Sunday, 15 September 2013

Like riding a bike

Eric Barker's  blog is on my weekly must read list for what I do during my Sunday morning coffee and before the household gets too active. This blog holds incredible wisdom and insight, and has the ability to get that communicated without the purple prose of similar blogs.

This week's post I thought was a great reminder about how great leaders remain great leaders and riding a bicycle are quite analogous. Remember when you were first learning to ride a bike? Pushing the pedals forward to move forward; esay. Push back to brake; cinch. Balance? Well that something else entirely.
It's easy for us to believe at some point that we've mastered riding a bicycle and we don't have to think about it any more. The reality though is that the task has just become rote. We're still thinking about it; just not consciously. And when we stop doing that? That's when gravity kicks in and shows us who the real boss is.

Managing or leading people is in many ways the same thing. It means keeping everything in balance, making well found decisions without waiting too long to make them, and making sure you don't allow yourself to get carried away on the shoulders of the sycophants.

A few quotes from this week's article:

"Egos expand faster than waistlines."

"The irony of leadership is you need to speak with certainty to be taken seriously. But if you take yourself too seriously, you end up in the hubris trap."

This week's must read article sums up with a statement that "denial, ego and hubris are all parts of human nature. They are like gravity. We don’t defeat them. To move forward we must actively resist them every day."

Want to see the whole article or subscribe yourself? . . .

Friday, 29 March 2013

Soft skills -- Vision – having one … to a detailed level

Having and being able to share a clear vision; being strategic in your purpose. I believe this is what people are talking about when they refer to needing someone who is “details oriented”. It’s also widely recognized that having one is important. I did a Google search just a minute ago and it responded with about 57,300,000 results in 0.17 seconds. And yet having a vision is rarely listed when people are asked what the most important characteristics are for being effective. For example, it was listed only once in a recent LinkedIn PM Community group post.

Now, before I go any further, I’d like to repeat and clarify that the following is focused on those in the project management profession. I and many others have been inspired by leaders over the years. JFK’s vision of landing a man on the moon and safely returning him the Earth by the end of the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. Those and many other leaders had a very clear vision of what they wanted to see happen. They did not, however, have the skills to technically know how to achieve it. Still, both these and other visions were achieved and the world is a better place for them being achieved. Would they have made great project managers? Probably. JFK was the captain of a PT boat during WWII. Do all great project managers possess the skills to become leaders of industry, government, and causes that will change the course of history? Probably not.

Now, with that out of the way, the clarity of a PM’s / PgM’s vision and level of detail that can be discussed are very much inter-related in my opinion. It is the ability of this person to:
  • get into the weeds with the team if and when needed and
  • commensurate to their role and
  • for the teams they are managing and
  • for whom they are reporting into.

Where this seems to go off balance in many cases is where people (both individual contributors and those already in leadership roles) sometimes have a perception that you must be able to do to lead. This, depending on how extreme this position is taken, can be a promotion of individualism over teamwork. It is also the downfall of many people new to management roles. That lesson being to learn to delegate rather than do. Toyota and many other companies almost always promote from within. And this makes a lot of sense in most cases. A project or program manager really should understand what a group of computer science professionals need to do and why to develop and deploy a complex software application. Do they need to hold a B.Sc from a prestigious university to be effective as a PM/PgM? I doubt it. I don’t have that degree and I’ve really done quite well over my career. By the same token though, I equally believe my hands on understanding and experience of software development and the IT infrastructures that software needs to be deployed on has contributed to that success.

It’s also those “and”s that really make a difference. As systems theories seek to promote, it’s not so much the individual components as the interrelationships among them that really make the difference. They are very important because the vision needs to be shared at the level of your audience, and as a PM/PgM I believe we all know that your audience consists of management teams, vendors, customers, and other stakeholders in addition to your core team. Making anyone feel stupid at any time at any place is just plain wrong. It may be immediately satisfying to put a bully in their place in a public way; and I admit that in the past I have been guilty of doing that myself. However, the loss experienced doing that also meant losing the skills that other person had to offer. Yes, sometimes it’s worth it but that should never be the first option. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous foreign policy statement to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ can equally be applied today. And as he also said during his presidency, the objective should always be to never have to use that big stick. On a lighter note, even in the Bugs Bunny – Yosemite Sam cartoons of my youth Bugs never sought out to humiliate Sam. I think that was a good life lesson.

