Tag Archives: project management

The Big Project Plan in the Sky

31 Jan

This weekend’s focus:

Inventorying and planning out all activity to be accomplished to stage move-in to new house and sale of current house.

Pretty overwhelming. I laid it out room by room. Currently, the plan has over 100 tasks, spans two years and basically has us working on my in-laws’ house every weekend until May, plus all week during spring break.

Ben and I have tasks–and so do the kids. I am an extremely good painter and am kind of looking forward to it, even though I know I’ll be sick of it after several rooms.

What I am not is a good spackler. I need to take some remedial spackling training. The last time I spackled something, it took Ben a day to sand it back to flat. Oeuf. I’ll be studying up because we really need to divide and conquer with our tasks, and I need to deliver in this department. Stay tuned for some mistakes–it’s inevitable. I’ll be working with plaster.

The tentative plan is to move on Memorial Day Weekend. By then, we will (hopefully) have all of the bedrooms in the C-ville house painted, plus hopefully the living room and dining room. The family room and kitchen can wait.

Then, after our move to C-ville, we will paint every room in the Bexley house white again and get it ready to go on the market.

I need to take some before pics at both places and will soon post so that I can document our progress. It’s going to be a long next few months!

Checklists As Memory Aids

6 Jan

I heard this bit on NPR yesterday about Dr. Atul Gawande’s new book, The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right. It made me think a lot about the value of documented repeatable processes, and how often I fall into the trap of thinking I’m too smart to have to use a checklist.

Dr. Gawande spends his “leisure” time writing for The New Yorker when not performing operations at Dana Farber. Clearly, he is a man with time management on his side. The bottom line, he says, is that no one is too good for a checklist. In fact, we should use them more often. When he asked surgeons whether they would use the checklists, 80 percent said yes. For the holdout 20 percent, he was curious. Would they want THEIR surgeon using a checklist prior to operating on them? Ninety-four percent said yes. No surprise.

The doctor analyzed pilot reliance upon checklists and applied that practice to the O.R. — with very positive results. He catches himself at least weekly forgetting something from his checklists, and his colleagues report similar results. My sister-in-law is a surgeon, and I know smart when I see it. If a surgeon can admit to needing a checklist, it must be worth doing.

And I read this piece last night on The New York Times site, about a new study confirming what the “middle-aged” crowd (defined as 40-60, therefore including me) already knows:

We forget more, but we can claim mastery of locating patterns in the midst of chaos. And we can become quickly distracted.

Shiny ball syndrome is our weakness. An apt quote that pretty much sums up my daily existence:

Brains in middle age, which, with increased life spans, now stretches from the 40s to late 60s, also get more easily distracted. Start boiling water for pasta, go answer the doorbell and — whoosh — all thoughts of boiling water disappear. Indeed, aging brains, even in the middle years, fall into what’s called the default mode, during which the mind wanders off and begin daydreaming.

I look forward to using this “default mode” excuse the next time my gray matter wanders astray. It gives meaning to something I’ve always blamed on character weakness.

Where was I? Oh, yes.

One point from the memory study is that we middle-ageists can resuscitate our memory abilities by learning new information, in particular information that runs contrary to our own set of beliefs or expands our current knowledge base.  Simply put, we need to take the road less traveled, in order to keep our thinking young.

It strikes me that memory-building involves both Dr. Gawande’s recommendation for relying on tried and true to-do’s and the exercise of stretching our brains to connect up neural pathways through new learnings. In other words, we can make ourselves smarter with memory aids like checklists and becoming (or continuing to be) lifelong students.

Two Approaches to Work: Reflection vs. Reaction

21 Mar

thinker1A friend suggested that I write on the difference between reflection and reaction in the workplace. So often at work we get encouragement to ACT rather than THINK. For some, the result is a lot of activity not preceded by careful preparation, and that can cause trouble.

This question made me cogitate on different kinds of thinkers at work, and how we get noticed for the “right” sort of behaviors, as valued by the business-place. My friend has a good point, one that I’ve struggled with mightily as well. In a world where people value “busyness” as a mark of productive “business,” what’s a thinker to do? How do we properly value the time spent in thinking, BEFORE doing, so as to be most strategic–and therefore proactive rather than reactive?

In other words, is it a bad thing to stare out the window, twirl my pen like a baton or throw wadded up balls of paper into the trashcan from a distance of five feet?

