Sunday, June 16, 2019

Manage the white space

You've got a team to manage; until you don't
Keeping the team together promotes cohesiveness, intra-team loyalties, and productivity (no investment required to introduce new players and relationships). But, if there's too much slack -- i.e. downtime or "whitespace" --  you might lose your team.

But, keeping you team begs the question: How to keep everyone busy all the time so as to fend off raiders looking for resources?  In the popular vernacular of project management, keeping everyone productively busy means actively managing their downtime, aka 'white space', between and amongst their planned activities.

Whitespace methodologies
In organizations that are aggressively matrix managed, one approach to 'white space' management is to reassign people to another project with the intention of just a short assignment to 'keep them off the overhead' and always on 'billable hours'.  Of course, such practice breaks up the team for a short time so it kind of flies in the face of cohesiveness, team accomplishment, and team metrics.

And, aggressive matrix management assumes the F.W. Taylor model of management science: jobs can be filled by anyone qualified for the job description... interchangeable parts, as it were. In the era of team work where teams recruit their members, Taylorism is an anathema. Thus, aggressive matrix management is likewise seen as anti-team.

That all brings us to another approach -- more popular these days -- which is: manage the white space by managing the team backlog.
  • Make sure that the backlog has all the technical debt and low priority requirements present and accounted for so that they can be fit to the white space opportunity.
  • Develop and maintain a "parking lot" for off-baseline opportunities that might fit in the white space
  • So also bring in mock testing, special event prototyping, and, of course, that bane of all:
  • Maintenance of team records.
What does it cost?
One consequence of managing by teams: the cost is known, predictable, and relatively fixed. Each team has a running cost, and so the total cost closely approximates the sum of the number of teams x the running cost of each.

Affordable value
Of course, is the team affordable? Many PMs are not comfortable with the project staff being a fixed cost. They would much rather have more granular control. I get it, but the here's the main point about cost:
The cost of a project is not its value; in a "good project", value greatly exceeds cost

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Risk: the second thing you do

Managing risk?
Can you imagine there's risk to manage?

Here's the second thing you do:
  • Evaluate the slack ... 
What's to evaluate?
  • You might think the most important thing about slack is how much is there; what do I have to work with? Nope
  • Whatever you've got, the most important thing is sequence and position. Where in the course of events are you going to position slack so that it works to your greatest advantage?
Slack makes the first thing possible
  • We all know that the first thing in risk management is loosen the coupling.
  • Slack is the mechanism for such loosening
Where to position slack?
  • At the end (of a schedule or task)
  • Between joins of physical units (if expansion allowance is necessary)
  • Wherever timing is critical
It's not to wasted
Apart from overly tight coupling, poor positioning or sequencing of slack is a resource wasted. And, it will cost you otherwise to substitute an alternate resource!

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Monday, June 10, 2019

Performance; experience; wisdom; track record

 “You do not write your life with words...You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.” (*)
Patrick Ness 
What you do adds up
Getting promoted? Hopefully not to your level of incompetence!
Want to get promoted? Most do.

What's needed: a personal track record; as Ness would say: a record of what you do.
  • Personal performance over time
  • An accumulation of experience
  • Demonstration of wisdom
About wisdom and experience
Hopefully, you recognize the linkage of the last two: wisdom derives from experience, but wisdom only derives from the experiences of both success and failure
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
About performance  
Laurie Harvey has an idea on this: KPIs for success , meaning KPIs for personal success as a project manager. In her essay, Harvey makes one big point up front:
When performance is lacking, everyone knows it; when performance is on par, it may not be noticed .... until it is.

KPIs for success
So, what's par for the PM? What goes into the personal track record?
Harvey looks at these as instrumental to a winning track record, stuff that will get noticed over time
  • Delivery according to expectations
  • Budget acumen
  • Process improvements
  • Relationships and communication
  • Risk management
  • Customer orientation
And for the MBAs among us
Harvey's list is all good stuff; all project oriented. If you're going for a big promotion, my advice: Add to Harvey's list your competence with the business side. A good place to start is the Balanced Scorecard -- Measures that Drive Performance. But that's another story.