Finally, if people perceive you as making it up as you go you’ll very likely be perceived as flaky, insincere, not credible, whatever; and that’s regardless of how clearly, concisely, … you communicate. And they won’t follow you. As the old adage goes, you can’t be a leader if no one wants to follow. Someone once said to me a few years ago in a moment of frustration, “It’s not about you! And what makes you think you’ve got all the answers anyway?!” My response was simply, One, I don’t think I have all the answers. That’s why I’ve built a strong team around me. And two, I was put in that position because of the vision I had and communicated to the executives;  on what we needed to do to both resolve existing limitations/gaps, achieve stated strategic objectives, and how and what we should do to go about doing that. If you think I’m completely wrong and the wrong person for the job, take that up with our executives.

I never did find out if I was the source or just the target of that person’s frustration. I do know thought that person was able to convince our executives that the gloss and polish they offered actually made them the right person for the job (not me). I wouldn’t take too much stock in their decision making skills though. I got a call from a recruiter about 18 months later telling me who had been ‘let go’ and asking me if I would consider coming back because the project still needed to be completed. This was a project that should have and could have been completed in less than a year. Yes, karma does exist. A favorite analogy of mine for this event is a beloved children’s game, King of the Castle. The specific analogy being that others may and will knock you off that heap (out of your position) but without possessing the depth of your vision they won’t stay there too long themselves either.

In closing, I’ll offer to you the request and hope I have for you, and why I am writing this post. If you’re going to have a vision, share it. If you want to take over someone else’s vision, I hope you actually have the depth of understanding to actually carry out that vision through to fruition.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Soft skills -- Honesty and Integrity

A senior manager I had a few years back introduced me to a very successful salesman. In that encounter he suggested to me that if I wanted to be really successful I needed to start following the platinum rule instead of the golden rule. He defined the ‘platinum rule’ as treating others as they wanted to be treated regardless of how they treat you or anyone else. I’ve never been really able to apply the platinum rule perhaps in no small part due to the fact that I am a very big believer in karma. What goes around eventually and always comes around. I have learned though (the hard way) that viewpoint makes many of the more politically motivated individuals out there very nervous.

And when it comes to motivating people . . . well lets just say I’m of the school you can’t actually motivate anyone. You can only leverage the motivations people already possess. The other half of this picture that tends to get lost on a lot of people after they’ve been doing a certain job for a long period of time is humility, and offering credit where credit is due is part of that. And yet some people want to receive kudos just for showing up. Still others’ have perspectives that taking the credit as the leader is just how things are supposed to work. If you don’t do that yourself, they see you as weak and not a leader. As the old adage says “provide goes before the fall.” One person said to me in my travels that “it’s only arrogance if you can’t back up what you’re saying with results.” That never really sat that well with me that well either. It seems contrary to sincerity and self-respect / confidence / efficacy. That said, I also know that I’ve been accused of being arrogant. Luckily (for me) there’s been some one else close by in most cases to challenge that accusation. And yes, I can fight my own battles. It’s just that this is one of those situations where the more you protest your innocence the more it looks like you’re not innocent at all. It’s like being called a guru. It’s great if others give you that label and much less so when you do it yourself.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Soft skills -- Communication skills (or BLOT)

For today’s post, a big thanks to one of my readers who suggested I follow the BLOT (Bottom Line On Top) principle on this topic since ‘communication skills’ is so widely viewed as the paramount skill required of all people who are in leadership roles. And I agree; so with that some of you may be asking ‘so what gives?!’

Communication skills in and of themselves are subjective to the environment, and thus generally not a personal characteristic on that basis. If you take any individual and change their environment that person may do equally as well communicating with those they interact with, or they could do better, or they could do worse. It’s the same person, only their environment and the audience has changed. Likewise, you could take a poll at any public speaking event and find people that span the bell curve regarding their perception of the speaker and their topic. Let’s use TEDx as an example. I generally look forward to hearing about the latest speech available on-line because I thoroughly enjoy most of them. You may feel the same way but TEDx, some other speeches, or disagree with me entirely. Now in any of these examples if you had a negative perception of the speaker’s communicative skills and mine was positive the speaker’s skills are not lessened just because your perception is more negative than mine; or vice-versa for that matter.

