Viewing Posts by Graham Briggs
This past winter I helped coach a recreational league high school basketball team for my son. I am always up for the challenge of coaching a youth sport for our town. Over the years, I have coached lacrosse, soccer, baseball, and most recently basketball. There are many challenges to a successful season, and at this level success isn’t always defined as how many wins a team can get. It sure helps with morale, but the most important gauge of success is that a player has become a better player playing for the team I coached. That being said, I find myself pulling from my Project Management background in so many areas. Utilizing the practice of initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing the work has helped tremendously in making the whole experience for the other coaches, the players, and the parents a smooth and enjoyable one. I thought it would be fun to look at the areas that I have pulled from.
Initiating can be hectic. Luckily, most of the parents and other coaches also realize that the number of wins isn’t the only way to have a successful season. This all starts way before a team is actually put together. We need to meet with the full league, secure gym time, set up a way for players to sign up, and figuring out and coordinating the practice and game schedules.
Planning, for me, is the fun part. We finally are ready with lists of players and it’s time for tryouts. Similarly to hiring an employee that you are going to work with on projects, we always focus on how coachable the kids are. This doesn’t mean that they are the best at the sport, but it means that they are ready and willing to learn. The same goes for business. If everyone focused on all stars for projects, we may do well on that one project, but it is important to also train other players for other projects and for the future. A good project team is a blend of experienced, motivated individuals with multiple skills. On a basketball team, we want everyone to come to practice with an open mind. Sure, it helps to have teammates who can shoot and score, but it sure helps having someone that may be good at defense, or great at bench morale. These all make for a great team and a fun experience.
Executing comes in many forms, especially during a season. Each game requires execution; from the players and the coaches. On a project team, executing well allows the team to succeed at their ultimate goal of successfully finishing the project on time and on budget. Executing plays is what is required of the players, while figuring out player matchups and what the other team may be throwing at us is what is required of the coaches.
Controlling in terms of a sports team can be broken down in a couple of different parts. Off the field, there are a lot of moving parts, most of which are coordinating various schedules, vacations, carpooling, and the occasional sicknesses… making sure that we have enough players to play in each game. On the field, or court in the case of basketball, we as coaches must look at the players as individual parts of the team. We need to ensure that they are not getting worn out, not getting into foul trouble, and, ideally, trying to control the other team enough to win the game. I did mention that winning isn’t everything, but it sure is part of a competitive sport.
Closing the season out can be in the form of a playoff run. But, more than that, it is important to make sure that the team’s goals have been satisfied and hopefully a handful of them are willing to come back for another season. Having a team that has been together for one year can drastically help ease startup of the next season. On a project team, there will be turnover due to promotions, change of job, retirement, etc… but making sure that they are all motivated to be successful again on another new project is the ultimate goal.
In conclusion, project management practices help me make my personal and professional lives much easier to handle. If anything, from coaching a sport or being part of a project management team, it has allowed me to break down a sometimes daunting task to one that is much more manageable and enjoyable. Applied in judicious amounts, I believe project management practices will also help you: at work, in the community and at home.
Traveling as much as I do, I have learned that airports don’t have to be the worst, most stressful place to be during a delayed flight. Sure, I could wax poetic about my top five favorite airports and of course the least favorite airports, but I think anyone who flies has those lists ready for conversation. I am writing this post to highlight one particular occasion that occurred a few weeks ago and how it impacted not only my day and night, but most importantly my personal relationships at home.
Those of you in the U.S., have probably heard about the Delta Airlines delays that affected the whole country in April of this year. If you didn’t hear about it, it might be due to the other airline controversies that took over the news. I fly pretty regularly and was headed home on a Thursday evening traveling from Atlanta to Boston. As soon as the weather turned for the worse earlier that day, the delays started piling up. When I arrived at the airport, my flight was already delayed and scheduled to leave 5 hours later so I figured I may as well make myself comfortable and get a bite to eat. As I walked into the Terminal, I saw more people and longer lines than I have ever seen in Atlanta (and that’s saying a lot for such a very busy airport), so I knew it was going to be a long night.
