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shutterstock_54546454So how do you lose a good Project Manager?

  1. Keep her on the same project forever and a day, right through to completion and then on into the follow up phases 2, 3, 4, etc.
  2. Overlook her eligibility for new projects. After all, you say, her (now legacy) project needs her – she is irreplaceable – who would take over? – the customer doesn’t like change – etc, etc.
  3. By this point, any Project Manager worth her salt will be looking elsewhere. (My manager doesn’t value me . . . I am being overlooked . . . I need a new challenge) You are going to lose her; it’s inevitable.

OK, so how do you retain a good Project Manager?

  1. Put her in charge of a flagship project.
  2. Give her a great assistant; one of your best up & coming wannabee Project Managers.
  3. Make it clear at the outset; not only do you expect your Project Managers to deliver great business outcomes – but also to develop their assistants into fully fledged Project Managers themselves; and make sure those assistants get real, meaningful customer exposure.
  4. Before the end of the project (after peak headcount but while there still remains much to be done) tell the Project Manager you have a new challenge for her; a new flagship project – and discuss how best to handover the (soon to be) legacy project to her (now very able) assistant.
  5. And – you get the picture – keep repeating the above cycle.

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QualityOK, I must confess I was – figuratively speaking – caught napping on the job. In the middle of a project review, a young graduate engineer had, politely but firmly, pulled me up for overusing the word quality. “What do you actually mean?” she asked.

Being in a hurry to move on, I nearly fobbed her off with one of my usual platitudes: “Quality is doing it right when no one is looking” – or – “Quality doesn’t mean gold-plated; it means fit for purpose, available on time and able to accommodate change.”

But she had me bang to rights; guilty as charged.

Unless you take the trouble to define it – and I mean define it quantitatively – then quality is indeed a meaningless word. There are many good ways to define quality using real, hard numbers. Too many project managers fail to do this because they think it’s difficult. But that’s really just laziness and will likely lead to failure.

All projects can – and must – define quality. It as just as important as defining schedule and cost. And if you can’t define it, then you can’t deliver it; simple as that.

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ChromeboxThat’s me in the picture, homeless and hot-desking while the office gets a fresh coat of paint. The teeny little box in my right hand is my new computer, a replacement for the big iron beast I’m lugging up the stairs under my other arm.

We’re saying goodbye to our trusty old Dell / Win 7 desktops and hello to these dinky little Chromeboxes. The Dells have served us well for nearly five years now but, even with regular tune ups and de-cokes, they can be annoyingly slow at doing some pretty ordinary things, like taking longer to start up in the morning than it takes me to brew a cuppa.

And it’s only now that the old machines have gone that we realise how noisy they were. Each contained a couple of fans and sounded a bit like a hovercraft passing in the distance; not exactly intrusive, but certainly a noticeable background noise. Now we’ve subconsciously started whispering in the office.

Software-wise, the changeover has been pretty painless. We moved everything into the cloud a year or two back, so the Chromebox seemed the obvious way to go, and all for about a quarter of the cost of those five year old desktops.

It’s still early days, but the Chromebox seems to be one of the few genuine cases of Good, Fast and Cheap.

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crs6_launch_39a

Over dinner with friends the other evening I was asked what were the projects I most admired. For sure, SpaceX is one, I replied to blank faces all round. Huh? What’s that?

It amazes me that SpaceX is so little known and rarely talked about in the UK when, to my mind, it is one of the most impressive commercial endeavours on the planet. SpaceX’ purpose is to shift stuff off the planet and into space; something it has already achieved dozens of times, and it is an astonishing success story.

The brainchild of Elon Musk, the Californian overachiever who made his fortune founding PayPal, SpaceX is a private enterprise that has launched more than 20 space missions. Private is the really interesting word here; just think for a moment of the dollars, risk and sheer ambition involved in setting up a business to transport cargo – and eventually people – safely into space.

As well putting its customers’ satellites into earth orbit, SpaceX has flown several missions to resupply the International Space Station, delivering food, air, water, fuel, spare parts and scientific supplies to the six brave inhabitants of the ISS orbiting high above our heads. I witnessed one of these launches at Cape Canaveral back in April 2014 and –  even from the safe viewing point 3 miles away – the engineering ambition, the scale of the investment (and risk!) and the spectacle of the blast off, was truly breathtaking.

SpaceX is now developing manned spaceflight capability. Testing of the crew capsule, designed to carry up to 7 astronauts, is already at an advanced stage. Here is a clip of last week’s test of the launch escape system which is designed to save the lives of the crew in a launch emergency. The first real manned launch is scheduled for next year and I don’t doubt they will succeed.