Here’s his exact question:

[I]n business being decisive seems to be valued over being reflective. Being decisive seems to be equated with being productive. Read: thinking about stuff too much consumes the time that could be spent on production. There is merit to this. But too many people I have worked with equate reflection with indecisiveness.

So here’s my question (rhetorical): what kinds of things can people like me—people predisposed to being reflective—do to structure reflection so it doesn’t appear to be formless to the “decision makers”? That being said, unstructured reflection through discussion and experimentation is really valuable. What can be done to preserve a space for this? Is it possible to argue that there is an ROI on unstructured reflection?

Here are some ways I’ve found to think, then work:

  1. Schedule Thinking Time. I once worked at a place where the pace was such that I often forgot to eat, use the bathroom or breathe. These are basic, life-giving bodily requirements best not ignored, and I paid the price for not taking care of my body at the expense of productivity. Once the basics were under control, a good friend suggested that I carve out dedicated thinking time every Friday afternoon, since Fridays tend to be quieter. This worked, somewhat. Another way to do this is to get to work a bit earlier than others OR (not both) stay a bit later, to give yourself some quiet time without distractions. Point being that quality thinking may require some scenario examination, research, and pondering pros and cons. This is hard work, and it can’t be done in a matter of minutes. Thinking goes beyond the billable 15-minute increment.
  2. Remind Yourself and Powers That Be of Expert Wisdom. If you work at a place where people are constantly hovering over you, keeping the pressure on to produce, produce, produce, carving out time is not so easy. It’s not always simple to control what’s coming at us at work. Some days feel like getting shot off inside a bottle rocket. You just hang on for dear life. Thomas Friedman and Richard Florida discuss the importance of the knowledge worker in the 21st-century economy, and YOU are that person. Knowledge workers are people who have a particular expertise and skillset that cannot be automated. Teachers, writers, skilled technicians, designers…all of these careers fall into the knowledge worker category. A distinguishing feature of knowledge workers is that they are a HOT COMMODITY. Your employer cannot afford to lose you, because training time to get someone else up to your level is costly. Another distinguishing feature is that the knowledge workers are precise and can move quickly when the need presents itself, because of their fine-tuned abilities, but they are valued for their THINKING. And sometimes it does take time to think well. Maybe I am overstating the obvious, but I believe that a deftly worded explanation of this logic is the polite version of “back off and let me think a minute here!”
  3. Know Thyself and Others. I recently retook the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. As was the case in my 20s when I first took this test, I am still an INTJ. Guess what? Like all personality types, this means that I have some great qualities. The nickname for this type is “mastermind”–sounds kind of diabolical (MWHAHHHAAAAHHHAAAA). I have tendencies toward strategic thinking and enjoying work on seemingly insurmountable problems. But it also means that I can be extremely annoying at times, like every other personality type. For me, this means that I can get stuck on things and appear very stubborn and a stickler for quality. I can also have an easy time seeing the big picture and get frustrated working with people who get “caught up” in the details, which are clearly also very important. The most important thing about knowing myself is knowing how my way of approaching work meshes with my managers’, peers and supervisees’ ways of work. My impatience to moving on towards “what’s next” is one of my best and worst traits, and this probably makes me one of those people that my friend would get frustrated with at work. With my MBTI, I am a Thinker and want to have a clear thought process before taking action, but I am a Judger and therefore apt to make decisions fairly easily. In working with colleagues who want to weigh all the options before deciding, I try to give them the space to do so. I will admit that I’m not always perfect in this area and probably am a person who others think (at times) is “in their face” checking to make sure there’s forward movement. But I try not to be a pain about it. I am also driven by the need for some sense of workplace harmony, so that helps.

All of this is to say that having some clarity on one’s own inclinations and how they interact with others’ goes a long way in the workplace.  Appreciation of the balancing act between action and reflection is critical. Both are important, and one cannot be sacrificed for the other.

Working with Difficult People: Part 4

14 Feb

Bosses come in all personality types. Some are overly demanding and never satisfied. Others treat us like children. Still others treat us like friends (when clearly we are not). And then there are the bosses who just won’t do their jobs. Today’s post is dedicated to a difficult person that must be handled very delicately: Slacker Boss.

Undated cartoon of a obese man sleeping in a chair with his hands folded over his belly.  The caption reads "Fast Asleep."  Undated Cartoon by Gillray.  Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Undated cartoon of a obese man sleeping in a chair with his hands folded over his belly. The caption reads "Fast Asleep." Undated Cartoon by Gillray. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Once I had a boss who was famously unprepared, on a regular basis. At a meeting with dozens of partners before whom he was sent to present, he forgot to bring his Powerpoint slides. I spent the first half of the meeting’s agenda recreating his presentation for him, just in time for him to deliver it—newly minted after 10 minutes. Whew.

