Beyond A Single Bullet

With a small exception, Staci and I haven’t managed to have our path’s cross since we both graduated college in 2008. When we met I was a two-time Iraq veteran and father of two on a military scholarship and she was a former Disney Cast member. On campus, our paths would cross all the time and

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Stoplight Estimates

Traditional projects thrive on estimates and humans are terrible at estimating. No really, we’re bad at this. Bad enough that college papers have been written correlating our failures with evolution. Bad enough that we’ve developed several competing terms to describe different perspectives on this same phenomena. Hofstader’s Law, Parkinson’s Law, and the Planning Fallacy all deal with the idea that you basically have no idea how long it will take you to finish what you’re doing. This is somewhat better than people who generally have no idea what they’re doing. At least your only problem is with time.

Poor estimations are more costly at the

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Management Reserves & Estimated Monetary Value

In project management, a Management Reserve is “an amount of the project budget withheld for management control purposes. These are budgets reserved for unforeseen work that is within the scope of the project. The management reserve is not included in the performance measurement baseline” (PMBOK).

There are three different types of management reserves identified in

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Showing You Care: On Paper

Effective leadership is dependent upon being an effective communicator.  Being effective doesn't mean just making sure you're understood in person, it also means being understood by a neutral person unfamiliar with you and your team.  Over the years

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Training for the Last Deployment

Over the years I’ve gained a wealth of experience in the military that can benefit whatever organization decides to hire me when I take off this uniform. The big question is how do I let them see my talent and desire to contribute to their organization?

Compared to life in a uniform these are new challenges, but I’m quickly learning how the military experience has helped prepare me to overcome them. I didn’t see how much it had prepared me on my own. I needed help. I love writing using first hand sources. In fact, I nearly got in serious trouble as an undergrad for doing first had research. It certainly surprised several of my teachers, but the result was I learned how to get certified to do the research and I got published in an academic journal.

For this project I contacted the local HR department at Scentsy, a privately traded company in the area and asked for a chat. They agreed, and so last week I sat down with Angie and Michelle over a ginger ale (my favorite) and had a wonderful chat.

When the conversation ended there weren’t any specific life changing oh-wow moments. That’s mostly because the oh-wows were happening in my head. Their polite conversation helped me to connect crucial topics I have read about in a way translated to a coherent plan for my transition moving forward. It was really had to keep myself from chicken scratching logic diagrams that were quickly swimming through my mind and focus instead on the conversation at hand.

When the conversation concluded I started working. While I wont share everything that clicked in one post, I can share a few things I’ve learned now.

1. It’s on you. If you’re not going to use a recruiter than it’s on you. The HR folks at most businesses are too busy to translate your military career to what they’re looking for. They have plenty of other qualified applicants that speak their language. They’re not there to hold your hand. That shouldn’t come as a surprise or a big deal. You’ve owned your PT score and everything else about your career up until this point. Owning yourself now shouldn’t be new, even though the processes are different.

2. Consider the transition a deployment. Prior to deploying the military training gets more and more intense. It includes rehearsals and rehearsals with scenarios. Rehearse for your separation and rehearse different scenarios. We often got new uniforms issued prior to a deployment. This time your new kit is going to come off the rack at a store and you’re going to get to try it on before being expected to wear it.

One scenario I’ve wondered about is where the company I want to work for has an opening, but doesn’t have the job posting I want once I become available. What I needed to own is being financially prepared for less pay for the duration in between. But I also needed to know if it was a good plan to get the job that gets me in the door. Personally campaigning to shift from one area in the Army to another is often viewed as disloyal and generally frowned upon.*

When talking with Angie and Michelle they explained how someone willing to take a job that’s available (and do it well) usually land the job they want. Sometimes rather quickly. They emphasized that doing well where they are is key. Personally campaigning (applying) for a job in another department is approved and encouraged where they work. Good to know!

3. Learn the rules of civilian life. Oh, yes. It has rules. They’re sometimes more subtle and they vary between organizations, but there are certainly rules. My recommendation, learn the communication rules first.

  • Learn something about design & typography. You’ve learned how to read and use regulations that specify fonts and formats. Study some of the design and formats that major companies use. You’ll find style guides for organizations and universities make this easy. You’ll learn a lot about the company by learning how they want to be perceived.

