Stretch

Stretch_HeaderPlanning is crucial. It is crucial for organizations, communities, families, and individuals. I am an advocate of detailed planning of the kind that will model down to the dependencies of each step. I like knowing where my stress points are going to be and where I will go astray if a dependency doesn’t materialize. I have planned all of my projects and I consider planning a key success factor. Nevertheless, I have never had a single project go entirely according to plan.

The fact that not a single plan completed without change is not to be confused with failure. Projects fail for a variety of reasons despite the best of plans. Neither should one associate plan revisions with poor initial planning. The point is that without a plan, the project is wandering without a roadmap. The plan provides structure to the endeavor as well as an understanding of the overall architecture of the process. Plans go awry almost universally because we cannot control or even anticipate all of the possibilities caused by human beings and random circumstance. We can merely assess probabilities and draw conclusions that are likely to guide us through most of the events.

The challenge, then, is learning to adapt as you go. Adaptation is a survival skill. I have written about this topic in the past (see Learn to Play the Doglegs), but will elaborate here on three key elements. These are recognition, detachment, and adaptation.

Recognition
The best thing about having a plan is that it will tell you when you are driving into the weeds. Recognition that the project is off track is vital to success. Small deviations probably will not have a profound effect on a project, but when a major milestone is missed or a key stress point stalls – when the critical path turns red – it is time to re-examine the plan.

The plan, though, is not the only means of recognizing when a project is headed for trouble. Listening to people is just as important because one may be receiving indications that alignment is poor or that needs are not being met well before trouble shows up on the instrumentation. Some signs to look for are:

  • Decisions continue to be re-visited
  • Certain tangents recur from meeting to meeting
  • Meetings are taking longer than they should
  • Participants or stakeholders exhibit confusion

Detachment
Leaders need to be passionate about their projects, but objective about their project plans. For me, I take a great deal of pride in my “brand spanking new” project plans where all the pieces come together just in time to meet a deadline. It is not unlike the feeling of solving a complex acrostic puzzle. Nevertheless, if I do not abandon my emotional attachment to it immediately I will be in trouble because the plan is already flawed. It cannot help but be. When the project begins to deviate – which it will – I need to be prepared to jettison some parts, add new ones, or reconfigure others. By the end of the project, the plan may resemble a tangle of worms more than my initial pristine creation, but we will have made it to the finish line together. The secret is in letting go of the details.

Adaptation
Reconfiguring a plan is where the rubber meets the road.   This requires flexibility on the part of everyone involved, but most of all on leadership. Adaptation is a form of course correction and requires embracing change. Not everyone on the project may be affected, but some may be affected profoundly. The key inputs are:

  • Objectives: keep the project objectives clearly in mind. What does success look like?
  • Priorities: re-examine the priorities. Is this really needed? Is this really needed right now?
  • Dependencies: interrogate the dependencies. Must all of these conditions be met in order to proceed? Can this be retrofitted later without detriment to integrity?
  • Roles: challenge roles and responsibilities. Are roles still clear? Have they changed? Should they change?

 

In most cases, projects have the luxury of making these adaptations over a period of days, perhaps even weeks. This is certainly the case on large construction projects and IT projects that proceed using a so-called waterfall methodology. But what about smaller projects or projects utilizing the agile project approach? Indeed, these are more challenging because the adaptations need to be almost instantaneous.

In agile projects, adaptation is part of the intrinsic culture of the process. Objectives, priorities, dependencies and roles are in flux practically every day as part of the substance of the daily scrum meetings. Good scrum meetings resemble the stretch of the spandex leotard on a dancer, reconfiguring to every change in the shape of the underlying form.

Smaller projects that are not “agile” can have similar stretch. To be successful, that stretch comes from even greater detachment from the details of a plan coupled with a clear comprehension of objectives, priorities, dependencies, and roles. An example will illustrate.