I got through security and located my gate and the closest restaurant. As I sat down to order, I listened to all the chatter from everyone around me. Eventually, I ended up getting into a great conversation with the person sitting next to me. Within a few minutes, we found that we both had the same job title but at different companies in the Northeast. Immediately we shared business stories, some strategies about how we handle varying situations, and overall the conversation was going great.
When we were out of business topics, we started talking about family and how we were both excited to get home to see them (whenever that may be due to the delays). It turned out that he and I had daughters of similar age (9 and 10). After going through some of our fun anecdotal stories, sharing pictures of our kids and so on, the conversation turned to a computer game called Minecraft - a virtual world where the player either joins in an existing location or builds their own version. Since I have an older son who played this years ago I was familiar with it, but had never understood the draw to it. I found the graphics weren’t nearly as nice as other games, the directions were sometimes difficult to understand, and overall I was unable to understand why my son was wasting so much time playing it. But my newly found friend had a whole different outlook. He saw tremendous benefits from this game and was more than happy to explain them to me. I was fascinated that there was so much more to it than I ever knew, such as how a young person can develop insights into their physical worlds as well as even some basic Project Management techniques.
As the dinner ended and we parted ways, I knew I had to learn more about this game and see if my daughter knew anything about what he was talking about. Eighteen hours later as I arrived home, right about the same time my daughter did from school (yes, the flight delays were indeed brutal enough to push my arrival home by a day), I started asking questions about the game. I was mesmerized by how much she knew and how to play it. She has a whole virtual world she created and plays in with a good friend. Since that day, she has even creatively built a house out of blocks to my specifications in her virtual world.
If you have gotten this far into my article, you may be wondering, “Why is he writing this story?” Here’s why: it made me realize missed or delayed airline connections provide an opportunity to make many other valuable connections. Since that adventure, I now regularly listen to my daughter explain her virtual world, its latest “crisis” and how she plans to address it. Just this morning she was trying to save one of her virtual animals from falling off of a cliff!
It saddens me that I can’t take back all the time years ago when I naïvely dismissed my son’s interests in Minecraft rather than using it to become closer to him and learn more about his character. It has certainly opened a whole new connection between my daughter and me. Those of you with young, inquisitive children the age of mine know it is sometimes difficult to get beyond one-word answers when trying to connect or engage in discussion. . My daughter and I now discuss the challenges and happiness she experiences in her virtual world, giving me insights I would never have gained otherwise. I have the feeling the same is true for her.
So, the next time you miss an airline connection and are trying to pass the time, I hope you too are able to make a new connection, learn from that temporary travelling colleague and then apply the lesson with someone much closer to you at home. You never know how it may change your life - it changed mine!
The other day I was staying at my townhouse in Minnesota and was looking for something to eat for dinner. I searched the cabinets and refrigerator and settled on grilling a cheeseburger. Then the realization came to me that the task would be slightly difficult. Using a grill during the winter in the Midwest is possible when it is cold out, but this specific night it was -4F (with a “feels-like” temperature of -24F). So, while possible it is not the most inviting thing to do. So, I thought of my options and decided that I could make it inside on the stove. I thought to myself how hard could it be? When I was a kid, my mom always made cheeseburgers on the stove. And, while my mom has many amazing qualities and talents, let’s just say cooking is not necessarily at the top of the list.
Cooking started out fine. I cooked one side of the burger. When I lifted the lid of the frying pan and flipped the patty over there was some smoke coming from the pan, but nothing out of the ordinary. When I walked back to the stove to flip the burger back over, the “nothing out of the ordinary” smoke could only be described as being like a thick fog rolling in off of the ocean, or in this case billowing through the first floor of the townhouse.
I realized that the smoke detectors were going to go off if I didn’t act quickly. I obviously didn’t act fast enough because they went off one by one… since they were all connected. First floor, second floor, garage… While I was dashing around trying to figure out how to fan out the first floor I got really nervous about all of the other consequences of this smoke and the smoke detectors. For example, since the townhouse is in a community with other attached units and there are smoke detectors AND sprinklers in the ceiling, I wondered whether the sprinklers would go off and soak everything, not only in my townhouse but in the others around me? I managed to let the fog roll out by opening the garage door and front door to get a good cross breeze and slowly but surely the smoke detectors stopped. Besides it being a bit cold in the townhouse for a little while the crisis was diverted.
