Are managers spending their time wisely ?

What are managers focusing on ?

One of my biggest pet peeves over the years has been that managers in most organizations do not spend their time on the right things. Managers swing between  micro-management and too little engagement. This is true for most mid-level managers in companies but is especially true for project managers.

This happens because the role of the manager is not as well-defined as it should be. When someone is made a manager, they are just told that they now have additional responsibilities. Sometimes this additional responsibility comes with additional authority, but it almost never comes with a “playbook”. Even in organizations where there is a playbook for each role, most management work is part of the “company culture” and most managers play it by the ear.

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The elevator pitch equivalent of project communication

What does the executive need to know about your project

Imagine this scenario: You are managing a multimillion dollar project for your unit which has just run into a minor crisis. You do not yet know what the impact of the crisis is. You walk into the restroom and you come face-to-face with your unit’s senior-most executive. He nods at you and asks you how your project is doing. What do you tell him: do you tell him every detail about the latest crisis or do you just tell him you are doing fine ?

What if you start telling him about the latest crisis: does he start to get panicky ? Is there a possibility that he will over-react ?

What if you tell him you are doing just fine and then he walks back to his desk only to see a detailed email from your project sponsor with concerns about the latest crisis ? How does that make you look in front of your executive ? Does he start worrying that you are out of touch with your own project ? Worse, does he think you are hiding something from him ?

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Is there really such a thing as an “unknown unknown”

In 2002, David Rumsfield inspired a months-long comedy show by giving his now-famous comment about “unknown unknowns”.

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know…

Secretary Rumsfield was actually referring to the fact that lack of evidence of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq did not necessarily mean that there indeed were no WMD in Iraq….in a very convoluted way.

In the context of risk management, unknown unknowns have come to mean unknown risks/opportunities. Sample this LinkedIn group discussion.

It has become acceptable for project managers to bucket all risks into two categories:

Known unknowns:

…..meaning we know what could possibly go wrong but we are not exactly sure if it actually will go wrong or when it will. These are the sum total of all risks that the project team can come up with. These “unknowns” are documented, monitored and mitigation plans are prepared for them. In short, the project team is prepared for these “unknowns” e.g if you are building a website and your server crashes in the middle of development. Most project managers could easily anticipate this and be prepared for if and when it happens.

Unknown unknowns:

…..meaning we do not know what else can go wrong. Obviously, these “unknowns” are never identified or documented and there can be no mitigation plans. The only mitigation plan here is a prayer. e.g if you are building a website for selling concert tickets and the government passes a law banning all concerts in the country. Almost no project manager could have seen that coming.

So what is known and what is unknown ?

The next logical question is: where is the line between known unknowns and unknown unknowns? Read the rest of this entry »

Leadership does not come with a title

The lament…

Among people who report to me, a common complaint I have heard is: “I know you keep talking about demonstrating leadership, but you never appointed me a leader for any team…how do I demonstrate leadership without a designation”.

To be fair, I have spoken the same lament to my bosses in the past. In fact, I used to do that at every opportunity. All that stopped when my boss once told me: “Leadership is not a designation, it is a role. Leadership comes from what you do and not what your designation is.” That was his way of telling me to stop with the excuses already !

Does leadership come from authority ?

But if you look at it more closely, it does make sense. In most hierarchical cultures, leadership is identified with your designation. Indian society, for example, naturally identifies leadership with authority and sets the expectation that knowledge and instructions flow from the boss to the subordinate and rarely the other way round. When you grow up in such a culture, you tend to assume that you are not a leader until you have people reporting into you. In most cultures (organizations even) your worth is measured by how many people report into you.

But leadership is really much different from authority or influence. Most of the top organizations realize this. Leadership is your ability to take a path few would choose. Leadership is your ability to feel comfortable with being accountable for something. Leadership is willingness to put your neck on the line.

Did you say “neck on the line” ?

When someone writes on their resume that they have “leadership skills” (or “proven leadership skills”) more often than not it means that they have mastered the art of telling others what to do. Very rarely does it mean that they have taken risks and set the trend for others to follow. Very rarely does it mean that they have put their neck on the line. Very rarely does it mean that they feel comfortable being accountable for something.

The bottom line…

What my boss was trying to tell me was this: if you want to try a new solution to a recurring problem, if you want to take the path not prescribed by the company, you don’t need to be made the team-lead. All you need is the conviction that you are onto something…you need to take the first step yourself and learn your way through. It is always better to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission. When you try something new and fail, good bosses will never take it out on you. And the bad bosses ? Well you shouldn’t be working for the bad bosses anyway, should you !

How to deliver an effective annual performance feedback

The annual appraisal: tips for managers

The second side of the feedback coin is delivering it to people who report to you or work for you. For most managers, this is only slightly better than having to fire someone. This is especially true if the feedback that you are about to deliver is not very positive.

It behooves the manager to prepare for this very well. It is important for managers to realize that this is a professional conversation they are about to have. You will need to avoid personal over-tones while continuing to show empathy. It is also important to realize that this is just a performance review…not the end of the world.

What Preparation do I need to do ?

Setting goals:

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Dealing with the dreaded annual appraisal

The Dreaded Annual Appraisal

Year-end performance appraisals are hard on everyone — the person giving the feedback and the one receiving it. There are horror stories on both sides … of sweaty palms, of the feeling of disgust and loathing, of self-pity, of the “why me !” and of the “not again !”.