I was working with a client some years ago to develop a roadmap for their company analytics. The effort culminated in a one-day retreat, the result of which would be a prioritized set of initiatives. To accomplish all of this in a day, we developed an execution plan scripting a series of exercises that would lead to the goal. At the retreat, the morning exercises stayed on track and the participants returned from lunch ready to tackle the rest of the work. Within an hour, it was clear that the plan was in trouble. There were hidden agendas that had not been exposed in earlier parts of the process. To put the process back on track, we had to abandon one exercise altogether and blend another into a later exercise, allowing more time to realign the participants. Because we had never shared the execution plan with them, they arrived safely at their goal without ever knowing of the course correction.

We could not have achieved that stretch without the structure of the underlying plan. Irrespective of the fact that it did not proceed perfectly, it was a good plan because the rationale for each component was clear and because we had thought about what each component should reasonably require in terms of time and resources to execute. Not all parts were interchangeable, but enough were to allow for adaptation when the need arose.

I have woven an analogy into this article that references a concept outside the topic at hand – in this case the dance leotard – as itself another layer of analogy. This meta-analogy operates at two levels. At the first, the dancer’s stretch (the flexibility of the muscle) is analogous to the adaptability of the plan. At the second, the project reshapes like the spandex leotard as the underlying plan transforms. The analogy serves as a reminder that flexibility and the ability to adapt do not derive from just the plan of the day, no matter how good. Rather, they come from the larger picture that consists of all of the contents in our rucksack of life. The satisfaction is not in the perfect plan, but in the perfect stretch.

Does your organization have the knack for adaptation? What tactics to you employ to keep plans flexible?

 

 

Opportunity Knocks

Knocker_HeaderOne of the areas in which I consult is the facilitation of group visioning processes.  At first glance this might seem an odd thing for a Business Intelligence (BI) consultant.  Nevertheless, it is an integral part of my practice.  Over the years, I have discovered that while many enterprises recognize the need for analytic intelligence from a BI program, they have been unable to align all of the stakeholders behind goals and, more important, priorities.  More so than in most other types of technology projects, a BI project tends to cross departments or divisions (and, consequently, stakeholder groups) both with respect to data sourcing and the output metrics.  Lack of buy-in at the onset is a prescription for trouble.  But the need for group process goes far beyond BI.

My involvement with group facilitation processes goes back to a time well before I was in the information industry. I was working for a small nonprofit organization and found myself in the role of leading a Board of Directors planning retreat.  I had never done anything like that before and one of my mentors suggested several resources to consult.  These resources were books, by the way; this was back before the word “resource” was business-speak for “human being.”  This was also long before Amazon (or even personal use of the internet), so I actually had to order the volumes from a brick and mortar bookstore.

The books were worth the wait.  They opened up my eyes to the reasons meetings fail, and to how the right kind of process can lead groups of people to amazing results.  I did not have time to apply all of these principles the first time around, but was gratified by achieving surprising results from a normally contentious group.  I had struck gold.  Jim, my mentor, made certain that I had other opportunities to develop this process and to put my own personal spin on it.  Alas, Jim passed away years ago but those books – well thumbed and falling apart – remain near my desk.

Part of the reason these group-planning processes work so well is because process is paramount.  At the same time that the meetings are highly orchestrated with little left to chance, absolutely everyone in the room must participate.  More important, there is a set of ground rules that govern how the participants should interact with one another.  These ground rules eliminate the human emotions that often impede group decision-making or planning meetings.  I will not be sharing that list here (it is part of the “secret sauce” and therefore intellectual property), but I wish to discuss one of them that I think is key not just to project success, but also to life success as well.

This ground rule states simply that all issues and problems will be expressed as opportunities.  This is not as difficult as it might seem.   Let us take the hypothetical case of Acme Consolidated Enterprises. At Acme, the manufacturing division responsible for the GizmoWidget product line has failed to meet demand for three quarters running, and their quality control is also among the worst in the industry. It would be easy enough to say, “The GizmoWidget division has production and quality control problems and we need to fix them immediately.”   Our ground rule demands instead that we express this a different way.  “We have the opportunity to improve GizmoWidget production capability in order to meet expected demand.  Further, we have the opportunity to improve overall GizmoWidget production quality.”  So what have we gained?  Why are these restatements better?

