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Author: Charles Gallagher

Project Wildfire

“Do Today What Others Won’t; Do Tomorrow What Others Can’t”
– Smoke Jumpers Creed

There has been no shortage of firefighting in recent news, and my heart goes out to those that have been impacted by these natural disasters. It always strikes the scientist in me, that so many things in nature can be a metaphor for what we see in life, and especially in business.

Tsunami’s? How about the 2007 Financial Crisis?

Earthquakes? How about Brexit?

I could go on and on, but today I want to focus on Fire and how it moves and spreads. And how it relates specifically to Project Management.

When a fire is under control it can keep you warm, generate energy, and illuminate. Lose control of that fire and it can be dangerous, unpredictable and consume everything in its path.

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Managing a project can be very similar— manage it properly and it can be an enjoyable, comfortable ride. Lose control, and careers can be shattered.

As project managers it is our job to manage the critical path of a project and the accompanying execution speed. When this is under control the project is stable and it’s a predictable and comfortable experience for all the stakeholders involved; however, when control is lost, the project can quickly explode into a hot inferno of cascading problems.

When fire fighters manage a fire, they use many techniques to control the blaze. For example, they use a technique called back burning. Back burning ironically involves intentionally starting small fires along a man-made or natural firebreak in front of a main fire front. Back burning reduces the amount of fuel that’s available to the main fire by the time that it reaches the burnt area.2

In project management, similar techniques can be used. Much like in fire-fighting, a project manager wants to control the project and not have the project in control. The best way to do that is to understand the critical path. Controlling and managing the critical path and even better the critical chain (which is the resource constrained critical path), is the best way to avoid project wildfire and to successfully execute a project in a controlled manner.


Don’t Be a Victim, Break the Rules

“You are remembered for the rules you break.”
Douglas MacArthur

gallagher Nov26Anyone who has studied the history of medicine will notice that some of our biggest breakthroughs have been the result of a single scientist breaking the rules. History tells us these are the same people who have also effectively changed a conventional paradigm. For example, the world is flat, wash your hands, earth revolves around the sun. Often times, the rule-breaking scientist pays a considerable price for being a change agent. The pain of change forces an outlandish idea to become a piece of conventional wisdom.

Even in the social sciences, we often see rule breaking as a means to progress and enlightenment. Just look at Rosa Parks and others like her during the Civil Rights Movement. Nelson Mandela in the face of Apartheid. Ronald Reagan challenge to Gorbachev to tear the wall down.

We face outlandish ideas (rules) in the work place all the time. One popular one is “this is the way we have always done it.” How many times have we heard that? Breaking this single rule can often yield great rewards in professional wisdom and in productivity. In our often over-stimulated, over-technical workplace environment, we often find ourselves powerless in the face of bureaucratic electronic fences and complexity. It is easy to get overwhelmed, easy to submit to the way we have always done things. I have found in my career that people often follow rules simply because of inertia or because no one is measuring outcomes in a meaningful way.

When we measure our outcomes and keep score during our work it becomes increasingly more difficult to utilize flawed logic or to cling to the way we have always done it. It forces us to break the rules. It forces us to stop being victims to the mindless way in which we often work.

Often when we are executing projects the biggest operating constraints are the rules established by the firm. Many times these rules are really just old habits and typically they have no logical, timely or relevant basis other than “this how we have always done it.” Many firms cannot let go of their stodgy industrial mindsets and cultures (even though most of them have been hard at work in a knowledge economy for quite a long time now). The firms brave enough to break the rules are truly emerging and re-emerging, boosting productivity, increasing effectiveness and accelerating execution speed.

This week examine your daily routine and ask yourself what rules could I break? When running a project, challenge yourself to play the curious anthropologist— ask why you do what you do. The movie Office Space was infamous for outlining the ludicrousness of the TPS reports. My guess is that you have your own TPS reports in your organization. The bottom line is simple: If the rule is not adding value or making life better for someone it probably should be broken.

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Start Counting

Count Everything!

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” –Chinese Proverb

If you want to be successful, start counting. Why? If you can count, you can keep score and if you can keep score you can win. Want to lose weight? Start counting— Shave off 500 calories a day and you will lose a pound per week. Want to be rich? Start counting— Invest just $100 per month you will save over $175,000 in twenty years (assuming 11 percent annual return which by the way you can achieve in the market if you are counting). Want your kids to be smart? Start counting— 20 minutes a day reading, writing, math practice. Want to run a marathon? Start counting— Write the mileage on your sneakers after each run and count until you get to about 35 miles per week. The bottom line is this: If you dream it, then count it. The magic about focusing on the counting in any endeavor is that it develops good process and good process often translates into good habits. Good habits can change your life.

For those of us that are project managers, tracking and counting is the difference between success and failure on any project. A key trick that I use is to count the specific hours a task will take rather than measuring the “percentage complete” that is typically measured for project status. What is more, I use this count to chart progress in my weekly project team meetings….to see exactly where we are on the timeline. Percent complete is not something that is easily understood…. After all, what does 75% complete actually mean? It is non-specific in almost all cases. If it is 75% complete, does that mean we have 1 hour, 10 hours, 100 hours to completion?

By counting hours, the team will know that John has 2 hours of pure work to complete a task. They also understand that if they are next in line for a hand-off it will not start for at least 2 hours. If John multi-tasks it will be closer to fours or even a couple of days in elapsed duration or time. Counting these dynamics in specific and real measure gives the team a level set expectation of progress each and every time.
The real trick with counting is to make it fun. Don’t focus so much on the outcome. Focus instead simply on the counting. By doing this, you can enjoy the process, improve your attitude about the work and alleviate the pressure or monotony of the project’s daily tasks. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly mentions the “10,000 Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.

