Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How to Succeed when Your Project is in Jeopardy - Part 2 of 2

Last article I wrote about how being on a project that is ending, a company that might be getting acquired or going out of business, etc.  It was more about the project itself - how you can see if its going down, what strategies you can use to avert or at least slow its death.  Ultimately I left off about things you should be doing, training and the such, to start your new life.   That's where I'm going to pick it up. 

I recently discovered the “four A’s” of stress relief from the Mayo Clinic
  • Avoid the source of stress
  • Alter your reaction to it
  • Accept things as they are or 
  • Adapt by changing your expectations
  • Acknowledge your team, the work, and the moment (this one is mine)
This seems like a good structure to Survive a Project in Jeopardy and something as a project leader you can model and share with the team. 

Avoid the stress - Sometimes, especially in workaholic America, getting away for a while doesn't dawn on us as a viable strategy for survival.   I used to think vacation a lie, like a mirage of fun before you have to return to work, but now I cherish the time and would like to have more of it, especially with my kids.  Who knows, a good week spent hiking might put that project struggle into some perspective. 

Alter  your reaction -  A dying project can be very stressful, and like most things that are alive, a project will die.  Most people on the team know its dying or at least a zombie.   An example of altering your reaction: 


Disconnected Executive Who Drives a REALLY Nice Car and won't be affected by a downturn:  "We're going to cut your budget to 1/3 of its current size...good luck keeping those customers happy. Oh, and you're getting Phil's projects too because he's been laid off."

YOU: " The hell you are! I'll raise a stink all over the company to stop you." 

ANGRY YOU: (10 minutes later)  to the team:  "Well guys, the folks upstairs just chopped our budget. Get your boxes packed.."

TEAM:  *cries*


YOU: "Team we're going to have to prioritize, and delight our customer so much they'll freak out with happiness and recommend us to everyone !"

TEAM: "Yeah!"

Accept What Is -  This is one of those things that is straight forward in words but difficult in practice. The Yoda of the NBA, Phil Jackson’s latest tome,the very Tolkien sounding "Eleven Rings" ends with this: “The soul of success is surrendering to what is"   This is really close to Altering your reaction, the difference being that acceptance is really internal work.    What you, while you're packing your boxes, feel about the situation.    Its also an authenticity thing - don't lie to the team.  If there are budget issues, be honest.  Don't over disclose, but by all means don't hide and lie.  These are people...they are Immortal Souls and we need to treat them with due respect.

One more quote, this one from one of my all time favorite books, Flow.

People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.
Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990

Yet acceptance only gets you so far..one must adapt, change expectations, and seek renaissance.

Adapt and Change expectations - I am carrying a belief that much of the unhappiness people's lives is due to cognitive dissonance caused by the gap between expectations and reality.  We have maps in our heads about where we were supposed to live, what we were supposed to be in charge of, and what we were supposed to be driving ( have you seen the new Jaguars?  Oh my) , etc.

Adapt to finding the joy you can attain. Create events on your calendar that you might want to go to.  That writers conference...the art colony...the dance club.... You were something before this gig, and you'll likely be something after it. Take this experience and start moving forward.

If you're lucky to be leading a project, people will come to you with concerns.  Help them with this effort. Help them reduce the dissonance between what they wanted their life to be and what it is.

Acknowledge -  I had to add this.  Some if the best experiences I've had was where the closure was aided by a conscious acknowledgment of the hard work, the inherent goodness of collective creation, and the finality of that moment.  Whether its you leaving or a teammate,  it changes  the project.  Being mindful and saying goodbye are powerful tonic in memory creation.  

Lastly there's some resources to help.    I'll give you three that I use:

1. The fear.less  newsletter.  Just drives directly to the issue of fear and how hundreds of super-successful people overcame it.

2.  Crush It, Unstoppable and Wired Magazine - Love all three. Crush It is a book that makes me want to walk through walls. Unstoppable is great if you're trying to start a biz, and Wired. Man I love that magazine.  Somehow it slakes my geek-thirst and I feel aligned again.  

3.  Escapism:  Read that fantasy novel, go to the movies, binge watch your favorite show.  Life is hard, and if you have some non-destructive habits by all means partake.  Recharge those batteries.  See the greatness of other people's labor and creativity . Feel their dreams through their art.

You've done all that, and now you're ready.  You've recharged those batteries, the new project is on the horizon, and you have that great fishing trip scheduled.  Be mindful, now that you're back in the game , of how you recovered yourself.  Remember it, because this won't be the last time, and rather than see that as a negative, leverage appreciative inquiry and reframe  - letting go and moving on is really life itself. Being good with that is up to you.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

How to Succeed when Your Project is in Jeopardy - Part 1 of 2

aka you are not your project

Joe Fecarotta

In a lifetime of IT projects you are bound to be on one or more projects or even companies that fail.  Projects, like companies, run out of cash, get beat in the marketplace, get starved for resources, and so on.  What makes it difficult in large enterprises is that the bottom line of the company is so distant from where your desk is.  Say your working a payroll system, or a the benefits website.  Can you track your efforts to the bottom line?  Its a challenge.    Its a challenge for project management since the challenges are often beyond your control. If the company is cash strapped and it affects your resources, you have to continually replan.  It usually has a few common stages: 

1. Unreasonable deadlines or expectations are  set - this is because the business is running out of cash and may need your project for cost savings or profit.  They may need that doorstop to teleport small animals, when really it was only supposed to hold open the door. 