In the first statement, “The GizmoWidget division has production and quality control problems and we need to fix them immediately,” the natural human inclination is to place blame.  “Who’s in charge over there?  Why haven’t they dealt with this already?  Do we need to shake up that team?”  This response might well inject wholesale instability into what is probably already an unstable situation.  The team and its management already know that performance is poor.  They certainly did not set out to underperform and it is unlikely that they prepare for staff meetings by coming up with new ways to sabotage production and undermine quality.  Placing blame is therefore unproductive, a waste of emotional energy, and counter-motivating to the team.

How does stating the problem as an opportunity turn this on its head?  First, it takes people out of the blame (the negative) and places them at the head of the solution (the positive).  We have the opportunity. Second, it eliminates the negative altogether, giving the team a positive viewpoint around which to rally.  Instead of looking at fault, they are focused on a goal that they are empowered to achieve together.  Finally, it removes the onus of individual culpability and invests in the team.  It is no longer about the division manager having his head on the block at the next performance review.  The team is in it together and there is power in numbers.

Expressing problems as opportunities goes beyond just the big objectives.  These set direction, but they answer only the what, not the how.  The same focus on the positive is desirable for identifying “the look of success” as well as the strategies for getting there.  Let us take the quality control objective and break it down by way of example.  We have the opportunity to improve GizmoWidget production quality.

The first step is to quantify the objective.  What does success look like?  What are the smaller goals that the team will need to achieve in order to be able to meet the objective?  Here are some ideas.

  • In six months, we will have reduced rejected GizmoWidgets by 15%.
  • In three months, we will be able to prevent any defective GizmoWidgets from leaving the factory.
  • In three months, we will have implemented an ongoing program for continued quality improvement.

In addition to being stated in a positive way, these three goals have some important characteristics.  First, they are time bound, not open-ended.  This means that a schedule will need to be implemented and followed, but also that the change cannot be allowed to drag on.  Second, the results in all three cases are quantifiable.  There is something tangible to measure in order to gauge success.  Third, the goals are achievable.  The team is not trying to boil the ocean, but rather make a reasonable start on a longer-term quest.

The next step is to articulate strategies to be used to achieve the stated goals.  Even these can be expressed as positive statements.  For instance, one strategy to reduce product rejections might be to identify three top quality improvements that can be effected in six months.  Of course, this is tantamount to saying, “Let us identify the top three causes of product quality failure.”  But once again, by expressing the strategy as an opportunity, the need to assign blame has been reduced substantially.  If one of the causes of product failure has been a low quality raw material, instead of dwelling on the reasons that quality is low today, it is inherently more productive for the organization to focus on what needs to be done to improve it.

The importance of leading away from negativity cannot be understated.  It is not a program of ignoring problems or issues, but of recognizing that anything can be changed for the better.  And rather than emphasizing that someone or something failed, it becomes an opportunity for improvement.  There is a tremendous motivational force in teams where negativity has been eliminated, in spite of the challenges, and the positive environment is supportive rather than recriminatory.  Ask yourself where you would choose to work.

This same attitude of leading toward the light is equally valid in all aspects of life.  It can be employed at home, in schools, and in virtually any public and private organization.  Understanding change and improvement as opportunity can galvanize a team, a Board of Directors, or a family.  It is the difference between looking up out of the pit and looking up to the mountains.  One engenders despair while the other instills hope and desire.  So remember to embrace opportunity.  It is always knocking, and something positive will be at the door.

How do you lead your teams toward the light?  What techniques do you use to reduce or eliminate negativity on your projects?

Learn to Play the Doglegs

River_HeaderIt is essential to understand that I have never played a hole of golf in my life.  Not one.  That does not mean that I have not been close to a golf course.  In fact, I generated bid packages for the irrigation systems for almost all of the major Jack Nicklaus golf courses in Southeast Asia during my years at RainBird International.  I even walked some of those courses.  Nevertheless, I have never swung a golf club.

