Project Management

PM Marginalia

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This blog is about many different topics you encounter every day as project managers. I believe my experience, knowledge and observations will be useful for your professional development, and I hope that this blog may become a good platform for discussions on topics like management, emotional intelligence, agile, leadership, project management methodologies, IT project management and more.

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Managing chaos

Let it flow or Two questions for Agile

The seven deadly sins of leadership

Technical leadership

Managing chaos

Categories: Leadership

Do you remember when  you find yourself in the depth of chaos at work last time? It could be when you just jumped into the ongoing project, which was previously led by another manager or when disaster-like events happened. Do you remember this feeling of disorder, anxiety and stress? I guess that is the worst part of our profession. So here I want you to meet my list of hints on how not to get bogged down but keep moving forward.

1. Seek and destroy real blockers

The first thing we should check is what should be done but isn't. It is not only where the progress stopped, it is also what this stop affects. When defining blockers check if they are real. Not every stop may be caused by problems you cannot resolve on your own: for instance, if you can avoid interrupting the development process using rearrangements of works, it is not a blocker. Even if you found a truly creative or complicated solution for the situation it means it wasn’t a real blocker.
So you got your blockers. Let’s not pretend that almost always they can be resolved through escalating. Prepare a detailed description of situation, risks and proposal for variety of scenarios and be ready to roll according to the upper-level management decisions.

2. Check understanding

Knowing what to do is nearly 80% of success. If you want to get something you will get something, but the first something could be vastly different from the second one. Every moment of being in a manager role should be full of thorough understanding of what to do. Spread your understanding of what to do, of what your goal is onto every team member. Make sure that everyone gets the gist of your messages every time and don’t be shy to correct somebody when hearing distorted insights.

3. Set milestones

Life is cruel to upfront predictions: plans against reality is almost always like the first piglet’s house of straw against wolf's blowing. However reality is even more harsh. While building a good-quality bricked plan you have a great chance to be devoured by a wolf as he won’t wait until it is done. The last chance for a piglet is to run away. What I propose to do is to set milestones on the escape roadmap.
Three tips for this point

  • Mind all the known risks while setting milestones. 
  • Set responsible for every milestone. 
  • Remember about the phenomenon of planning fallacy.

4. Control carefully

Checking how things are going is the most art-like manager skill. It doesn’t matter who you are: the X-model or the Y-model manager. The very first thing you should do is to define the progress controlling process for everyone you want control and to reach the agreement about it. It is just one of the rules of the game helping not only to make it clear but to avoid creating an additional emotional pressure or distracting colleagues. What should be defined here is up to the situation but commonly they are the interval (daily,weekly, monthly) and the format (from a structured report to a freeform spoken reply).

5. Stay neutral-positive

State of mind might be a decisive aspect of whatever you do. In spite of you might think of it is neither about positive thinking nor only about you. What I want to say here is the baseline of your vision should be about creating an atmosphere of reasonable confidence in the result achievability. Bad things can happen for sure, but they should not make you or any team member unstable. Be steady and radiate positive confidence.

6. Be ready to jump into pool of details to the depth of decision-making

Some managers think that technical details are only for experts. Typical misconception. Of course experts must be the most skilled and experienced team members in a specific area. Still managers as minimum should have a basic knowledge in a certain area of projects they manage and be well informed for making reasonable and safety decisions. Don’t be afraid to get into the technical details.
 
Instead of conclusion 

My path of managing began from the chaos and I acted like a headless chicken in the beginning. Next decade was about becoming more consistent and confident through collecting my chaos antidote checklist. Some cases can still take me by surprise. Yet deeply inside I feel that this list will help me in the next decade but it is going to be extended. Stay tuned and in 10 years you will get a brand-new post with next six tips.
 

Posted on: July 05, 2020 02:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Let it flow or Two questions for Agile

Categories: Agile

Agile is popular more than ever before. Is it  a magic pill? My experience of using Agile at more than 50 teams forced me to say NO. What can be a reason for being Agile restricted? What is the first thing we should start with to use it relevant and wisely? I want you to meet two simple questions that can help you to define when Agile can help you to be more effective in building your product.

When Agile is good?

Answer 1: No detailed requirements, only vision is enabled

It is quite typical to have only an uncertain customer-level requirement like “An app which can help you with your housekeeping routines”. Nobody knows how exactly a final product has to look, nor anybody understands what is a certain way to create it. Therefore, one of the key activity types will be iteratively defining requirements for the most profitable way to provide clients with the best user experience. Agile is good when what you’re doing is breaking new ground.

Answer 2: Researching via checking hypotheses as an iterational development process

This point is the consequence of the previous one. Still it is more about the process, not the result. We all know that the best way to create the best product is in continuously improving. As you can read in any agile-oriented book this methodology is about letting us maneuver. So the most powerful and effective way to improve a product via maneuver: checking hypotheses. Every hypothesis brings us closer to the final product within every single iteration of creating it.

