Got a Plan? Write it down!

Like many I enjoy reading personal growth books. Stephen Covey is a favourite. So a few weeks ago I was reading a book Goals by Bryan Tracey. If there are exercises I usually do them, so I was putting together a 10 Goal plan as Tracey suggests. I have some Career goals, some Fitness and Health goals (Who doesn’t) , Family, Finance, Travel, Learning etc. As I wrote out my plan and started to develop time lines something in the back of my mind said “I’ve done this before”. I flipped through the book, trying to be sure I hadn’t read it before. No, certainly not. But something just seemed too familiar. I continued the exercise, but I have learned not to ignore that little voice. So I started flipping through old journals. (Another habit from the Self Help books) And I found it. Over two years earlier I had read a similar book Vision by Gordon D’Angelo. And the exercises from his book were in my journal; which lead to the surprise.

Two years earlier I had put together a plan with 12 Goals. I had spent a couple of days thinking about it, writing it down, developing time lines and some interim milestones. And then I had put it aside and had totally forgotten about it. I thought. But when I reviewed that plan from more than 2 years ago, I had fully achieved 8 of the Goals and had really good progress on two more.  So just the act of thinking about the plan and writing it down had put part of my mind to work on it.

There is some great research happening on the Neuropsychology of why we remember what we write down. Whether sub-consciously or by some other power, the act of writing down the plan had moved it forward. And writing down the plan is certainly something both writers say is important.

I am not sure what the mechanism is, how putting pen to paper seems to bring forces to bear that just thinking about the plan does not. But it works. It worked for me. And I could only think, if writing it down one time was so successful, what might be achieved by keeping the plan constantly on your mind, by revisiting it regularly, making updates and marking milestones, and adjusting the plan when progress in an area is not moving forward as planned. I am going to try that approach this time.

But the first lesson is: If you have a plan, write it down!

Newton’s Second Law of Project Management and Life

Many of us have science or technology backgrounds so we are aware of the giant that is Sir Isaac Newton. For the rest, Newton was the scientist involved in apples falling from trees, understanding gravity, the motions of bodies, developing Calculus to name a few.

Newton’s first law was that bodies at rest stay at rest, bodies in motion stay in motion. Kind of ho hum.

But Newton’s second law has some magic. A body subjected to a force will move and accelerate in proportion to the force and in the direction of the force. Now Newton was thinking of physical bodies: apples falling from trees, projectiles fired from cannons, planets circling the sun.  But the law is bigger than that.

For a project manager we need to see that our project teams are aligned with our project goals. We need to communicate the direction we are going and we need to get everyone pushing in that same direction. Force and Direction.

That Direction is decided through our goals, planning and through the strategies we implement on project. As leaders we work with our teams to identify where we are going and how we will get there. As a team we define tasks and deliverables that will advance the project. We define who will complete each task, what we will pass off to other team members, how they will continue to move things forward. Each person needs to understand their role and how they move things forward. That is, how they are to apply the force and what direction they are to apply the force.

Team members complete tasks and deliverables. They apply themselves to move and accelerate the project.

As the project builds it develops a momentum and an excitement. The endeavor takes on a life of its own. It becomes something to be reckoned with. Something for the team to put their best efforts into. Something to be proud of.

The results of applying the proper force in the right direction bring us to success. It makes us unstoppable; Invincible even.

The Law can be used on projects. But it is true of all endeavors: Learning a skill, planning a career, growing a business, waging war and battling epidemics, putting a man on the moon, moving a nation or a society forward. It is more than a physical law. It is metaphysical, even philosophical. Use if, focus it and give it direction. There is nothing we cannot do. Newton’s Second Law of Project management says it is so.

Project Managers as Organizational Fuses and Other Uses

Project Managers deliver all kinds of benefits to most organizations. We are the people who ‘Get it done’. We build things; on time, on budget and to the highest quality. We take the grand Strategic plans of the Executives and apply the tactics and tools to make them real. We take pride in our abilities to organized teams, to find the right people for the jobs we need to get done, to communicate to our stakeholders and sponsors for support with people, tools, money and the time we need to deliver.

