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.

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