(*)  Another way to express Ness' idea: Be consequential!
But consequential actions could be writing (consequential writing is an action, in spite of Ness').

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Friday, June 7, 2019

The core of knowledge

... statistics is what tells you if something is true, false, or merely anecdotal; ... it is the instrument of risk-taking
Statistical and applied probabilistic knowledge is the core of knowledge;
Nassim Taleb

You got to hand to the guy: he is passionate about his subject.

Of course, he's also the first person to tell you that his most infamous invention, the "Black Swan", is black - - that is, extraordinarily rare - - because there are no statistics to predict it.

Statistics in the PMO
Two of the more useful properties of statistics are these:
  • They are are surrogates of a past track record; thus, handy for estimating
  • They are persistent in the sense that they are survivors: wait weeks or months and if the circumstances haven't changed, neither have the statistics. Thus, your story doesn't change with time, an idea called "stationary".
Rules of thumb
For project purposes, rules of thumb may be as useful as actual statistical analysis:
  • There's shift-right bias at milestones; milestones are inherently weak objects in the schedule
  • Diversification follows the "square-root-of-N" rule: diversify into 4 independent events, and get a 2:1 improvement in risk (square root of 4 is 2)
  • "Expected value" -- which is a risk weighted average -- is usually more pessimistic, and therefore more conservative, than "most likely" value" (the single value with highest individual probability)
  • "Expected utility value" is not objective, and subject to many biases (utility is a weighting according to usefulness)
  • Independent events tend to centrally cluster--the theory of central tendency
  • A sample of a large population can be an economic approach that saves time and money

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Monday, June 3, 2019

Showing confidence

Making a presentation?
Speaking to a large group?

Are you confident?
Yes? Good show! Hopefully, your audience will think so also.

Mike Clayton has a helpful posting about behaviors during your presentation that will go along with projecting confidence to your audience. Helpfully, Clayton says it takes less than 2 minutes to read it.

Here are two ideas I like, especially the first on about hands. I've personally made that a "must do" and its proven very helpful

Keep them still. Fight the fidget. Take everything out of your pockets (if you have them) to avoid the temptation to play with them. And if there's nothing in your pocket - don't play with it.

Slow down. Nervous people hurry. With speakers I also talk about the power pause, to get and hold attention.
TED-talks: See this stuff in action. View some TED-talks and watch for the confidence projection techniques. You'll find Clayton's advice is universally practiced.

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Friday, May 31, 2019

Project Bulls**t

Many fine books have been written about 'bull' and its excrement, 'bulls**t' (*). Indeed, such may go back to at least the 17th century, if not before, as written into plays and documents of the era.

And so, is it any surprise that, four centuries on, many in the PM profession pride themselves as good bulls**t detectors, having the cultural training to recognize such that comes from a lifetime of exposure and experience?

Indeed, no less an eminence than Harry Frankfurt, a distinguished moral philosopher and professor emeritus at Princeton has been quoted (**):
"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit"

Lies vs bulls**t
But here's the important matter: project success depends on trustful and trusting relationships -- no news there -- and trust, in turn, depends on a track record of truthfulness. Amen to that, to be sure.

Can the bulls**ters be trusted? Are they truthful?
And, in the same vein, what of the liar?
Distinctions without a difference?

Not the same! Not so fast!
If we can pretty well detect bulls**t, and see through to the truth, is there any real harm done?
What about lies?

Frankfurt goes on (paraphrasing):
The essence of bulls**t is that it is produced without concern for the truth. Indeed, it need not be false, even though the perpetrator is faking knowledge (a stopped clock is right at least twice a day). That is, the bulls**ter is indifferent to the truth .... could be right; could be wrong; doesn't care.

The liar, on the other hand, has a very good handle on the truth which he/she purposely tries to hide or obfuscate. Indeed, the liar is quite sensitive to the truth, not indifferent, and wants to lead us away from it.

Caring or not caring
The liar cares deeply about the truth; the bulls**ter doesn't. At the end of the day, who is the greater threat? Frankfurt would have you believe it's the bulls**ter; I'm not so sure.