4. Build an amazing resume. You’ve managed to learn all the nuances of formal evaluations so taking those skills and putting them into a resume isn’t hard, but it does take work. Under your experience a good resume will have a blend of responsibilities and accomplishments. How you word it is up to you, though I will warn you of some red flags I’ve seen:

  • Using only military jargon. OCONUS, MEDCOM, NETCOM, etc., these terms don’t mean much. When you’re asking someone to read this you’re asking them to read another language. Put it in English. No one is going to Google Translate your resume but you.

  • Not getting to the point. If you’re not writing the “so what” when you’re working on your resume then you’re not writing much of importance.

  • Copying and pasting your evaluations. I literally had to read a resume where someone just copied the last 15 years of NCOERs into his resume. He didn’t get hired. Communication is so important as a scoring factor for me that the length worked against him even though he’d accomplished things worth noting.

  • Only using the web form. Lots of businesses will use a web form for hiring, but also give the applicant an opportunity to post their resume. The form version of you comes out in a terrible font and doesn’t show any elegance. Always post the resume.

  • Times New Roman. This font may be standard, but among designers and HR folks it’s known as the sweatpants of fonts. If you plan on showing up to the interview in sweatpants…

  • Only posting your responsibilities. Yup. You were in charge of something. What did you do with it? Responsibilities show the level of trust. Accomplishments tell the reader what you did with that trust.

5. Take a good professional head shot and make sure it’s on all your social media. These photos usually cost about $100, but they’re worth it.

Not everyone gets to sit down for 45 minutes with an Angie and Michelle. I imagine that there are plenty of people you know who’d be willing to help you develop your transition plan if you take the time to seek them out and ask. Friends who’ve already made the transition can be among your best resource. Once again, the military has prepared you for success. When you’ve needed help before you learned how to find a battle buddy. Finding one now is no different.

You’ve had a training plan for every deployment you’ve gone on. Now is your time to work on the training plan for your last deployment. Good Luck!

* I was entering the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill Oklahoma and while entering one of our classmates raised his hand to ask a question. He wanted the commander to approve him taking a language proficiency test. He explained that he spoke three languages used in the Middle East fluently and that crunching numbers to put artillery rounds on target might not be the best use of his talents.

His comments were met with ridicule and derision. This was 2008. I’m sure that there were folks who could have used his expertise as a linguist during the surge.

An Open Letter to Tony & The Time Team

 When people make a difference in my life I try to take the time to tell them thank you.  Now it’s your turn.  Thank you for nerding out for twenty years in producing Time Team.  Had the program not been posted on youtube, I never would have known it existed.  As an American and as a Soldier

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Book of Mormon Lexicon

I’ve become a bit eccentric about certain things I’ve studied over the years.  A friend of mine at work and I are putting together a list of things people shouldn’t ask me if they want short answers to questions.  We’ve titled the list “Don’t ask the following if you want a short answer.”  The list includes

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A Synaptic Touch

The Synaptic Case Study written by V.Makarov reviews a “biotechnology company that develops drugs based on proteins and peptides.” The organization has approximately 1200 employees, refers their their IT department as Information Management (IM), and has a department for computational biology. The IM staff consist of about 100 employees, but we do not know the size of the computational scientists employed by the organization.

Over the years a conflict has escalated between the two departments. The computational scientists have a different world view and production model than the information management department. And how could you blame them? The IM department has to ensure that communications in a very high tech business remain up and running amongst its 1200 employees. Due to this heavy requirement they’ve developed a very defined and rigid methodology to ensure that what they deploy will meet expectations. Working yourself into a dead end is not an option.

Science is similarly methodical, but also much more tolerant of failure. Working yourself to a dead end in order to explore possibilities is a part of the heritage of scientists carry forward. From Marakov’s write up it appears that these professionals are no different.

While cultural challenges are a large part of the problem the role of the reader is to step in and function as a consultant/project manager and develop solutions for the organization. Project management deals not just with the discipline of managing results structured to reach a desired end state (deliverable), but also managing the people whose talents must be employed to move the project forward. For this paper, in the role of the consultant/PM, I will present my perspective as I would to the client. I feel the best way to do this is to discuss risks associated with the three project dimensions, Resources, Schedule, and Scope. It is certainly not the most detailed framework in the discipline. I do believe that for the audience at hand, it is highly transferable and therefore an effective tool.