2.  Key resources are pulled or shared- its a common pattern to bunch together DBAs, Usablity, and deployment/build engineers.   I get why this is done, but as a PM I still hate it. It kills the teaming and the ownership of the product that your creating when some dude 100 miles away is mindlessly running database scripts on yet another database.  Its a manufacturing mindset for certain.  Worse is when the deployment people aren't sitting with you or are on 10 different projects.   

3.  Once your key resources are pulled, things will start breaking.  It'll take longer for your system to recover because all the folks who created it and truly understand it are gone.  This will of course thrill your customers who are already setting the deadlines in #1.   It won't take them long to execute #5, but not before they'res a good blood-letting via #4, the Blame Game. 

4.  Blame game -  This is when the long knives start coming out. A few things might be good fall guys : 

  • The Process :  Agile usually gets the blame at larger companies. Its really new and difficult and no one really wanted to do it in the first place.  At smaller ones, the fact that there was no process gets the blame.  
  • The Tools:  medium to large projects typically have some sort of new technology that they're trying to implement, typically with under-trained resources and unrealistic timelines.   It was exciting initially and now everyone's looking for the guy who chose this dog. 
  • The People :  Always part of the mix, since robots aren't writing code yet, who else are we going to blame?  I've been caught up in this one.  I told that DBA we had a deployment and he went fishing? What? That Cognos feller went to China? What?
  • Communications:  Of course this is the fall guy for everything, since its so difficult in large systems.  'nuff said. 
  • The Vendor: Easy target here.   If the vendor or supplier wrote even one line of code its easy to bash on them.  Its even better if its outsourcing since every hates that but everyone relies on it too.  I love it when they say, " you know India is 12 hours away..."   Was this a surprise to people after the contract was signed?  
  • The end user/customer - This one is tricky since the customer is usually the one paying for it or knows them really well.   IT will blame them because they asked for Mars, but really wanted the planet and not the candy bar that IT delivered. 

4.  Your funding is pulled entirely.  Despite the thousands of people hours and tens of thousands of dollars in capital, it occurs to people in the midst of a proejct, usually between the apex of spending and the trough of  no ROI, that they could write this system for less, or they don't need it any more.  

So, onto the Survival Tip #1 : Fight the Story.  
What is in common with all the items above is that there is a story that will start getting attached to your project.  Project A can't deliver.  Project A has troubled people. The tech Project A is using is a career dead end and the wrong tech for the project.   These stories will likely start with peers on other projects in an effort to rob your project of funding.   Its Darwinian  but its business.
To fight the story, you need to make sure where the decisions are being made.  Find the gatekeepers and ensure that if your opponents are there, you're there.   Think about merging with one of your competitors...after all they're just people trying to do a job, and ostensibly on the same side.  Make sure you exceed the reporting needs, and do as much stats as you can.

If your successful Fighting the Story will slow the exodus of dollars from your project and people from your cause.   In the next installment, I'll talk about how you as a project leader can survive personally and help your team do the same when things go from bad to worse.

- Joe

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Just so I don't have to look around for it again, I'm repeating the Kotter 8.   I think Step 7, which I saw on a poster at work, is beautiful, and as I review this list I weep for my own change efforts at work.  Most of the things I'm after do not get passed step 1.  

So perhaps my new shakeup at work, one that I was scoffing at, I can think carefully.  The execs have stirred up the nest, they've got the first four checked off the list.   The question for me is how do I get behind this wave to lift my little boat up? 

In his book "The heart of Change", Kotter identified 8 steps required to successfully deliver transformation. They are a very useful checklist, and review list through a change programme to ensure that the programme has a balance of the elements required for success. The text below are his quotes relating to each Step.
Step 1: create a sense of urgency
Those who are most successful at significant change begin their work by creating a sense of urgency among the relevant people. In smaller organizations, the 'relevant' are more likely to number 100 than five, in larger organizations 1,000 rather than 50.... A sense of urgency, sometimes developed by very creative means, gets people off the couch, out of a bunker, and ready to move
Step 2: put together a guiding team 
With the urgency turned up, the more successful change agents pull together a guiding team with the credibility, skills, connections, reputations, and formal authority required to provide change leadership. This group learns to operate...with trust and emotional commitment.
Step 3: create visions and strategies
the guiding team creates sensible, clear, simple, uplifting visions and sets of strategies. In the less successful cases, there are only detailed plans and budgets that...are insufficient, or a vision that is not very sensible..., or a vision that is created by others and largely ignored by the guiding team."
Step 4: communicate for buy in
Communication of the vision and strategies comes next - simple, heartfelt messages sent through many unclogged channels. The goal is to induce understanding, develop a gut-level commitment, and liberate more energy from a critical mass of people. Here, deeds are often more important than words. Symbols speak loudly. Repetition is key
Step 5: empower people
In the best situations, you find a heavy dose of empowerment. Key obstacles that stop people from acting on the vision are removed. Change leaders focus on bosses who disempower, on inadequate information and information systems, and on self-confidence barriers in people's minds. The issue here is removing obstacles, not 'giving power'.
Step 6: produce short-term wins
With empowered people working on the vision, in cases of great success those people are helped to produce short-term wins. The wins are critical. They provide credibility, resources, and momentum to the overall effort
Step 7: build momentum
change leaders don't let up. Momentum builds after the first wins. Early changes are consolidated. People shrewdly choose what to tackle next, then create wave after wave of change until the vision is a reality. In less successful cases, people try to do too much at once.
Step 8: nurture a new culture
A new culture develops through consistency of successful action over a sufficient period of time. Here, appropriate promotions, skilful new employee orientation, and events that engage emotions can make a big difference. In other cases a great deal of work can be blown away by the winds of tradition in a remarkably short period of time


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