Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2013/05/22

Wanted: Focused Daydreamer

I have worked with a lot of really smart people over the years. The holy grail of hiring is to hire the best candidate using very little information (and highly polished information, at that!). Specifically for consultants, project managers and other information workers job history, general intelligence and personality testing seem to dominate the selection process. Those all play a part, but from working in the field for a while now, I have come to learn that one of the best indicators of performance is his or her ability to see the unintended consequences of an action. This requires a mental agility and empathy that separates the bottom and top of the market. Examples include:

  • the impact of changing a field from a drop down value to plain text and how that would affect reporting
  • the way decisions will impact employee morale
  • the impact of doing nice things for customers or for taking a hard stance
  • How plans for communication will account for ease of use, adoption and user fatigue, over time
  • How real users will work once a product is released and how to plan for that upfront

With the amount of data we need to process these days and the pace of change in the world, the real opportunities will find those that have a sense of imagination that best allows them to peer into the future. If focused daydreaming is not part of your repertoire, then you probably are not cut out to be a consultant.

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Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2013/02/11

A New Michigan Business: CanYouHandlebar.com

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A recent project I am happy to share: Recently my wife and I opened CanYouHandlebar.com, a moustache wax and beard product company. This has been a really great experience that has called on all of the project management and business consulting experience. 

What is so challenging about a start-up is that it is a series of overlapping projects punctuated by moments of analysis, risk management and buckets of communication. There is no one to blame if your decision making is not solid. It is exciting precisely because it is not guaranteed to be successful. But if it is successful it is a really great feeling. It is a great test to see if I have learned from my experiences.

What I have learned so far: From a consulting perspective as it has caused me to think about things from a business owner’s perspective. My understanding of cost-of-goods, return-on-investment and other financials is invaluable. It can be easy to forget that businesses must make money and that every decision needs a business case. Even small decisions should be connected to the health of the company. This empathy with those whose money is on the line makes me consider every suggestion as if it were my company.

If you are interested in seeing the website, and what makes CanYouHandlebar special: click here.

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2012/09/01

MacGuyver, PMP

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When I was little I used to love MacGuyver and I probably still would love it today. Maybe I will buy the box set after I get rich. Magnum PI wasn’t truly a bad-ass, I mean, who couldn’t take care of business with a moustache like that?. The A-team was very cool, but they always seemed to get locked up in autoparts stores, always together, and with an oxy-acetylene torch, a partially completed Hum-vee (with working engine and gas) and a pile of scrap steel plating …  Night Rider had the kickin‘ TransAm that could talk; then there’s Air Wolf, and his helicopter – but again; anybody could be totally boss if they had such sophisticated machinery.  Standing out from this pack of well-healed heroes we have one man; one swinging mullet of masculinity that truly typified the best of that which is male, American, and accident prone: MacGuyver.

If I were not a Christian I would be a MacGuyverian.  Our meetings would be held in temples made entirely of lint, duct tape, and 9v batteries.  We would have ranks like the masons.  A 32-degree MacGuyverian would be identified by his 32 piece Swiss Army knife.  

MacGuyver has gotten me out of some sticky spots in my life. One time I was working at a gas dock on Jefferson Ave. on lake St. Claire, just North of Detroit (I won’t say which one because I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on what I am about to describe).  I was the evening manager, and was responsible for closing up the store and balancing the register, restocking the pop and beer, etc.  At the end of every night I dropped an envelope in a safe that was located in the back of the building by the back door where I then exited, after turning off all of the lights.  Well, I guess I was not a full-fledged manager because I was not given a key to the building.  I always started my shift in the middle of the day when there was someone there and I was the last to leave and so they figured I didn’t need a key. This would have been true if it weren’t for Murphy’s law.

One evening late in the summer I was closing up shop at around 8pm and I stood in the door frame of the rear door; Which locked automatically upon being closed, and thought to myself, “there’s something I am missing…”  I went through a checklist and couldn’t think of anything so I closed the door.