SpaceX’ ambition doesn’t stop there. It has also tried – albeit unsuccessfully so far – to re-use some of its very expensive rocketry, in particular, the 40m high 1st stage, by returning it to earth in a controlled fashion and landing it vertically on a ship! Even after a bottle or two of wine, I don’t think my dinner guests quite believed this but as you can see for yourselves on YouTube these guys have some very serious intent. OK, so that particular test didn’t work out but you can sense the ambition. Audacious or what?

Keep up with SpaceX on Twitter, Instagram, Vine or whatever is your app of choice and maybe, like me, you will become hooked on this amazing story.

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LA nightLos Angeles was the kind of place where everybody was from somewhere else and nobody really dropped anchor. It was a transient place. People drawn by the dream, people running from the nightmare. Twelve million people and all of them ready to make a break for it if necessary. Figuratively, literally, metaphorically — any way you want to look at it — everybody in LA keeps a bag packed. Just in case.

I love American crime fiction. That particular bit is from Michael Connelly’s The Brass Verdict, and it got me thinking; does it remind you of some projects you’ve been on?

Everybody was from somewhere else . . .
This is normal. Maybe you are running one of the most important projects the organisation has ever undertaken and, as such, you have been given a team of full-time, highly motivated individuals, all experts in their field. Maybe all the planets will line up, too. Chances are, however, you will have little say in choosing your team members and you will be expected to run a full-time project with part-time people. You know how it is; heads of department will assign various waifs and strays to support you. You will be assured you have 20% of so-and-so’s time but, in reality, so-and-so is allocated to multiple projects totalling 150% of her time. You’ve got a job on your hands.

Nobody really dropped anchor  . . . It was a transient place.
Remember that every project has in fact two deliverables. The first is obvious; to achieve the business objective defined at the outset. But the second, rarely stated and often overlooked, is to deliver better people. Each team member should emerge from the project stronger than before. It may be a new skill gained, experience honed, confidence boosted or – best of all – a real achievement to trumpet in their performance appraisal or on their CV. A project is indeed a transient place, but it should provide each and every team member with a development opportunity. A good project manager will recognise this, provide such opportunities and, in so doing, get the very best from each individual.

People drawn by the dream . . .
They will be drawn by the dream, provided you pitch it right. And, as I have explained above, your team will be motivated not just by an explicit business objective but also by the implicit opportunity to better themselves.

People running from the nightmare . . .
There won’t be a nightmare because, as a good project manager, you will already know “It’s the people, stupid.” You will have identified development opportunities within the scope of your project for the people within your team. And you will have a ready answer when you encourage them to ask “What’s in it for me?”

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Karting1Racing around a kart track last week I was intensely frustrated to be lapped by both my sons. (All right, I was secretly proud of them too, but I wasn’t going to let on). I used to beat them so easily when they were boys. Their youthful enthusiasm, not to mention significant weight advantage, was no match for my middle aged guile and everyday driving experience. Alas, those days have gone. I was duly humiliated and they pooh-poohed my excuse that dad’s kart was carrying a few (ahem) more kilos than theirs.

This all reminded me of the time – umpteen years ago – when I was a project manager on one of the Formula 1 teams. Back then karting – followed by beer & curry – was one of our regular team building cum social events. It was all great fun, albeit with a fierce competitive edge.

The great thing about project managing in F1 is that the objectives are obvious – you must win races – and, the point I want to focus on here, the deadlines are immovable. The race calendar is there for all to see and nobody would dream of asking, “Erm, could we just put the first race back a few weeks, please? Our car isn’t quite ready yet”

If only all projects had immovable deadlines. Some project managers fear them and seem to welcome endless change requests as a means of excusing overruns and explaining away slippage. We should embrace immovable deadlines. They focus the mind, motivate the team and bring an urgency and sense of purpose to the tricky business of haggling over spec changes and feature enhancements.

I used to deliver projects for a marketing director who would say semi-seriously, “I’m not sure what I want but I’m damned sure of when I want it”. What he meant was that he needed something, yet to be determined but nevertheless compelling, to put on the exhibition stand at the next trade show. Now that was challenging; no spec and an immovable deadline.

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Vaccination

There’s a lot of, frankly, very boring stuff written about project management. (Oi, you at the back. Wake up!) All those things we know to be important – planning, estimating, change control, risk management, etc – get rehashed and trotted out over and over again. It’s all very worthy stuff and – it goes without saying – we all apply those good practices, don’t we? And yet so many projects still go awry.

For what it’s worth, my own mantra for good project management would be “It’s the people, stupid.”

