Archive for March, 2016

If you don’t know the critical path, you don’t know very much.

ouija queenOnce you have a project to work on, it’s always a challenge to choose the first task.  And once finished with the first task, the next hardest thing is to figure out the next next task.

Two words to live by: Critical Path.

By definition, the next task to work on is the next task on the critical path.  How do you tell if the task is on the critical path?  When you are late by one day on a critical path task, the project, as a whole, will finish a day late.  If you are late by one day and the project won’t be delayed, the task is not on the critical path and you shouldn’t work on it.

Rule 1: If you can’t work the critical path, don’t work on anything.

Working on a non-critical path task is worse than working on nothing.  Working on a non-critical path task is like waiting with perspiration.  It’s worse than activity without progress.  Resources are consumed on unnecessary tasks and the resulting work creates extra constraints on future work, all in the name of leveraging the work you shouldn’t have done in the first place.

How to spot the critical path? If a similar project has been done before, ask the project manager what the critical path was for that project.  Then listen, because that’s the critical path.  If your project is similar to a previous project except with some incremental newness, the newness is on the critical path.

Rule 2: Newness, by definition, is on the critical path.

But as the level of newness increases, it’s more difficult for project managers to tell the critical path from work that should wait.  If you’re the right project manager, even for projects with significant newness, you are able to feel the critical path in your chest.  When you’re the right project manager, you can walk through the cubicles and your body is drawn to the critical path like a divining rod.   When you’re the right project manager and someone in another building is late on their critical path task, you somehow unknowingly end up getting a haircut at the same time and offering them the resources they need to get back on track.  When you’re the right project manager, the universe notifies you when the critical path has gone critical.

Rule 3: The only way to be the right project manager is to run a lot of projects and read a lot.  (I prefer historical fiction and biographies.)

Not all newness is created equal.  If the project won’t launch unless the newness is wrestled to the ground, that’s level 5 newness. Stop everything, clear the decks, and get after it until it succumbs to your diligence.  If the product won’t sell without the newness, that’s level 5 and you should behave accordingly.  If the newness causes the product to cost a bit more than expected, but the project will still sell like nobody’s business, that’s level 2.  Launch it and cost reduce it later.  If no one will notice if the newness doesn’t make it into the product, that’s level 0 newness. (Actually, it’s not newness at all, it’s unneeded complexity.)  Don’t put in the product and don’t bother telling anyone.

Rule 4: The newness you’re afraid of isn’t the newness you should be afraid of.

A good project plan starts with a good understanding of the newness.  Then, the right project work is defined to make sure the newness gets the attention it deserves.  The problem isn’t the newness you know, the problem is the unknown consequence of newness as it ripples through the commercialization engine. New product functionality gets engineering attention until it’s run to ground.  But what if the newness ripples into new materials that can’t be made or new assembly methods that don’t exist?  What if the new materials are banned substances?  What if your multi-million dollar test stations don’t have the capability to accommodate the new functionality?  What if the value proposition is new and your sales team doesn’t know how to sell it?  What if the newness requires a new distribution channel you don’t have? What if your service organization doesn’t have the ability to diagnose a failure of the new newness?

Rule 5: The only way to develop the capability to handle newness is to pair a soon-to-be great project manager with an already great project manager. 

It may sound like an inefficient way to solve the problem, but pairing the two project managers is a lot more efficient than letting a soon-to-be great project manager crash and burn.  After an inexperienced project manager runs a project into the ground, what’s the first thing you do?  You bring in a great project manager to get the project back on track and keep them in the saddle until the product launches.  Why not assume the wheels will fall off unless you put a pro alongside the high potential talent?

Rule 6: When your best project managers tell you they need resources, give them what they ask for.

If you want to deliver new value to new customs there’s no better way than to develop good project managers.  A good project manager instinctively knows the critical path; they know how the work is done; they know to unwind situations that needs to be unwound; they have the personal relationships to get things done when no one else can; because they are trusted, they can get people to bend (and sometimes break) the rules and feel good doing it; and they know what they need to successfully launch the product.

If you don’t know your critical path, you don’t know very much.  And if your project managers don’t know the critical path, you should stop what you’re doing, pull hard on the emergency break with both hands and don’t release it until you know they know.

Image credit – Patrick Emerson

Organized For Uncertainty

dog snapper schoolThere are many different organizational structures, each with its unique set of strengths and weaknesses. The top-down organization has its strong alignment and limited flexibility while the bottom-up has its empowering consensus and sloth-like pace.  Which one’s better?  Well, it depends.

