Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2011/08/05

Learning to be agile (while learning to use Agile)

 

I was wrong about Agile

Rarely have I been so wrong as I was about the merits of Agile project management over traditional PMI or “waterfall” project management. As with most errors, this error was caused by mixing ignorance with hubris. Agile is a style of low-overhead project management that overlays a few key principles and practices around a general attitude of “we will figure it out as we go along.” What I had heard about Agile, before practicing it, made it seem like some sort of hippie inspired, systematic dismantling of accountability. I figured there must be something to it, but wasn’t exactly thrilled about it. There are no Gantt charts or PERT analysis. No work breakdown structures or signed change-orders. Instead, there was a lot of talking directly to the clients that will use the software and a lot of changes on the fly. Also, intriguingly, Agile welcomes change.

At least I was wrong for all the right reasons.

In my experience on a construction site, where I was responsible for the IT infrastructure and vendor management for a new hotel in Miami Beach, there were not a lot of warm fuzzies floating around between anyone. This was a high-pressure, low-trust, cover-your-ass project and required coordinating costs, timelines, expectations and tempers. Battle-scarred and worldly-wiser I came out of that experience committed to doubling down on documentation and planning, and sick of foamy pastels (the prevailing “style” of Miami architecture). If we had just had Marty sign the damned form on the first date this problem was noticed, we wouldn’t be dealing with this now! In my defence, you don’t work 14-hour stress-filled days, a thousand miles from your wife (who is in her second trimester), while dealing with a cantankerous Frenchmen for months without coming out the other end with a few ticks and twitches.

I needed new tools

When I transitioned to Quicken Loans, I knew that the culture was very different from that sweatbox project in Miami Beach, and I did my best to adapt to a healthy and positive culture by going easy on the bureaucratic side of project management, but in my heart of hearts there still sung a refrain, “if I could just plan it better, all will be well.” When our PMO team went to a PMI (Project Management Institute) styled training course, I was glad to bone up on some old school project management techniques. As a team, we strained the mud of PMI dogma through the sieve of practicality and were left with a few key nuggets of value. Later, we attended an Agile training course and I walked out a believer in the potential of Agile as a real-world approach. It took a couple months to relax and learn that shipping quality was more important here than politics.

Agility is having a big tool box and then choosing the right tool

As a professional problem solver–whether business consultant, tech writer, business analyst, or project manager–there are two sins we must avoid:

  1. Don’t make the same mistake twice
  2. Don’t fight the last war
In an effort to avoid sin #1, following my experience in Miami, and vowing to myself to never be unprepared or un-CYA’d again in a project, I subconsciously gravitated to sin #2 by eschewing a new toolkit, Agile project management. What I came to learn was that as a professional problem solver I must not only keep my old tools oiled and available, but also continually add new ones. The art of our craft is, and will always be, to know what this project or this stakeholder requires and provide that.
At the geometric rate of change is technology, in 10 years something will probably come along that solves problems Agile doesn’t handle gracefully. Will I make the mistake twice of blowing off new tools before I understand them? When that day comes, will I still be fighting today’s battle and fail to adapt? I hope not. I hope never to commit sin #1 again.
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Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2010/11/18

The future belongs to those that make tortoises faster

In his surprise hit novel The Goal, Israeli physicist, Dr. Eliyahu (Eli) Goldratt outlined a new paradigm in process improvement. The break-through concept in his family of management tools (called Theory of Constraints) is to identify and reduce constraints in order to improve overall production even if this means slowing down other parts of the operation. This stands in sharp contrast to the traditional approach of doing every activity as quickly as possible. His theory has been applied to a number of industries since its introduction in 1984. Of particular interest to me is Goldratt’s contribution to the discipline of project management in the form of a technique called critical chain project management, the gist of which is that overall project effectiveness is paramount and that all other activities, planning included, must be subordinated to that goal.

The principle that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link is well understood by most managers most of the time. I see lots of examples of this. There seems to be a concerted effort on the part of companies everywhere to outsource the parts of their business that aren’t core to eliminate bottlenecks in their production. (Case in point, a former employer and client, BlueRock Technologies does very well helping small and medium business with their IT needs.) The Great Recession has allowed firms to get rid of the chaff and keep only the wheat among their employees.

However, where I see this principle most consistently ignored is in the incorporation of technology. Somehow technology is seen as the whole chain, rather than just a link or two. In a way, it makes sense why technology is seen as a savior. Technology always wears sharp suits to meetings and has the finest business cards with subtle off-white coloring, tasteful thickness and a water-mark. The quick pace of innovation over the past two decades brought us faster processors, cheaper storage and ever-increasing bandwidth. This allowed programmers to build incredible software and culminates in the expectation by many decision makers that any business can be improved overnight (during the maintenance window, naturally) by downloading to the latest version of acronym soup (now works with IE6!).

