Author: Bob McGannon

The Latest 10 Things About Project Management I Learned From Dogs

FeaturePT May09 28832785 XSIn the pressure filled world of managing programs and projects, it is a healthy thing to take a break, look at the world around us, and reflect. One major source of reflection can be the approach our beloved pets take to life, and the tasks they look to tackle. Like project leaders, dogs are almost constantly communicating (albeit in their own unique way.) Through continued empirical research, interactive testing and more direct observation, compiled below are the latest techniques for project management learned from dogs. Open your mind, reflect on the dogs you have encountered and take a look…

1. Play with whatever and whomever you have around you

If projects aren’t opportunities to produce “unique products or services”, introduce change to an organization, increase productivity or enhance the capabilities of your customer then they shouldn’t be in your project portfolio. That being said, projects present the chance to make a real difference, and that is FUN. Manage your projects like a “prison camp” and you or your project team won’t be creative, won’t grow, and will not make the most of the collective skills present on the project. Lighten up, take lunches together, organize a project ping-pong tournament or try a new project management tool – there are many free options on the internet. Create a project environment where you can work hard and constructively “play” a bit and watch your success rate soar!

2. Enjoy the simple delights of a long walk

On an average day, project leaders spend a large percentage of time attending meetings. Reflecting on the outcomes of those meetings – what happened in the past and what could or should happen in upcoming meetings – may seem like a luxury, but it is very important. Making the most of the meetings you attend can demonstrate the power of your leadership (or not!) Take a walk! Enjoy the energy of a sunny day or a nice breeze and give yourself time to think how you can truly utilize the meetings we so frequently have to attend.

3. Run and greet loved ones

You are NOTHING without good project team members and supportive stakeholders. Treat them well, make an effort to interact with them, let them know how you feel, what you are doing, and invite them to play (see item #1). Get to know them so you know how and when to express your appreciation (you wouldn’t want to bring them a bone if they would rather you just sit next to them) and find opportunities to do so frequently.   

4. Eat with gusto and enthusiasm

Lunch is a meeting opportunity that YOU can design, for your personal health and the health of the project. Eat and not only that, ensure you take the time to eat well, and take someone along with you. Eating lunch is another opportunity to recharge (like item 2) or spend time with a stakeholder (like item 3). You can use the time for education. This can take the form of spending time with your customer and understanding their business, or sitting in on a webinar. Recognizing that this “eating” is a thing that helps you grow and gives you new ways to drive successful projects allows you to do this “with gusto” just like our canine friends do. 

5. Sit closely and gently next to those who have had a bad day

Projects involve risk, and we share that risk and associated frustrations with our customers and members of our project teams. Everything doesn’t always go as planned and there are days we would much rather forget. Like a good friend, dogs don’t try to make those days go away, they just let you know they are there and give you perspective for the good things that still exist, and the potential for things to get better. Just “be with” your project team members when things “go south.” You don’t have to talk a lot or do much; just let your team members know you understand and are there for them when things don’t go as they would have hoped.

6. Make new friends whenever possible

Dogs that make great pets seek to make new friends with whomever their masters deem are OK to enter the house. As project managers, we need to be open to new “friends”; stakeholders, team members, knowledge workers or other project managers that can give us new energy or a new perspective. Like anyone who has to perform some form of marketing has discovered, people buy from people they know and trust. The more friends you have, the more readily you can develop trust and get things accomplished. So, grab your bone and share it with everyone you can see!

7. Take naps and stretch regularly

Sometimes the best thing to do to ensure you get things done on your project is…stop trying to get things done all the time! Take a “nap” from your project – call an extended meeting with your project team and reflect on the things that are going well and things that could be improved. “Lessons learned” are wonderful, but they don’t do any good if they are only examined at the end of the project! Take a stretch, assess what is happening, take the opportunity for team building and inject new energy into the muscles of your project – have a brief stretch or take a nap from the constant pressure of deliverables.

8. When things are good, dance around and wag your WHOLE BODY

I have a professional speaker acquaintance that regularly says “The platform in front of a crowd is a really strange place to hide”! What he means is that when the attention is on you, take advantage of it and share all you can. Project management is not for the meek, and when your project deliverables result in success, it is not the time to be shy. Dogs that wag their tails (or their whole body) aren’t being boastful, they are enjoying what is happening and they are sharing that enjoyment. Do the same thing with your project team and your customer. Share the enthusiasm, and ensure as many folks as possible are aware of any new capabilities, productivity or product on which they can capitalize.

9. Don’t carry over bad days

Dogs don’t reflect on bad days, nor do they reflect on bad hours or minutes. They learn (hopefully) and move on. Good project managers do the same thing. As mood-setters, if the project manager looks worried or dejected, the whole project team will take on that emotion whether it is appropriate or not. Make adjustments when things don’t go well so you don’t repeat your mistakes (see item # 7) and move on knowing you are older and wiser than yesterday. Reflect that sentiment on your project team and encourage them to keep going while the project is still viable and you will see greater results.

10. Smile and share all but the most important “food”

Many dogs are very protective of their food…and time to work on deliverables and NOT be in meetings is our “food.” Protect that time with passion and vigor for yourself and project team members. At all other times however, it is time to share. Dogs play with their toys, and share them with people and other dogs. They will try various techniques, especially “smiling”, to get people to share with them. (Yes, dogs smile…ears back, mouth slightly open and the back of their mouths drawn up. Well, at least that posture on a dog’s face makes ME want to smile!) We as project leaders should share information, tools and lessons learned, and at times our own “toys”, especially resources. When we are too protective of a scarce resource we may deliver THIS project as we desire, but we may also create an issue for future projects. Work collaboratively, look for approaches where you can smile and share…it may just allow you to live a longer, more prosperous project life.

