Project Management

Helping Project Managers to Help Themselves

I'm all about Building Thriving Leaders™ This blog is based on over 35 years of project management and leadership successes and failures. Get practical, concise nuggets on both hard and soft skills to help you deliver projects successfully with minimal friction.

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360 Calendar Management

The Scenario: 

  1. Anita promotes Ed to a leader of leaders position from a position leading a small team of individual contributors.
  2. Ed is excited about the increase in responsibility and is determined to show Anita he can handle the job.
  3. Ed’s calendar gets bombarded with meetings and his to-do list grows.
  4. Ed’s leadership team grows dismayed with Ed’s lack of responsiveness, urgent 3 a.m. email requests, and canceled one-on-ones.
  5. Ed’s daughter is disappointed with dad missing yet another Saturday soccer game.
  6. Ed misses a critical deliverable for Anita, forcing her to have an uncomfortable discussion with her boss. Anita takes the blame, not wanting to throw Ed under the bus.
  7. Anita’s offers to coach Ed go unheeded because Ed is too busy to be coached.
  8. Anita makes the difficult decision to tell Ed he will be demoted back to his old job.
  9. Ed decides to leave the company for another job, rather than get demoted.
  10. Nine months later at his new company, Ed gets promoted and repeats steps two through nine. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The Message: Unfortunately, Ed’s situation is all too common for those scaling up to a leader of leaders role. Increases in demands can’t be met simply by working longer and harder; at some point, an important commodity—time--dries up, because the leader can’t get everything done and keep balance. Just like the little pig that built the brick house the big bad wolf couldn’t blow down; the leader needs to build strong time-management skills early so he can better scale to the demands a leader of leaders faces. Waiting to become a leader of leaders (or worse, not building strong time management skills at all) means the leader won’t be sustainable as a scaled-up leader.

Want to get better at time management? Give these nine time-management habits a look:

  1. Express to-dos in terms of deliverables – I like to think of this as “do vs. done.” What needs to be produced for the to-do to be satisfied? It could be a presentation, email, or meeting notes. Articulating the deliverable helps you better focus on what has to happen to satisfy the deliverable and reduce distractions in getting to “done.”
  2. Stop at good enough – When defining your deliverable, think of the minimum requirement that needs to be met, create your deliverable to meet the requirement, then STOP. Spending extra over-achiever time on a deliverable only means you have less time to work on other things. Under-promise and over-deliver is fertile ground for wasted time. Be clear on what you need to produce, do it, then move on to the next deliverable.
  3. Put anything that consumes your time on your calendar – Most people I’ve worked with use their calendars pretty much exclusively for meetings and treat time to get things done as off-calendar activity. Bad move. If something consumes time in your day, it deserves to be scheduled in your calendar. I schedule everything, including work time, personal activities, socializing with friends, exercise time, and family commitments.
  4. Immediately schedule short-term to-dos on your calendar – Suppose you are given an action item to produce an important deliverable by end of the week, and you accept the item without any idea when you’ll get it done. As a result, you’re not only likely to work extra hours, but the deadline hangs over your head. Put it in your calendar right away with a realistic estimate of how long it will take. This may mean moving other lower-priority things around or could mean additional hours, but at least you’ve scheduled the work in.
  5. Block out some regular time to work on important but not urgent tasks – I’d place a wager that you’ve got a list of action items you’d like to get done but never get the time to do. Block out some time on your calendar on a recurring basis to work on the important but not urgent items.
  6. Put a “what I got done” meeting on your calendar at the end of your work week – On Monday mornings I plan out what I want to get done by the end of the week, then put a Friday 5 p.m. meeting on my calendar listing out those things I committed to getting done. Just remember to schedule the time during the week to get those items done.
  7. Be realistic about what you put on your calendar – If you schedule time for a task on your calendar thinking there’s not a snowball’s chance in a hot oven you’ll get it done, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You need to respect your calendar as credible, otherwise, you won’t follow it. Be realistic about how long something will take.
  8. Reward yourself with a bit of blue-sky time – I have a two-hour recurring appointment in my calendar that I call “blue-sky time.” I can use my blue-sky time however I want; maybe it’s working on an idea for a new book, going to Costco, meeting a friend for coffee, or watching a movie. Yours may be longer or shorter or a different frequency; it’s totally up to you.
  9. You own your calendar, it doesn’t own you – Look, stuff happens that may mean you’ve got to defer a meeting, move a deliverable or burn the midnight oil. By all means, move things around, but make sure you’re not chronically pushing things off due to poor planning.