By any measure technology is the Hare; speedy, nimble and arrogant; leaving integration and process improvement as the Tortoise–the kill-joy, the boring discipline that feels so 1973 by comparison. In Aesop’s fable, there would be only one winner. In the modern business environment, the tortoise and hare are on the same team and must both cross the line in order to win. I think the business world is waking up and realizes that technology must know our company, serve our company and offer us more than blinking lights, beeps and rack mounts in order to earn its keep.

Eli (as his friend and I call him) would remind us that the constraint must be eliminated or mitigated in order for the system to improve. I posit that the deep integration of business processes on the part of the technology team is the largest constraint facing most companies. Project managers are those patient and thoughtful souls that prod the tortoises and slow down the hares in order to deliver solutions instead of merely delivering a new software suite and maintenance agreement. This is done through properly identifying stakeholders, truly understanding business cases, tracing requirements all the way through to the finish line and by controlling the project scope so that the race can be completed on time and within budget.

The days of selling sizzle are winding down. Project managers, business analysts and even technicians better know more than how to plug it in, power it up and get to the prompt if they want to stick around for the next project. Everyone in the world my son will grow up in will have to understand how projects actually deliver value. When everyone has an ERP with SCM and CRM, it is those that use these soon to be ubiquitous tools work well that will thrive. Harnessing and integrating technology is the next big thing, not technology itself. The future belongs to those that make Tortoises faster, not those that make Hares prettier.

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2010/11/09

Why we don’t gold-plate

Let’s say that you own a dive bar. Let’s further say that you are affiliated with the mob. A recent spate of chain restaurants and trendy bars are eating your profits. You decide to make some changes. You hire a project manager to oversee freshening up your facility with the hopes that your profits will grow. Although it is a little outside of his scope, your PM identifies two problems with the music at your bar. First, the quarters plopped into the machine take a couple weeks to hit your bank account, which affects your cash flow. Second, the music that the account manager puts in your machine is a little dated. Without asking, he signs a deal to have a digital jukebox placed on site that has a bank of music many magnitudes greater than the incumbent and automatically suggests the most popular songs of the week according to a finely tuned algorithm. These changes have resulted in 50% increases in revenue in similar bars throughout the county and the funds are deposited each night into the proprietor’s bank account. After a successful installation, the PM happily reports his changes to you. You fire him on the spot and when he arrives home his dog is dead, lying next to a half-full bottle of antifreeze.

Why?

The short answer is gold-plating. Gold-plating is adding functionality to the solution that is not part of the project requirements. At first blush it may seem like a “good problem.” However, for every time it works out well, there are dozens of instances of gold-plating fouling things up. The problem is that the project team does not see the big picture the way the project sponsors do. So, why did you “off” the pooch? Turns out, you preferred not paying taxes on all those quarters…

For PMs, doing what we are asked to do and passing “good ideas” through a formal change control process is not just a best practice–it is our duty to the stakeholders. Of course, we need to be on the lookout for ways to add value, but we are not demigods and we must trust the process if we want to be masters of our craft…and keep our dogs.

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2010/10/27

Corporate culture

Corporate Culture: beyond the buzzword

The best definition of corporate culture I have ever read is from William Schneider who says that corporate culture can be summarized as, “how we do things around here in order to succeed.” (The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work 1999). What I appreciate about that definition is that it is free from the jargon that typically surrounds business philosophy and elevates corporate culture to a necessary concept that even the most hard-bitten line worker, technician or project manager could appreciate. It also implies that corporate culture is not an option, but rather a result of collective trial-and-error.

Being culturally bilingual

Few things are as fundamental to a project’s success as the project managers ability to understand and work well in various corporate cultures. In a given project, there may be as many as two-dozen cultures that may need to be understood to varying levels in order for the project to be a success. The client, the customer, the various vendors and the other stakeholders each see the world in different (sometimes very different) ways.

In a recent construction project in Miami, I worked with a hospitality client that had a culture that valued chaos, elevating it to a corporate value, believing it produced truly amazing products in the end. This did not happen by chance. Chaos had served them well time and again and the decision to formalize this into a corporate value was therefore completely rationale. It happens that this is not a corporate value for my client, the IT vendor for whom I was managing the project. In a sense I needed to be bilingual. I learned early on that the way in which I presented information–specifically when it came to signing agreements or making decisions–must be in the context of allowing the end-client greater freedom or expanding their options.