Saying that, some of you may say “yes, but if they were a truly great speaker then everyone would think they were wonderful.” And again I would agree with you, and I would offer that rising to the level of Gandhi, Churchill, Lincoln, Mandela, and others may be desirable and yet unattainable for the vast majority of us. Does that mean the rest of us are then poor communicators? Of course not, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Across my career I can come up with multiple examples of people who perceived my communication skills as abhorrent, average or exceptional. It’s like a bell curve like anything else in life. If everyone you meet tells you you’re an exceptional communicator then you’re either a very unique individual on par with the examples above. Either that or they are blowing smoke up your tailpipe because they perceive value in doing so because of your status or position relative to theirs in whatever situation that discourse took place.

Okay, time to wrap this up. Possessing cultural awareness, being perceived as an honest person with a high standard of moral integrity, having a vision you want to share, and being self-aware are all factors that play into how any of us are perceived  regarding our individual communication skills. And that, my friends, is why I have listed ‘communication skills in 5th place out of 5.

Oh yes, and those on-line discussions that started all of this? I’ve posted the links to a couple of them below.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Soft skills -- Cultural awareness

I believe this characteristic is very high on the list of required characteristics if not in the number one spot.

One of the benefits I’ve received from being a contractor and working in numerous businesses is the awareness that one size definitely does not fit all. What I mean by that is that having a keen awareness of both the personal cultures of the people you work with and the corporate culture in place will do more than anything else to determine where you and your projects will ultimately sit on the ‘over the top wildly successful’ – ‘absolute failure’ performance scale. This is especially important when there is already a dichotomy between management and worker views on the value of a particular strategy, communication needs, readiness for change, risk tolerances, etc. Depending on your perspective, the same situation or even a single conversation could be positive, neutral or negative. Of course, this also presumes you’re coming into the position with at least a minimum baseline of technical skills.

The most valuable piece of concise advice that comes to mind at this moment is ‘Go slow to go fast’. This tidbit of wisdom is one of the things I think that took me a relatively long time to truly appreciate. Personally, for me, it says so much more than the expression of ‘a bull in a china shop’. Sure, for those of us who have been around for even a while have all seen this situation play out at one time or another, and it’s not pretty. Some newbie PM or high priced consulting firm that should really know better comes riding in like the cavalry to the rescue and the smart ones of us sit back and watch until they either smarten up or fall on their faces.

This is why I truly love the workplaces that have already done some kind of True Colors exercise and everyone has their primary colors posted at their desks. They may as well have a sign up that says “Hi, I’m so-and-so, you can best interact with me by . . .” and you fill in the blank part of that line. Of course, if they appear to be stressed for whatever reason (most of us are at some point or another) you’d probably do best to be observant (aware) and proceed with the color that person has when they’re stressed. By then collectively leveraging and offsetting each other’s weaknesses and strengths and enabling your team with this awareness you then create synergies. And that synergy of awareness to cut a long story short then creates highly productive project teams.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Project Management Soft Skills

I’ve seen what seems like a lot of on-line discussions lately about the level of arrogance of people who choose project management as a profession, soft v. hard skills required to be effective, what qualities make a good program/project manager, etc.

Using definitions as my premise, …

‘Quality’ is an essential or distinctive or distinguishing characteristic or attribute with respect to level of excellence in personality and traits.

‘Character’ is the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of a person and the moral and ethical qualities and reputation.

These factors are the two sides of the same coin that help me differentiate between Bob, Mary and Bill. Just to be clear; these are made up names referring to no one in particular.

Arrogance, however, is the offensive display of superiority or self-importance; including overbearing pride.

The following five factors listed in order of importance I believe are deterministic for predicting the level of success achievable for a program/project manager; or for any leader for that matter.

1.      Cultural awareness
2.      Honesty and Integrity
3.      Vision – having one … to a detailed level
4.      Self-awareness / wisdom / insight
5.   Communication skills

I will elaborate on each of the above points over the coming days.