So what can the person receiving the feedback do to lessen the pain ?

First Things First – It is just an appraisal

First, everyone needs to understand that appraisals are just a perception your manager has on your performance. No appraisal, however thorough/objective, is an exact reflection of what you did. There is always a human perception factor built into each appraisal discussion. As with any perception in our human interactions, you can only control how others feel about you and your work to a certain extent. How your manager perceives you and your work depends (atleast to some extent) on his/her viewpoint, on their conditioning, on their style of functioning etc. That part, you cannot control. You can only hope to find a manager who thinks exactly like you do…and that is almost impossible.

So, the most important thing for anyone receiving feedback is to realize that they need to take pride in their own work, on what they have accomplished, on how they have grown. No matter what the feedback, there is almost always something that you have accomplished that you can be proud of…you need to find that thing and treasure it.

The other thing you need to do is to understand that this is just one person giving you feedback about one year on one aspect of your life. There are several others — your friends, family — who appreciate you far more and for far longer than any boss ever can. There is more to life than work and there is more to self-worth than an appraisal.

Good…now what should we do ?

Now that we have those things out of the way, now that you have learned to take the appraisal in your stride, what can you do to positively influence the feedback itself ?

Here are a few things:

  1. Find an advocate for yourself who can influence the decision-makers. It could be your manager, it could be your senior colleague or a “godfather” at a senior management level. You need the advocate to say good things about you, to defend you when others are gunning for you and to put their weight behind you. Your advocate needs to be two things:
    • They need to have influence in the organization. There is no point in someone speaking up for you if it doesn’t make any difference (though that is very sweet)
    • They need to have a stake in your success. When the going gets tough, most people will sell their proteges to save their own assets. Unless someone has a stake in your success, their support for you can be very fickle.
  2. Record your accomplishments at every opportunity. Use a brag sheet. Save emails as evidence. Talk to your boss and tell them every good thing you have done. Bask in the glory when you have the chance.
  3. Align with your boss. There is no use if you work 100 hours/week if you are working at cross-purposes with your boss or your organization. Most organizations reward people who are aligned to the organization goals. Make sure you spend time with your boss to understand their goals and their expectations from you. Never assume anything.
  4. Make your boss look good. This is probably the oldest trick in the book. Every time you do something that makes your boss look good in front of their boss/client, they will like you a little better. But be careful to ensure your boss doesn’t forget that you were the reason for them looking good
  5. Stay fresh in the mind of your boss. Out of sight, out of mind…never let that happen to you. People who only interact with their boss once/twice a year usually get worse feedback than those who stay engaged with their boss more often. Just be careful to make sure your boss does not notice you everyday for the wrong reasons.
  6. Do not let your boss be the only one who knows about your capabilities. It is better to have 2 advocates of your capabilities than just one. You never know who will move out of the company just before the appraisals. Make sure you are noticed by your boss and their colleagues. Make sure your boss’s boss knows about your abilities.
  7. Always be professional and courteous to everyone — bosses, subordinates, clients, the janitor…Every good deed will help you.

But remember, this is still just an appraisal…

In the end, do understand that every career has ups and downs. Very few people get straight A’s all their life. There will be times when you think you have done all the above things and still get a negative feedback. That is life…there are no guarantees. The best thing to do is to take it in your stride, pick yourself up and move on.

Never make a big decision right after an appraisal discussion. Never get emotional, stay professional and courteous even if you do not agree with the feedback. It is tough to do that, but that is the price you pay for a long career.

What’s next ?

So, what about the other side ? How do managers prepare for sharing feedback ? How do managers sidestep the pitfalls and the heavy emotional toll of having to give a negative feedback ?

That is another blog post by itself….

Basics of project estimations and scheduling

The way I was taught software estimations was that you do the following in sequence:

  1. Figure out all the work items/deliverables that your project is expected to generate (artifacts, manuals, final working code etc)
  2. Figure out the estimates for building each of those work-items
  3. Figure out the sequence/network for all the deliverables i.e which work-items have dependencies on others, which need to be built first, which need resources that are time-sensitive etc
  4. Lay out all the activities required to build each work-item.
  5. Lay out all the activities that need to happen to link the work-items together
  6. Lay out all the activities in a sequence including dependencies, resource-sensitivities etc
  7. Figure out the critical path for the project
  8. Write down each assumption you made in steps 1-7 above
  9. Get your team together in a room (if your team is more than 50, this may not work. Invite instead the team-leads)
  10. Walk the team through each of the work-items and activities.
  11. Ensure that each work-item has an owner — even if that owner happens to be you
  12. Delegate as much as possible — the PM on small projects is more of a “doer” role. On large projects, a PM is more of a “leader” role and in medium projects, the PM can be all sorts of combinations of the two. You decide
  13. Make sure you get your team to agree to the schedule and ownership. There will always be disagreement, but the team needs to have a plan to work around those disagreements before you leave the room — for very large projects, this could take more than one meeting…and that is OK
  14. Update the list of assumptions you made in step 8. Start identifying risks.
  15. Set the thing in motion
  16. Monitor, ask questions, collect data, report status, revise estimates, schedule, assumptions, risks

This is the gist of the planning part…this is more or less what the PMBOK will tell you. Yes, this is not an exhaustive list and yes, every project needs a slightly different approach. But you cannot be too far off this list on any project.

Congratulations, you are a PM !


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