From resignation to Gemeinschaftsgefühl

Anecdotally, I find that most project managers have a love-hate relationship with chaos and change. Truth be told, it would be easier to manage projects if all companies shared a common culture and set of values. On one hand, without chaos, there would be no need for project managers, or projects for that matter. For this, we are grateful because that means we have job security. On the other hand, if a project manager is talented, the amount of damaging chaos should be controlled as part of risk management and issue resolution. I think most PMs genuinely enjoy taming the wild and prefer order. At minimum, a PM must accept that the world is chaotic; in other words, simple resignation. That said, there is a better alternative, an alternative that allows us to thrive in a variety of cultures.

After working in a number of different cultures and with a lot of different people, I have come to enjoy the process of learning how to adapt to get the job done. It is a little like playing music with a new band and the inner rush of improvising without discussing the song ahead of time. At the risk of waxing too psychological, a good PM is a self-actualized PM. Maslow observed that self-actualized people “had a sense of humility and respect towards others — something [he] also called democratic values — meaning that they were open to ethnic and individual variety, even treasuring it.  They had a quality [he] called human kinship or Gemeinschaftsgefühl — social interest, compassion, humanity.” (Dr. C. George Boeree)

This attitude is so important to have when the sprint becomes a marathon, because it will dictate whether you gain energy or lose energy from the differences of those around you.

The big takeaways

For companies: the kindest thing you can do for new-hires or contractors is to explain to them is everyday words, “how we do things around here in order to succeed.” If this is the same as your formal mission statement or values, all the better.

For PMs / business analysts / contractors: Develop the:

  1. Ability to quickly surmise the actual corporate cultures of those companies you work with
  2. Mindset of excitement when you have opportunities to develop even greater dexterity in your communication and work style

Image from here.

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2010/05/27

Policies and Procedures are boring…Until they are not

One of the things I do for clients is write policy and procedures. Thinking through  contingencies and writing very good policies and procedures is difficult and takes a balanced brain. To wit, a good consultant must have both a vivid imagination to see all of what can go wrong and an equally strong ability to perform calculations and include all of the details. It is neither a job for pure “thinkers” or pure “feelers.” Recently, details have emerged that poorly written safety policies and procedures caused considerable chaos in the minutes following the explosion on the  BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico:

“The vessel’s written safety procedures appear to have made it difficult to respond swiftly to a disaster that escalated at the speed of the events on April 20. For example, the guidelines require that a rig worker attempting to contain a gas emergency had to call two senior rig officials before deciding what to do. One of them was in the shower during the critical minutes, according to several crew members.

The written procedures required multiple people to jointly make decisions about how to respond to “dangerous” levels of gas—a term that wasn’t precisely defined—and some members of the crew were unclear about who had authority to initiate an emergency shutdown of the well.” (WSJ)

While much will change as a result of this accident–there is one lesson we can all learn: A disaster plan is only as good as its most ambiguous or poorly conceived step. After writing a disaster policy or procedure, get a room full of people to tear it to shreds. Assign people to play devil’s advocates, slackers, cheaters, and hot-heads. If your disaster policies and procedures can survive this, publish it. When it comes to disaster planning: hope for Heaven, but prepare for Hell.

* Photograph accompanied original WSJ story. Associated Press.

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2010/05/01

Be nice to future you: Here’s how

Here is a list of things that a business consultant (or anyone for that matter) can do for his or her future self:

  1. Use naming conventions. A naming convention is simply a consistent way of naming the files you create. Characteristics of a good naming convention – used every single time you name a file, indicates the date the file was created, allows for multiple versions within a day. The one I use – “YYYYMMDD-Project-TitleWithWordsTocuhing.docx” If I have more than one version in the same day, I add letters B, C, D, etc. after the date string.
  2. Back up everything in at least two different places. I really like Backblaze ($5/month) combined with Time Machine (free, plus cost of hard drive), for Mac. Dropbox (free-mium) is pretty cool too.
  3. Build your social network before you need it.
  4. Plan more than you think you should. For Normal People: Over-planning is always better than under-planning. (For Planners: Planning doesn’t pay the bills. We only get paid to ship.)
  5. Get a Mac.
  6. Always send a follow-up email after a phone call.
  7. Keep a blotter. This is a personal, running file you use for all projects and leave a mental bread crumb trail so that you can pick up where you left off in the event that the project is shelved for a few months. There is nothing worst than having a bunch of content without context. Jot down a few sentences that fill in the “why.” That is the first part you will forget if you walk away from the project for a while.
  8. Be a digital pack rat. If you like an article you read online–save it to Evernote (free-mium). As long as your filing system is sufficiently organized, it pay to be an information pack rat. Said another way, you will never regret saving content you don’t need but you will regret not saving content you do end up needing.
  9. If people start mysteriously fading from the photograph you carry in your wallet: Stop, you’re doing it wrong.
Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2010/03/27