Sometimes in the more dramatic moments of life time slows down or speeds up and all of the little noises gain a crispness or ominous quality that converts the memory from a home video to a full production John Woo directed motion picture.  At the exact moment the latch clicked into place, marking the point of no return – the latch made a sound like that one they use in Law and OrderKachunkkachunk… I said a very bad word very loudly and repeated it very often in the following few minutes.  I had left the envelope, “the drop,”; stuffed with about $600 in cash on the counter in the only illuminated spot in the whole building.  I remember looking at the plump wad of cash inside and against the white paper of the envelope – yawning at me like cleavage.  I could look, but I could not touch it seemed.

I remember thinking – and I am not kidding in the least – “What would MacGuyver do?!”  I concluded he would assess the situation and clearly define the problem.  He would look for a weakness in the system, and then he would inventory the tools available to him to exploit that weakness.  Then he would stay eerily calm.  I did just that.  I tried to make out my bosses home number from the small card under the front counter, but the angle was too severe and the window too dirty to read it.  I then proceeded to walk counter-clockwise around the small building checking each of its windows and doors to see if they were accidentally left unlocked.  No.  I had just checked them all 5 minutes previous from the inside of the building, making sure they were locked.  

All that is, except the one window of the building that was never opened.  In the back of the building by the back door, there was a window that had a shelving unit bolted to the wall in front of it on the inside, and a large dock box parked in front of it on the outside.  I removed enough of the contents of the dock box to allow me to try to open the window.  It was locked.  Fortunately, the years of exposure to the sun had made the plastic lip that contained the window brittle and I was able to remove the screen with only a little “convincing.”  A little more tugging and pulling allowed the sliding window to open sufficiently for me to slip through – at least side-to-side.  The remaining problem was the aforementioned shelving unit.  The shelves were spaced about 12 inches apart.  I feared that they were permanently affixed to the frame of the shelf, but they were not – this was a pleasant surprise given the heavy duty construction of the unit.

With a wallop from my balled fist the shelf jumped from its comfortable perch and fell to the floor along with its contents and a hellacious racket.  I wiggled into the building victoriously, put the envelope in the safe and spent the next 20 minutes hiding my trail.  I walked out through the back door twice that night, without walking in.  I guess you could say I was a born again MacGuyvarian.

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2012/08/09

Lessons from Gladiator

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“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”

I watched this movie again last night. There are lessons for project managers and consultants of any type:

  1. Know who are the Mob
  2. Know who are the Senate
  3. Know who is the Emporer
  4. Know who You really are
  5. Know that roles change quickly and politics are as deadly as swords
  6. Do not know when you are defeated
Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2012/07/12

How to adopt a frAGILE work environment

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Much dry erase ink has been spilled on the merits of using Agile methodology in software development, and techniques for how to incorporate it well into the incumbent mindset. I have weighed it, I have measured it and I have found it to be awesome. Someday, I’d like to try it. It is claimed that Gandhi once said, “I’d become a Christian if I’d ever met a real one.” That is seems about right. Agile is a great mindset, project management methodology and work philosophy. It is so good, I wonder if it has ever been tried. 

When I went to SCRUM training (an Agile “sect”) the instructor said most organizations are “SCRUM-but”–that is “we do SCRUM, but, we change X“. If you really want to get the worst of waterfall and Agile try this variant of SCRUM-but: “frAGILE”. This stands for “false reality” Agile. True frAGILE:

