Monthly Archives: February 2008

//February

The weakest link

There are many management books and motivational posters that tell us that ‘A team is only as strong as its weakest link’. But this week I have been thinking about this and found myself confronted by a situation that I thought proved the saying absolutely true.

In most instances a team is not a chain at all, and to see it in such a simplistic way is rather nieve. Take a football team as an example. During any particular match there maybe a player who is not performing to their utmost ability. What happens is that the other team members tend to compensate for this. Imagine that the weak player is on the right, then the team will tend to play (during that particular match) more down the left. Sure this is a weakness but it does not necessarily mean that the effectiveness of the team is completely lost. Why? Because humans are dynamic and in times of adversity, they find creative ways to perform to higher levels. Staying with the football analogy, very often, when one of the players is sent off for bad behaviour, the rest of the team adapt their game and can sometimes even play more effectively with ten players than with eleven.

It is a commonly known fact that soldiers are often given bullets that badly maim their enemy but not actually kill them immediately. The reason for this is that when a soldier falls to the ground in agony and their comrades can see that he is only wounded, their reaction is to try and rescue the wounded soldier and to get them into safety. Thus the one bullet is effectively removing maybe three, or more, soldiers from the battle.

Yesterday I, with twelve other people, went on cycling trip through a dissused mine forty metres unders the ground. Cycling in the dark, with often only our bycycle headlights to show us the way, we were confronted with many obstacles and decision points. Sometimes the roof of the mine would suddenly become very low and we would have to duck or crawl to get through. At other times the way was relatively wide and high and we could pick up speed. The leader of the team would shout out instructions or words of warning such as: ‘Left’, ‘Right’, ‘duck’ or ‘stop’ etc. The idea was that each individual would shout out what the leader said so that the message got to the cyclist at the end of the chain. Sometimes the message needed to be returned, such as when the leader wanted to check if everyone was ok and keeping up.

Unfortunately there were a couple of young guys in the middle who were not taking this as seriously as the rest of us and sometimes they would either forget to pass on the message or even twist the words so that the wrong message was received. The result was that on more than one occasion the back half of the team found themselves (unknowingly) going in the completely wrong direction.

The mine was a labarynth and needed expert guides to navigate it. So you can imagine that with more the 70Km’s of tunnels and every one of them looking almost exactly the same, it became very hazadous, in terms of getting the whole team back to base. The rule was that if you thought you were lost you must stop and wait. The problem was that on some bikes the lamps went out when the bike was not moving, which effectively meant standing still in the pitch dark!

The experience made me realize that when riding through the caves, the team was effectively a chain and that in this situation the real challenge was not the physical and mental effort required by each of the team members to get us back to base safely – but communication. People often tend to incorrectly blame poor team performance on ‘communication’ (which annoys me intensely) but in this case, deep under the ground in the dark, it most certainly was the key ellement to success, apart from being careful not to bash your head on the roof of the cave!

So the weakest link is only relevant to team work analysys when really the team is a real chain, and to be honest, I am not sure how often that is in modern business life. So if someone says to you 'you are the weakest link, goodbye' then take some comfort at least in the fact that it was most likely the selection process that failed and not you!

2008-02-23T16:00:00+00:00 0 Comments

Handling Boredom

Handling Boredom

This week two Project Managers I know complained of boredom in their work. Surprised, I asked them what the causes were for these very unfortunate symptoms.

In both cases there was a clear lack of pressure. On top of this, both PM’s felt that the content of their projects was too routine, “everything is under control” one told me. “There are no issues that are not taken care of and all of my project members and stakeholders are happy!” Of course this is the state that all projects should ideally be in. But it appears that without adrenaline things become very quickly boring for talented PM’s.

First of all we need to separate the clearly unhealthy constant adrenaline rush of out of control projects from the normal level of day to day activities (such as not being able to find a parking space when you are late for an appointment, or not being able to find the dial in number for a telephone conference call that started two minutes ago).