The function-based organization has strong subject matter expertise and weak cross-function coordination, while the business unit-based organization knows its product, market and customers but has difficulty working east-west across product families and customer segments.  Is one better than the other?  Same answer- it depends.

The matrix organization has the best of both worlds – business unit and functional – and isn’t particularly good at either.  And there’s the ambidextrous organization that I don’t pretend to understand.  If I had to choose one, which would I choose? It depends.

The best organizational structure depends on what you’re trying to do, depends on the environmental context, depends on the organization’s history and biases and the general state of organizational capability, capacity and profitability.  But that’s not the whole picture because none of this is static.  All of this changes over time and it changes in an unpredictable way.  Because the best organizational structure depends on all these complicating factors and the factors change over time, there is never a “best” organizational structure.

Constant change has always been the dominant fundamental perturbing and disturbing our organizational structures.  But, as competition turns up the wick and the pace of learning builds geometrically, change’s ability to influence our organizational structures has grown from disturbing to dismantling.

Change is the dominant fundamental, but its real power comes from the uncertainty it brings to the party.  Our tired, old organizational structures were designed to survive in a long-dead era of glacial change and rationed uncertainty.  And though our organizational structures were built in granite, the elevated sea levels of uncertainty are creating fissures in our inflexible organizational structures and profitability is leaking from all levels

If uncertainty is the disease, adaptability is the antidote.  The organization must continually monitor its environment for changes.  And when it senses an emerging shift, the organization it must move resources in a way that satisfies the new reality.  The organization structure shifts to fit the work.  The structure changes as the character of the projects change.  The organizational structure never reaches equilibrium; it survives through continual evolutionary loop of sense-change-sense.

I don’t have a name for an organization like this, and I think it’s best not to name it.  Instead, I think it’s best to describe how it behaves.  It’s a living organization that behaves like a living organism.  It wants to survive, so it changes itself based on changes in its environment.  It’s an organization that self organizes.

Directionally, organizational structures should be less static and more dynamic, and they should evolve to fit the work.  The difficult part is how to define the explicit rules on how it should change, when it should change and how it decides.  But it’s more than difficult to describe explicit rules, it’s impossible.  In domains of high levels of uncertainty there can be no predictability and without predictability a finite set of explicit rules will not work.  The DNA of this living organization is implicit knowledge, evolutionary experimentation and personal judgement.

I’m not sure what to call this type of organizational structure, and I’m not exactly sure how to create one. But it sure sounds like a lot of fun.

Image credit — actor212

What Innovation Feels Like

afraidThere are countless books and articles on innovation.  You can read how others have done it, what worked and what didn’t, how best to organize the company and how to define it.  But I have not read much about how it feels to do innovation.

Before anything meaningful can happen, there must be discontent or anger.  And for that there needs to be a realization that doing things like last time is a bad idea.   This realization is the natural outcome of looking deeply at how things really are and testing the assumptions of the status quo.  And the best way to set all this in motion is to do things that generate immense boredom.

Boredom can be created in two ways.  1. Doing the same boring work in the same boring way.  2. Stopping all activity for 30 minutes a day and swimming in the sea of your boring thoughts.  Both work well, but the second one works faster.

Next, with your discontent in hand, it’s time birth the right question.  Some think this the time for answers, but with innovation the real work is to figure out the question.  The discomfort of trying to discover the right question is seven times more uncomfortable the discomfort of figuring out the right answer.  And once you have the right question, the organization rejects you as a heretic. If the organization doesn’t dismiss you in a visceral way, you know you don’t have the right question.  You will feel afraid, but repeat the cycle until your question threatens the very thing that has made the company successful.   When people treat you like you threaten them, you know you’re on to something.

To answer your question, you need help from the organization, but the organization withholds them from you.  If you are ignored, blocked or discredited, you’re on the right path.  Break the rules, disregard best practices, and partner with an old friend who trusts you.  Together, rally against the organization and do the work to answer your question.  If you feel isolated, keep going.  You will feel afraid and you will second guess yourself.  Proceed to the next step.

Make a prototype that shows the organization that your question has an answer.  Don’t ask, just build.  Show the prototype to three people and prepare for rejection.  You and your prototype will be misunderstood and devalued.  Not to worry, as this is a good sign.  Revise the prototype and repeat.