Project Kickoff: From Chaos to Order

From Chaos to Order

The beginning of a new project is filled with chaos. Smart project managers  (PMs) start off by listening to all of the people involved in the project–those that are paying for it, those that will be working on the solution, and those that care about the outcome–and they make darn sure they understand what success looks like for this project for these people. After we get a good idea of what success looks like, we start pull a couple documents out of our trick bag that will keep the good vibes flowing all the way through final sign-off. I want to introduce some of these initial tools with the hopes that they may help you keeping the projects in your life on track.

Project Charter: This document is usually only a page or two long, but it is so helpful because it is the first time all of the requirements and constraints are written down in one view for everyone to see. Some of the key information this contains: the reason for the project, the objectives, those involved and a brief description of what the project will accomplish. This can be written casually or formally but must always end up with a signature from the person that authorizes (and pays for) the project. Think of this as a letter from the king that you can use in the future to get resources, answer questions and end debates.

RACI Matrix: (also called just “RACI“) This sounds more complicated than it is. It is  basically a table with each major task in its own row and each job role in a column. At the intersections of each task and role, one of four letters is listed: R, A, C and I. These stand for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed, respectively. This is one of my favorite tools. Have you ever heard someone say, “I thought you were supposed to do that,” or ask “Why didn’t you tell me you did that?” A RACI, when followed, clears up all of those miscommunications before work begins and tensions rise.

Work Breakdown Structure: (often referred to simply as the “WBS“) A WBS is kind of like a blend of a genealogy tree and a story board for the work that will be done. The highest level tasks are shown at the top with sub-tasks branching out, underneath. I am continually surprised how powerful this simple tool is in uncovering issues upfront, before they cause delays and cost over runs.

As I mentioned earlier, the beginning of the project is the most chaotic. What I didn’t say was that it is also the part of the project where changes are the the easiest and least expensive to make. Try these ideas out the next time you need to get a number of people to work together for a common goal. They will take you far. And of course, if you or someone you know thinks I might be able to help, drop me a line.

PS: I couldn’t find the artist who made the graphic–otherwise I would have gladly given attribution. What a perfect visual for the process of managing projects!

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2010/03/12

The opposite of communication

People think that the opposite of communication is silence. Not so. The opposite of communication is miscommunication. Why? Because people are funny and they will make up stories to patch over the parts of life that you chose not to help them understand.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet you $10 that someone, somewhere has made up a ridiculous theory to explain something you did in a way that is not very flattering to you. They didn’t do it to be mean, they did it because they are constitutionally incapable of permitting “I don’t know” into their lives.

When I was three I was standing in the front yard with my dad and a jet tore across the afternoon sky, leaving a bright white pencil-thin contrail in its wake. Moments later, it began to rain. For years, I thought the loud noise of the jet engines shook the clouds and caused the water to fall. In absence of a better theory, I made my own.

Time and again I talk to brilliant people who complain that they are not getting the recognition that they deserve, at work. When I ask them how well and how frequently they are connecting with their stakeholders, that tell me that they don’t have “time for all of that” because they are too busy doing “actual” work. As a former martyr, I appreciate the sentiment.

Amid the stresses and strains of a workday, it is a chore to keep track of all of the stakeholders for our projects, much less bother to consider their needs, prejudices and preferences. So we are silent when we ought to speak. The obvious result of our silence is that feelings get hurt and problems, when they occur, fester.

The less obvious result is that we are squandering regular opportunities to stand out from the crowd. Let me put it this way: If you are knocking it out of the park and your clients, customers, fans or co-workers aren’t aware because you failed to tell them–you get no credit. None.

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2010/02/23

The power of habits

About 15 years ago I received my first drum lesson. We began with terminology, basic beats and a little bit about time signatures. The rest of the lessons were spent doing drills that taught me how to break habits like moving my legs and arms to the exact same beat. In other words, I spent as much time learning how not to play poorly (bad habits) as I spent learning how to play well (good habits).

Most activities in life reward habitual behavior. When our bodies do it, this is called “muscle memory.” For instance, clapping works because our hands are in sync with one another. When you walk, your arms and legs are in matched pairs. Our bodies make shortcuts for us in order to spare us time and mental effort when performing simple tasks. Similarly, businesses develop habits to govern their daily duties.