Those of you who play golf know what a dogleg is.  It is a bend in a fairway that makes a hole more difficult to play.  In life, a dogleg is when something occurs that causes a major setback to a plan or initiative.  Doglegs present serious impediments that threaten success.  (Dan Rockwell on Leadership Freak calls them zigzags.)  Professional and personal, these setbacks can seem devastating.  They can be expensive, they may be emotionally charged, and they are often personally humiliating.  Learning to manage these events is essential for success and survival.

I come to my appreciation of doglegs through personal experience. Several years ago, my wife and I developed a tactical plan to move from Southern California to the North Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.  It was a complicated plan, insofar as we knew that we wanted to find and purchase the property six to eight months before moving and we did not have a lot of capital with which to work.  We knew the acreage we wanted and what the basic characteristics of the structures needed to be.  We also had in mind our long-term goal of one day opening a bed and breakfast as a retreat for classical musicians.

We began by engaging a real estate agent in Sequim to coordinate the search.  We also launched the refinance of our California home to cover a down payment and eight months of double mortgage.  We were barely started when we saw the dream property advertised.  We scrambled a trip to Sequim and it was absolutely bespoke except for one thing.  The main house was utterly soulless and unlivable, so we had to walk away from it.  Two weeks later, the appraisal in California came back so far below expectations that the bank literally would not speak with us.  Talk about getting smacked down at the get go.  We were completely demoralized and toyed with the idea of throwing in the towel.  But our real estate agent in California hooked us up with another banker and we started the process again.  And while the second appraisal was much more in line with reality, the payout was going to be substantially lower than the plan called for.  By that time we were already on our way back up to Washington to actively house hunt, albeit with reduced expectations as to what we could afford.  Unsure if the loan would close in time for a down payment, we pulled money from an IRA just in case.  On the ground in Sequim, we looked at many properties until we found it.  It had our family and our long-term vision written all over it, the price had just been dropped into our range, and we were first in line for the deal.  We were even able to get the money back into the IRA without penalty.

It was right about then that I had my epiphany about “playing the doglegs.”  If we had quit when the first disappointments happened or decided to wait until a more propitious time, we would probably never have made the move.  In fact, both of those early setbacks turned out to be critical to our success.  The “dream” property would never have worked, but it sharpened the specification for what we really wanted.  More important, the refinance obstacle forced us into a lower price range that in turn allowed us to find the right property.  It would never have been on our radar if we had remained on the original financial plan.  And believe me, before the saga was over there were to be several more doglegs to play.

That epiphany has coalesced into a core concept for me, one that has helped me since then through challenging projects both at work and at home.  It has caused me to think about the specific mindset that enables us to play the doglegs, along with some of the techniques that have worked for me.

Have a vision for the destination.

Before starting any initiative, it is especially important to understand the characteristics of the end state.  This is as true in life as it is in BI.  What are those essential qualities that will embody success?  What are the non-negotiable items?  By understanding those, you will understand what can be left by the wayside when the course takes an unexpected turn.  In our case, this meant understanding that the end state needed to support the B&B, be wheelchair friendly, and accommodate both grand pianos.  These were the non-negotiable requirements.  We were able to let go of the requirements for the extra acreage and a barn when we had to reduce the purchase price.

Work through your emotions quickly.

Particularly on important personal projects, emotional responses are inevitable when life takes a change of course.  These include anger, disappointment, frustration, and fear.  These feelings are real and valid, but they become our worst enemies if we dwell on them.  The best way to work through our emotions is to remember that the goal or end state is more important than the specific path we take to get there.  It is likely that there are many paths to that end, not just the first one we chose to take.  It is why having a vision is so important.  Emotions will make us afraid to act and cloud our knowledge that it might take several tries – several tacks – before being able to move forward again.  So first, focus on the vision.  Then breathe in, breathe out, and sit back down to rework the plan.  Do not wait.

Have a Plan B. 

Even when one does not expect difficulties, one should always have a Plan B, sometimes even a Plan C.  This provides an instant fallback when the dogleg springs.  In fact, a Plan B can help avoid the emotion stage altogether.  Having a fallback allows an individual or a team to react quickly when time is short.  Our Plan B in the story above was to have the IRA money available if the refinance did not close in time.  In either case, I would have funds for the down payment and funds to pay back the IRA before the end of sixty days.