Week 6 the project's destructive Spiral.png

In much of the PM literature these three dimensions are charted out creating a nice triangle shape. In the case of synaptic their diagram doesn’t doesn’t have a true closed off shape, but rather a destructive spiral that increases in size as the project over time. This destructive spiral is true of most out of control projects. There are no set definitions because there is no agreement on what the project is and how it helps move the organization towards its goal.



In order to manage the organization’s resources, the organization’s goal needs to be clearly defined and defined in a way that doesn’t have a terminus. Once the organization’s goal is defined then the organization can be retooled to a balanced matrix organization which will keep the formal divisions within the organization, while empowering the PM to work across the organization’s boundaries to effect change.

Resources are the first area to tackle. They are both a physical constraint and a logical one. Different people and cultures have different views of resources and their purpose to any particular function. In Synaptic’s case the IM team views resources as fragile commodities where failure is severely destructive. Their world is ruled by uptime. The scientists’ world is not. Science is in part the quest for understand of different observable pieces of information. It’s not the quest for an uptime quota, it’s the quest for understanding. Certainly the field does have its absolutes, but it doesn’t have an expectation for zero risk, or zero failure scenarios. The very process of proving/disproving a hypothesis involves not merely observing failures, but actively seeking them out.

With these differing world views come different expectations of the purpose of resources. In both cases resources are a means to an end, but the scientist is trained for acceptable losses/failures/creative destruction with the resources under his care. That is why the first solution to implement isn’t just to define the resources arbitrarily, but define them by literally handing the science department its own separate set of assets to use in building out their projects. In order to move the company towards its goal (making money) it has to continue to innovate and this innovation cannot occur without the department responsible for innovating having resources.

In the case study a particularly destructive example was highlighted that cost a year’s worth of research time and essentially infected the information relied upon by other systems. With proper resourcing inside the CS department this problem could be isolated and mitigate the risk to the rest of the organization.



Project schedule is generally understood as “an output of a schedule model that presents linked activities with planned dates, durations, milestones, and resources.” Synaptic’s lack of a project schedule is a clear indication that they are dealing with the destructive project spiral illustrated above. In order to properly mitigate risk, the project schedule must be clearly defined. No risk mitigation measures can occur in Synaptic without some agreement to a schedule for production. The case study’s narrative gives the PM a great opportunity to commit all stakeholders to a schedule. Losing a year’s worth of data isn’t just an unfortunate event that could be mitigated by isolating the risk to other systems. It’s also a large waste of time and money. This loss to the company, this movement away from the company’s goal, is clearly a justification for change.

Committing development to a schedule can be difficult where projects are developing new technologies. One example of this is ZFS’s history which includes four years of development without a clear announcement date to develop against. While the PM does have to deal with the reality of an unclear deliverable schedule, they can minimize lost time through inefficiencies such as improper calculations by committing to audits and other quality control measures during the life of the project. In this way the schedule’s delivery date may be undefined, but the project will have routine reviews to document progress as it evolves. Moving the quality control mechanisms along the production chain will reduce the level of the overall risk for the project. Allowing the team to address it in smaller segments throughout the life of the project instead of at the end isn’t one of the strategies listed by Watt, but my experience indicates that this is an effective strategy.



The final area to address is the project’s scope. This isn’t because it’s the least important. On the contrary its significantly important to managing the people in the organization and managing progress towards the goal. This is the last area to address because problems with resources and schedule give opportunity to fix the organizational changes that will allow the project’s scope to be defined. Agreement on the project’s scope requires open communication between all stakeholders and that open communication is not achievable without addressing the organizational issues that more readily affect resources and schedule.

Again the destructive spiral illustrated earlier is at play in this dimension as well. As resource requirements and schedule increase so does the project’s scope. Symptoms of its ambiguous nature are evident in the description that the projects at Synaptic are ad-hoc (Makarov, n.d.). While the process of discovering new drugs will involve experimentation the process of project management cannot be conducted in an ad-hoc fashion. The scope of each project needs to be defined. Then it can be resourced and scheduled properly. If the project’s scope is determined to be untenable, then it will need to be turned off. If the organization streamlines their process for initiating and executing projects it will develop techniques to make this process as efficient as possible. None of this is possible without refocusing the individuals within the organization to recognize their role in moving the organization towards its goal.