From regulatory compliance, to accounts receivable to the hiring process, good habits help keep everyone happy and help keep cash flow positive. Bad habits produce headaches and waste money. They  also tend to hide themselves from sight. Fortunately, you can find them by listening for tell-tale excuses, “That is how I was taught” or “We have always done it this way” or “it is too much work to change it.”

As a business analyst, I get paid to turn bad habits into good habits. Here are some of the tools I use to accomplish this:

  1. Flowchart – Sometimes seeing how convoluted a process is on paper is enough to convince others to get on board for finding a better solution.
  2. “5 whys” – Start anywhere in the process and ask “why do we do it this way?” whatever answer you receive, ask “but, why?” four more times. Somewhere along the way you will likely discover  one of the four horsemen: laziness, group-think, fear or pride
  3. “In a perfect world” scenario – Ask how we would do this process in a “perfect world.” Now list every difference between our world and the “perfect world.” Tackle the constraints or problems one by one

Where could you apply these three tools today to get unstuck?

What tools do you use to uncover bad habits and convert them into good habits?

Posted by: Doug Geiger | 2010/02/17

You are a brand.

You are a brand. The first time I heard this concept was in 2001 when I worked as a salesman at Art Van furniture. During our Sunday morning meeting a motivational speaker was brought in to fire us up. I don’t remember most of the rest of his spiel but I remember him telling us to conduct ourselves like we had an “(R)” at the end of our name. That thought is truer now than ever. Thirty-year jobs with cushy pensions are a thing of the past (unless you work for the government). There is a very good chance that most of us will work for someone else within the next thousand days. The clear distinction between how people should market themselves and how companies should market themselves is blurring. Corporations like Starbucks, Meijer and Saddleback Leather, who made my briefcase, have Facebook and Twitter accounts and many professionals, myself included, have websites defining our brand. These companies know that personal contact with consumers build rapport and permission to sell products and services. They have mastered the art of thinking small. However, many individuals have been slow to use the tools of mass-marketing. If you are a professional—and by professional I mean that you are paid to think or create—then it behooves you to take yourself seriously as a brand. You approach your work differently than others and that difference, if communicated clearly, will cause you to excel. There are three things you can do today to begin that process. First, define your brand. Next, build a website. Finally, hone your skills.

In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously ducked defining hardcore pornography, but added, “I know it when I see it.” A good brand is similarly obvious to observe but difficult to define. The best approach I have found is to take whatever it is you do and think about how you do it. The “how” and “to what extent” often separate the best accountant from the average accountants; the best business analysts from the slackers; the brilliant administrators from the guy that just shows up to do his time and go home. You need to know what your strengths are. Examples include: creativity, speed, clear communications, honesty, dependability, high quality or low cost. Only you know which qualities you possess in sufficient quantity that you can consistently deliver good results. You may be thinking, “Doug, I want to work for a company, not start a company.” This is a buyers market for employees. Only the tallest and prettiest roses will stand out and be chosen. Ignore personal branding at your own peril.

Now that you have an idea of how you will define yourself you need a website to allow your prospective employer or client to spy on you. Minimally, you should have your updated resume on your website. You should also consider adding work samples, white papers, and articles that give glimpses into your personality. You should also create an email address at this website. Mine is doug@douggeiger.com. This looks ten times better on a website that pooky420@yahoo.com. Using a goofy email address on an otherwise professional resume is like wearing white gym socks with a black suit. A domain can be leased for about $10 per year and there are many free services like wordpress.com for the actual website. Your website should be featured in your resume and on your personal business cards.

There are myriad ways you can branch out from this modest beginning but they all exceed the scope of this presentation. Now begins the real work of considering oneself a brand: honing skills. A college degree is one part of that process, as are industry certifications like PMP (project management), CISSP (security), ITIL (Business IT) or MCSE (Microsoft). Another part of honing skills is independent learning and practice. It is a good idea to identify the skills necessary to become more potent and marketable.

The goal with branding, building a website for yourself and skill development is to create a forum for and cultivate the talents you already possess. The recession and the forces of globalization have handed back to each of us the responsibility for our own well-being. It is not your union stewards job to look out for you anymore. Neither is it your boss’ job, or the your college’s job to make sure you succeed and move through the ranks.  A year ago this week I was laid-off from a local IT company due to economic conditions. Within the first two weeks I created my site and have leveraged it to land two contracts. The person that hired me complimented me on my site and told me that she could tell by my writing that I was who she needed and that it was the reason she selected me. With as much time and money as you have spent to get where you are today, please take a few hours to gain the recognition you deserve by properly branding yourself.

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