Answer 3: The proper environment and outer services are provided

The agile team must be focused on the product. Period. Everything that isn't related to creating the product to be outside the product backlog. For example, supplying, contracting, HR, IT support, security, legal support should be organized as services: Highly predictable, transparent and even almost invisible services for the product team. Every team member must be assured that everything necessary will be provided on demand. This is the first thing that would help to keep the focus on the product and to minimize any distractions.

Answer 4: You have a really crossfuntional team to create a product

The very first thing you have to accept about crossfuntional teams is that every team member is not a swiss knife man. In real life it is almost impossible to collect a group of people who will be experts in all areas that the product development process requires. That’s why you should concentrate on forming a team of experts in specific areas: programmers, testers, designers etc. And yes, it is costly. However, there is always a price for everything. I don’t recommend you to consider different ways to become more cost-effective trying to optimize idle time as it will influence the focus factor. As you can see in the previous point, focusing on the product is what we fight for, so please stay coherent.

When Agile is not a best idea?

Answer 1: You know precisely what you want 

The key difference between Agile and Waterfall is related to a degree of requirement changeability. It is a well established fact that Agile is preferred if requirements tend to change. So if you have defined and stable product requirements at the beginning, the best way is to choose Waterfall. You don’t have to reinvent the classical management approach if your entire project can be planned before it starts.

Answer 2: Your project is surrounded by external dependencies

If the product development process is strongly dependent on the results provided outhouse you would better choose a non-Agile methodology. Agile is mostly about having all you need to develop a product in your team so if your project is surrounded by a number of different services, works, resources, it isn’t a good idea to use agile managing.

Answer 3: You have a strict deadline

Long term planning is not Agile's strong point. It is OK to have a sprint plan but sometimes it is necessary to have the plan for all the sprints, and we can find no effective procedures to deal with it. But if you have a classical basic plan and an effective instrument for controlling (like earned value) you will have more chances for success. Agile approach is more about endlessly tuning something small than creating something big to a certain date.

Answer 4: Team members are not trained to work with Agile specificity

What do you think of soldiers who cannot shoot? Are there big chances for them to win or even to stay alive? I don’t think so. Agile is not just a frame of vision. It is a group of skills: collaboration, common responsibility, team playing, taking part in ceremonies etc. Remember that all the skills must be like a good rifle: be clean and ready to use. So when your team is not ready to be Agile you have to train them first.

Instead of a conclusion

Bruce Lee said

To be water is to be as flexible as the environment requires. In the dark forest of uncertainty you should be an agile stream. In something clear like the open and bright space of the Niagara river basin you should become a waterfall. When the depth of risks is variable you can even spin into a spiral whirlpool. There is no something more effective than water taking its form due to barriers and other circumstances, therefore choose your way to work with any methodology as if it is like being water.

Posted on: May 29, 2020 03:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

The seven deadly sins of leadership

Categories: Leadership

In the previous post, I wrote about two different types of leadership: inborn leadership and technical leadership. I promised to consider the subject of applying technical leadership in terms of how you should not do. Watching for years how other leaders behave I found out that many of them make mistakes of the same types. So today, I want to write about them.

1. Leadership for the sake of leadership

As I said earlier, leadership is a skill. It requires appropriate and moderate application. However, there are managers who can do irrational things just because they think they should demonstrate their leadership non-stop. For example, when an urgent technical problem requiring quick solutions was occurred, one team member offers a good rational solution. The manager does not accept it, but either offers his/her own less successful solution, or adds confusion with some additional meetings to find alternative solutions. Here, as we see, the first aspect of the perverse understanding of leadership takes place. Many people think that the leader should always be the most active in the decision-making process. Nevertheless, this is not true. There is a huge number of situations where just to approve, to step aside and not to interfere - the best tactic of the leader. Think about it: don't you do too many unnecessary actions to just demonstrate your leadership?

2. Inconsistency

It is very important that the decisions made that affect other people be justified. It is highly desirable that your colleagues/team can see how you came to a definite decision. It is worth to forget solutions like «I want so!»

If your behavior is consistent and the chain of your actions and decisions on the way to the goal is traceable for others - you will not only strengthen your leadership positions, but will automatically nurture the confidence and motivation of people who you work with.

3. Irresponsibility

As you know, leadership is often associated with making decisions. In connection with the perverted perception of the concept of a leader, many believe that everything that leaders do is decision-making. That is, take full responsibility for when things went wrong - it's not for a leader. What do you think about the guide who led you to the completely wrong place and said: "Well, I have nothing to do with it" or even worse «It is your fault you followed me"? The true leader is always responsible for where he/she go to and where he/she will come to as a result. If you like, you can think of taking responsibility as a moral duty, which is a kind of payment for leadership benefits, but never forget about it.

4. Imitation

Some people try to be a leader using the method of imitation. It is especially unfortunate when trying to imitate inborn leadership type. It always looks unnatural, silly and funny and it's much easier to detect such behavior than it may seem. Do not pretend a leader: you get nothing except the rejection and loss of respect from colleagues / teams.