It got me thinking about the purpose of a smoke detector. And, at this point you may be wondering, “Why is he writing about this in a project management blog?” While I was grabbing my jacket to stay warm while the smoke subsided I started to think about the purpose of a smoke detector. It is to keep us safe and to alert us of potential fire. It isn’t a fire yet, but it is a system that is meant to tell us if we don’t act quickly we may have a fire. There isn’t a guarantee that the smoke will ever lead to flame, but it is certainly possible. And, because of technology, the connected systems give notice that something isn’t right and can alert the other systems around us.
In Project Management, we have a lot of different “smoke detectors” we employ purposefully or perhaps are there already even though we may not realize it. For example, we have Total Float in a schedule. This can alert us that activities on the Critical Path of a project could cause problems, but aren’t necessarily causing issues yet. Another example is Project Status Meetings. These meetings aren’t scheduled so we can sit around and tell each other what we have accomplished and in some cases waste our time, but to give the Project Team the opportunity to all meet and discuss potential areas of concern. In our personal and professional daily life, if you think about it, I believe there are a lot of areas where we can find our own “smoke detectors”.
So, tonight, when you are sitting around your house thinking, “I sure am glad I don’t have Graham here cooking dinner for me!”, also consider what types of detectors and alarms you may have on your projects and where you may want to add a few more. Getting to the smoke before there is flame can be a tremendous sigh of relief in the end.
As most of you are aware, the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines Project Management as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.” After a summer of fun, I couldn’t help but think that while I manage projects in various areas in my business life, I am surrounded by successful Project Managers every day in my personal life, and so are others. Each and every day you can pick up any newspaper and read a story about projects that were completed, but Project Management is often used as a “scapegoat”. Sure, there are tons of successful projects and most are because Project Management was timely because the Project teams focus on meeting or beating cost, schedule, or scope. But, it made me wonder why we fail so often at something we do so frequently.
So, back to my summer of fun. I had the opportunity to do so many things with my family. Each and every summer I get to go to my favorite place on earth, Chatham, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. I am fortunate to have a close group of family members who are able to join every year. There are the usual 15-20 cousins, aunts, and uncles, but we also are lucky enough to have another 15-20 family members who come every few years. Why am I telling you all of this? It’s because I had an epiphany with regards to how much Project Management comes into play when this week comes around. I thought it would be fun to look at the five process groups that entail Project Management Processes (Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring/Controlling, and Closing) and how they really make a successful trip.
As an aside, my immediate family can identify with others living with a Project Manager, especially because of my usual PM focus, but there are occasions where it comes in handy. To give you an idea of how far I have gone, a few years ago I created a spreadsheet for our Disney World visit. You may laugh out loud or more than likely roll your eyes at this point, but I stand by my idiosyncrasies because my family each had requests of what they wanted to see and what they wanted to do. With some timely use of the processes I have learned through the years, everyone was able to see what they wished to see; be it a princess, a parade, or the Pirates of the Caribbean theme ride.
For those who don’t know about Chatham or Cape Cod, it can be treated like any other vacation spot and has tourist traps galore. With upwards of 40 family members all vacationing at once, planning is of utmost importance to avoid those tourist traps. So, on to the initiating phase. There are a handful of us that have been coming here for over 35 years so we usually are the ones who focus on some of the requirements. My older cousin and I usually are the ones who try to sort through all of these requirements since we are part of the original group. However, it’s not to say that we make all of the decisions without input. We need to make sure we take into consideration some of the constraints. This includes pleasing the younger cousins who always have a say in where we go and what they want to see. And there are also the older family members who may have some restrictions such as how mobile they are so care needs to be taken in where we go for some of the all-in family nights (bbq’s, beach nights, and dinner locations). Meeting both the young and the old is always a challenge, but usually dictates the execution, or whatever the activity is, of each phase.