The Consequences:  By not taking intentional action to manage your time, your consequences could include:

  • You’re less effective – Not managing your calendar well means you get less done, it takes longer to get things done, or you steal time from other areas of your life to get things done.
  • You’re not sustainable – As you continue to scale as a leader and your problems get bigger, the importance of keeping a disciplined calendar grows. I’ve seen way too many leaders burn out when they took bigger jobs because they didn’t have good time-management skills and worked harder versus smarter.
  • You’re limiting your own advancement – When a leader’s time looks out of control, his promotability can be impacted. The leader’s boss could see him as incapable of handling additional responsibility if he is already hanging on by a thread.
  • You’re negatively impacting your succession plan – If a leader’s followers see the leader with a poor quality of life, difficulty keeping up with commitments, or chronically missing meetings, why would they want a job that looks miserable? Attracting the very best as a successor means making the job look sustainable.     

The Next Steps: 

  1. Commit to getting better at time management.
  2. Get an “as-is” picture by putting everything that consumes time in your calendar.
  3. Assess yourself using the nine time-management habits and decide which ones you need to work on.
  4. Pick the top three habits and commit to working on them, then the next three, and so on.
  5. Don’t slip back into old habits, particularly when things get really busy.
Posted on: June 10, 2022 08:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)

What 16 Years Working from Home Taught Me

In 2004, my wife Patty and I decided to team homeschool our autistic son because we knew he would need more help as he entered middle school. I had spent 20 years in corporate America, working for both Accenture and Microsoft, but in the Fall of 2004, I became his part-time math and science teacher, spending the remainder of my time doing business consulting and writing books.

Up to that time I always had either a client or office to go to. With the change to homeschool teacher/author/consultant, I now had no place to go each day. My office was either our playroom where we homeschooled, our home office, or local coffee shops. It was definitely an adjustment and I learned a lot about how to be effective without going to a workplace. Now I can’t imagine it any other way.

In 2020, millions of people were quickly forced into working from home. When I started working from home sixteen years earlier, I had the benefit of preparing for my new life—a stark difference from those who suddenly found themselves in work-from-home mode with little warning or preparation. Some aspects of 2020 versus 2004 were easier and others harder, for example, the collaboration tools available in 2020 were simply non-existent in 2004. But the bottom line is the changes were massive and required significant adjustments.

In my 16 years of not having an office I experienced a lot of bumps and bruises to get into an effective work/life rhythm. Key to my learnings was the need to enforce greater self-discipline about:

  • what I do,
  • how I manage my time,
  • what and when I eat,
  • how much I sleep,
  • when and how I exercise,
  • how I “turn off work,”
  • and how I interact with others.

It’s those bumps and bruises that I want to help others avoid in shifting to a sustainable work-from-home lifestyle, which I have boiled down into five lessons:

  1. Master the online experience – For Pete’s sake, if Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other online meeting tools are an integral part of your business, take the time to truly understand them and ensure the hardware you’re using creates the most positive experience for others attending your meetings. Not knowing how to do things like share your screen, give others control to share their screen, or use an electronic whiteboard is akin to meeting a business associate face to face at a coffee shop with blaring music and no chairs or tables. When you fumble with the tools you send a clear message to your recipient that he or she isn’t important enough for you to create an outstanding online experience. Just as important, struggling with online meeting tools conveys that you are slow to adapt to changes.
  2. Plan to “Done” not “Do” – Each Monday morning I go through my to-do list and decide what I plan to have done by the end of the week. I then plan time in my calendar throughout the week to work on each to-do, then I schedule a Friday 5 p.m. meeting summarizing what I have committed to getting done that week. Key to this is expressing your to-do list in terms of a deliverable, or “done,” not in terms of an activity, or “do.” If you think only in terms of activity, you’re more likely to measure success in terms of how long you spend doing something versus what you actually got done.
  3. Put everything in your calendar – In my article "I Can’t Keep Up!" Six Principles for Using Your Calendar to Get More Done, I talk about how to use your calendar not just as a work thing but as a life thing. This is particularly important when you work from home because work start/stop events like commuting to and from work are no longer there. With those barriers gone, it’s much easier to be less respectful of your own time. I’ve had to learn that working from home doesn’t mean I can work anytime; it means I had to be much more disciplined about when I would and wouldn’t work.
  4. Set clear expectations with loved ones – Working from home doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always accessible. Having very clear expectations about when you will and won’t be working is crucial to your overall effectiveness. Patty and I send meeting notices to each other for social gatherings or other meetings where one of us won’t be available to the other. This works very well for us to keep us aligned and ensure we don’t overcommit ourselves.
  5. Make physical and mental health a priority – While there are great conveniences in working from home, it also means you have to be more diligent about tending to your physical and mental health. I never stay in pajamas during the day, I schedule exercise time in my calendar, I eat meals away from my workstation, stick to a regular sleep schedule, and *try to* be disciplined about between-meal snacking. I also weigh myself regularly. This really helps if you want to maintain or lower your weight and if you tend to wear stretchy clothes that don’t remind you if you’ve added an inch to your waistline.