  1. Promise the impossible: Fix the timeline, and fix the allocated resources while constantly adding to scope
  2. Promote ignorance: Hide from the client the effort involved in creating a feature. That way more work can be added with no insight into the impact to the timeline
  3. Punish the messenger: Though the team did not set the scope, nor can they create more folks to help out ex nihilo, find ways to make them feel guilty when timelines necessarily change due to increased workload
  4. Practice politics: Inserts middlemen, proxies, end-run maneuvers wherever possible to add confusion and resentment to the process
  5. Provide the minimum resources: Use no dedicated resources and prevent formation of a solid team dynamic or discernible velocity (until the 11th hour, then triple the team, because throwing money and bodies at problems always works!)
  6. Pass over due diligence: Perform no feasibility before beginning work. (This is Agile–we can patch holes with unicorn powder and fairy blood, afterall!)
  7. Put up walls between team members: Sequester the developers from the end users so that weeks go by in between requests for features and evaluation of work performed
  8. Put all work in one bucket: Considers all features equally important and all “must have”. Do this with new features, too (see point #1)
  9. Prevent a sense of accomplishment: Vacillate between feature-driven release and time-driven release without warning and watch the team start to sizzle and pop through your magnifying glass
  10. Pass the buck: Uses “retros” and off-the-record conversations to undermine team members self confidence. Selectively remember who made decisions and avoid owning mistakes whenever possible
  11. Preach ownership, practice fiefdoms: Have as many permutations of “boss” as possible so that no decision is final and blame allocation is easier down the road (you have to think ahead!)

When combined, these 11 modifications to the Agile Manifesto will ensure an exciting first half of a project and an excruciating second, and third, and fourth, half of the project…for those that stick around that long.

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2012/06/22

Why you shouldn’t sponsor us

Henry isn’t going this time around. We just gave him peanut butter a couple months back. Taking him to the third world or on a 30 hour (each way) trip will have to wait a couple years…

Preface

If you want to skip the details (we need $2500 by July 25th and the link to give is here), you could do that. But please don’t. Please read this whole post first. This is the weirdest pitch for a donation you might ever read. Weird because I’m going to be totally honest about why I don’t deserve to be supported. I have been an irrational, self-satisfied ass for more than a decade and the act of writing this is as much about me coming clean and showing some humility as it is about trying to get some financial support and prayers.

Confessions of an ass

I need to get something off my chest that doesn’t make me look like a nice guy, a Christian or even a rationalist. Let me start off by admitting the cynicism I’ve had every time I have been on the other end of one of these “support letters” since I was in my late teens. I never showed it (I don’t think) but I felt like missions trips were vacations wrapped in a thin candy shell of altruism. I never “got” it. If you are reading this and I supported you somehow. Sorry for giving you a few bucks but not respecting your motivations or believing in your cause. Sincerely.

How I viewed “mission trips”

Here is the thing. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around sending some middle class American white guys and gals 10,000 miles away to go paint the side of a crappy hospital some obnoxious color or kick soccer balls around and take photo ops with clearly poor African kids for their Facebook profiles. I felt justified in this because, like any emotional experience it didn’t last forever upon their return home. I felt vindicated when I observed someone spend three weeks eschewing American consumerism over cups of Starbucks. The only thing that seemed to me to  change was that they now were drinking “free trade” coffee. I’m not trying to be funny. I am trying to tell you how much of a dick I was. I used to joke that there was only one picture of an African kid and they sent the same one to every refrigerator in Kansas. Like I said, a real dick.

I don’t know these people. I got this from Google images. I am certain they are good people and it is a nice shade of green, I suppose.

Marriage weakened my defenses

Jordon’s experience growing up was a lot different. She went on a lot of mission trips and saw a lot of the world. She definitely had fun on her trips but she also saw real poverty and hopelessness and probably did some painting and soccer playing but she got something else, she got perspective and humility I don’t have. She became a better person than me. Over time, we have talked a lot about mission trips and third world living realities and identified some of the root of my cynicism.

