Monday, June 07, 2010

Spots and Stripes

“Imagine that they have stripes” whispered Mark.

“What do you mean?” said Tom a little too loudly. “Who has stripes?”

“Ssh,” said Mark nodding in the direction of a group in the corner of the large conference room. “They might hear you. They are all project people, be very wary of them”

“What are you talking about?” replied Tom “Why on earth should I be wary of anybody?”

“Because they are not like us.” said Mark “We have spots and they have stripes, but don’t worry - nobody can see them.”

“You are nuts” said Tom a bit louder this time.

“Don’t worry” said Mark “It is just a little game I like to play when we have these big project meetings. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the project people from the operations people. There are those that like big, swift changes and then there are people like us who prefer to move more slowly.”

“I'm still not with you” said Tom “We are just here for a meeting, aren’t we?

“No, It's much more than that” said Mark “Decisions are being made and plans are being hatched. Expectations are being set and futures are being decided even as we take our seats in the room. You need to look more closely.”

“More closely at what?” said Tom getting frustrated “And how does having spots help me in this?”

“Don’t worry.” said Mark “They can’t see them either and it’s best not to reveal them too early.”

“Imagine that instead of this conference room in a suburb of London that you are on the plains of southern France - about 8 thousand years ago.”

“Eh ok” said Tom not sure where he was going with this.

“The various people present are divided into two main groups - spots and stripes to represent their characteristics and motivations. “

“And spots are people like us” said Tom cautiously “and they are the stripes over there?”

‘Correct’ said Mark ‘We are the farmers. We are the ones who keep this place running and we like to change things at our own pace. And the ‘stripes’ are the hunter/ gatherers. They are the ones that get excited by large projects and don’t understand our needs and motivations.”

“Really.” said Tom incredulous “You think that it goes back that far. Is that why the consultants and some of our Tech group are having coffee together?

“Perhaps” said Mark “I think that it is carried forward in our genes. But you have to look very closely. Nobody is purely spots or stripes and I also draw a distinction between the size or thickness of the spots and stripes as well.”

“It’s not as easy as I first thought” said Tom. “I must admit that it's more fun than trying to read body language and clothes for clues about their behavior. I suppose we have to be careful not to prejudge people.”

“Very true” said Mark “That's a real challenge. However I have been playing this game for many years now and it hasn't let me down yet. I've seen kids with small spots grow to adults with larger ones. And I have seen kids with thin stripes expand theirs. Sometimes I have been fooled and small spots actually merged to become thin stripes and vice versa.”

“Ok” said Tom “Let’s play the game during the meeting and see how I fare.”

Locked Out Syndrome

My daughter took the wrong keys to school the other day. On arriving home she panicked to find that she couldn't get in. She had no way of knowing that the other keys belonged to a friend and so confronted the challenge by continuously trying the keys over and over again until she broke down in tears and was rescued by a neighbour.

In many project management situations we are similarly faced with a lack of knowledge and vocabulary to deal with our challenges.

A short course on the knowledge and skills of project management can provide us with the necessary tools to face the situation. This will not change the gravity of the situation in any way but will inform and improve our approach.

So instead of succumbing to the locked-out syndrome of mindlessly repeating the same approach and rising stress we should be able to face the situation in a more efficient and effective manner.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Is Tiger Woods winning the Masters?

In class the other day we were discussing the benefits of a RAG or BRAG report. The main problems seem to be the definitions of the various colors and also the complete lack of objectivity in switching between them. We were further adressing the difficulties of keeping score of a portfolio of projects using a portfolio management tool. To add some humor and clarity to the situation we imagined a portfolio manager reporting on the Masters Golf Competition in Augusta, Georgia.

Our ‘reporter’ began by asking each golfer how they were doing at various points of their rounds.

Tell me Mr. Woods how are you doing now? “I'm doing pretty well considering the conditions I'd like to be doing better.”

Our intrepid reporter then moves to another hole and asks the same question of Mr. Els “Oh. I'm not doing so good. I started out well but I had a few fat shots and I'm losing ground. But thanks for asking. “

He then spies Padraig Harrington sauntering up the 10th fairway with a smile as wide as Galway bay. And how are you going sir?