For many, working from home may be a long-term if not permanent reality. Consider these five lessons to help you design a sustainable and satisfying work-from-home lifestyle.

Posted on: January 04, 2021 02:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (20)

In Search of the Least-Worst Alternative

In 1985, The Coca-Cola Company introduced a new formula for its Coca-Cola product, calling it “New Coke.” Consumer reaction to the new formula was negative, and within three months the original formula was revived and rebranded as “Coca-Cola Classic.” The company was faced with a decision-- keep the new formula and try to change consumer perception or abandon the product. The New Coke product was ultimately discontinued in July 2002. As the company navigated their choices, the alternatives were about how to recover from a bad situation, with its management faced with minimizing a profit hit and negative consumer sentiment.  Their decision path ultimately worked out well, but the decisions along the way were painful choices meant to minimize loss.

A huge part of a leader’s job is making decisions based on informed alternatives which articulate both the positive and negative consequences of the decision. The typical mode of operation is to look at pros and cons and do a pros to cons weight assessment of which alternative’s pros best outweigh the cons. But what about when there aren’t any pros, yet a decision needs to be made? I’ve seen leader decision-making hobbled because there is no good alternative in the decision set, looking for pros in a sea of cons. There’s no good alternative, so it’s about choosing the least-worst alternative.

The mechanics of least-worst alternative management are really no different than looking for a best alternative. It’s all about the mindset decision makers adopt when embarking on the decision. Being overt about recognizing the chosen decision isn’t about bringing benefit, but about minimizing hemorrhaging. It gives decision makers the freedom to make the best decision without the burden of justifying the lack of pros supporting the alternative.

Next time you are faced with choosing between worse and more-worse alternatives, keep the following six factors in mind:

  1. Forget about perfection – Perfect alternatives with no downside rarely exist. Don’t put unrealistic standards on decision alternatives that can’t be achieved.
  2. Set expectations with decision makers up front – Be deliberate with the decision-makers that the alternatives aren’t optimal and that you’re looking for the least painful course of action. Using the term “least-worst alternative” helps cue decision makers as to the type of decision they’re making.
  3. Ensure the right people are involved in the decision making – looking at worst-case alternatives may mean including additional people, i.e. someone from the public relations group in a decision affecting customer perceptions, to provide input. Be clear on whether they only provide information to support decision-makers or are included as decision makers. 
  4. Articulate worst cases for decision alternatives – For each alternative ask the question, “What’s the worst thing that will happen if we do this?” Make sure the worst case is reasonable and aligns to the organization’s mission and values.   Also be on the lookout for unreasonable “the world will end” scenarios from pessimistic decision makers.
  5. Assign a singular accountability owner for the chosen alternative – Alternatives that have fuzzy or undefined ownership most likely won’t get done. Ensure there is a singular named owner of the alternative with clear articulation of what needs to be done and when it needs to be done by.
  6. Define a follow up rhythm – Define how and when the accountable owner will update decision makers on chosen alternative progress and what the course of action will be in the event the chosen alternative is not working. Also be clear as to whether updates will be via meeting or email.

Navigating through bad alternatives isn’t fun, but having the ability to skillfully and objectively get to a least-worst alternative is a crucial skill the best leaders possess. Keep top of mind whether you’re making a maximize-benefit or least-worst decision and ensure your decision makers understand the type of decision they’re making.