First, if I grant that things are that bad “over there” wherever “there” is I have to accept that there are problems this project manager can’t manage. Put simply: I scoffed at missions and philanthropy because it staved off crushing hopelessness. Somehow, I constructed an approach whereby refusing to accept the depth of pain and evil in the world it wasn’t real. That is hardly the mark of a man that prides himself in objectivity. Proof of my approach: I purposely did not watch Hotel Rwanda because I didn’t want to know the truth, even the sliver of truth that that movie portrayed. I was still trying to block out an image in my mind of an overhead shot of refugees from the genocide lined up at the entrance of a neighboring country being denied entrance that I saw on an array of TVs at a BestBuy in high school.

The tipping point

Over time, I gave ground to Jordon that perhaps I was not an expert on the topic of the root causes of problems in Africa. It wasn’t until I joined Saddleback Leather, who is very active in serving Rwanda and helping others do the same that I had an opportunity to reevaluate my stance on a mission trip for white middle class Americans. We have an opportunity to go to Rwanda for 10 days and spend time with street kids and maybe even paint a hospital.

Somehow that alone felt hollow, so we further decided to sponsor a child named Kayesu Agnes. We may even get to meet her. She is a 16-year old girl who lives in extreme poverty and somehow our $40 a month will make a big improvement to her life. We sponsor Kayesu through Africa New Life Ministries (ANLM), a highly regarded Christian aid organization. Regardless of whether we raise the funds for this trip, we are going to make a small dent and help at least one person, one human of billions, on that continent. That is the beginning of my penance and start to my newfound empathy.

We really hope we get to meet Kayesu!

The pitch – Here is how this works:

  1. The charity itself: You can’t have a support letter without painting a colorful vision of the good your dollars are doing. First of all, the charity is solid. I’d love for you to visit their website http://www.africanewlife.org to see all they are doing.
  2. Our trip details: Now I tell you about our trip: we are heading to Rwanda with an Africa New Life team this September 2012. We will be serving women and children–doing several projects and programs with them. We will also have the opportunity to see the progress ANLM is making on their seminary, street-children’s ministry, dream center and schools in three different Rwandan cities. We are really hoping we get to see Kayesu in person, too. Her picture is below.
  3. We ask for money: I ask you for money but make it easy to bow out gracefully. There is also a significant amount to be raised in order for me to pursue this calling. If you feel led to help by contributing to the cost ($2500), I would be so grateful. Contributions are tax-deductible as ANLM is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization.
  4. We ask for prayers: We ask for your prayers for our health and that we would be a blessing to the rest of the team we are traveling with and with the Rwandans we will meet.
  5. We ask you to support a child if you can: There are thousands of children in Rwanda that still need sponsors. To sponsor a child please visit our Web site www.africanewlife.org and choose one of the many children who are ready for sponsorship today or contact children@africanewlife.org.

Some notes

  • We are well aware that some of you are not Christians. So, maybe the Christian part is off-putting. Sorry about that. The organization we are going with is Christian and so are we. If those facts make you uncomfortable, we understand. We were your friends before and will be after, regardless.
  • While the trip is in September, we need to gather the money as soon as possible because the expenses keep rolling in (inoculations are around a $1000 for Jordon and I and that is to say nothing of the gear and clothes we need to buy).
  • We have $2500 left to raise by July 25th we will need to pay for out of pocket or without tax-deductible contributions. So, if in spite of all I’ve said, you would like to donate any amount, please do so quickly. 

How to donate to our trip:

If you would like to support us financially, you can give online at www.africanewlife.org. Find our name at the bottom of the page here and continue the online giving process. When writing a check please do NOT put my name anywhere on the check as that will eliminate the tax-deductible status for giving. Rather please attach a note that designates the funds should be applied to me specifically. All checks should be made out to Africa New Life Ministries. A tax-deductible receipt will be mailed to you whether you give online or via a check.

Thanks

Thanks in advance for those that give us money and pray for us. And thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I doubt in ten days Doug will do a lot to heal all the parts of Rwanda that need it, but here’s hoping Rwanda can help heal the parts of Doug that need it and bring Jordon and I closer together as husband and wife through the experience.