I will also say at this point that this list may differ from yours. That’s okay. It’s our unique perspectives that make this world an exciting and enjoyable place to live. And yes, I’m very much aware and excluding the more negative issues that exist in this world; there’s enough of that on the news already.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Story Points are Quantitative ... well kind of

One of the most fervent, ongoing dichotomies I continue to hear about is that of defining Story Points; SPs for the remainder of this post. This includes a Q&A discussion on a recent webinar I attended. The frustrating part of me is that this dichotomy is a justification in some people’s minds on why Agile is an immature methodology. Thus, the reason for this post.

As fervent as both sides of this debate are about whether or not Story Points (SPs) translate into time / effort / duration tangible numbers. The reality is that they're both correct. I can hear the gasps, gfaws, angry mind squirrels seeking the comment area now! What! How ridiculous!  To that, I say "LOL". :D

Seriously, the whole point of story points is not to have just another way of saying how much work there is to do! Yup, you heard me! It's not some conspiracy to create even more and new overhead. It's about creating visibility of scale to get people moving forward on something that will create something tangible and of benefit to customers, users, and yes even the company who hired people to develop, test, document, release, market and sell it.

Okay, let's get into the weeds of this debate shall we?

Dichotomy side 1:  SPs Have No Time Correlations

Let's start with the side that say SPs are qualitative numbers and have no correlation to time. In this camp, it's all about T-shirt sizes, H / M / L categories, etc. The SP cards might as well be colors as Fibonacci numbers. These are the people who prefer to say "I'll tell you how long it's going to take when I'm done." or at least "I can't tell you until I've burned through 2 to 4 sprints and have an average of how many SPs we can get to 'Done" in a typical cycle / sprint / iteration.

The down side with this approach, that I've found anyway, is that it presumes everyone estimating (playing planning poker) has a similar scale of how much effort will be required to get the work done. I've actually seen scenarios where everyone agreed a story was a size of '1', told the guy in the room saying "hey, wait a minute ..." that he was just wasting their time, and then the testers asking the developers the next day if they'd have the build (that's right kiddies 'the' build, not 'a' build, 'the' build) for them by the end of the day. That was the point where the communications regressed into something less than respectful because the developers meant "one sprint" when they said '1'. Of course, this cascaded into problems where the testers had put something else on the back burner, wouldn't be available at the end sprint (in 3 weeks), and couldn't be expected to just sit around until then! You see the picture, right? :-) 

This hasn't ever happened to you; you say? Great! Congratulations! Could you perhaps add a "yet" onto the end of that sentence? Okay, enough of this side. Let's move over to the camp of people who say "everything must be quantifiable to mean anything; otherwise it's just a waste of their time!" 

Dichotomy side 2:  SPs Correlate to Effort

These are the people who typically have tight budgets, are in consulting, professional services groups, etc. Because quite frankly, nobody is interested in working for free. Not even the junior engineers in the other camp who want to tell you how long it will take when they're done. Let's look at this a little more closely shall we? The fact is, quantifiable numbers enable people to think about how long (when it will be ready), how much $$$ so they can pay bills, wages, etc to be around for the next contract. Ever run into a scenario where somebody delivered something 6 weeks late and was incredulous when nobody cared? The fact is they missed the boat and this is what exists a lot of the time in business. It's about both realistic and ideal costs and durations / days required to get something to 'done'. 

The Rule of 1.x

Sometimes telling someone that a story point equals a day will just get them thinking 'Agile' is 'a Guile' and BS and waterfall just using different words. That’s why I prefer to get the team thinking about the work involved rather than how much effort it will take.

On really unclear, breaking new ground types of initiatives you may well just need to start off with high, medium and low sizing; very small, small, ... XXL T-shirt size estimates. And yet no one in their right mind is going to give you a budget based on that. No one will ever go in front of a group of executives to say please give me a million dollars, we believe the project is 22 Medium t shirts big.  Amazingly though I’ve had experiences in my career where some people thought that was exactly what we should. This is only your first step to get to some focus on some subset of your backlog to get some quantitative numbers. A break down of the work into its component subsets (or some smaller, manageable chunk) until you get to a point where you've got a list of tasks so you can say if Bob does this, Mary does that, and Pat does this other thing we'll be able to demo for you our version of the newest product with this subset of specific capabilities.

