Concentrate your energies, your thoughts and your capital. The wise man puts all his eggs in one basket and watches the basket.
— Andrew Carnegie
I love that quote! It speaks of focus and single-mindedness. Those are qualities the project team can do well to learn.
There is a “magic” that occurs when the project team is single-minded with a burning goal on all their minds. I’ll try to articulate the experience, as I have had been in the middle of it several times. The closest parallel I can relate to is the focus of war. Many speak of the chaos of war, but there is also a singular focus that it brings upon the average soldier. And that focus is intoxicating. Think of the Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee in 1861. Those gray-clad boys fought for a cause! It was the cause of freedom from government tyranny. With such a cause, they would endure some of the most grueling warfare known to man – starvation, slaughter, and privations as yet unknown to Americans. It was all for the “cause.”
The same was true of GI’s during the Second World War. Those soldiers knew the cause was the defeat of Hitler and the unconditional surrender of Germany. Everyone focused on the same goal, whether on the battlefield or at home. It was one singular goal everyone could focus on.
This happens in the engineering world from time to time. Underdog companies focus on one goal of building that killer product that will change the industry. For the most part everyone speaks the same “language.” It is the language of winning… of succeeding regardless of the hurdles… of performing their very best, if only once in their lifetimes.
People want causes. It gives them one good thing to fight for that’s worthwhile and lasting. Think about it… without something truly worthwhile we are just marking time through life. Nobody wants that. They want their lives to mean something.
All this is wrapped up in Andrew Carnegie’s statement above. He is describing an industry focus that consumes everyone in its path. In Carnegie’s case, that was the manufacturing of steel, and the goal of commodity pricing that could supply the world.
Can you find a cause like that for your business? If so, you will have all the energies of all your employees focused on success. And they will thank you for a cause to believe in.
Actually, not just employees… Everybody avoids the unfamiliar. But this post is about employees, and specifically project team members that engineer or develop new technologies. It’s about how employees sometimes try to settle into familiar tasks and avoid new and unfamiliar ones. And it’s about how to prevent that.
But wait… why prevent it? Isn’t efficiency gained by perfecting the familiar? By polishing your craft so you can perform it virtually without thought?
Yes, but this isn’t really about that. It’s about the propensity of employees to spend too much time on project tasks they have become familiar and comfortable with, to the exclusion of those upcoming tasks they dread the thought of.
I’ve heard reports of engineers racking up 200 – 500% extra time on tasks that could have been completed at the estimated time. Here’s the reason: people become comfortable with tasks they’ve spent significant time on and don’t want to leave them. The next task on their list may be unfamiliar and scary, so they stay on the one that doesn’t give off those vibes. The justification is that the current task could use some more polish.
Problem is, you’ve got to keep marching on. Your projects must be completed and delivered. You can’t afford to dally on project tasks you’ve already completed.
Here’s a technique you can use to discourage task lingerers. Set your timesheet “percent warning” to 75%. At that time, the task will begin reminding the employee that it’s time to move on. Of course, they may resist, but it’s a good reminder. Then set the “percent error” to go off at 125%. That stops team members from entering any more time. You can extend it with an administrator override, but at least you have some controls to monitor and manage task lingering.
Here’s a YouTube video that describes task lingering.
Here’s an old saying, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” There is a particular commonality among busy people: they complete an astonishing number of tasks each day.
Busy people feel they have to complete each and every task given to them. Plus, they feel they need to do every one of them well. Nothing is half-baked. No detail is too small. But to a busy person, all that work is not a burden, it’s an investment. But still, they sometimes feel overwhelmed but keep motoring on day after day, doubling the number of tasks that normal people complete. They rarely wait for someone to tell them to do a task twice, or even once for that matter.
I’ve noticed that busy people even walk faster than normal people. They seem to be on a mission everywhere they go, even to and from work. They drive faster and rarely make “quick stops” along the way. They never say, “I’ll just be two minutes,” which has become a popular saying of the non-busy people of the world, because it’s never really just two minutes is it?
I admire busy people, and enjoy studying them, especially in the project management setting. You don’t see them in meetings like the non-busy people. Instead, they’re heads-down or jetting off to the next task. That’s a discipline few possess, including myself.
Bottom line: if you don’t have a busy person to emulate, try becoming one yourself; someone might being to emulate you. Prioritize everything, all the time. Complete every task. Grind out the details that most people gloss over. Get a whole day’s work done by 10 AM, and then look for something else to do. You might just find that the busy life suits you!
You can easily measure absenteeism in your project team. Just count the number of days employees miss. Bear down on them enough, and they’ll come in to work… like the walking dead. That’s presenteeism. You are present, but not capable to work. That’s the topic of a CIO Insight article at the link below.
Presenteeism is when your project team is half slaughtered by the stress and worry of everything around them – threats of layoff, political, economic, worldwide – yet they drag into work anyway. Hey, it’s better to eke out a few hours of work than sit around on your duff, right?
I don’t suppose there’s any good answer to this. It is what it is. We’re not living in a 1950’s ‘Leave It To Beaver’ sitcom anymore. This decade is hardcore depressing. Layoffs are happening all around us, businesses are failing, others are hanging on for an elusive economic uptick, but few are prospering.
My advice: just recognize this in your project team. Be sympathetic. Don’t bear down for more production. Just try to be a pleasant manager if possible. We’ll come out of it eventually. What else can we do?