“Grand” says Padraig. “Just grand”

He then returns quickly to the scoring booth and puts a red circle beside Ernie Els, a yellow one by Tiger Woods and a Green one beside Padraig Harrington and the crowd gathered by the scoring tent goes wild with cheers.

A crazy and impractical situation of course. Each golfer keeps meticulously objective score at all points of the competition and is accountable for completing his own scorecard.

We should take a leaf from the professionalism of these pros. We have become accustomed to keeping score in the operation of our companies however we rarely keep accurate score of our projects.

Bring back cigarette breaks.

Have you ever left the office and wondered what you have achieved during the day?

Meetings, meetings, meetings, they seem to have become the norm in the modern workplace – an endless round of emails, teleconferences and face to face meetings. A student smiled ironically as she explained that she had 28 hours of pre booked meetings each week in her calendar.

Ask yourself - does a doctor have meetings? a carpenter or plumber?

However they do take breaks and frequently of the unfashionable kind – a cigarette break. Many smokers try to quit but along with the biological difficulty also express a longing for the pause or break in the day, a chance to think and plan.

Much as I disagree with the damage and effects of smoking  I also miss the truthfulness of conversation, the clarity of thinking, the strength of the bonding that accompanied these breaks – and I have never been a smoker.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Decisions - Naiveté and Innocence

A student at an investment bank asked an interesting question yesterday and my answer unfortunately lacked the benefit of the perspiration, incubation, inspiration that comes from a good nights sleep.

He wanted to know if there was a mathematical formula to enable correct selection of projects into a portfolio. We had discussed differences between subjective and objective methods and he was leaning towards the latter.

I should have asked him how he had chosen his wife – and did he believe that a formula could exist that would have made a better choice for him? for her?

I should have explained how great thinkers had grappled with this very problem from Quentelet, Laplace and Hume right up to Lehrer, Bernstein and Talebs of today.

I should have told him a story of our selection method for General Motors projects in the mid-90’s that involved a weighted matrix approach. We measured 7 target ‘benefits’ for each project and gave them a weighting score to reflect their true relative value. Unfortunately my naiveté led me to take the numbers literally until a senior manager took me aside and quietly explained that the weights were for public consumption (e.g. sustainability ranked above preserving the architecture and both above cost) but were not be used in real decision making. I felt like a schoolboy in front of the headmaster instead of a professional earning his keep.

Which leaves me with the last regret:

I should have explained the difference between Innocence and Naiveté. That innocence was keeping alive the idea that it might be possible in the future but naiveté to believe that it could be done today.

Or more simply as a great thinking friend put it - Innocence is to childlike as Naiveté is to childish.

So Max – there are no easy answers, no simple formulas to take away the pain and frustration of decision making at this level. You are senior enough to take on this responsibility. Maintain your innocence as you go forward but leave behind the naiveté as it will only cloud your thinking even more.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Universal Truths

I have just returned from a pan Asia trip that included stops in Dubai, Bangalore, Mumbai, KL, Tokyo and Hong Kong. At times the diversity and contradictions were hard to manage and I reached out to local philosophies and religions from various people in an amateur attempt to come to a single framework to understand the passing world. I heard about Rama, Vishnu and Shiva, about rice pickers and potato pickers, blood types, numerology and star-signs but alas nothing seems to fit.

How could it be that such differences had developed in these extremes. From the heights of the Dubai Khalifa tower to the slums of Mumbai. From the chaos of Bangalore traffic to the white gloved taxi drivers of Tokyo. From the politeness of Japanese restaurants to the bustle of the horse racing at Happy Valley. And so I decided to play with the idea myself.

Hunter Gatherers don’t like cubicles either!

Dilbert by Scott Adams devotes a whole section to the identity, purpose and dilemmas of seating in the modern workplace. He links the shape and size of the typical cubicle to 4 previous incarnations (Veal pen, Cardboard box, baby’s playpen and hilariously a prison cell) as he mercilessly lampoons the cube and all its derived forms.
In a previous role I was the PM for a project to design seating for 22,000 engineers in the mid-west of America.