Friday, November 25, 2011

Stress free Project Managers...

...Or about Hammers and Screws
Projects can be very stressful but in fact there are only 3 dimensions to it: deliverables, people and organizations. So how difficult can it be to manage projects? Where does the stress come from? After all, these 3 dimensions are what we're all used to no matter where you're from, right? That is exactly how we look at things and how we are aware of the space around us. Now in some cases, we feel stress just because we don't have a mental frame where to fit what's happening around us. So, by having this larger picture in mind we can fit things in their dimensions and, if the stress we were feeling was caused by it... no more stress! What a perfect world, isn't it?


Starting with stress
I remember one time I went shopping alone with my kids, they must have been 2 and 3 years old at the time. At one point, when the shopping cart was already quite full, one of the kids has to go to the bathroom. Of course the other one immediately felt the urge to go too. Believe it or not, I panicked for a few seconds: should I abandon the shopping cart and go with them to the bathroom and start shopping all over again afterwards? Should I leave one kid inside the cart, go with the other, come back, go again with the one that was left in the cart and leave the other one in the cart? Or would they let me leave with the shopping cart without paying, go to the bathroom with them and continue shopping afterwards?
I believe the reason for the panic was just because it was the first time this was happening and I had no mental frame to put it into context: a supermarcket was just a place where you took a shopping cart, put the stuff you need in it and pay for it on your way out. I never gave a second though about the bathrooms in there, the security or even the registers. After re-framing the situation in my mind, it was plain to see that all I had to do was to leave the shopping cart with the security at the entrance, go with the kids to the bathroom and then continue my shopping. But during those few seconds I just didn't see a way out.
The same goes to Project Management. Once you have a broader view of things you get these nice little boxes in your mind where you can put stuff in and feel comfortable on doing so because you know there are appropriate actions you can take on them. And the first nice little (or not) Project Management box is...

The deliverables
The focus of most work developed on Project Management is on getting things done and deliverables - the OTOBOS (On Time, On Budget and On Scope) approach. If you look at the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), almost everything there deals with this. It's all about the processes, and the tools and the techniques available to get things done.

The people
Most problems I have experienced in Project Management were tracked back to people. Problems like conflict of interests and different priorities have nothing to do with what has to be done to deliver the project's results but it has a direct impact on the project. You can know all about Earned Value Management and Gantt Charts that none of that will help you with people. What will help you instead are soft skills such as negotiation, leadership, and communication. These are the tools that can help you to deal with people.
This view is fairly recent but is growing in importance up to the point where there are people who say that soft skills is what they want from a Project Manager, all the rest they can learn on the job. You can either agree or not with this statement (I don't subscribe it myself), but the reason for this is the following: if you have a leadership profile similar to a General's you will never be an outstanding Sargent; but if you already have a leadership profile similar to a Sargent you can develop your leadership skills to become an outstanding Sargent. So there's a point to such a bold statement and you can check the article "Developing Leadership Skills" if you want to learn more on this.

The organizations
This is where strategies and politics are. If nothing else, keep this in mind: your project's results are of no use to anyone if they don't build on the organization's strategy. There's no purpose on developing a new mobile phone if your company is dropping that line of business, is there? So please, please keep in mind that your project exists to help achieve some business need and that your project probably works together with other initiatives in the organization (projects and operations) in order to achieve it.
Business Analysis is probably the best tool to work on this side of the triangle - but this is my opinion just because it's the only tool I know to deal with these.

Conclusion
The practical advice I have for you is this: when you're faced with an issue, place it under the correct perspective and use the tools provided under that same perspective to deal with it. If you have someone in your team that systematic arrives late at the office, showing her a Gantt Chart reminding her what she has to do in that week is of no use. But if you provide some feedback to her and show her that other people on the team have to wait for her to get to the office in order to start working and that she's arrived late at least 30 minutes in the last few of days it would at least fire the discussion in turn of a solution to the problem.
In short, putting problems on the right perspective helps finding a way to deal with them and thus prevent the stress of having to deal with the same issue over and over again - no point in using a hammer in a screw, is there? On the other hand, if you insist on using hammers with screws I bet that will be a source of stress and frustration...

Picture from http://wherethereispeter.blogspot.com


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rutha said...
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