If your team has a velocity of 10 SPs in sprint 1, 8 SPs in sprint 2, and 12 SPs and the team worked the same way, same number of days, etc it doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. It means you can expect to burndown 10 SPs per sprint on average. It may also mean that some of the estimates were off by 20% and just like in a bell curve everything just averages out, and that instead of planning out everything over a mind-numbing 3 to 6 weeks to the n-th degree of detail you have enough information after just a couple of days to tell the business when they’ll get their software, and the developers, testers and tech writers, etc can get onto what they do and love best.

The above is why I like to say SPs follow the rule of 1.x

 A Word of Caution

Sometimes to people getting it their heads that “oh well, it was just a estimate”; “I can come up with any number off the top of my head and say oops later”. No skin off my back; right? No, not right. Think about it in terms of an example that I think most of us can relate to, and maybe even some have experienced themselves. If you went to a garage to get your car fixed, they called you will an estimate of $200 and when you got there they handed a bill for $1150 and said “Oh well, was just an estimate” you'd probably either go ballistic or vow to never go there again. Now, when your estimates to develop a new feature are way off, this is what they’re thinking about you.  This is what I'm talking about when it comes to holding a planning poker exercise. For me, if I didn't expect you to take the work seriously, I could more easily just come up with the numbers myself using a random number generator and then blame you when you couldn't hit those probably ridiculous estimates. Of course, if that was the case you wouldn't want to work with me either. This is what is meant by mutual respect in the workplace. I take what you do seriously and vice-versa.

Sometimes coming up with accurate estimates is just not possible, or as one manager I know put it, "the only thing that is clear is that everything is unclear."

So ..... what are we ever to do?

That's easy, if you (and the team) have come up with story points estimates for everything in your backlog -- pick something small but not too small, something with an obvious solution but not too obvious, something of one or a few SPs. If people new to SPs and planning poker are more comfortable equating 1 SP to a day-ish of total effort among everyone involved to get whatever to 'done' try it and see what happens! Seriously, it’s really that simple. If it turns out to be about a day of work then you probably have some good estimates for the rest of your backlog. If it turns out to be a week when the team decomposes the work, you may just want to try this again with something else, expand out your estimates for everything else by a factor of 3 or 5, or some combination of these two things and perhaps something else just for good measure. If you’ve got a team with people who have worked well with each other a lot in the past and have been involved in the development of the project’s requirements you may just want to dive right in to your planning poker and estimate your stories.

The above is certainly not all encompassing on this. That’s why companies need to formally train existing employees and hire qualified ones. And please excuse me for saying so if this contrasts with your perspective but quite frankly I’m going to listen to the original Agilists and those who and widely published authors over highly charismatic webinar hosts. The following links may help you get to your next threshold in the use of SPs.


Monday, 4 March 2013

It’s People then Process then Tools/Tech

. . . in that order!

A recent group discussion and one poster’s experience about people who just don’t seem to ‘get’ this and others who blame the tool has kicked up my ire. And equally from a humorous perspective is reminding me of the joke about a guy who throws his clubs in a lake after having a bad round of golf.

For me, having Ishikawa diagrams, 5-whys, reality trees, etc in my toolbox to do RCAs, ensuring plans are comprehensive, etc are great but that's just it. They are tools to visually represent how well we've analyzed what needs to be addressed. And like any tool, it can be misused. Ever seen anyone try to use a screwdriver as a hammer? How about a wrench as a hammer?  :-) 

I'm a visual learner myself, know others are too, and appreciate that not everyone else is. As an example, the fishbone diagram (when appropriate) I find is something best used to record what was discussed. Thus, early in the process, I've historically found it's best used as a mental tool and left at that. Pulling it out too early sometimes causes people just go through the motions of populating the bones rather than thinking about what should be populated on them.

Now, anyone who turns the People --> Process --> Tools/Tech workflow on it's head and makes the tool or the process paramount is doing something that is at its very least "counter intuitive." And at this point, some may say “Hey, you’re pretty much constrained to HTML, Javascript and CSS to create a website. And they’re all tools/tech!” And to that I would say “yes, yes they are.” And then I’d ask those people what websites they know of that were designed to serve another website.