Behind every great achievement there are Project Managers; Or Project Managers going by different names. In film they call them Directors. In construction they are Engineers. In Politics they are Campaign Managers, in the Military almost any officer rank.
But there are all kinds of other roles that Project Managers can be called on to fill.

Often a group needs someone to crack the whip. The manager of the group expects to stay in that role as long as possible, so asking him to become a bull-dog, or an out-right bully is not a good career plan. So the group brings in a Project Manager who can take on that role.
Other times the Manager is a hard ass already, and it not right for the role of ‘Hand Holding and Nose Wiping’ that often goes with organizational change. So the PM can fill that role of a shoulder to cry on.

Some organizations will know they have internal divisions that nobody in a full time management job wants to take on. So they bring in a PM to deal with the differences. Or a project that has support from one Vice President, but ambivalence or out-right opposition from another VP. It is much easier for a VP to foot drag to the requests from a PM as compared to the requests from a fellow VP.

Now an in-experienced PM will eventually find their project stalled in such a situation. An experienced PM will know to put fences around the foot dragger, to create dashboard reports that show her deliverables as green, then yellow and finally red , and then “Lucy, you have some ‘splainin to do”. Of course, that same PM will now bare the wrath of said foot dragging VP, but as Mr. Vonnegut would say ‘So it goes’.

In most large organizations there are dozens, even hundreds of projects competing for the time, money and resources to see them through. So a good PM can become a proxy for the Sponsor of that project. Give the PM clear boundaries, even blinders, and send them into battle to get the Project done. A failing of the PM profession generally is that we are only too happy to concentrate on just our project. (When someone suggests to a PM they are burning out resources on a project you shouldn’t be surprised if the PM gives an impression they don’t care. They often don’t. Delivering the project is all they care about.) Project Managers don’t look around at the organizational ecosystem we are working in. Should we see a synergy of working with another project that might save the overall organization money or time, but delay our specific project by even a nano-second, we are loath to put forward that sort of suggestion. And should someone suggest something similar to us, we run to our Sponsors or Steering Committee to tell them what a dumb idea some other PM has suggested and how they are a road block to our success. (We don’t stick together like most other Professions either.) Thinking strategically is something that seems to be frowned on by PMs, which is why I think Project Managers have trouble making it into the ranks of the Executive. But that is material for another article.

We have an economic system that rewards risk taking. Make a sound investment, make money. But risk taking within an organization can be too much. We might tell people we are taking risks by trying innovation, but there is little appetite for failure and very little grace given. So how can an organization make the changes needed to adapt in our rapidly evolving environment? How can we innovate and try things without risking the people who hold our collective business experience? We have a culture where someone has to take the blame, even where we often shoot the messenger. How do we create an environment where we are not culling our best and brightest Leaders on a regular basis? Enter the Project Manager.
Your leadership team has decided it make financial sense to consolidate two or three teams into a single office. The savings on rents give a positive return real quick. But nobody bothered to allocate budget for the costs to reconfigure existing space and move staff to that location. Give it to a Project Manager.
Suppose you have sold a service to a customer for say one million dollars. But on review you realize it will cost us five million to deliver it. Well we could fire up the torches, pull out the pitch forks and go on a good witch hunt for the guilty. But those are all career managers (our peers and maybe ourselves in that group) and it doesn’t really matter if it was Sales, Finance, PMO, Solutioning or Operations that made the miss. We need to move forward. Assign a good Project Manager.

You want to build a thousand mile pipeline with Ranchers, Farmers, Fishermen, Environmentalist, Native Groups and all of the city Mayors lined up against you? A good Project Manager should be able to move that forward.
And if any of the above projects should run into issues, heaven forbid a Director or Vice President might take responsibility. That is a one way ticket to disappointment. So enter the saving grace of having a PM. They can take the fall. Whoosh. Flame out. As we say in the Telecom industry, ‘Try another set’.

Project Managers should know their career path is either to get bigger, harder projects, or to get fired. Maybe both eventually. In this case they take one for the team. They act as a fuse for the organization, protecting it from damage. They have a role to play. We would like to thank you for having taken on that role, but it says right here in the job description it is a thankless role. Sorry.

So it goes.