With the use of text messages, plain old sticky notes and scratched notes on sides of old newspapers, we are always able to monitor and control how things are going. And one of the most efficient and relaxing ways of planning at the end of each night is to sit around a fire pit, roasting s’mores or enjoying ice cream and discussing not only how things went that day, but also looking ahead to the next few days. For the newcomers, the veterans of our family vacation always give options based on feedback to try for the next day. All of these Project Management tools come into play way more than I ever thought about. And, with most project close outs it is done with handshakes, hugs and the soon to be patented, “Corcoran sendoff”.
So, what makes all of this possible each and every year with so many people? It is due to the strength of family, but it is also due to the PM skills inherent in us as Project Managers. We are able to successfully get the most out of vacation each and every time because of the process. Sure, we don’t follow the PMBOK for each and everything we do in life, but it sure helps us all in areas that aren’t necessarily sitting at a desk or on a project site. Next time you set out on a family vacation I implore you to think of this approach and see if it might help avoid some sad faces, just like you want to avoid those faces in your professional life.
I was thinking the other day about a seminar I went to a number of years ago. It was about presenting to groups of people and the best approaches to take. It was a two day crash course in learning techniques - the ins and outs of using MS PowerPoint to the best of its ability and how to find ways to keep the audience engaged. It was enlightening to me to find so many areas that I could improve upon with simple changes or modifications to how I already present. I must admit that I still need lots of practice, but it was a great start. It helped me present at a PMI LIM conference in Vancouver. It has enabled me to realize that I can constantly tweak my approach in order to better present the material, whether it’s a slideshow or computer-based training.
Another part of the presentation that they gave to us was the margin of error between 1st and 2nd place in a number of areas is usually under 2%. Let me try to give an explanation of what they meant by 2%. If you are providing a bid for a job it is more than likely going to come down to a 2% difference between the group that won the job and the runner-up. As you watch the Olympics this summer the difference between a Gold Medal and Silver Medal in swimming events or track and field events is going to be less than a 2% variance. So, why do I think about the 2% very often? Well, in the business realm I equate it to a number of areas.
As leaders and/or project managers, we are likely going to be involved in putting together a proposal or presenting the proposal to a client. This is where the 2% can help you. Take a third or fourth look at the proposal package and see if there are areas to improve. I think you will be surprised at how many things can be improved upon with only slight modifications and not take too much more of your time.
However, some of the improvements will not be so obvious. I think that sometimes we get into a routine where training, while extremely important, can be perceived as time consuming or taking away from where the “money is made”.
Let me address the word training to perhaps get you to think about it in a different light. If you are a novice athlete, or perhaps you like to follow a favorite professional athlete, you will find that training for a soccer game may not involve a soccer field and in some cases may not even involve a soccer ball. Athletes train for a sporting event by doing other things. Some may choose to run or lift weights to get in shape, some may choose to study film or notes on the opponent before facing them, and others may even play a different sport altogether in order to work muscle groups that aren’t part of the sport they compete in.
Now, let’s compare that same approach to business. If you are a project manager, it may help you to read books and attend training sessions on project management, but it also can’t hurt to try to cross-train your mind and take a leadership course or even an administrative course to brush up on typing skills. For me, I am constantly looking to cross-train in a multitude of areas. By education, I have my Bachelor’s Degree and Professional Engineering License in Civil/Environmental Engineering, but I found early on in my career that I constantly liked to learn new things so I decided to jump into consulting roles in various areas, most of which had nothing to do with my formal education. I loved it and once I took the jump I felt comfortable in my surroundings and could make a positive contribution. I also realized that cross-training helped me find ways of understanding the many facets of things. Now, the cross-training that I did in those situations was long-term and obviously took time to accomplish great things. However, there are quicker, easier ways to improve. For example, every few weeks I jump onto an app that pulls all types of articles and stories from various magazines and websites. I always am able to find great articles by a variety of authors and save them on our company’s shared drive for everyone to view. These articles range in topics from leadership, to self-improvement, and even as far-fetched as lifehacks for around the house or office.
It’s amazing to me that going to a two-day seminar for presentations would lead to so many future changes in my career - and even my life for that matter. I guess it was all about how they took the extra 2% in how they presented to get me hooked on improving, I find if I constantly try to reach for areas where I can improve, I will always be striving to be on the top of the 2% variance and not wishing I had done more after the fact. What are some things you do to improve and/or to stay on top in your position?