Posted on: July 13, 2020 10:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)

'I Can’t Keep Up!' Six Principles for Using Your Calendar to Get More Done

Categories: Time Management

Through my years I’ve seen many leaders at all levels struggle with getting things done either by having to work late in the evenings and on weekends or by completely missing due dates. As I’ve talked with these leaders, they just consider it part of the job, unable or unwilling to do anything about it. I found myself early in my career doing the exact same thing; setting unrealistic expectations and killing myself to try to meet them, only to have a limited success rate of delivering on time. I hated that hamster wheel.

The good news is you don’t have to accept this as the status quo. Here are six simple principles to get better control of your work and be more deliberate about what you get done:

1. Make your to-do list a “done” list – It’s commonplace to keep a to-do list. My approach is to apply four changes to the prototypical to-do list:

  • Express what needs to get done in terms of the final deliverable, not the action to produce it - For example, instead of saying, “Research hotels in Venice,” say, “Decide and book hotel in Venice.” The wording focuses on a definitive end to the activity, versus something which has no defined end.
  • Add a date the to-do needs to be done - By adding the due date, you by default prioritize when something needs to be done, which is the same as prioritizing the list.
  • Add an urgent/not-urgent indicator - By adding the urgent/not-urgent indicator, you are forced to think about not only those things which need to be addressed right away, but also those which are important but not required immediately.
  • Subdivide dones into deliverables that can be completed within a normal work week – For bigger deliverables that may take longer than a week to produce, break the deliverable down into smaller deliverables that can reasonably be completed in a week. For example, if you have a done called “produce competitor report,” break the deliverable into smaller deliverables that align with the report’s table of contents, i.e. “Create strengths and weaknesses analysis for each competitor.”

2. Ensure your calendar includes everything that consumes time in your day, not just meetings – I’ve seen countless examples of people only putting meetings with others in their calendars, making their days crammed with meetings, then burning the midnight oil to get non-meeting work done. Any activity that consumes time in your day--meetings, work time, personal time, professional development, or other activities--deserve time scheduled in your calendar.

3. Schedule a recurring Friday afternoon progress and planning meeting with yourself – Near the end of your day on Friday, block out 30 minutes on your calendar to do three things:

  • Review what you committed to get done – For those items you committed to do in the prior week, look at what you actually got done. For those items you either didn’t get done or spent more than your allocated time completing, ask yourself why. Were you too optimistic? Did you let yourself get distracted? Was there legitimate activity that was higher priority? Doing a retrospective analysis on your planned vs. actual done activity will help you be more realistic in future planning.
  • Plan out your calendar for the upcoming week - This is the time to review your “done” list for urgent and non-urgent deliverables needing to be completed and slotting the work time to produce the deliverables into your calendar. It’s important to be realistic with yourself on how much time is needed to complete the deliverables and not set yourself up for failure. Remember to ensure your calendar includes all activity that consumes time in your day.
  • Document what you plan to get done for the following week – For items you are committing to getting done, update your Friday planning meeting for the next week to include the dones, which you’ll review in a week’s time.

4. Make difficult calendar choices – If there just aren’t enough hours in the week to get things done, look to see what needs to change. Perhaps it’s a change in due date or altering or deferring other items in your calendar that are taking up time. Whatever the case, be willing to make some decisions about what you do and who you meet with.

5. Find hidden time in your calendar – Are there meetings you just don’t need to be at? Are there one-hour meetings that can be done in 30 minutes? Can the frequency of recurring meetings be reduced? Can some things be done through offline communication, i.e. email? Ask yourself where time spent in meetings can be reduced or eliminated without materially adverse business impact.

6. Remember that you own your calendar, it doesn’t own you – Certainly things may happen during the week which could alter what you get done (or when you do it). Don’t beat yourself up if it does happen, just look at the frequency and reasons behind the changes. If they’re happening on an exceptional basis because of unforeseen work hitting your plate, then accept it as part of the job. If they’re happening frequently, then it could be you’re either not realistic in your planning or you’re allowing yourself to be distracted. It’s up to you to decide, just be honest with yourself.

A common thread through these principles is discipline. You can put the best-intentioned techniques in place but if you don’t follow them, you’re dooming yourself to emails at midnight. Seriously consider the principles, put your spin on them, and put them into action. 

Posted on: June 22, 2020 09:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)

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