The bulls**ter, once identified, can be written off to exaggeration, but not willful deceit.
The liar is willfully deceitful.

In my PMO, if I have the insight to choose, I'm going to take the bulls**ter. My idea is that perhaps there is useful person to be rescued, untainted by a willful disregard for truth.
(*) "On bullshit" by Frankfurt (2005); "On Lying" by St Augustine;  "Your call is important to us; The truth about bullshit" by Penny
(**) Essay: "Say Anything" in the book "When Einstein walked with Goedel" by Holt

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Mystery, secrecy, and privacy

This blog is not about politics, so we'll keep to the knitting and wax on about mystery, secrecy, and privacy in the project management domain.

For today's screed, I took a few thoughts from an unlikely source of PM advice I found in an 2013 article by Jill LePore entitled "The Prism" (a term in the news of that time)

I, for one, had not thought a lot about the subtle but substantive differences of our three title terms insofar as they have their individual effects on governance, understanding, communications, and perhaps even innovation.

By Ms LePore's reckoning, we can divine the following:

  • Mystery is knowledge held by a very few, perhaps only one -- the project's "Almighty" -- with the intent of creating a mystique around the idea or the individual. In other words, the mystical knowledge has no overt operational purpose since it is never to be revealed on acted upon. It's all about aura and mystification.

    Politicians love mystery and mystique, isolating them a bit from challenges. Autocrats love mystery too: mystique amplifies power. And, believe or not, the marketing department loves mystique -- mystique sells!
  • Secrecy is the way we compartmentalize knowledge intended to be acted upon and drive operational outcomes -- but only by a selected few actors.

    For whatever reason, secrecy can move the project forward when otherwise acting in a fishbowl with this knowledge is judged to be ineffective... some will be inhibited from full discourse; others embarrassed to show weakness or ignorance; and some will use the information against us.

    In business, secrecy often goes by the name "proprietary". In projects, to take one example -- but there are many legitimate examples -- competitive proposals are always held secretly from the competition.

    And, the flip side is that if your project is in receipt of proposals from vendors vying for your business, then you need project protocols to protect their competitive secrets.
  • Privacy is about our own stuff, our own thoughts, and our own biases that we can live with but choose not to share. Although we are social in our relationships, everyone needs their moment and place of privacy.
    (See: issues with open space project space)

    Of course, sometimes privacy crosses over into a personal secrecy to compartment things you are doing. That's where the trouble begins because governance, understanding, communications, and perhaps even innovation are surely threatened by personal secrecy just as official secrecy can have debilitating effects.
Bureaucracy begets mystery
Mystery accumulates around bureaucracy, whether intended or not. The larger the structure the more mysterious are those in the head office -- including, by the way, the PMO. Open door policies and other communications are partial anecdotes, but the real anecdote is a flat organization.

Mystery can be a tool
On the other hand, companies exploit mystery to create an aura in the marketplace and enhance their competitive posture, especially on competitive project proposals. Every proposal I ever led had a marketing guy attached whose job was not only to develop information on the competition but also to create mystery in the marketplace -- scaring the competition and attracting the prospective customer.

Secrecy requires definition
Secrecy is about deliberate compartmentalization. And "deliberate" is the operative term. To be deliberate requires definition in advance of the criteria to invoke compartmentalization. In some domains, the requirements and definition come by contract and are imposed on the project. But there's also a lot of proprietary activity -- see pharma R&D for instance -- where corporate secrecy abounds.

Privacy is a late comer
In the genealogy of these things, privacy is a late comer. As mystery became less religious and more secular as Europe exited the Dark Ages, privacy in personal affairs became more of a main stream idea. But in the United States, it did not acquire a legal definition until late in the 19th century. Now, projects have to address privacy issues left and right, and with all manner of cultural and geo considerations. And, the culture of privacy is a shifting ground, so projects are always in a demand-driven mode vis privacy requirements.

In some respects privacy is a wicked requirement: circular, no apparent point of entry, and self conflicting in many respects. No small matter as you try to contain scope, cost, and meet milestones!

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