Accept and embrace change.

Change is inevitable, but we tend to fear it because it is destabilizing. What if I lose my job?  What if we lose our retirement savings?  We need to be flexible in the face of change, recognizing again that there are many ways to get to our destination, each path offering different challenges and different opportunities.  Moreover, the destination may not be where we believe it to be at all.  In our example, giving up some of the things we wanted not only brought us to the right place, but also resulted in a better overall financial plan. Change turned out to be good, even though we could not see it at first.

Have a network in place.

Having a strong support network in place is crucial to any major undertaking.  I am not talking about the project team.  I am referring to your network of advisors and colleagues to whom you can go when you wind up in the hazard.  On a BI project, I need to know that I have a database expert or a program management colleague to whom I can go when I get stuck.  For the move, having access to three top-flight real estate agents, a banker, and several dependable contractors facilitated our success.  By nurturing those relationships ahead of time, we were able to count on them at the doglegs.

Bank what you learn right away.

Never wait for the end of the project to profit by what you learned from the last dogleg.  The same one could double back on you again.  Get your next Plan B ready.  Re-examine your vision.  Check your network.  Recognize where it could go wrong again and be prepared.

There is a certain Zen to this, and it took me awhile to get the hang of it. Practicing these skills over time delivers important benefits.  These include:

  • A more robust solution:  Because you have addressed the doglegs in a thoughtful and consistent manner, you will have discovered a way to a better solution.  It won’t be haphazard or patched over.
  • Increased trust from your colleagues:  Because you did not fall apart at the doglegs but led the team through the change, you will have demonstrated that you are cool under fire and not afraid to recognize when the plan was wrong.
  • A sharpened personal craft:  It is not the adversity that makes us stronger, but how we address it and what we learn from it.

I have not seen my last dogleg.  In fact, I am in the midst of a Big Billy Goat dogleg as I write this article.  But every day I find a new way to adjust the plan and move in the direction I need to, taking Dan Rockwell’s zigzag course toward a successful conclusion.  I think Winnie the Pooh (A.A. Milne) said it best. “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

Do you have a dogleg success story to share?  What techniques do you use to play your doglegs?

Learning from the Big Push

Stables_Header

“No pain, no gain,” is the way the saying goes.  Indeed, there is wisdom in the aphorism.  It is true in our workouts, true in our personal lives, and true at work.  Sustained effort that stretches us helps us to grow in a myriad of ways.  But do we actively recognize and manage these benefits?

As IT professionals, we have all had those projects where hard work, crazy hours, and intense focus over a long period of time were required.  We rise early and work from the hotel room or our home office.  Then we spend the day in a cube or meeting room.  After a bite of supper we’re back at it.  Frequently we are solving some new set of problems or having to incorporate new skills.  The harder we work, the more tired we get.  Mistakes begin to creep in.  As the deadline for deployment looms, we push even more, stealing hours from our families and our sleep.  Finally the project ends and we experience the inevitable letdown.  All too soon, the cycle begins again.  Sound familiar?

What did we gain from it besides a paycheck?  Allow me to expand the discussion to include all big pushes, not just those projects that occur at work.  This brings balance to the inquiry because personal pushes inform the professional ones and vice versa.  Over the past three years, I have had a succession of such projects that have stretched me in essential ways. Looking back, I see how the challenges of each have enabled the success of subsequent ones.  They came in a variety of sizes – from two weeks to more than a year in scope – and each was intense and exhausting.  Each overlapped with other projects.  Here are the five key endeavors.

  • Major client project away from home (14 months)
  • Relocate family from California to Washington (13 months)
  • Major client project away from home (6 weeks)
  • Building project at new home (2 weeks)
  • Clean out and prepare for sale the home of ailing relative who “collects” things (in process)

The first project taught me a number of new professional skills that I have employed since.  Most important, though, it taught me patience.  This was not just because of its longevity but also because of inherent people challenges.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not by nature a patient person.  I am easily frustrated and quick to snap.  These are not productive behaviors anywhere, but on this project they could not be in evidence at all.  I must confess that I was not 100% successful, but the stretch paid off.

