helps me stay on focus by being a reminder of whether I did stay on focus during this interval or whether I got distracted and sidetracked. It doesn't help recover a wasted hour, but knowing I have to "tell on myself" makes me think before letting it happen again.

You'll also notice a series of recurring two-hour appointments for Work Assignments. I use these at the start of the day to set out what my major task for each time period is to be. If a Journal period isn't within a Work Assignment period, I am free to tackle other little chores like email, planning for the next day, etc.

I'm not saying this is a perfect system, but I can say that I have seen a marked improvement in my focus over the two weeks that I have been using it. I wander off focus much less and find it easier to get back on focus when I need to. Also, I find it to be relatively easy to use.

If you are having trouble focusing on your goals or your task at hand, in other words, if you have lost the knack or desire for good Time Management, try something like this.

It's helping me, I think it can help you.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Not Claiming the Hero Title, but...

I recently read an article on CNET.com that struck a chord with me. It was about Nextdoor.com, a social networking website designed specifically for local neighborhoods.

As I read more and researched the website, a feeling built in me that this was a good thing. Good enough that I wanted to help make it a success in my neighborhood. That feeling came from a long held realization that our local neighborhoods are becoming less and less connected, less known to each of us

At the time, I was searching for a project to do for the High Performance Leadership Project requirement in my Toastmasters Educational Program. Nextdoor Neighborhoods seemed ready made for that. However, although it had already been founded on a trial basis, it was languishing with only 4 members out of 10 required to successfully found the neighborhood. And, it was in the last 5 days of its 30-day trial period.

I saw that my first step was to ensure that the neighborhood was made permanent. Over the next few days I visited neighbors and contacted those who had previously shown an interest but had not joined. I am pleased to say that, by the end of the trial period, we had 14 members and became a permanent Nextdoor Neighborhood. (We currently have 30 members!)

Then, I started the HPL process, which includes assignments that will be familiar to all PMs. Those assignments include: Learning About Leadership, Choosing Your Objective, Winning Commitment to Your Objective, Working the Plan and Analyzing and Presenting Your results.

So far, I've completed the first 2 assignments, including making an initial presentation to my Poway Black Mountain Toastmasters Club a couple of weeks ago. (I won a ribbon for Best Speaker!)  You can review the presentation here: Nextdoor Central Rancho Bernardo Project Presentation.

I'm just now beginning the Initial Planning of the project, although I do have some rough idea of what I'll be doing. Some of what will be required are:

  • recruit neighbors to be a part of my team
  • complete the project planning process
  • win the commitment of team members to that plan
  • use the plan to spread the word about Nextdoor Central Rancho Bernardo
  • build out membership to be a signifcant percentage of the total residents of the neighborhood
I am excited about this project. It gives me a chance to both complete an assignment that I need to do for Toastmasters and to complete a project that will benefit my neighborhood.

Oh, and if you explore Nextdoor.com for yourself and find that your neighborhood has not yet been founded, ask me for a referral. Currently, Nextdoor.com will give a $50.00 Starbucks card to both of us. 

What a deal!

Friday, May 31, 2013

PM History Lessons: Battle of Saratoga

In a recent edition of the Projects At Work newsletter, I found PM History Lessons: Battle of Saratoga. (See Battles of Saratoga) Stories about the people who fought the war that gained my country's independence have always been some of my favorite topics to read. And, when the reading ties so directly into my professional life, I am especially interested.

Some have said that the fact that a small, scraggly and widely dispersed band of upstarts defeated the worlds most powerful military was mostly the result of luck. Well, maybe so. But the thing about luck is that it seems to profit much more those who are prepared to take advantage of it than those who are not.

That truly seems to be the case in our Revolutionary War. This article recounts eight key points in which leaders on one side or the other were either prepared to take advantage of a lucky break or not. Prepared to even make their own luck. That preparedness, or lack of, made key differences in success or failure as each side struggled to successfully complete the project at hand.

Here are the eight points the article discussed at which attention, or lack thereof, to some key tenets of good project management made a huge difference in the outcome of the project.

1. Choose the best leader
The earliest decision that will have the greatest impact on the success of the project is choosing the right project manager. In the project that became known as The Battle of Saratoga, the British decision to choose General John "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne over General Sir Guy Carleton was made based upon mostly political reasons. Carlton had already successfully encountered the American forces in major battle. He knew the terrain. But Burgoyne was close to the decision makers and got the job. Choosing Carleton might have made a world of difference in the outcome.

2. Agree on the plan with major stakeholders and communicate that plan
General Sir William Howe commanded the British army in new York and was assigned a key role in the British plan. The orders that he received from London did not correctly state the scope of the plan he was to complete. Not only did it not explicitly state what he was to do, but, most critically, it did not properly communicate what was to be excluded. Howe effectively took himself out of the plan by deciding to engage in a little gold plating by attacking Philadelphia which was not in the plan and moved his army out of range to provide the key support he was supposed to provide for Burgoyne.

