Friday, January 28, 2011

Is focus what you really need?

Sometimes awareness and a broad vision can make a difference

Here’s a simple test for you: just count how many times the players on white shirt pass the ball. It will only take a minute or so and you’ll learn something about yourself. Don't skip it please, I'm trying to make a point here!

Done it? Chocked? Did you replay the video to make sure what you missed? I did...

Focus is a good thing
When you focus you can do more things, you’re more productive. And this is all true. Being productive and efficient is what projects are all about: you need to do things right and do them fast and cheap. When you focus you ignore what happens around you and so you're not distracted. You don't interrupt what you're doing and you're able to get your flow of work going. And so you definitely want focused people working on your project team.

The thing is: projects are unique. And they tend to change over time.
When you plan a project there is no way you’ll ever plan it 100% right in the sense that everything will go according to your plan: you'll get people that fight each other, you’ll miss an assumption, some business link will somehow pop up in the middle of the project or some risk will impact the project much harder than expected. The fact is that you initial plan is bound to change a bit as the project goes. Add the fact that things change over time (new and more attractive business opportunities require channeling more resources to it, the economy falls, your company merges with another one or whatever) and there’s a serious impact on your project. There is no one in the world that can do something for the first time always right, time and time again. These are all unpredictable things that we don't know what they are (most of the times a mistake, a change or unexpected human interaction). In fact, we don't know that we don't know and that's why they're called unknown unknowns.
Of course you could try to get someone on your team that is able to foresee the future but I think the really good ones are really short on supply. Still, you know something unexpected will happen. But what happens to your project and the resources it needs if you don’t somehow account for any of this? The resources can be wasted. That is, knowing that a merge is about to take place could eventually help you change and adapt your project so it would integrate the business needs of the other company or whatever makes sense in your particular case. It doesn't solve the problem, but it gives you more time to think about how to turn things right.

Does focusing help?
All this talk may seem out of place when the intent is to talk about focus. But consider this: what does focus help you as a project manager on dealing with these unknown unknowns? My first guess is absolutely nothing. On the other hand, does it prevent you dealing better with it? I’d say absolutely. If you are focused on the project with your team 100% of your time I’d bet you’ll be the last one to know when such a change (like a merger) happens and impacts your project.

Focus and the window of opportunity
The sooner you know about these changes the sooner you can incorporate them in your project and the wider your window of opportunity is. Compare that to being presented with the facts: hey, we merged with a company yesterday, your project doesn’t make sense anymore for they have a working product developed already and so your project has been canceled, sorry about that. Huge difference, agree?

Focus is great but...
Focus is great and you can’t manage projects successfully without it. But a broader vision and a sense of awareness can prevent you from sinking. You can buy a dog (I've been told that's a great help) and you can even do it by having lunch once in a while with people around the project that don’t actually work on the project. Having lunch with the sponsor once a week is a great thing you should probably already do. Why don’t you take that time to talk to him or her about what’s going on on the organization and not restrict the conversation to project related items? Think about it: it’s free! And it could place you in a very favorable position regarding your project!

Use some time to talk about your business environment with your colleagues and stakeholders. Don't forget your sponsor. And don't discuss your project only. If you do this the chance you notice there is a gorilla passing by is much stronger. And once you start seeing the gorillas...
Then you can be a better project manager.

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Publicsectorpm said...

Hi Luis,

this really is a great article. Thank you for sharing. The need to be flexible and agile with projects is a theme that I've recently been exploring in my blog - e.g. "... Too much time is wasted on detailed mid to long term business planning. Things change so quickly that plans rapidly lose their relevance. Even worse, a waterfall mentality is the norm so government business isn’t agile enough to respond to new crises or opportunities."

I really like your practical suggestion about taking the sponsor out to lunch and exploring the things going on in the wider organisation in an informal way. I totally agree that in project management you can become too focused and as a result miss the big changes that will trip you up.

Great post :)

Luis Seabra Coelho said...

Thank you for your kind comment.
I confess that it didn't occur to me a comparison between Agile and "standard" Project Management approaches. At a first glance I didn't see a relation between this focus/awareness balance on one side and the Agile/"standard" Project Management on the other.

But if you go to the Agile Manifesto and start digging into the implications of "individuals and interactions over processes and tools" you'll get to the focus/awareness balance fast.

Individuals and interactions go side by side with awareness whilst processes and tools go with focus. And as the Agile Manifesto makes so clear, individuals and interactions are preferred but both sets are needed. I'm really happy that you brought in your perspective, I completely missed that...

This is why 1 + 1 is greater than 2 when you work together as a team, thank you! :)

As for planning, Einsenhower said once that "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything". Can you get more Agile than that? And that was way before the Agile Manifesto... The process of planning brings out the intellectual power to check where you stand and how to get where you want to be. Following a plan for the sake of fulfilling a plan 100% is... well, dumb is the only word I can think of.

I'm also glad you liked the lunch suggestion, I like the "get a dog" one very much. What would you do to bring more awareness to Project Management? Not only to the Project Manager but to the team?

I think this topic deserves at least one more post...

Again, thank you!