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Author: Charles Gallagher

Eyes on Target

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
-Alexander Graham Bell

One of the toughest challenges a project manager has is to make sure the team is continually focused on the right tasks at just the right time. It is not really either one of those tasks that is very difficult. It is striking the precise balance to make both happen in tandem that is often extremely difficult to achieve. In my experience this can be accomplished via three techniques we will call the three C’s:

Cadence, Critical Path & Control.

Step #1 Cadence: The real power of cadence is in the habits it forms. Establishing the pace—, the rhythm of the project—is a key goal when establishing a productive working energy with your team. Set up a consistent meeting schedule, one that makes sense for your team—perhaps once a week or even once a day depending on the required velocity of the project. The goal is to get the team in the cadence of the Deming Cycle, Plan-Do-Check-Act until the task is done.

Step #2 Critical Path: The importance of understanding the critical path is the ability to keep the schedule in context of its priority. All tasks are not created equal, and often the most pressing tasks are not the ones that receive our proper attention. So often we attack the tasks that are low hanging fruit or the ones that fit into the rhythm of the project dynamics. And by default, we frequently leave for last the tasks most critical to overall project success. Even more, team members do not always have the same sense of urgency or situational awareness as the project leader or other key stakeholders who may be higher up the organizational food chain. By leading your team to the critical path, and keeping them on it, you can focus on the right tasks at the right time and establish a cadence to accelerate your project execution velocity.

Step #3 Control: The final step in the process is establishing control— a good grip on the team, the project, and the cadence as you stay focused on the critical path. This is very much akin to being a race car driver and knowing when to press on the gas or when to apply the brakes. If you find that your project is loaded with complexity consider separating out your weekly meetings into two: one for task updates and the other devoted strictly to critical thinking & project issues. When updating tasks, keep your team focused on the amount of time remaining to complete a task. When focusing on critical thinking & issues, keep your team focused on the facts and the scope of what the project is trying to achieve.

Give the three C’s a try on your next project. Set that cadence right out of the gate, find the critical path and grip that steering wheel for establishing good control of your processes. If you do this well you will keep your team in a productive rhythm, you will stay laser focused on the goals and you will ultimately achieve that sweet success which is to deliver just the right tasks at just the right time.

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Ding Dong Ditch

A guest sees more in an hour than the host in a year. -Polish Proverb

gallagherApr30Just the other day I watched two little kids in my neighborhood playing Ding Dong Ditch. This is the game, of course, where a child rings a neighboring doorbell and before the victim comes to answer the call, the child takes off with fiendish delight. These kids couldn’t have been more than seven years old and clearly they were thoroughly enjoying their elusiveness and trickery.

What was even more interesting to me, though, was to watch the owners with a newly triggered urgency race to the door— signaled by alarm, irritated by curiosity, and plagued by a nervous anxiety once they realized no one was there. In fact, they probably spent the next several days trying to make sense of what happened and why. Who was at the door? And why were they not there? The children to the contrary moved on to their next victim and did not spend another single moment worrying what that doorbell signaled to their unsuspecting neighbor.

One of the many recurring patterns I see during the course of consulting engagements is what I refer to as organizational ‘Ding Dong Ditch.’ It goes something like this— an email comes into your inbox much like a doorbell. It signals an issue and, though poorly defined, it is marked as urgent. If you are a type A personality like so many of us PMs, you will undoubtedly find yourself racing to that door, rescuing this issue. And because you are the PM and the doorbell rang at your door, you assume it is time critical (since it was marked urgent) and as such you will surely ‘cc all the key stakeholders on your reply. Clearly, this email (doorbell) has signaled that your green project is at risk of going yellow that fast, right?

Well maybe not. You may come to find out that someone just rang your doorbell and there is no one at the door. You got played, they sent the email, and never spent another single moment worrying about what that email signaled to their unsuspecting project manager. These days emails are flying around like loose newspapers on a windy day. As a responsible PM, you race around to try and catch them in a continual effort to answer the door and to avoid the embarrassment of having them all over the neighborhood. Just like the neighbor who just got ding dong ditched, you work to identify, diagnose and analyze who rang the bell and why.

Does this sound familiar? I have seen it happen to some very experienced project managers and it is something that can be avoided by following these simple steps.

  1. Know your project schedule inside and out especially with a focus on the tasks that make up the critical path. The reason this is important is that if the issue does not impact the tasks along the critical path you will have more time to resolve it. In Microsoft Project this can be determined by looking at your Free and Total slack fields. Free slack is the amount of time a task can be delayed before its successor task is delayed. Total slack is the amount of time a task can be delayed before the project finish date is delayed.
  2. Engage your critical thinking skills and work to clarify the issue at hand clearly separating fact from opinions. For example, when you go to a doctor’s office they often utilize a critical thinking framework called SOAP. It is designed to separate out the subjective (opinions), from the objective (facts) and this feeds into the overall assessment and planning.
    • S – Subjective
    • O – Objective
    • A – Assessment
    • P – Plan
  3. Take it offline, do not use email. Those doorbells are making us all crazy. The conferencing feature on a phone is a very powerful asset for a business analyst or project manager. It is amazing what happens when all involved parties do not have the time delay of email as well as the potential to misinterpret intentions or tone.

It is clear, the doorbell is our email. When it rings next time, take the time to be prepared to answer it regardless of whether or not someone is at the door and use these simple steps so you do not become another victim of Ding Dong Ditch.

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