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2012/04/15

Never give your all (…to just one project)

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Image from here

As a creative person–and believe me, project management, business consulting and business process reengineering, is creative work–I can totally relate to this post by a graphic artist. So much ink is spilled espousing the benefits of focus, but creativity is non-linear and the human mind sees connections behind the scenes we can’t see with our analytical mind. I’ve likened the habit of lateral work to building a mulch pile. That’s why I read blogs by graphic designers, in fact.

Needless to say, that compulsion was what led me to become a graphic designer. Some people specialize in ideas, constantly scheming, iterating, finessing. I prefer doing. I don’t know what makes me want to make, but often the impulse strikes without warning. If I don’t satiate it immediately, it becomes a dull ache that lingers all day.

You’d think this would be a non-issue—after all, I’m lucky enough to be paid a salary to design all day. But increasingly I’ve realized that for people like me, one creative outlet isn’t enough. The most interesting, creative people I know express themselves in a variety of ways. I call this practice informing practice, and I used to do it myself. Back before I made money from being creative, I was involved in up to five different creative outlets at a time. Now that my work consumes my life, that number has dwindled to one, and I can feel my non-design creative muscles twitching.

To the those paid to think: don’t give it “your all” give enough to kick ass but leave some of “your all” to get inspired, to allow for lateral thoughts, to maintain perspective. The most poisonous projects I’ve been involved in had everyone working without breaks, without perspective and without relief.

To those paid to manage: provide oxygen to your team in the form of creative outlet (it will likely make you money someday!). Also, remember that nothing healthy in nature operates at 100% for long without failing.

I highly recommend you read the whole post by Trevor Burks here:

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2012/04/11

Drop the bucket, build a pipeline.

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By definition, projects are unique and time sensitive. That last part, “time sensitive” can really trip up new project managers. We usually have clients that want more and more done in the least time possible and with the fewest resources required. Why wouldn’t they? Clients are quick to remind you of the timeline. However, you are the professional that sets the tone for your projects. Resist the urge to prove your worth through a flurry of activity. It is so easy to get stuck in impossible situations and internalize the stress of the day to day and become a slave to the timeline and not spend enough time focusing on the first part of the definition, the “uniqueness” part of project management.

Unique work requires unique thought. Unique thought comes from time spent in contemplation. You must take the time to see things for what they are and demonstrate real leadership by seeing the gossamer threads that connect the various parts of the project, the risks looming around the corner, the issues that are plaguing your project. To be sure, you will not find this time in your week. You must make this time. Sometimes you need to sit and think without an agenda. Start, and keep a journal. Talk to trusted peers. Make sure to see the forest and the trees. Trust your gut. Turn off your phone and think. You will need to fight and claw to make this space. If you receive flack for doing this, consider if you are working for a client that wants success or one that simply wants to see busyness and the appearance of progress to puff up their ego.

Don’t get sucked into the chaos. New project managers (and even veterans that lose their way) allow themselves to be sucked into the tyranny of the urgent and spend every second of their day running from meeting to meeting, crisis to crisis because it feels like real work and because burn out is applauded. If you are on a real project (that is, truly unique work) then you need time and space to synthesize the vast amounts of information you encounter and observe trends and risks with the perspective only time spent in reflection can provide.

A story to illustrate the point. I heard a story once about a village that lived a few miles from a river and organized a group of people each day walk back and forth to the river and collect the water. As the need for water increased, so did the need for people and buckets. In the urgency of carrying buckets no one took the time to see the situation for what it was and build a pipe to provide water to the town in a sustainable way. As PMs, we actually can make matters worse by providing water spillage reports and feel proud when we think of new handles we can put on buckets to make them easier to carry. This makes matters worse because it justifies and legitimizes the bad system. Effective project managers are the ones that set down their bucket and watch the chaos and then set about building a pipeline. They fight for that pipeline even though the villagers scream. It takes courage to be the one to point out the madness.