The intent of this paper was to analyze the risks to projects conducted with the Synaptic organization. The largest risk to projects is with the organization’s leadership dealing with the competing world views of the different organizational departments. Once these parts have been recognized and the organization restructured as a balanced matrix, risk solutions can begin in earnest. I chose to address the areas that are issues along the dimensional terms used in much of the PM literature. Under the project’s resources I advocated for establishing a resource pool within the computer science department to minimize the impact of failures inherent in the creative process as well as to empower those innovating towards the organization’s goals. In the project schedule dimension I discussed the opportunity to leverage the lost time caused by poor PM practices as a way to implement routine reviews of progress. While innovation can’t always be attached to a deliverable date, reviews of its progress can. For the last area, project scope, I discussed how this area, while listed last, was important but could not be addressed without establishing a the baseline for organizational operation through the first two dimensions. The discussion on scope highlighted the need for specific scope and an efficient PM progress that would allow untenable programs to be turned off quickly.

While it appears I’ve spent a large time discussing divergent world views instead of focusing on the details oriented to the project, I believe that a PM who ignores the audience he’s managing can damage his long term success over time. The long term risks to the organization are larger than any one specific project. A specific project review would result in a more specific checklist of risks following the Identify, Assess, Plan model. This case study requires more of what Goldratt describes as his five focusing areas and his three crucial leadership questions, “What to change? What to change to? And “how to cause the change?”

Project management isn’t just about working the deliverable to its scheduled date, but its also about managing the people who’ll be working projects for the long term and that is where the greatest risk lies with Synaptic and where the solutions need to be focused.

Risky Links

In Practice Standard for Project Risk Management the authors illustrate the structure of a quantitative risk analysis. The structure contains Risk Prioritization, Examine Interrelationships Between Risks, Collect High Quality Risk Data, Project Model, Perform Quantitative Risk Analysis, and Results. The second step in this process, examining interrelationships, can have significant impact on the risk analysis and mitigation measures employed by the project management team. This step involves mapping the identified risks in relation to other risks as well as underlying issues identified during the process. Eliyahu Goldratt spends a great deal discussing the transfer of risk across a series of dependencies with any particular development model. He discussed this phenomenon with regards to project management in his book, The Critical Chain and again in his book, The Goal with regards to production management. The interrelationships between risks are sometimes easy to spot as risks compound over a particular series of production steps. Generally later items with severe delay are those where risk was transferred across the dependencies.

The management tools Goldratt communicates in these books include his popular Theory of Constraints and Critical Chain Project Management. Both of these offer great insights that improve project management overall and contain four risk management strategies common in project management literature. These strategies are Avoid, Mitigate, Transfer and Accept. In critical chain project management the intent is to shift project risk from each individual task to an overall risk for the entire project. This forces managers within the project to look for ways to mitigate and transfer risks.

According to Adrienne Watt mitigating risk “means taking some sort of action that will cause it to do as little damage to your project as possible.” The goal is to mitigate the effects of the risk. One way critical chain project management reduces the effects of the risk is to remove risk calculations from the local managers. As mentioned above one of the major tenets of that methodology is to shift the risk from the different efforts within the project to the project as a whole. This tenet is a risk mitigation strategy. One of the other strategies explained in that book involves transferring risk. One way the book articulates this is with a project that has some of its labor contracted to others. In the book the project manager shifts the risk of late deliverables from the project itself back to the contractor under terms that are amicable to both.

Writing Past the Professor

It’s late. You’ve been at it for hours. You got the assignment weeks ago. On this one you didn’t procrastinate. You started compiling notes. Now you’ve now been writing for hours. You look at the clock on the computer screen you’ve been staring at. Is that what time it is? It was easy to lose track about something you cared about. Finally after reading and rereading you’re done. Your logic is on point. Even the bibliography looks flawless. There’s no way you’re going to loose any points on this thing.

You turn it in.

A few days later you get your grade. A+. Congratulations!

And then a few moments later you’ve got a knot in your stomach. You thought the A+ was what you wanted, but now you realize that it’s just the nail in the coffin, and your paper is dead.

No one will ever read it again.

By the time the professor finished grading you wonder if she even remembered your third point. The one that really sold your thesis. You found it life changing and now that you’ve got your grade you know your insight wont be changing any more lives. Reality is a difficult weight to bear.

Of course just because this is a story you’ve probably lived with doesn’t mean it has to be a story you keep on living with. You’re the author of your own destiny. So change it. Take ownership and hack your school experience. Instead of using your professors as the final step in the life of your work use them as an editing service and take your work beyond school. Give someone else a chance to read what you found so helpful.