Patience was essential for the moving project.  Over the course of thirteen months we had to refinance the old house, find and buy the new house, divest ourselves of 60% of our belongings, pack and move the remainder (including two full-sized grand pianos), prepare and sell the old house, and settle in the new one.  I thought we would never get here.  In the course of that time we had to deal with bankers, real estate agents, buyers, contractors, movers, and a host of other personalities.  In addition to the stamina gained from the sheer physicality of packing and carrying all this stuff (we moved everything but the pianos ourselves), I learned to play the doglegs.  In golf, that is where the fairway angles away in the middle. In life, that is when you are presented with direction-changing setbacks.  Playing the doglegs will be the topic of a subsequent article.

The next client project was rife with doglegs in spite of a compressed time line.  I could not have coped as well with the stress of so many setbacks if I had not already learned that another way would be found, and that it would probably be a better way in the long run.  I learned several new skills on that gig, not the least of which was how to delegate effort.  Maybe sometime soon I will learn to manage effectively what I have delegated. That is what we call an “opportunity.”

My home building project (the construction of a pair of large compost bins) drew upon both patience and the physical benefits of the move.  I constructed them in a corner of the property where everything had been completely overgrown with weeds and ivy.  Not only did this have to be cleared, the roots removed, and the ground flattened, the supports had to be both plumb and level for the design to work.  This part took more time than the actual construction, and of course it was the least fun.  But patience served me well and the results exemplified the lesson.  The project also brought me back to a state of a Zen with my tools that had been absent for some time.

The current project seems to be drawing on most of the strengths I have acquired in the past three years.  Patience – both for the enormity of the task and the personality challenges – tops the list.  I draw on the ability to play the doglegs almost daily.  I am tapping the physicality of the move and the compost bin projects.  I am delegating key aspects of the project in a way I would not have been able to a year ago.  The project is in process now, and its conclusion is not even on the horizon.  Consequently, I am not yet ready to assess what benefits I might take away from this one.

I am convinced that success in life is based on self-awareness.  I am not a big believer in (nor do I necessarily discount either) fate, karma, or divine plan. But when we take on challenges that stretch us and the resultant paybacks occur, do we stop to take stock of them?  What did I gain from the pain that I just endured?  What new tools have I added to my life toolbox?  How do I apply them to the next big challenge?  How has the experience sharpened my game?  Here are my thoughts on how to take advantage of the big push projects.

  • While engaged in a big push project, take note of what is working and what is not.  For me, it is more of a mental note than an entry in a diary, but either is fine.  If you are not getting the results you expect, can you draw on something from a past project to change the game?
  • When you get to the end of the project and before the post project letdown sets in, make a list of those areas where you learned something new, gained a specific skill, or improved on some personal or spiritual level.
  • Over time, see if you can connect the dots from project to project.  If you are being aware and honest, you should begin to see how the personal capital is accumulating.  But beware; this will also reveal your shortcomings.  Those are your opportunities.

This form of self-awareness is new to me.  At least, I think it is.  I first noticed it during that initial client project.  It surfaced again during the move and while I had not begun to connect the dots yet, I became aware of how the doglegs were working.  It was not until the compost bin project that I saw the picture emerging.  Since then, it has been enormously helpful to me both in looking for and also accepting new challenges.  More important, it helps me to retain both perspective and balance between my professional and personal lives, in spite of the fact that the line between them is no longer distinct.

In the end, it is this perspective that changes our big push projects from the labors of Sisyphus to that of Hercules at the Augean Stables.  In the end, of course, the stable gig didn’t count as one of his “labors,” but he did get paid for it.  And boy oh boy was old Hercules good at playing the doglegs.  As for us mortals, it makes us better employees, consultants, spouses, parents, people.  Coffee break is over.  Get back to work.

Do you have a big push payoff to share?  How do you manage that line between your personal and professional lives?