3. Understand the environment and obstacles
The British army was trained to fight on the terrain most prevalent in Europe, open plains. The Americans lived, worked and now fought in vastly different terrain. Not only were the British not trained for the rugged, forested terrain of North America, Burgoyne chose not to modify his tactics to account for the difference. A good project manager should always be alert to situations when excellent training may be the wrong training. In this case, Burgoyne made a critical mistake.

4. Don’t underestimate resistance
Burgoyne's decision not to modify his tactics had a ripple effect on how well he understood the risks he would be facing. By not studying the terrain and understanding the tactics that would best work in it, he lost the opportunity to properly identify the risks associated with it. Muddy roads, even no roads, slowed his progress. Hazards easily thrown down by the Americans disrupted plans and slowed progress even further. These delays forced them to face a better prepared American force in a brutal northeast winter for which the British were totally unprepared.

5. Use expertise at hand
On the American side, General Horatio Gates, in Albany, the key milestone of this project, was prepared to take advantage of a bit of luck that came his way. A Polish national, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, had been assigned to Gates' command. Kosciuszko happened to be the worlds's preeminent expert on artillery bombardment. He was assigned the task of stopping Burgoyne. And he did!

6. Use special resources effectively
Gates had the luck of having another special resource at hand. Colonel Daniel Morgan led a force of about 400 expert marksmen who could hit their targets at distances far beyond the range of the average British infantryman. These men would be what we today know as snipers. Gates gave Morgan the task of disrupting the British forces by bringing his men's expertise to bear on high-level British officers. They were successful and many young British lieutenants suddenly found themselves in charge of much larger larger forces than they were fully prepared to command.

7. Avoid personality conflicts
Gates had under his command the obstinate and temperamental General Benedict Arnold. Today we remember Arnold as the traitor of the Revolutionary War. But many historians rate him as the best field commander in the American army.  And, he was the hero of Saratoga. Almost not, though. Gates and Arnold had violent disagreements over several issues leading Gates to strip Arnold of his command. Even so, in a key engagement that was going badly for the Americans, Arnold commandeered a horse, charged to the battlefront and turned the tide of the battle. A good project manager will make all efforts to to use patience and compassion to help calm the histrionics of a temperamental team member. Gates was lucky in that, even though he did not handle the matter well, Arnold was prepared to do "whatever it takes" to win the battle.

8. Don’t underestimate unanticipated consequences
At Saratoga, both sides were only trying to win a battle. But the consequences of that battle extended far beyond the fields of Saratoga. France had been sitting on the sidelines, waiting to make the decision of whether to side with the Americans in their confrontation with the British. Gates' victory was the signal they needed. For Gates it was an unintentional consequence. But the Americans knew they desperately needed a major ally in this war. And I'd bet that somewhere in the back of his mind, General Gates understood that success in the project at hand might lead to cascading events that would yield major benefits.

Before Saratoga things were not going well for the American cause. Their victories had been few and had not had the lasting impact needed to change their fortunes. The Battle of Saratoga was the turning point. The errors in the planning and execution of the British plan coupled with competent execution by the Americans led to the surrender of the "invincible" Army of the King to a ragtag bunch of American farmers, businessmen and other ordinary citizens.

While they didn't think of themselves as project managers, the leaders on both sides were engaged in a major, long-term project with crucial consequences. The Americans, who successfully utilized important project management skills are my hero project managers of American history.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Captain Derek Silvercloud, Hero, Team Leader Extraordinaire

I'm a fan of science fiction. I love the way future technical, social and myriad other possibilities can be woven into stories that tell us about who we are and who we might be. But I've never been much of a fan of the fantasy side of science fiction. You know, with all the magic and elves and such.

I recently found myself reading just such a science fiction/fantasy novel, though. Actually, I started reading it once and, as soon as I encountered the elves and the magic, I put it aside. I am so glad I came back to it. Otherwise, I would have missed a fun reading experience centered around an almost perfect (he's only human, after all) example of a great team leader.

The book is Voidhawk by Jason Halstead and is available on Amazon in hard copy or as an eBook. It's the story (actually Book 1 of 4) of the captain and crew of the good ship Voidhawk as they sail the Void seeking a livelihood and finding plenty of adventure to go along with it.