The easiest way to start this is with a blog. and other hosting services offer student discounts. I don’t want you thinking that this is the road to popularity and self sustaining income, but it does give you a place to post your thoughts and give them a chance at another life. This small blog averages a few readers a day, but it really does much more for letting me practice my communication skills. Those skills are part of what helps me earn a paycheck. As they get better, the jobs I do get easier and it’s easier for my teams to do better as well.

If you’re confident about your work submit it to another site for their consideration or be really bold and submit it to an academic journal. This part could feel like a bit of a mine field, but with some effort you should be able to find an outlet for your thoughts. I’ve gotten lots of rejection. It hurts, but it’s part of the process. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.

There are two reasons for doing all of this. One is taking charge of your brand. YOU! You are a brand.

There are several popular reality TV shows who’s popularity is solely based on the ability of the people being filmed to manage their branding. You can do the same. You don’t need your blog to be popular. In fact you only need one person ever to read it. That’s the person that is going to hire you. You’re going to get googled. When that happens what are they going to find? You can take charge of the answer to that question by putting some of your well constructed thoughts onto the internet.

The second reason I do this is because when I write beyond the professor I write better. I’m more passionate about my subject. I research more. I work harder. It’s paying off. My posts now appear fairly regularly at and I’ve even had an article published at I’m also getting better grades than I’ve ever gotten in my life. I use a professor’s comments not as the final word, but as the last round of editing prior to publication. By the way, they happen to be good at giving constructive feedback. Isn’t that what you’re paying them for?

You don’t have to live with giving life to great thoughts only to watch them die when a grade gets attached. Don’t let your grade be a nail in the coffin. Let it be the feedback right before publishing. Let it be a launchpad for something great. Otherwise you’ll be stuck asking yourself why you put in so much effort in the first place.

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Starting Where Here Is

A profound concept is one that’s worth learning well. It’s also one that when revisited still has deeper meaning than when the lessons were first learned. I’ve learned a lot of my lessons in life painfully. I had good mentors in the military who were able to apply a good deal of leadership influence to reinforce the good behavior they needed from me as part of their team. Often times this reinforcement took the form of push ups.

As my muscles got stronger so did my resolve to be better and do better. Over time I found myself in positions of responsibility rendering similar corrective training to those who worked for me.

Every leader wants to take their team somewhere. In some cases that somewhere is a literal location In other places that somewhere is passing the next audit or a good performance evaluation. The team has the job of charting the course to get there with most of that responsibility falling on the team’s leader. Immature leaders often get frustrated by having a clear vision of the goal, but not being able to get there. Frustrated they ask the question. How do we get there?

We get there, by starting here.

Where’s here?

Where is here? Where are you? Where is your team? Where are you starting from? These are good questions that should encourage anyone to do some self assessment of themselves and their team. As each day moves on your team writes another page in its story. Answering where you can be as simple and quick as an establishing shot on a sitcom, or it can be as detailed as a Tolkien novel. Trying to write a story without understanding where you’re at in the story builds confusion from both the reader (your boss) and your characters (your team).

There are lots of different frameworks for teams. One of the most popular is Tuckerman’s framework (Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing). While this theory has severe limitations, its popularity is due in large part to its generalized accuracy and simplicity. To use it effectively you’ll need to take a step back and be honest with yourself. As much as the destination has been on your mind you’re not going to get there without taking a minute to realize where you are. You get there by starting here.

Tag Your Risk

Cost overruns have the potential to risk entire projects and can be assessed by quantitative measures. The cost of conducting a quantitative assessment is always greater than 0. Practice Standard for Project Risk Management explains that “the benefits for quantitative risk analysis should be weighed against the effort required to ensure that the additional insights and value justify the additional effort.” Thomas Sowell made the same case in his book Knowledge and Decisions with regards to the political economy. While the cost is certainly greater than 0, the reward for a quantified assessment can help identify areas of concern that could easily have been overlooked during a qualitative assessment in favor for issues that are easier to define and narrate.

Because quantitative assessments rely heavily upon the numerical tool set in our lexicon, they provide us with all the advantages inherent in that tool set. Just as price tags summarize the inherent knowledge of the production and transportation of an item to the consumer, so too does a quantitative risk assessment translate and consolidate a broad spectrum of detailed information into a summarized form. In this case it gives the price tags for all of the project and allows us another layer of information to swim through on our search for opportunities to improve outcome. When it comes to risk reduction this information is key to helping to justify risk mitigation expenses by showing their contributions to improving the project’s likelihood of success.

