Archive for March, 2013

How long will it take?

How long will it take? The short answer – same as last time. How long do we want it to take? That’s a different question altogether.

If the last project took a year, so will the next one. Even if you want it to take six months, it will take a year. Unless, there’s a good reason it will be different. (And no, the simple fact you want it to take six months is not a good enough reason in itself.)

Some good reasons it will take longer than last time: more work, more newness, less reuse, more risk, and fewer resources. Some good reasons why it will go faster: less work, less newness, more reuse, less risk, more resources. Seems pretty tight and buttoned-up, but things aren’t that straight forward.

With resources, the core resources are usually under control.  It’s the shared resources that are the problem. With resources under their control (core resources) project teams typically do a good job – assign dedicated resources and get out of the way. Shared resources are named that way because they support multiple projects, and this is the problem. Shared resources create coupling among projects, and when one project runs long, resource backlogs ripple through the other projects. And it gets worse. The projects backlogged by the initial ripple splash back and reflect ripples back at each other. Understand the shared resources, and you understand a fundamental dynamic of all your projects.

Plain and simple – work content governs project timelines. And going forward I propose we never again ask “How long will it take?” and instead ask “How is the work content different than last time?” To estimate how long it will take, set up a short face-to-face meeting with the person who did it last time, and ask them how long it will take. Write it down, because that’s the best estimate of how long it will take.

It may be the best estimate, but it may not be a good one. The problem is uncertainty around newness. Two important questions to calibrate uncertainty: 1) How big of a stretch are you asking for? and 2) How much do you know about how you’ll get there? The first question drives focus, but it’s not always a good predictor of uncertainty.  Even seemingly small stretches can create huge problems. (A project that requires a 0.01% increase in the speed of light will be a long one.) What matters is if you can get there.

To start, use your best judgment to estimate the uncertainty, but as quickly as you can, put together a rude and crude experimental plan to reduce it. As fast as you can execute the experimental plan, and let the test results tell you if you can get there. If you can’t get there on the bench, you can’t get there, and you should work on a different project until you can.

The best way to understand how long a project will take is to understand the work content. And the most important work content to understand is the new work content. Choose several of your best people and ask them to run fast and focused experiments around the newness. Then, instead of asking them how long it will take, look at the test results and decide for yourself.

Drag Racing Behavior

Our productivity-by-the-minute culture is killing us.

In business speed is king, and with it comes our short-sighted drag racing behavior. As we pull to the starting light our big engines shake and rumble, our pipes shoot flames, and our tires smoke. We stomp the throttle, accelerate to mach 1, kill the engine, and throw the chute. A quarter mile covered in record time, and champagne celebration.

But, because the pace was beyond sustainable, we can’t race again until the damage is repaired. Because it ran too hot the pit crew must pull the engine, because the torque was so outrageous the transmission must be swapped, and because the vibrations were so severe the frame must be checked for metal fatigue. But this is just another opportunity for more racing.

We externalize the setup, design the process for quick changeover, reduce waste, and focus on the vital few. No matter the pit crew doesn’t get sleep, or their families miss them. Engine swapped in record time, and obligatory celebration.

Sure, going fast is good. But business can’t be a series of back-to-back sprints. Plain and simple – people cannot sprint every day, all day. Business should be thought of as a marathon. A marathon run at a respectable pace, but a pace we’ve trained for, a pace we can sustain. With a torn hamstring the fastest sprinter makes no forward progress, and even the slowest marathoner is faster.

Sprint, yes, but only when it makes sense. Sprint, yes, but provide recovery time. Sprint, yes, but not if it will do personal harm.

Increasing speed is directionally correct, but our time horizon is too short. Instead of optimizing over a six second quarter mile, we should optimize for a marathon.

In our chase for speed’s euphoric high, our drug of choice is efficiency. Like speed, efficiency is good. But, just as speed’s time horizon is too short, efficiency’s scale of optimization is too small. We optimize locally and the net result is global sub-optimization. This is clearly an artifact of what we measure. Clearly, we must measure differently.