In project management, servant leadership is a powerful concept for developing and leading a powerful project team. Captain Silvercloud  epitomizes that concept. Some examples (based on principles detailed in Absolute Beginner's Guide to Project Management,also available on Amazon) are:

  • He always seeks to find what he can do to help his crew be successful at their jobs. He understands that he can't sail the ship on his own.
  • He is always willing to listen to his crew. He shows remarkable patience with them, whether he agrees with their comments or not. He's smart enough to know that he may have to deal with the situation suggested by the comment regardless of how he feels about it.
  • He puts himself in the others' situation and tries to understand how to make his interests also serve their interests.
  • He accepts responsibility for the team's results. He takes initiative and steps into action when situations develop that are a threat to his team and their mission.
  • He encourages collaboration and trust in all team members. Each team member is empowered to take action when they feel it is required for the success of the team.
  • He fosters growth and improvement in every team member. Each individual is encouraged to find and use the unique skills that they can bring to the team.
  • He seeks input and feedback from the team and any others whose interests are associated with the interests of the team. While he accepts the responsibility for making the decisions, he solicits team input to his decision making process.
  • He finds ways to gain acceptance and action from team members and other's through influence and persuasion. Manipulation is avoided (except on the bad guys, of course, he's not perfect).
  • He brightly illuminates a principle of strong integrity and uses his power in a strong but ethical way.
Following these principles, Captain Silvercloud takes a collection of leftover and salvaged equipment and people gathered from some unlikely sources and melds them into a ship and crew that is fiercely loyal to one another. The story illustrates that, in a collaborative and encouraging environment, even the least likely candidate can express a special talent that is of enormous value to the team.

It may not be classic literature and it does have a few problems, mostly editing. For instance, I think someone could have easily caught some of the typos with just one quick reading of the book. From what I've seen, this is a problem shared with many newer publications, but I still don't think it should be acceptable.

If you are a project manager (or not!) and you are looking for a fun read with a little magic and adventure, then here is a great choice  Add in consideration of the relevant pointers on leadership and team building and I think this would be a very enjoyable combination of diversion and educational experience.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Snoozing Projects

Over on  Gantthead.comWai Mun Koo posted an interesting article. In Snoozing Projects:, Wai Mun talks about the "Snooze Button Effect". Most of us have fallen into that morning trap. How many times have we taken "just" another 9 minutes, fully knowing that we should have gotten up when we said we should and gotten on with our day.

Here's part of his article:

Snoozing Projects

“Beep! … Beep! … Beep! …”
The cacophonous sound of the dreaded alarm clock pierced through my tympanic membranes shattering another ‘millionaire dream’ that I was having a moment ago. I wished I could have a gigantic hammer nearby to plunge the final silencing blow to the cussed alarm clock. “Time to wake up”, a voice echoed inside me. Reluctantly, I dragged myself out of the cozy queen-size bed to reach for the ‘Snooze’ button on the clock. I was glad that I have this ingenious snooze function in the new alarm clock that I bought recently (the previous one failed to survive the assault of a flying pillow). “Another five minutes”, I told myself. Then another five minutes after another five minutes and it went on and on…

In controlled amounts, in the mornings, it might not seem so bad. But one snooze today so easily becomes two snoozes tomorrow. At its worst, Wai Mun reminds us of the people who set the clock to alarm an hour earlier than required just so they can snooze through that extra hour. Neither he nor I know what is contained in that hour of repeated 9-minute snoozes, but for some people, it is irresistible.

The biggest problem with the snooze effect is that it is not limited to just waking up in the morning. We become addicted to it in all facets of our lives if we are not careful. And project managers may be especially vulnerable to it. Wai Mun points not only at the habit of constantly pushing the deadline "just a few days" further out, but also the practice of building "pad" time into the schedule as examples of the "Snooze Button Effect" in project management.

If we want to be Hero Project Managers, then we need to learn to discipline ourselves to avoid the Snooze Button. Work to finish on schedule without relying on "creeping" the deadline date to make us more comfortable. You may miss more deadlines that way, but you'll gain the discipline to be better at meeting them.

And, design honest schedules. Do your best to understand how much effort it will take to complete a project, know what the probabilities are that you can meet that schedule and lay it all on the table in advance.

Let's all strive to be Hero Project Managers.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Costs and Risks on Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline

For several years I worked on the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, first as a surveyor and later as a systems analyst. A few weeks ago, in my Controlling Project Costs and Risks class at University of California San Diego, we were assigned to write a short paper connecting a project with the class material. I chose to write about the pipeline project.

This was such a huge project, just the fact that it got completed implies that there were some heroes on the project management team. Think about up to 25,000 people working along a more than 800 mile long project completing hundreds of tasks that, in the everyday world, would be a large project in their own right. And, doing it all in some of the most extreme terrain and climate conditions to be found on earth.

I must admit, when I was there on the job, I didn't fully appreciate some of the points that I discuss in my paper. For instance, I always thought some of the personnel accommodations were, let's say, over-the-top. But, looking at it from the standpoint of managing costs and risks, I can see where it was probably less expensive to trade a little extravagance for the benefit of eliminating (almost) the possibility of work stoppages.

Here is my report, on which, by the way, I got a very good grade.

Controlling Costs and Risks in Construction of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline

I hope you find it interesting.

I've written some of stories about my experiences on that job (and other experiences). Check them out at Weoka Creek to Sag River, and More: Stories From the Journey.