Another time, I had arranged a staff meeting for him with all 50 employees. Everyone filed into the room and was ready to listen to his words of wisdom, but he did not appear. Where was he? We had the handouts there, the projector was fired up and flashing a tempting title slide…but no boss. I sneaked out of the room and did a floor-by-floor search. Turns out he was two floors up, casually visiting with a friend…not a care in the world. Thirty minutes AFTER the presentation was set to begin, he waltzed in. Boy, that room was hot. Urgh.

In my industry, it’s important for people to look good. But PR for the Slacker Boss is difficult. Try as we might, we cannot gloss over laziness. He knows how to do his job, but he doesn’t put a priority on it. For me, there’s a real disconnect when I am working for someone who does not model the type of expertise and behavior I can look up to. It’s just not as fulfilling as working for someone who is intellectually ans psychologically “on it”—and cares about the work.

Reporting directly to a Slacker Boss is anxiety-provoking. Do we make him look good or not? If we do, people catch on and know that we’re covering for him. If we don’t, and he goes down, our job could be at risk. Another likely outcome is collecting resentment against the Slacker Boss, which does nothing good for us. Running through all of the scenarios to formulate the end of “If he had just…” drove me to distraction. It’s just not worth the time.

Blogger Chief Happiness Officer (what a title!), aka Alexander Kjerulf , has some good ideas for how to deal with the Slacker Boss. What it all boils down to is this:

Project, personality and boundary management

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Be clear about what you will handle, and explain this verbally and in writing.
  2. Don’t accept responsibility for Slacker Boss’s failings.
  3. Stay well-networked within your company to demonstrate your work ethic to colleagues and others up the chain from Slacker Boss, and ensure that you are not seen in the same light as Slacker Boss.

Tell me about your experiences with a Slacker Boss…I’d love to hear about how you managed this difficult personality.

Working with Difficult People: Part 1

3 Feb

It’s a well-known fact: Life is a struggle. According to Buddhists, this is the only thing we can be sure of.

And like it or not, most of the struggles we face, provided our basic needs for food and shelter are being met, come as a direct result of our own actions, interaction with other human beings or a combination of the two.

Work is a place of productive conflict, where we toil in the field, whether we’re actual farmers or pod-dwellers. Anyone expecting to avoid conflict at work should just go back to bed, because a workplace without conflict is bereft of new ideas and forward motion. It’s as simple as that. But there are ways to get through the conflict and produce great deliverables in the end, while preserving everyone’s integrity in the process. Not everyone cares to live by this approach, much to our dismay. These are the curmudgeons, the “difficult people” whom we will no doubt encounter in our professional careers. We will work beside, and God help us, for them. We will have them working for us. They are out there…lurking. Making our lives more challenging. And helping us to learn more about what’s difficult in ourselves.

I’ve been asked by the Columbus Young Professionals to give a talk on dealing with difficult people in March. To help get me in the right frame of mind to share some (hopefully helpful) insights, I am going to blog on a few possible topics.

Today’s focus: Friday Afternoon Surprise

The Surprise is not to be confused with any variation of “Afternoon Delight.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

This is a situation created either by someone else in your workplace (but never you) OR by a client. Your goal is to promote a peaceful and collaborative workspace, free of conflict and strife. But others are bent against your lofty aims. We’ve all felt the Friday Afternoon Surprise. It’s that brick-dropping, pit-of-the-stomach gut wrench that is caused by either difficult people, difficult situations or both.

Warning signs are as follows:

  • Any e-mail with the subject, “Heads Up!” High priority e-mails are also suspect.
  • Any phone call made after 5:30 pm on a Friday.

Nine times out of ten, it’s a tempest in a teapot. Someone’s stirring up trouble, and they suck you into it. Or someone gets anxious about a situation that’s no big deal. No matter the cause, the end result is one or more of these frustrating circumstances:

  • Hand-wringing and nonsensical phone conversations and e-mail messages (which are bound to contradict one another) well into Friday night’s happy hour or family movie night.
  • Extra work beyond what you’d already planned for the weekend. You’ve dared to stake out a quiet Saturday morning to write that proposal that requires intense concentration, but the Friday Afternoon Surprise will have none of it. You will spend all day Saturday and Sunday mopping up that Surprise. Alas, the proposal will have to wait until next weekend.
  • Your entire weekend becomes an extended prelude to Monday morning.