Remember the expense delays in opening the brand new Denver International Airport? Many case studies have been done examining the intricate reasons for such a colossal failure on a grand scale. DIA was to be the most efficient airport in the world, able to accommodate over 50 million passengers per year. One of the key components was to have a fully automated baggage system…eliminating the tug and trolley system. This would cut a planes turnaround time by 30 minutes and would be a key component in creating more efficiency with flights and passenger throughout. The chief project manager, Walter Slinger had his heart set on this shining new system and romanticized about the notoriety the state of the art airport would bring to the city of Denver. BAE also liked the idea of designing a system that would garner great attention and further their own reputation for building baggage systems. Again, you could read many in depth case studies about the key decisions that led to the cascade of delays and failures. However, I would summarize them in a single manner, tunnel vision. Both parties fell in love with an idea and ignored many internal obvious warnings about the baggage systems feasibility. The delays were numerous and cost billions of dollars. In the end, after many attempts to partially use the automated baggage system, it was virtually scrapped for the more economical tug and trolley method. We all know the old saying that our eyes are bigger than our stomachs? If you’re a project manager, make sure your love of an idea isn’t greater than your team’s ability to design and implement the idea. Don’t be afraid to change directions. Otherwise, you may be the next DIA, which is still one heck of an airport!
With all the pressures of managing a project, it is easy to be swayed and make poor decisions. Pressure can cause a person to rise to the occasion, or crumble in a pile of heap. Most often, however, a person may do things they thought impossible…cheat, lie, twist the data? Unfortunately, this happens more often than we would like. As a project leader it is important to maintain character and integrity. Short term gain based on any type of shenanigans will cause long term pain. For example, say you’re leading an IT project and your developers are having trouble meeting deadlines. You instruct them to “dump” a few outlying features…the customer won’t even notice or use that feature until long after we are done. It’s not a big deal. Two things are going to bite you, one is obvious, the other not so much. The obvious gotcha will come when the customer realizes you didn’t fulfill one of the expected features and becomes upset and makes some waves. The other less obvious problem, your team won’t trust or respect you. They see clearly how you manipulated the situation and trust is broken…even if they agree and would have cut corners too! Take the issues head on. Consult the customer on the scope and change and instruct your team accordingly. You may disappoint the customer now, but your project will keep integrity and your project team will respect your leadership.
In the recent CIO Insight poll (see link below), 29% of the respondents say they’d give up chocolate to telecommute. Yeah, right! For how long? 17% said they’d give up a salary increase for telecommuting. And 5% would even ditch the spouse. Okay… that’s going a little too far. But evidently, that’s what they said. Check out the story here.
Evidently, people will do almost anything to work at home.
I can tell you from first-hand experience that the productivity boosts are enormous. Focus comes so easily. But only if you are self-motivated person with autonomous tasks. Project team members with frequent ties to other employees can’t pull this off well.
There is also no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Ten times the information passed between people when they look each other in the eye. Information fidelity drops as you employ lessor communication tools like telephone, email, and finally the worst, text. Even Morse code is faster than text, as Jay Leno demonstrated, but not by much.
But the upshot is, employees will give up almost anything to telecommute. Just remember that, project managers!
One of the more recognized terms in any business is Paralysis by Analysis…or Analysis Paralysis. You know, when nothing moves forward because too many people have to buy off on an idea, or a single person is the team lead and afraid to jump in with both feet. Well, I believe one way to identify Analysis Paralysis is to look for the most common symptom…pathological cases/scenarios. This is easy to spot. When “what ifs”, that are highly unlikely continue to pop up, then you can get stuck in the “what if” cycle, causing Paralysis by Analysis. These pathological cases have a sliver of possibility but cause an overwhelming fear for the project team. Then you’re off trying to plan or prevent the impossible. I have seen this happen many times and more often than you may think. Project leaders and team members can easily become myopic when focusing on their work. In my experience the best way to tackle pathological cases is head on. Politics is one thing, but a never ending project is another.
I remember my first software development job in 1992. I joined a software company that developed for the “new” Windows operating system: Windows 3.0.
As a junior member of the team, I was deathly afraid of revealing what I didn’t know and lose my coveted new job. I was sure everyone on the team knew more than I. So worked 72 hour weeks to catch up. I studied, and coded, and watched, and listened, and tried to fit in as best I could. It worked perfectly! But it turned out I wasn’t the only newbie, and I learned that I knew more than I thought.
So now as a project manager, I’m sympathetic to newbies. No newbie will lose his job just because he hasn’t been immersed in the latest technologies. Reach out to the “new kids!”
The recent eWeek story regarding U.S. decline in science and technology (see below) is nothing new. We’ve heard this same story for twenty years. But is anyone listening?
Over the Christmas break, I did my bit to encourage passion in software development, engineering, and project management. I mentored a college student with an Arduio board. (See http://www.arduino.cc/) The Arduino is a microcontroller with inputs and outputs for controlling external devices. It’s big in university engineering departments. Awesome, dude!
We stayed up past midnight wiring circuits and slinging C++ code to exercise the Arduino I/O ports. In a rat’s nest of wires, LED’s flashed, speakers squealed, and relays clattered. Cool! When it was over, the kid had a new passion for product development and engineering principles.
Code ‘til you drop, and then do it again tomorrow! That’s my answer to declining technology in the U.S. And I suppose it’s also my preferred project management style.