Do anything you can to show the prototype to a customer.  Video the customer as they interact with the prototype.  You will feel afraid because you are breaking the rules.  This is how you should feel.  Keep going.

Set up a meeting with a leader who can allocate resources.  If you have to, set up the meeting under false pretenses (the organization is still in rejection mode) and show the video.  Because of the uncertainty of their response, you will feel afraid.  Show the video anyway.

The organization is comfortable working in the domains of certainty and control, but innovation is done in the domain of uncertainty.  By definition, the organization will reject your novel work.  If you are rejected, keep going.  Revise your heretical question, build a prototype to answer it, show a customer, show someone who can allocate resources, and be afraid all along the way.  And repeat, as needed.

With innovation, mostly you feel afraid.

Image credit – Tybo

Battling the Dark Arts of Productivity and Accountability

warlockHow did you get to where you are?  Was it a series of well-thought-out decisions or a million small, non-decisions that stacked up while you weren’t paying attention? Is this where you thought you’d end up?  What do you think about where you are?

It takes great discipline to make time to evaluate your life’s trajectory, and with today’s pace it’s almost impossible.  Every day it’s a battle to do more than yesterday.  Nothing is good enough unless it’s 10% better than last time, and once it’s better, it’s no longer good enough.  Efficiency is worked until it reaches 100%, then it’s redefined to start the game again.  No waste is too small to eliminate. In business there’s no counterbalance to the economists’ false promise of never-ending growth, unless you provide it for yourself.

If you make the time, it’s easy to plan your day and your week. But if you don’t make the time, it’s impossible.  And it’s the same for the longer term – if you make the time to think about what you want to achieve, you have a better chance of achieving it – but it’s more difficult to make the time.  Before you can make the time to step back and take look at the landscape, you’ve got to be aware that it’s important to do and you’re not doing it.

Providing yourself the necessary counterbalance is good for you and your family, and it’s even better for business.  When you take a step back and slow your pace from sprint to marathon, you are happier and healthier and your work is better.  When scout the horizon and realize you and your work are aligned, you feel better about the work and, therefore, you feel better about yourself.  You’re a better person, partner and parent.  And your work is better.  When the work fits, everything is better.

Sometimes, people know their work doesn’t fit and purposefully don’t take a step back because it’s too scary to acknowledge there’s a problem.  But burying your head doesn’t fix things.  If you know you’re out of balance, the best thing to do is admit it and start a dialog with yourself and your boss.  It won’t get better immediately, but you’ll feel better immediately.  But most of the time, people don’t make time to take a step back because of the blistering pace of the work.  There’s simply no time to think about the future.  What’s missing is a weapon to battle the black arts of productivity and accountability.

The only thing powerful enough to counterbalance the forces of darkness is the very weapon we use to create the disease of hyper-productivity – the shared calendar (MS Calendar, Google Calendar).  Open up the software, choose your day, choose your time and set up a one hour weekly meeting with yourself.  Attendees: you.  Agenda: take a couple deep breaths, relax and think.  Change your settings so no one can see the meeting title and agenda and choose the color that makes people think the meeting is off-site.  With your time blocked, you now have a reason to say no to other meetings.  “Sorry, I can’t attend. I have a meeting.”

This simple mechanism is all you need.

No more excuses.  Make the time for yourself.  You’re worth it.

image credit :jovian (image modified)

The Yin and Yang of Work

yin and yangDo good work and people will notice.  Do work to get noticed and people will notice that too.

Try to do good work and you’ll get ahead. Try to get ahead and you won’t.

If the work feels good while you’re doing it, it’s good work.  If it doesn’t, it’s not.

If you watch the clock while you work, that says nothing about the clock.

When you surf the web at work, you’re not working.  When you learn from blog posts, podcasts and TED talks, you are.

Using social media at work is good for business, except when it isn’t.

When you feel you don’t have the authority, you don’t.  If you think you need authority, you shouldn’t.

When people seek your guidance you have something far more powerful than authority, you have trust.

Don’t pine for authority, earn the right to influence.

Influence is to authority as trust is to control.

Personal relationships are more powerful than org charts.  Work the relationships, not the org chart.

There’s no reason to change right up until there’s a good reason.  It may be too late, but at least you’ll have a reason.

Holding on to what you have comes at the expense of creating the future.

As a leader don’t take credit, take responsibility.

And when in doubt, try something.

Image credit — Peter Clark

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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