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The tools in the figure above are some popular tracking tools on the market today. The timing cubes made by Datexx are great tools for setting aside 100% focused time on a task. For example, if I know that I have to review a document to get it finalized and it will take 45 minutes, I will set the timer, close down other processes and focus until it is fully done. If I am training for a race, I will use a Garmin to track my progress and cadence challenging myself to a game to see if I can push to a certain “mph” over a designated distance. If I want to work on a professional certification and find myself bogged down with work and family commitments, I will use my “penny in a jar” game. I promise myself 15 minutes of dedicated focus time per day specifically toward my professional goal. If I do the 15 minutes, I put a penny in the jar. It sounds a little corny but, it does work. It takes lofty goals and chops them up into micro goals that are highly attainable, giving me a real sense of progress each and every day.

So, do I count every day? Damn right I do.

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Take a Position

“Nothing happens until something moves.”
Albert Einstein

Anyone who has had the privilege of working on a project team has also undoubtedly had the experience of balancing varying opinions and agendas, weighing the potential of analytical paralysis that often stems from that, and navigating the fog of uncertainty throughout the term of the project.

Although these classic project pitfalls are often annoying and can stall or even derail a project timeline, they are also ironically some of the key exercises that help to fill critical knowledge gaps and ultimately ensure good results. While slowing down execution speed is never desired, failing to tease out these pitfalls is far worse. It is the truly skilled project manager that can strike the balance between perceived perfection and the real courage it takes to do the project right, with all its warts and pimples.

As a project management consultant I have had the privilege of working with a variety of personalities from a variety of cultural and educational backgrounds— research scientists, chemists, tech geeks, lawyers, doctors and “suits” from all around the globe. One thing I can say without hesitation is that this line of work has been an adventure. (My wife would probably agree although I am not sure she would use the word “adventure” exactly).

On one such adventure, I was brought in to a Fortune 100 company to rescue a fairly large, high profile project. Upon diagnosis it was clear to me that the project was stuck in the Scoping Phase and the fog of uncertainty had left the previous project manager paralyzed and lost. There was no question that the path was unclear. The bigger problem was that the pressure was high and the sponsors wanted results yesterday.

It was a unique struggle getting onboard with such dynamics. It was during this time that I got some of the best advice in my career from the program manager who was overseeing this floundering project as well as several other “problem children.” The guy, who was a former college football player, said to me, “I want you to run until you get tackled.” Such simple words but it was total freedom. He gave me an entirely new perspective that allowed me the opportunity to start making decisions without the fear of making some mistakes along the way. It was such a simple order, but it was also a mantra for me throughout that project and in the end I realized it was leadership in a sentence. It took guts and it took trust, but at the end of the day it was just what I needed to get this failing project back on track. With the freedom to work in this way, the project that was thought to be lost was in the end delivered ahead of schedule and under budget.

The “RUN UNTIL YOU GET TACKLED” mantra helped me refine our approach which was to run with an “Agile/Rolling” methodology. We started knocking out deliverables and continually refining and re-refining our approach as we progressed, without fear or judgment. This was such a key lesson for me and I have carried it with me to many other projects and clients since.

I recently came across a quote from Albert Einstein which notes that, “Nothing happens until something moves.” If you want to create movement in your teams, take a strong position. But take the position not with the intention of setting and driving your own agenda or ideology, but to simply give your team a starting point, the proverbial line in the sand. You will find it will help generate discussion— cause a reaction, and it will create movement. Run until you get tackled.  Igniting a positive chain reaction.  Decision making.  Move forward and progress.

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The Boring Indicator

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas A. Edison

gallagherSept10I recently had the privilege of spending an entire weekend with my project team where we experienced the long awaited and long anticipated culmination of an extensive upgrade to the basic research platform for a major pharmaceutical company.

The project work was difficult. The planning was tedious and painstaking. The project involved a massive data migration in tandem with the integration of over 70 applications across 30,000 high tech users around the globe. When “GO LIVE” weekend finally arrived, anxiety was running high. But, the execution was flawless. And, what took me by surprise about the big finale was that instead of the hurry and scurry, react and recover that I have seen on so many other projects, this one was downright boring. There was zero drama, no hiccups, just the process and execution of that process.

It reminded me that I have seen this phenomenon on other well planned, well executed projects. It also reminded me of the times when I have experienced the complete opposite during crunch time, clearly a result of poor planning, flawed process and/or less-than execution. It was so striking to me that I now refer to my prediction of the success of a project as the ‘Boring Indicator’— meaning that project stakeholders are so well prepared and the team is so well rehearsed that come game day that it is almost boring.

This anticlimactic finish is a result of triggering, testing and re-testing all the potential surprises throughout the various environments (DEV, TEST, UAT, etc.). Our release plan became more robust and accurate as the majority of potential problems had already been deliberately elicited and the proverbial “learning curve tax” had been paid well in advance. All the drama, hiccups, hurry and scurry were all teased out during the project leading up to GO LIVE.

As we all know, projects are temporary endeavors and often come with a considerable amount of uncertainty and knowledge gaps. These knowledge gaps are where the success (or failure) of the project lies. It is filling these gaps where you can finally find project success. My experience has been to try to find as many gaps as early as you can so when it is time to cross the finish line you can lead your team with the confidence in knowing there will be little drama, solid outcomes and yes – even boredom.

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