OK, so I have pinched Bill Clinton’s soundbite “It’s the economy, stupid” for his 1992 presidential campaign against George HW Bush. While Bush was riding high on a groundswell of popular support following the invasion of Iraq, Clinton reminded voters there were more pressing issues closer to home – in particular, the economy. And he won.

So what’s this got to do with project management? Bear with me.

I like listening to experts talk about their own particular specialism, especially if they are articulate, entertaining and able to explain how their work makes the planet a better place. I get my own little eureka moment from understanding something I hitherto just didn’t get.

Last week it was a fascinating talk delivered to an appreciative audience at our local library by Dr John Rhodes, Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, who has been at the forefront of immunology and vaccine research at the US National Institutes of Health and the University of Cambridge. He was formerly Director of Strategy at GSK.

Rhodes ran through the success story that is the history of vaccination and the fight against smallpox, polio, TB, malaria, HIV-AIDS and other devastating diseases. The evidence he presented was clear; vaccination saves millions of lives. It just works. And yet . . .

There is lately a small but significant pushback against vaccination in some parts of the developed world. In the USA some parents are resisting the public health message about the importance of getting their kids vaccinated against measles. Some states have seen dramatic falls in vaccination rates such that so called “herd immunity” is approaching a critically low level. All this in a country which announced the elimination of measles back in 2000.

It’s as if the Project Manager for measles eradication – if such a person actually exists – while leading from the front in a logical, professional fashion, has failed to take into account the messy reality of dealing with human beings. People have deeply felt personal, cultural, religious, philosophical or just downright cussed reasons for not behaving as you might expect. Whether it’s an unwillingness to see past short term pain (this guy wants to stick a needle in my kid’s arm) to the long term gain (no more measles). Or not liking big government telling them what to do. Or a mistrust of science. Or, indeed, just sheer cussedness. Whatever the reason, the project manager would seem to have lost credence with and influence over some of the very people he/she is trying to help.

Look at it as a parable.

Every day of every project, you should remind yourself that supposedly logical, reasonably minded people will sometimes behave unreasonably or simply withhold their support for your initiatives. They will do the opposite to what you expect. They will dig in their heels and resist the change you are trying to bring about. By the time this happens it is often too late for you to respond with logic or reasoned argument. Emotion will have taken over.

People issues can kill good projects. And – to my mind – when this happens the project manager must bear some of the blame. He or she has either ignored or overlooked the biggest risk of all, “It’s the people, stupid”.

So think about all those messy people issues which might derail your grand plans. You might be lucky and only have to deal with people who behave logically. Then again, you might not.

And look up John Rhodes, “The End of Plagues: The Global Battle against Infectious Disease”. It’s a good read.

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Cambridge Network hosted a very interesting talk last week by Clive Boddy, Professor of Leadership and Organisation Behaviour at Middlesex University. His topic was bullying in the workplace and, more specifically, the impact Corporate Psychopaths have on a business. 

Chainsaw

Corporate Psychopaths??? These are guys (yes, they are usually guys) whose drive & outward charm gets them fast tracked to the top of organisations where they bring chaos and ultimately destroy, rather than create, business value. Inevitably, references were made to Enron and the various players involved in the 2008 financial crash, the implication being that maybe these were not so much cases of corporate greed but rather of corporate psychopathy. And some useful pointers were provided for identifying these (anything but lovable) rogues as they make their way up the corporate ladder.

From the boardroom’s perspective – at least in the short term – the guy is a star performer challenging the status quo, shaking things up and generally rearranging the corporate furniture. However, the toll on hitherto loyal staff can be very high and a rapidly rising staff turnover is often the first outward sign that anything’s amiss. By then it’s too late; the real talent in the company has taken flight and the business is coming apart at the seams.

You can probably all think of a manager from your past (or, if you’re really unlucky, your present) who you would nominate for the title of corporate psycho. Could they have been stopped? Professor Boddy didn’t offer much cheer except that we might reduce the incidence of corporate psychopathy if we fast tracked more women to the top; they are less likely to run amok. And 360° appraisals also help. I tend to agree with both suggestions.

Being in the Interim Management business myself, I am only too aware that our best leads come from referrals – and these referrals are just as likely to be upwards (ie from people in the teams we have managed) as well as downwards from the people we have worked for; a sort of in built 360° appraisal and recommendation process. As far as I can see, there is no overlap between the Corporate Psychopath and the jobbing Interim Manager.

You can catch more of Prof Boddy on YouTube.

Update 26 March 2015:

Just finished watching House of Cards Season 3. Frank Underwood must be the ultimate Corporate Psychopath.