Writing Fiction to Improve Leadership

For a brief moment in my life I thought acting would be fun. Not as a career, but as a hobby. I did a couple of school plays, but I mostly did it because I didn’t want to do homework. During a skit rehearsal someone explained that acting better when you can learn what motivates and sympathize with the character you’re trying to portray. This is one of the few pieces of advice that has stuck with me throughout the years.

When I wrote my first book I didn’t realize I was writing a book. I was working on a project. I had something to say. Once it was complete I realized I had broken through the mental barrier of writing and had written something of substance. I decided to write more. So I dabbed my hand in fiction. It was a bit of an odd choice because I typically don’t read fiction. I get too lost in the characters.

For me I started writing fiction because I had something to say and the most efficient way for me to say it was through characters I created. Now I’ve written two pieces of fiction. Nothing to brag about, but they were fun projects and each had a purpose. They’ve also been extremely helpful with teaching me leadership.

When I’ve sat down to develop characters and their back stories I’ve had to ask myself, what is this character’s motivation? Why would they be motivated to play the role I need them to in my story? Pro tip, if you want your book to be marketable and enjoyed make sure you pick motivations that a large audience can relate to. Something odd happened as I was building characters. I started seeing more dimensions to the people I was working with. I started noticing and caring more about their lives and what they were doing because I could see how their lives were impacting their work. Finding that connection made being personable a lot easier, because I was able to more easily see its purpose.

Sometimes someone will just need someone else to listen to their story. When we tell stories we reveal a lot about ourselves. We share our world view, group identities, and factual information. When someone’s talking you get to hear their perspective and if you listen carefully, you can hear what motivates them.

This fall I moved to a new job and have spent several months listening and talking to people so they could get to know me and so I could get to know them. We have one employee who has a wonderful history and is a bohemian combination of various skills. After I was done talking with her I started to ask myself, why does she have so many varying interests? What’s the thread that connects them all?

The answer is the way she asks questions and the confidence she carries from having answers. This employee has a hard time walking away from a question she doesn’t have an answer to or something she doesn’t understand as well as she’d like to. So, when she had questions about photography she studied and learned photography. When she had questions about how computers worked, she’d studied and learned computers.

When she got the job here she studied and learned everything she needed to know to be functional, but that doesn’t mean she knew every part of the job. With an audit coming up I visited this employee with a copy of the audit questions. I knew that it would be valuable to sit down with her, but I let her control when we scheduled the time. I’m always impressed by how good employees will take the time to hear and prioritize a leader’s goals.

When the time came to sit down I didn’t need to tell her how to do her job. We just talked and read the questions. She had answers to all of them, but I could tell in the tone of her voice that she was less confident about some of her responses than she was when she was talking about the things she was passionate about. It took a few very minor verbal and nonverbal clues for her to realize where she was lacking and at the end of the conversation we didn’t commit to a time line for a follow up. I knew I didn’t need to.

I was right not scheduling the follow up. Let’s be clear, I’m not against follow up. I planned to follow up, but I didn’t schedule it. The next day she came up to me and informed me that because she had budgeted the time to meet with me, she also budgeted the time for self improvement. She spent the rest of that day researching all of the answers where her confidence wasn’t as high. I listened. As she talked I could hear her proudly relate specific answers to certain questions where the day before we only had generalizations. Listening to this conversation allowed me to acknowledge her effort and rehearse for the upcoming audit.

Listening is an important skill for leaders, but taking the time to understand what motivates your team members is what makes listening worth while. Not everyone I’ve worked with is as self motivated as this employee, but everyone I’ve worked with is motivated by something, and taking the time to figure out what that is isn’t just a good idea, it’s a big step on the road to making good people great performers.

A Black Swan in Oklahoma

Much of the conversation about project risk management approaches the subject from a negative perspective.  Project risk is just as much about improving the chances of a positive event as a negative one.  The PMBOK states that “the objectives of project risk management are to increase the likelihood and impact of positive events, and decrease the likelihood and impact of negative events in the project.”  In Tom Kendrick’s book, Identifying and Managing Project Risk, he describes the industry term “black swan” as “a large impact, hard-to-predict, rare event” and proceeds to primarily focus on the negative impact of a black swan to an organization.  In this post I would like to propose that the term black swan, while having primarily negative connotations, can be a positive event.  