Every day we chase the dopamine high of efficiency, but ignore the mind-blowing power of effectiveness. If you sprint day after day, you may be efficient, but you’re definitely ineffective. Sprint every day for a month, sleep four hours a night, and spend six weeks away from your family. Are you really in a good position to make a make-or-break decision? How can you possibly be effective? I wish Finance knew how to measure effectiveness as well as it does efficiency.

As a company leader, stop sprinting. As a company leader, stop optimizing locally. As a company leader, stop focusing on efficiency. As a company leader, demonstrate and reward effectiveness. As a company leader, go home and spend time with your family.

Hearts Before Minds

We often forget, but regardless of industry, technology, product, or service, it’s a battle for hearts and minds.

The building blocks of business are processes, machines, software, and computers, but people are the underpinning.  The building blocks respond in a repeatable way – same input, same output – and without judgment.  People, however, not so much.

People respond differently depending on delivery – even small nuances can alter the response, and when hot buttons are pushed responses can be highly nonlinear. One day to the next, people’s responses to similar input can be markedly different.  Yet we forget people are not like software or machines, and we go about our work with expectations people will respond with highly rational, highly linear,  A-then-B logic.  But in a battle between rational and emotional, it’s emotional by a landslide.

Thankfully, we’re not just cogs in the machine.  But for the machine to run, it’s imperative to win the hearts and minds. (I feel a little silly writing this because it’s so fundamental, but it needs to be written.)  And it’s hearts then minds.  The heart is won by emotion, and once the emotional connection is made, the heart tells the mind to look at the situation and construct logic to fit.  The heart clears the path so the mind can in good conscience come along for the ride.

Hearts are best won face-to-face, but, unfortunately today’s default mode is PowerPoint-to-face.  We don’t have to like it, but it’s here to stay.  And so, we must learn to win hearts, to make an emotional connection, to tell stories with PowerPoint.

To tell a story with PowerPoint, we must bring ourselves to the forefront and send PowerPoint to the back.  To prevent ourselves from hiding behind our slides, take the words off and replace them with a single, large image – instead of a complex word-stuffed jumble, think framed artwork.  While their faces look at the picture, tell their hearts a story.  Eliminate words from the slides and the story emerges.

[There’s still a place for words, but limit yourself to three words per slide, and make them big – 60 point font. And keep it under ten slides.   More than that and you haven’t distilled the story in your head.]

Whatever business you’re in, you’re in the people business.  Win hearts and minds follow.  And so do profits.

There Are No Best Practices

That’s a best practice. Look, there’s another one. We need a best practice. What’s the best practice?  Let’s standardize on the best practice.  Arrrgh.  Enough, already, with best practices.

There are no best practices, only actions that have worked for others in other situations.  Yet we feverishly seek them out, apply them out of context, and expect they’ll solve a problem unrelated to their heritage.

To me, the right practices are today’s practices.  They’re the base camp from which to start a journey toward new ones.  To create the next evolution of today’s practices, for new practices to emerge, a destination must be defined. This destination is dictated by problems with what we do today.  Ultimately, at the highest level, problems with our practices are spawned by gaps, shortfalls, or problems in meeting company objectives.  Define the shortfall – 15% increase in profits – and emergent practices naturally diffuse to the surface.

There are two choices: choose someone else’s best practices and twist, prune, and bend them to fit, or define the incremental functionality you’d like to create and lay out the activities (practices) to make it happen. Either way, the key is starting with the problem.

The important part – the right practices, the new activities, the novel work, whatever you call it, emerges from the need.

It’s a problem hierarchy, a problem flow-down.  The company starts by declaring a problem – profits must increase by 15% – and the drill-down occurs until a set of new action (new behaviors, new processes, new activities) is defined that solves the low level problems. And when the low level problems are solved, the benefits avalanche to satisfy the declared problem – profits increased by 15%.

It’s all about clarity — clearly define the starting point, clearly define the destination, and express the gaps in a single page, picture-based problem statements.  With this type of problem definition, you can put your hand over your mouth, with the other hand point to the picture, and everyone understands it the same way. No words, just understanding.

And once everyone understands things clearly, the right next steps (new practices) emerge.

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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