The tool/tech cannot ever be paramount to the people or the process it is there to serve; whether or not the problem is open-ended or not. Procedures to help share knowledge to less experienced others creates progress and as such are typically very good. Procedures used to constrain thought in any ethical problem solving paradigm into predefined boxes will only serve to create mental RSIs (Repetitive Strain Injuries) and tend to be very bad at creating value-added solutions. Again, let's note that in such cases it is the people creating the problem; not the process or the tool. 

At the risk of heading down a rat hole, picking up a gauntlet, whatever, ...  Yes, I too have encountered a lot of useless tools over the path of my professional career, but they were all people. :-) LOL   

The overwhelmingly vast majority of people I’ve worked with over the last 30+ years, went to school with, or had as professors could in no way be considered blind lemmings who’d follow a process just because it exists and it’s easier than thinking. Anyone who is living with this reality I would suggest has a very depressing reality. I can honestly and thankfully say that does not apply where I am, nor I suspect do the vast majority of other people either.

Oh, BTW, the article that drove all of this ….

Saturday, 2 March 2013

History is the best predictor of the future

I had a brief conversation this past week with someone who used this statement. Something about this bothered me, something just seemed off; wrong about this, but I wasn’t sure what so I just smiled politely and when on with my work. Then this morning, while I was busy doing something else, it hit me – ‘broken telephone!’

Somewhere along the line, that person on their own or through another imparting this little tidbit of non-wisdom dumbed down “past performance and behavior is a predictor of future performance and behavior” into one all encompassing factor of reality. Well, in their mind anyway. In essence, they played the game of broken telephone with a nice, concise piece of wisdom.

That got me thinking. I wonder what else that person and how many others in and out of their places of business play that game on a regular basis due to some combination of misunderstanding and misinformation? I wonder how many variables and constraints were completely forgotten or discarded to further cloud that tidbit of wisdom?

This statement is most accurate when no variables change. When one or more variables in the equation start to shift and depending on how dramatically they shift this black & white equation becomes more and more gray to the point where there is no relevance or correlation at all. These variables include things like changing jobs, companies, company culture, people working there, new laws (well enforced ones), and the manager(s) taking a new training course, etc.

I suspect the graying of this change becomes more exponential with the number of variables changed. I suspect that last specific example has a more significant impact than others. The behaviors and perceptions of those in leadership roles whether it’s someone that’s a SME, team lead, resource manager, or yes, even a program or project manager can have a significant positive or negative impact on others’ motivations, performance, and work and personal habits. My basis for this is remembering some research on self-efficacy. In one such study (in the U.S. mind you) grade school students’ IQs scores were replaced with their locker numbers and giving those numbers to their teachers at the start of the year. The smarter kids were generally assigned lower locker numbers and vice-versa. The results were significant. Students who were top performers were now getting B- and lower grades. Students who in previous years had average and below average grades now had slightly to significantly above average grades. And the only school where the results were not statistically significant was at a school where a teacher happened to mention something in the teachers’ lounge and they all got to talking. Still, let’s not pick on teachers shall we? The fact is a lot people in all business fields behave this way. Even today. I’ve personally lost count of how many times over just the past month I’ve heard people say things in and out of my own workplace that make me want to just shake my head and say “What!?” Things like,
  • Oh, he must know, he’s a VP / a doctor / a .... !
  • She couldn’t possibly know. She’s just a secretary / .... .
  • It’s important for us to teach children about democracy and standing up for one’s rights (by neither showing children that adults can behave well (ahem) like adults nor allowing individual teachers to decide if they want to support extracurricular student activities on their own). Oh, BTW, don’t get me started on the ‘might equals right’ strategy of Ontario politicians!

This was also a driving factor (of many) when ITIL as of version 3 changed from a set of ‘best practices’ to ‘good practices’ perhaps realizing this.

I’ll look for an opportunity to have another chat this week at the coffee machine with that person.

Oh, one other thing, history can be a very good predictor of the future. Wars, bigotry, overspending, listening to and sharing gossip just to name a few. It all depends on how open or closed one’s mind is to continually learning new things. When behaviors like I’m too busy to talk with so-and-so; oh, I already know. I ….; and so on are commonplace in any setting these broken telephones will also be rampant.