Sunday, May 17, 2009

6 steps to street-smart projects

Consultant John Connellan tells of a client who was teaching his 4-year-old son Anthony how to ride a bicycle. Anthony was riding in the street for the first time and he kept drifting to the middle of the street.

"Stay close to the curb", the father warned. But Anthony kept weaving away from the sidewalk. Finally Dad lost patience and said, "if you don't stay close to the curb, I can't let you ride in the street anymore."

Anthony stopped his bike, turned around and looked straight at Dad. He said "What's a curb?"

There are all sorts of stories about children learning their boundaries. I like this one because it deals with our role in making the ground rules clear. I don't have kids but I face this all the time managing work projects. We all play roles in our company's success. But it can be hard to curb your enthusiasm and follow the game plan. If there is one.

In business, project management itself is misunderstood. People charged with keeping a project on track likely don't have final say in how much money it gets, or even who gets to work on it. Here I'm taking a few minutes to lay some ground rules for putting down ground rules.

Everyone needs goals but not everyone thinks about the role of spelling them out. Four years ago I became a student of this process when my boss put me on project work and gave me a copy of "Project Management for Dummies." Don't be offended, he said, it's actually one of the better books on the subject.

A few more projects and a few more bosses later I was getting coaching from the head of the Project Management Office. He had me go out and get "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Project Management." So you see how I've progressed. (Don't be offended, he said, it's an easier reference than the PMBOK Guide. Those are the certification documents, and the Celebrex fine print is easier reading.)

Now, complete idiots may not know a what makes a good set of project goals, but the developer building Trump Tower and the developer building your accounting software will tell you the same three things about goals:

  1. Goals must be specific. Any idiot should be able to understand them. That's important because in this climate, the project could be out of your hands and left for some other idiot to figure out. Till then, you need to be able to explain the task to managers without them getting antsy and checking their messages.

  2. Goals must be realistic. You don't need a work example here. Go to Borders and look at the magazine racks. There are dozens of titles about building the perfect kitchen. I'm never going to be able to afford the perfect kitchen. When I remodel I'll be lucky if the electrical system is capable of running the perfect 5-quart mixer. Either way, the dough does not just make itself.

  3. Goals must be measurable. Part of keeping it real is putting down goals you can track. My bosses may expect perfection from me if I haven't sold them on the previous point. But at least my projects have to define what's good enough. Otherwise contractors don't know what to bid, and when they're finished you can't say whether they earned it.

To stick to these goals, three other things must be clear at the outset:

  1. Goals must have deadlines. The more deadlines, the better to move things along one step at a time. I ran status meetings for a boss that liked a one-line summary of each project, with just an end date for each. It wasn't too surprising when those ending dates kept getting revised later and later.

  2. Goals must have consensus. Sometimes it seems my main role running a project is just setting up meetings and taking notes. That would frustrate me till I realized that if you don't get everyone on the same page, things quickly get creepy, as in "scope creep." There's power in spelling out how far a group will take a . The first step in setting the agenda turns out to be sending out the agenda.

  3. Goals must have owners. If you've seen an e-mail from me you know what I mean. I get so many emails "FYI" that it's hard to know I'm actually being asked to do something. Almost every sentence in my emails starts with someone's name -- Joe, can you do this task? Chris, can you automate it? To get a job done it's not enough to just ask. I have to ask someone.

These half-dozen rules can help keep any project from sliding off the rails. Take a blank sheet of paper and devote it to any project that's giving you fits, at home or at work. Write down what you're trying to do, why you're trying to do it, and how you'll know when it's done. You'll end up with a much better grasp on the situation.

There are so many things we have to deal with in a day that it's hard to make much progress on any of them. But it's like riding a bicycle: Once you've learned how, you can pick it up at any time. If you know where to point yourself, it's easier to move straight ahead.

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