5. Confidence in a wrong decision made earlier

I'm not talking here about when you have problems you should immediately abandon the decision you made earlier. Problems arise all the time and we, as managers, understand this perfectly. Here I am talking about the case when there is all objective evidence that the decision was wrong. And here it is no longer necessary to resist. Some believe in the dogma that the leader is not mistaken, but it's absolutely wrong. All are mistaken. But as we found out earlier, due to the great responsibility the leader must acknowledge mistakes and correct the further way. Imagine the captain of a sinking ship who convinces everyone that there is no cause for concern and continuation of the designated course - the best thing we can do. It is a sad picture. However, I do not cease to be surprised by this naive feature of some managers.

6. Non-recognition of other's merits

The leader is responsible where he leads to. This postulate creates a false impression that in the case of local or global success, it is a merit of the leader. But this is not always the truth. Therefore, it is necessary to clearly understand what and who has done to achieve a common goal and to encourage it. It is important to do it systematically, fairly and publicly. If a leader does not recognize merits of others or appropriates their services to him/her, this is a bad leader.

7. Failure to lead by example

If you are a leader and you want to inculcate a certain pattern of behavior to your colleagues/team you should show a self example. Expecting or demanding a certain behavior that does not match yours is a losing strategy almost always, but for a long distance - definitely always. The effect in this case may be the opposite of what you planned. If your team sees the high quality of your work, your fidelity to the business, then each of its members will consciously or unconsciously aspire to be like you. The leader is one who leads, the leader is one followed by others.

 

I hope this short list will be a kind of reminder for self checking and, perhaps, can help to correct leaders behavior. After all, only the understanding of mistakes leads to their correction.

Posted on: July 27, 2018 09:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

Technical leadership

It is considered that one of the most significant features of managing is leadership. We, as project managers, are not exceptions, so I firmly believe that more or less every project manager is a leader.

However, let us look into the matter. Leadership - is it more about a quality or about a skill? For myself, I solved this issue long ago, breaking the concept of leadership into two, and they are different in nature: inborn leadership and technical or acquired leadership. In the first case, this is definitely a quality. In the second - a skill.

It is not easy to talk about the first one (although in the following posts I want to cover this topic). The point here is not only in the complexity of the topic in terms of psychology, sociology, physiology and other "logies", but also in the contextuality, that cannot be generalized, within which one could consider different behavior patterns of leaders. I just want to note that the inborn leadership is in fact very different from the technical leadership. First, it is inimitable (whatever someone says). Secondly, it is usually more intense in its impact. Thirdly, it is practically uncontrollable, so from the point of view of increasing the efficiency even born leaders would benefit from improving their technical leadership.

To compensate for my laconicity on the topic of inborn leadership, I will just leave a picture here I like a lot.

So, today I would like to talk about the second type of leadership.

If we consider something as a skill, then we can talk about three important components: how we learn it, how we apply it, what advantages it gives.

1. Leadership training

We all know how many training courses and other materials on the topic of leadership exist. Thousands of them. However, I did not see any strong leader who became such due to specialized courses were passed or books were read. Here it is important to say that I do not consider those who spent thousands of hours to learn and practice leadership skills (how many people of this type do you know?), but who episodically read some books or go for a 3/5/7 days trainings. My observations are confirmed by some studies (link): with the colossal growth of the market for leadership development, general disappointment in this direction from real business is also growing. It seems that, as an approach to developing, reading and training are very controversial ways for such a skill as leadership.

The second key way is an experience. Taking a proactive position, we always try (consciously or unconsciously) different ways of influencing people and situations.  We take into service methods that work well and over the years we accumulate a decent arsenal for a variety of cases. It seems that this way is good enough, but the fact is no so easy. Firstly, a person rarely does something that he or she has never encountered, never heard or even thought about if it is possible. Secondly, you can always face a situation that has not been analogous in the past. This greatly limits the development of the skill.

There is a third way - mentoring. However, it is not so popular, and it depends on the personality of the mentor or mentee, and also on the context of applying the skill.

It turns out that there are no universal recipes here. You need to research and look for a method that is right for you. This is not easy, but generally we have no choice.

2. Application

This topic is extensive but strongly depends on specific methods.

In the next article, I will consider this topic in terms of how you should NOT do it.

Now I can only write as an extremely general recommendation as it possible: be adequate. Here I say just about the fact that it is always worthwhile to act taking in account of the specific situation in its entirety. Do not just apply a certain behavior pattern. Think about the situation, analyze it and make your decisions relevant to circumstances.

3. Efficiency

I can say with confidence that a manager, who has powerful leadership skills, can achieve tremendous results that no one could believe. Sometimes it even happens that the leadership of a manager is the only driving force.

Leadership is the ability to influence not only people. A strong leader, which has inner willingness and confidence in success, can change even complex stable structures, can change the vision.

Can I say that leadership is a necessary skill? Almost always - yes. There are very few examples where a group of people without any leader achieved a common goal, but it is because each of them was responsible, motivated, adequate, and communicative, who understands and accepts the common goal. Unfortunatelly we all know that in real projects it is almost impossible.

 

So, what do we have?

If you are a manager, you must develop your technical leadership. How? Look for the path by yourself, there are no universal recipes and magic pills. Use leadership skills consciously and accurately and your results will exceed your expectations.

Posted on: July 24, 2018 09:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)
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