(Acknowledgement needs to go to Cosmo, Oliver, Buzz, Chico, Lira and Buster for the examples that lead to this article.)

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Need to Communicate? Choose the Right Vocabulary

Many of the business analysts, project managers and organisational leaders we work with lament their inability to appropriately communicate and influence the stakeholders with which they work. Needing to get a point across or to inspire the required action, they spend significant energy trying to share their passion or urgency for attention to the business matters at hand. Often it falls upon deaf ears or becomes lost in the tsunami of information we all have to handle.

Typically their messages are not wrong or misplaced and their sense of need is quite real. Why then do so many of these communications fail to achieve the desired result? Are they failing  to utilize the right vocabulary for their target audience?

Here we explore the three ‘languages’, or sets of vocabulary, that best convey messages to different audiences within the organization. (Italicized items in the article below indicate key terms for each vocabulary type.)

The Strategic Vocabulary

This is the language of senior leaders, multi-tasking managers and those in charge of significant initiatives within the organization. The people who embrace the strategic vocabulary are searching for relevance and the need for action amongst a sea of emails and demands on their time. Usually reading only the first line or two of the 300 or so emails they receive a day, the biggest challenge in a senior leader’s day is to determine – from these short snippets of communication – whether to delete, file, delegate or take action on the number of items that cross their desk. It is a daunting chore.

The vocabulary that reverberates with these managers is conveyed in short, succinct sentences. The topic is clear and focuses on overall objectives, key process indicators, or direct outcomes. The language of risk and mitigation is welcome, even when the news is not pleasant. Open ended questions are taboo, as answering them requires study and homework within the organization. Senior leaders rarely have time for that type of activity. Instead, questions should be crafted in multiple choice format, with risks and opportunities attached to each alternative. Instances and particular circumstances are not usually absorbed; addressing them directly can result in impacts elsewhere. Instead, discussions of trends or market trends, integration opportunities or strategic convergence or divergence capture attention.

The vocabulary of the senior manager is focused on vision and direction and projected results. Historical results or other items focusing on the past are only mildly interesting, except in cases where they indicate a repeated trend that is in process. Short term focus gets more attention than long term focus (probably to a fault in this business climate). Short term items that yield benefits, that also have positive long term trend indications are universally welcome.

Keep it short. Pictures are best as they can convey a significant amount of information and can be absorbed quickly and efficiently.

The Tactical Vocabulary

Individuals that are battling the day to day delivery of value to the business respond best to tactical vocabulary. Items such as prioritization of scarce resources, and the production of deliverables or products are at the heart of their world. Their focus tends toward requirements from customers and the management of stakeholders quickly capture the attention of the busy juggler that is a project manager, line manager or team leader.

The attention span is longer than those who respond to the strategic vocabulary, but the topic must present itself plainly and early in the communication. Work breakdown structures, business processes, or gap analysis items have a tendency to be heard quite readily. These are all focused on the ability to deliver on time. The terminology of deadlines is especially effective, particularly in cases where evidence or actuals enter the discussion. These can cause a very strong emotional reaction however, so the sender of messages using this terminology should take care and make sure their facts are accurate. Exaggeration in any shape or form can destroy the lines of communication and should be avoided. Capabilities or skill pools grasp the attention quickly and can inspire action with little effort. Constraints also can lead to fruitful discussion, especially when they are cleanly expressed and are tangible. The languages of risk or metrics are effective in the tactical world as well as the strategic, but the nature of the communication needs to focus on items that can be dealt with via tactical action, otherwise it is dismissed as being for ‘the Board’ to handle. Lastly, the best attention catalyst can be the issue, which can cause an eruption of communication, physical responses and fast action.

The Operational Vocabulary

This is the language of the people in your business who do the real work. These are the ‘coalface’ team members. Their concerns are for today. Questions or statements  which focus on how to get things done, or what the procedures are, represent the ‘front and center’ in their world. Metrics and measurements are also effective tools in the operational vocabulary, as long as their focus is on the individual or small team, and not a larger demographic. They are very keen to understand the checklists that form their role, and are quickly interested by discussions that talk about quality assurance. Their world is often a series of inputs and outputs, and that vocabulary captures their attention in an instant. Roles are a great way to capture the attention of the operational team member.

Any vocabulary items that talk about the volume of what they have to deal with are especially effective communication tools, including things such as backlogs, inventory levels, or quotas. Quick attention grabbers are sentences that address errors or to-do items. Of particular note are any communication items that address reviews or, more significantly audits, which can have a very positive effect on activity, but also include the risk of creating a total freeze on activity, rendering the operational area ineffective.

Food and food related terminology are great ways to inspire action, especially when it comes to attendance at meetings or other functions. Any discussion of salary or compensation is also a sure fire attention grabber, but care needs to be used in this area to ensure the originator of these communications are viewed as credible.

Formulating Communications

Some of the above was deliberately delivered in a tongue in cheek manner; however the point is absolutely serious. Effective communications depend quite heavily on the type of vocabulary that is used;  different groups in business value different vocabularies. Crafting your communications, whether they be written or verbal, around the commonly used and valued vocabulary of the group that will receive your communications are paramount to success.

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Bob McGannon and Haydn Thomas are Principals of MINDAVATION; a company providing program & project management and business analysis training,  consulting, leadership workshops, keynotes and project coaching worldwide.