In project management a schedule dependency is what happens when you have a task that can’t begin until another task is finished.  It is entirely possible that the preceding task can be done much later than originally planned creating a black swan situation or the task can also be done much earlier.  I initiated a project while I was in Oklahoma.  The project turned into an annual event and was passed along to another project manager for its second year.  The new PM was responsible for coordinating with all of the agencies and offices involved and building the planning documentation used to for internal and external communications.  He couldn’t publish the plan internally until these other requirements were met.  The schedule he was committed to required the earlier tasks to be complete before the latter.

The assigned PM started building his products and working the plan only to discover several notes I had left behind. These notes referenced a folder on a shared drive and a binder in the office.  In it he found that while I had coordinated the resources for the first year, I also scheduled several of the resources for the second year.  On the shared drive he found that when I closed the project from the first year I had already applied the lessons learned to the planning docs for the second year as well.  The hundreds of hours of planning he budgeted were reduced by several fold.  That level of detail and foresight was rare in the organization and certainly serves as a positive example of a black swan.

Negative examples are more commonplace in project management conversations.  It’s not hard to understand why.  They can easily create poignant feelings about certain project aspects.  They also make for good hero stories where the PM team overcomes the challenge they faced to slay the impossible dragon and create victory from chaos.  I love a good hero story, but I love a good project that doesn’t have the problems that turn it into a hero story.

Balancing Your Bias

Everyone has a bias.  A bias is generally understood as a preconceived position on a subject often viewed as unreasoned by others.  The reality is the bias is generally not developed through unreasoned mental programming, but rather built out of causal reasoning.  Our experiences in our own life are the anecdotal evidence for much of the judgements we make during the day.  Sugar flakes will be sweet.  Potato chips will be salty.  Some people’s causal reasoning has them jumping the train tracks and believing that there’s floating spoons on mars.

In projects qualitative risk analysis and reliance on expert judgment can also lead to false conclusions.  A project manager with a short list of failures may believe he can will project success simply by forceful demands.  I’ve also seen PMs who grossly misinterpret the difference between a minor risk and a slightly higher risk.  In this situation they exaggerated the difference to the point where they felt the project was in severe jeopardy.  This lead to more worry and significantly lowered the productivity of the team.  

One way to balance a bias is with quantifiable information.  In the case of the PM who over exaggerated risk we were able to show him that the chances while still higher than the norm he was used to were so unlikely that it was a nearly negligible increase.  Using the hard data was only part of the equation.  Communicating the data in a way that allows the PM to be corrected while still saving face is also important.  Publicly disempowering a PM may create a dramatic situation that functions as a hand grenade to product progress.  Sometimes it makes sense to just leave a Lenore Skenazy quote on their desk and walk away.  “All the worry in the world doesn't prevent death. It prevents life.”

Acknowledging Value

Great leaders acknowledge the value of others. Over the years I’ve benefitted from some tremendous mentors and coworkers. In this post I’d like to propose three ways individuals across an organization can make a more positive impact during their day. All of this of course is designed to increased productivity of the individual and the team.

1. Seek out interactions. An office is a great place to be able to focus on getting work done, but it is by definition separated from others. It’s also a hard place to focus when you have to look to see who’s knocking on your door for a visit or a quick chat. Getting out of the office and having that quick chat in an employee’s space puts them more at ease, allows you to see nonverbal cues about their effort and organization. If you say you care, care enough to viist.

2. Be engaging when you’re engaging them. It’s one thing to be there, it’s another to be engaged. Bring some energy with you as you’re interacting with employees. Energy levels are contagious. In my current position I see a lot of individuals who aren’t used to be up early. I’ve found that if I can inject a positive energy level into their routine they generally respond in kind. They’re more engaged and focussed to accomplish the tasks they need to do making the process run smoother.

3. Follow up. Not everyone is good at remembering names. Remembering names is great, but it’s not everything. It’s a good idea to remember something about the conversation you’re having. If this means you need to spend a few minutes writing down notes when you get back to the office, do so. But remember something and bring that something up during a future engagement. If you’re the boss a lot of times an employee will share an idea or relate a personal or professional challenge to you. These are oportunities for you to posture yourself as a partner. Doing so will generally maximize their performance.

From my experience an employee who feels valued contributes significantly more than those who feel insignficant. These three tips are simple and don’t take too much time. I found it actually saved time by increasing productivity and reducing interruptions during the day from both me and those that I worked with.

