Friday, April 15, 2011

Hunting for Shark's Teeth and Project Management by Neville Carson

Recently, the family and I spent a week at the beach on beautiful Amelia Island in northeast Florida. One of the many great things about this beach is the shark’s teeth you can find. A shark’s tooth, once it falls out of the creature’s mouth to the ocean floor, spends many years becoming fossilized. Then, thanks to the action of tides and currents, some of these shiny, black beauties eventually find their way to shore.

As I wandered the shore looking for shark’s teeth, my mind turned to management. (I am thinking of getting counseling to stop it from doing this, but for now, it can’t be helped.)
Does the pursuit of shark’s teeth have anything to teach us about our trade? Maybe it’s just sunstroke, but I think it does.
Be optimistic. Most of the shark’s teeth on this beach are less than an inch long. You have to pick them out from the crowd of sea shells, large and small, that lie in profusion on the sand. If you go in with the attitude you’ll never find a tooth, you won’t. I always have much better luck when I tell myself, again and again, “Today I’m going to find some teeth.” The same holds for any project. If you start off thinking you’re doomed, it’s going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Better to affirm success from the start.
Look for patterns. All shark’s teeth have a roughly similar pattern. There’s a “U” at the top where the tooth once joined the gum, and the pointed tooth protruding from that. The teeth are glossy black and they don’t break when tested with the fingers, like black shells will. Once you’ve found a shark’s tooth or two, you can recognize the pattern much more easily. In business, you can use your experience to spot patterns of behavior or circumstance that have yielded opportunities or troubles in the past. For project folks, this experience can be drawn from lessons learned sessions, risk management practices, or plain old experience.
Be persistent. Some days you’re just not going to find a tooth, or, worse, everybody but you is going to find one. Don’t let it get to you. Step away and come back to it the next day. Keep after it until you succeed. I spent a week looking for teeth one year and didn’t find one until the last day, when it tumbled past my foot in the surf. Setbacks are going to occur in your work—accept that fact and pursue success patiently, doggedly, with all the means at your disposal.
Enjoy the search for its own sake. Your work is a big part of your life. Don’t spend it wishing you were somewhere else. Instead, give yourself to it as fully as you possibly can; for every day you do this, your enjoyment will increase. Even if you don’t find a single tooth, you’ve still got the surf, the sand, the blue sky, the family—a whole range of joyes. Granted, it’s probably much easier to enjoy a day of shark’s-tooth hunting on the beach than a day at the office, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible! Reduce stress and increase pleasure in ways that work best for you. Take one-to-two meditation breaks throughout the day, take a lunch break, go for a walk, get up from your desk and talk to people, listen to music, whatever.
I hope these suggestions are helpful. Good luck!

Neville Carson is a PMP and MBA who’s been managing technology projects and products for over a decade by building strong relationships, communicating effectively, and drinking plenty of coffee. In his blog, The PM Portmanteau, he strives to share the results of his studies and experiences, along with a touch of humor, for the benefit of product managers, project managers and professional managers in general.

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