How to evade the dread Surprise?

  1. Make a habit of taking off time on Friday afternoons. Working on-site with a client or from home are both viable options, because the Surprise’s heat-seeking missile capabilities prey on those who are physically present in the office on Friday after lunch. Being virtually present gives you cover.
  2. If you don’t have the luxury of #1–and let’s face it, few do–there are evasive maneuvers to avoid the Surprise. By employing judo techniques, you can step aside and let the Surprise follow its natural momentum, past you and into someone else. Overlook that e-mail message. Pretend like you never received that desperate voice mail message. But there are karmic consequences to be paid for these maneuvers, and you must be prepared to accept them when they come back to you.
  3. Set limits. While there are legitimate surprises that happen on Friday afternoons, most crises do not require an overhaul of your entire weekend. Seek help from your colleagues—don’t feel like you have to deal with the Surprise by yourself. You may also successfully talk the Messenger of the Surprise off the ledge. If you can put the Surprise into perspective for them, it may take on less importance in the scheme of things. By not avoiding the conversation and instead talking through a difficult situation with a clear head while laying all the facts on the table, you could do the Messenger a favor and help them think differently.

The Friday Afternoon Surprise is a good example of a difficult situation turning good people into difficult people. Then again, there are people who do seek out crisis and try to spread the crisis around, just to bring attention to themselves or prove a point. My husband, who works in mental health, calls these folks “histrionic.” It’s important to identify this type of behavior and nip it in the bud. Clarify what you can and cannot solve, and get on with your weekend.

Dedicated to Diamond.

Next topic in this series: That Guy Who Will Never Like You, No Matter How Wonderful You Are

Learning New Tricks

16 Jan

Ever since I can remember, I have been interested in learning how to do new things. For some reason, the learning is more important to me than the end point of having learned.

Some people are just never satisfied. I’ll admit to a bit of that. Growing up, my parents moved 14 times between my birth and finishing college. So I come by it honestly — my mom is a big believer in change. She likes the smell of new carpet, I guess.

But for me that searching is about new ways of thinking. My work is an outlet for this, in a productive way. The landscape of public affairs, PR, marketing and advertising is constantly in flux, which keeps my thinking fresh. My discovery of social media has been an outlet for me personally and a boon to my professional portfolio. Helping clients learn more about how to apply social media in the business environment has become one of my pet projects. I am impressed by how technology can help our productivity, and help us to pioneer new ways of delivering our work processes and products. Olivier Blanchard (blogger handle The Brand Builder) has a good post about this phenomenon.

Client account management is fluid–never a dull moment–and it also keeps my brain flexible. Working with people, including their infinite array of ways to surprise and engage my imagination, is fulfilling. I am fascinated by the dynamics of teamwork in the client environment. Just yesterday I facilitated a meeting that included several more junior associates that are all up-and-comers. We were brainstorming with a client, who happens to be a guru in his area of practice, and I observed such active creativity that would never have occurred via conference call or back-and-forth e-mail messages. The beauty of client engagement is the interpersonal, in-person contact that fuels our work. I was proud of our team for the ability to bring best-practice thinking to the table and infuse it with in-the-moment solutioning. You can make your agenda, plan the desired outcome of a meeting and anticipate how it will unfold, but so often it goes in a different and improved direction. In yesterday’s case, we were generating new ideas that will soon be moved into execution. It’s good to see a group’s ideas go from start to finish.

And knitting is similar. I just learned how to make cables–easier than I thought it would be. And they are just lovely. I am so proud of my cables.  Every new row of cables makes me happier. There’s a beauty in learning a new technique and repeating it row by row, letting it sink in. Mastery of one’s craft–for fun or for money–is rewarding.

Teaching is a natural progression for this admirer of change. Yesterday I led an informal lunch-and-learn session on using FastTrack for project management. I’ve found that PR professionals do not always see the benefits of this practice, but at Paul Werth Associates my colleagues understand the practical application and how this can help us to be better account managers. I would like to do more teaching in my field, and have equally enjoyed opportunities to share my knowledge of knitting with those who are learning their way.

I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. – Albert Einstein

The teacher if he is indeed wise does not teach you to enter the house of wisdom but leads you to the threshold of your own mind. – Kahlil Gilbran, Lebanese symbolist poet and painter