A large part of the value I’ve learned to see in myself is built upon the value others have seen in me. Are you making the same impact as the mentors you’ve worked with?

Exaggerated Estimates

In this post I’d like to discuss how estimating is one of the riskiest aspects of any project.  The best book for understanding this isn’t on the reading list for my classes at UMUC, but that’s probably because it’s too engaging to be used as a text book.  

The resource in question is Goldratt’s novel on the Critical Chain.  In the book his characters are faced with a situation where each individual adds their own safety to their portion of the project.  Added up this cumulated safety takes up more time than the project itself does.  What his novel does better than anything else I’ve written is to explain how to work with actual human beings to remove as much safety from each individual line of effort and aggregate a safety for the project as a whole at the end.

Estimating is an extremely dangerous technique for managers.  Organizations with a low tolerance for failure will get unrealistically long estimates from their team members.  Why?  Because adding in the safety to the individual’s line of effort is key to maintaining their employment status.  The opposite extreme is also detrimental.  At this point some pragmatist would argue that picking the point in the middle as the right course of action, and they’d be wrong as well.  

Either extremes or the middle are significantly dangerous ways to run an organization when it comes to gathering estimates.  The right answer is to select a zone near one of these three points that depends on organizational culture, project complexity, and individual capabilities of the team members.  It’s important to pick a zone to operate within on this spectrum because as the project evolves its perception by team members will change and motivational tools (such as the value of estimates) will need to be responsive to these changes.

In conclusion estimates are dangerous to a project because people will want to give themselves as much cushion as possible.  To avoid this one needs to adopt a zone of influence where there are consequences for estimates with too much safety or unrealistic deadlines.  Senior leadership needs to adopt communications lines in a way to be able to understand the framework of the estimates below them.  An arbitrary application of an unrealistic timeline can destroy a great deal of good faith in an existing system and cause an adverse reaction for future projects.  Again, the best book to explain this isn’t on my college reading list.  It’s Goldratt’s novel on the Critical Chain.

Charting the Project Ocean

Navigating the risky waters of a project requires the same tools that helped navigators travel across the ocean, good charts.  In this post I review the usefulness of using tables and charts in communicating project risk.  Two common types of charts used in communicating about projects are Pareto diagrams and Probability & Impact Matrix.  Risk in projects occurs in some combination of four interconnected areas, Project Scope, Budget, Schedule, or Resources.

It’s important first to understand that scope, budget, schedule and resources are all interconnected.  One way to look at these is to consider them as parts of the same object.  If scope increases so will the budget and the schedule for the project.  Similarly, if any of the others increase it will affect the other three.

Scope is one of the more difficult things to chart because it may not include all of the project’s requirements.  The requirements it does capture can be charted and both the Pareto Diagram and Risk Probability & Impact Matrix can be useful in visualizing and communicating about the project’s risk.  

The Probability & Impact Matrix visualizes information based upon two scores, the probability and the impact.  These scores can be recorded qualitatively or quantitatively.  The PMBOK recommends qualitative analysis prior to a quantitative analysis.  When used as a qualitative tool this matrix’s inputs are usually in the form of rough descriptions.  When used quantitatively the descriptions of the risk become matched with a numeric value based upon their likelihood and severity.

Whether used qualitatively or quantitatively this matrix can be useful to identify parts of a project’s scope that communicates risk.  The process of building this matrix forces those involved to have a thoughtful conversation about different aspects of the project without worrying immediately about which risk is more prominent than another.  Because of the simplicity of its design this communication tool requires very little training for teams to discuss and build.  Similarly it requires very little explanation for the audience who it will be presented to.

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Pareto Diagrams are solely quantitative.  Its input requires a dataset comprised of a frequency or similar sets of values.  This dataset must be arranged in descending order from largest to smallest.  Once the data is organized in this way, each datapoint must be calculated as part of its contribution to the whole.  The Pareto Principle is based on the philosophy “that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.”  So the goal is to find where the 80% mark lies on any given dataset.

If used to analyze risks in a project’s scope the Pareto Diagram can quickly focus the group on the largest 20% (known as the vital few) and monitor, but not be distracted by the trivial many.  The Pareto Principle requires a valid dataset and an audience familiar with the principle and the format.

Any project is likely to hit some rough seas and choppy waters.  Good charts can be crucial in helping the team navigating past them and safely arrive at the intended destination.