If a cliche helps make this more palatable, go with this one: work smarter, not harder. To start working smarter, stop “working” and start thinking. Even if it isn’t popular, even if you spill some water in the process. The villagers will thank you later.

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2012/02/05

Get confused.

If you are not flat-out confused at least once a week then you are wasting time, opportunity or intellect. Man is a problem solving animal. If everything is perfectly clear then you are not needed.

  1. As a project manager, a year into learning Agile, I am constantly confused. That is not to say that I am incompetent. Just the opposite. It means I am doing work that matters, solving complex problems and working with other humans.
  2. As a father, a year into parenting, I don’t know if I should cough on my son to build up his immune system or wipe every surface with a Clorox wipe. Should I pick him up each time he cries or team him patience in this moment?
  3. As a human, 31 years into my life, I sometimes wonder if I should use my free time to cease the day to relax and recuperate or seize the day and push myself to learn more, connect with others and put in the extra hours that yield excellence.

A wise man once told me: “If you find yourself confused: act with intention, monitor closely and reevaluate–do not panic and do not entertain shame”

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2011/09/04

A lesson I’ve learned: Effective “Lessons Learned”

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The red-headed stepchild of the project management profession is the discipline of capturing and applying “lessons learned.” The idea is simple: record what went well and what didn’t go well so that we can do better next project. Unfortunately, as PMs, we get busy in the day-to-day of managing our projects and neglect this crucial and powerful habit. Here are three tips for capturing lessons and improving your craft:

1. Classify the lesson:

This may seem obvious, but there are different kinds of lessons. While you, as a PM, may learn 10 to 1,000 lessons during your project, not all lessons can be extrapolated to all projects. This is why it is crucial for effective PMs to properly classify lessons. Here are the categories I keep in mind–it is possible for a lesson to show up in more than one category:

  1. Applicable to only this specific project: (i.e., “We should have has Joe work on requirements gathering instead of Sarah based on their skill-sets”)
  2. Applicable to this type of project: (e.g., cloud computing project, new construction)
  3. Applicable to me as a project manager: These are tips or insights about yourself or how to be more effective as a professional (e.g., “Use questions to lead meetings, rather than statements in order to gain buy-in”)
  4. Applicable to my project management office (PMO): A good project manager acts as a curator of the knowledge gained drink the project and brings back to his or her team, lessons that are most useful to a broader audience. A great example of this sort of lesson is one that involves your company’s internal processes. (e.g., be sure to have the contracts team review the licensing terms before kicking off to avoid cost overruns)

2. Capture lessons during the project:

If you wait until the end of a project to capture what you’ve learned, you will only remember the really big mistakes and victories in the project. A project is the result of thousands of decisions, some large and some small. We simply cannot remember each decision or trace all of the cause-and-effect relationships between decisions and outcomes once enough time has gone by. A best practice is to keep a log and jot down lessons as they are learned. Be sure to capture:

  1. What was the scenario?
  2. What worked well or didn’t work well?
  3. What should we start doing, keep doing or stop doing?

3. When possible, apply lessons right away:

Regardless of the category of lesson, you have one more thing to consider: can this be applied right now or just noted and filed away at the end of the project?

  1. Inside the project: If the project is ongoing, you may be able to make an immediate change. Recently, I received feedback that the sprint planning meetings** for a project I was managing was inefficient and frustrating, especially for remote team members. After asking around to get more information from the team, I made a change in how we prepared for this meeting and the structure of the meeting itself. This made a big difference in the next sprint.
  2. For the project management office: In the case of lessons that are relevant for the PMO, I make it a point to share appropriate lessons with my PMO team at our weekly meetings, perhaps update or create a template or update our “how-to” guide.

_______________________

**Sprint planning meeting: This is a meeting that occurs in Agile development in which the team plans the work to be done in the next block of time. Usually, sprints (aka, iterations) are a week or two in length.

Image from: http://shauntee.com/2011/11/07/lessons-learned/lessons-learned/

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