Sunday, February 6, 2011

My Ah-Ha! Moment by Pam Stanton

“Ah-Ha” moments are so wonderful. Here’s a story of one such moment, when I was struggling to have my project team produce a plan
We were tasked with the objective of deploying a new desktop operating system (Windows VISTA) to our business unit. Turns out in order to secure funding, we would first need to develop a proposal for leadership review. That would require a plan. Furthermore, the enterprise IT shared services organization was demanding the submission of our deployment schedule within a month. There were a lot of politics and optics to this situation, so not complying was not an option.

I gathered the entire team and explained that we needed to deliver a plan. “Application Leads, when can you have your applications ready to run on the new operating system? How much will it cost? And Site Leads, how many computers can we do per day at your location, and when can we start?” Not so easy. They pushed back, a lot! They didn’t know how many applications we had in total, or how well appplications would perform under the new operating system. They didn’t know whether deployment was going to be “automagic” or require a hands-on approach. It wasn’t clear whether we had a choice of Window versions or would have to standardize on one. Aaargh. Nothing was accomplished at that meeting, except a lot of spinning and complaining as people fed off each another’s perceived barriers.
I thought it might work better to have each team member sketch out their own plan first, and then we would combine all the plans. I sent them off for two weeks to work on this individually. When we reconvened, I got a whole lot of nothing. “Too many variables!” “How can we price something when we don’t know what it is?” “How can we build a plan before we know what technology we’re using, what deployment method we’re using, etc.?” “Sorry, but we can’t build a plan until we have all these questions answered first.”
At the same time, I was getting my butt kicked by my boss, who wanted to see some evidence that I had this thing under control. Furthermore, the deadline for submitting our plan to the shared service organization was looming. I was stumped at what was holding us up in building a plan. I mean, let’s just throw some ideas on the whiteboard and build some possible scenarios. What’s so hard about that? To me, that word “plan” wasn’t very charged with commitment—heck, plans are made to be broken, just like rules, right?
Ding ding ding! I heard the bell ringing in my head from my executive coaching on social styles at work. I’m what’s called an “Expressive” (no big shock there, eh?) Expressives paint pictures with words, in broad strokes. And here I was with a team full of “Analyticals”, technical people who make fact-based decisions and commit to plans that are grounded in data. I was asking them to violate their core Analytical principles by demanding a plan in the absence of facts. To them, a plan meant that they were accepting accountability for deadlines and deliverables. “Plan” was a bad, four-letter word!
That Ah-Ha! moment of insight that made a huge difference. I immediately stopped using the word “plan”.
It was crunch time. We gathered the entire group for an all-day jam session. I had already drawn a large timeline on the whiteboard and written the words “What If…?” When we changed the exercise from developing a “plan” to building a “what-if” scenario, the floodgates broke wide open and the ideas poured out. Of course, the “What If’s” were all assumptions that would need to be met in order for those dates and deliverables to work. Fantastic! That’s all I ever wanted to know.
By the end of that day, we had a picture of how this project could work, assuming that we could get certain commitments on resources, technology, funding, etc. It wasn’t a huge Gantt chart, but rather a simple one-page graphic with large colored boxes and stars that showed major milestones. Now I had something to show leadership and start negotiating for what we would need in order to commit to this as a plan. I’ve come to call this approach an “Assumption-Based Scenario” and find it works extremely well, especially with very analytical teams.
Ah-Ha! This experience reinforces my core belief that methodology gives us a wonderful bag full of tools, but it is our emotional intelligence that enables us to choose the right tool for the right situation. Methodology alone won’t get us there, and as project managers we must continue to build our soft skills and emotional intelligence in order to know what tools to apply at any given moment.

Pam Stanton
The Project Whisperer
Pam Stanton is a fresh and rising voice in the world of project management. She teaches companies and individuals to recognize the human dynamics that impact project success. Her book “The Project Whisperer” shares two decades of insight and experience on the importance of the Human Part of the Gantt Chart.

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