However, if you find yourself on a project which is boring because everything is under control – then be careful not to do what so many PM’s do: make their projects more complex than they need be or, even worse, encourage scope creep.

In the case of boredom, such as above. You have two key choices:

1. Take on more projects until you get to your desired stress level (become a Program Director) or:
2. Hand your project/projects over to someone else and look for something completely new. Because it might just be that you have quite simply outgrown your current position and a complete new take on life is required?

If you want to go for option 2, and you have heavy financial commitments in your private life – then take independent advice, before jumping. Otherwise your private stakeholders may not thank you for it, especially if they were not included in your decision making process.

There is also a section on ‘Handling Boredom’ in my book ‘Making a Difference’ which outlines the tragic consequences that Boredom can have on a business, if it is not identified and dealt with early enough. In Making a Difference, the emphasis is on bored CEO’s but it can just as easily be applied to Project, Program and Interim Managers.

2008-02-16T16:00:00+00:00 1 Comment

Dealing with repetitive problems

In my opinion, repetitive problems require special attention. When problems have a habit of recurring, despite persistent attempts to resolve them, all efforts seem wasted and staff morale becomes a serious concern. Only a foolish interim manager would step in suggesting quick fixes, where caution and deeper analysis are obviously required. Of course it is through experience (or trial and error) that we learn, but I find that repetitive business problems are often linked to behavioral patterns of senior management.

A good example of this is the small company that repeatedly falls into cycles of severe cash flow problems.

Imagine you are the owner of a ‘successful’ recording studio business, you have a good stream of clients (mostly generated from adverts in music magazines, positive press articles on albums you recorded and support advertising from equipment suppliers).

Everything is going fine, except that your business is cyclical (customers tend not to want to record albums in the summer because they are off on tour or on holiday, not stuck in a dark and stuffy studio). Even so, if you spread your income and costs over 12 months, you should be able to end up with a reasonable profit from which you could live quite comfortably.

However you have four key weaknesses:

1. You get bored easily, especially with administration and tendering for new projects, you are eager to pay other people to do that work, in theory you could do yourself, but quite frankly can’t be bothered.
2. You have a deep fascination for studio recording equipment; you cannot resist buying the latest and most expensive gear (convincing yourself and those around you, that it is the fully equipped studio that makes you ‘so successful’).
3. You are bored with recording mundane local bands, you only want to record the best, so you are always looking for schemes to ‘enhance’ your business and to better fit in with your life style. (When you do not have artists that inspire you, you tend to spend more time at home, or take time off for holidays with the kids).
4. Personal image/appearance and self esteem are key drivers in your life. You are motivated by people praising you, especially those who are rich and famous. Consequently you take any kind of criticism very hard. Only the best will do for you. You like to spend money on clothes, cars and other accessories that separate you from your competitors.

The combination of the above four weaknesses can destroy a perfectly good business, especially if the key actor becomes ill or lazy. A good revenue stream can dry up very quickly. And if the business is supported by numerous bank loans, credit cards and other debts, it can fold in a matter of weeks or months, once the creditors realize what the real situation is. Some people manage to avoid impending bankruptcy by selling off tools and assets, which need to be replaced when new orders come in.

Consequently, you end up with a cycle that will create repetitive cash flow problems, because no sooner do you win more clients, or receive praise from a new customer, than you immediately feel good and invincible – thus justifying a new round of investments on borrowed money.



The repetitive cycle

This kind of cycle is just one of many but can easily be adapted to a whole array of other scenarios (for example, every time a company wins a large new deal they feel falsely confident enough to take on extra sales personnel etc).

To conclude, in my opinion, when taking decisions you need to consider the personalities of the dominant figures in the business and if you recognize repetitive patterns, then dealing with the core issue is the only way to solve the problem once and for all.

“The secret to successful problem solving begins with asking the right questions and then listening very closely to their answers” – Harley Lovegrove

The above article has been abridged from: ‘Making a Difference’ by Harley Lovegrove, published by Lannoo Campus & Academic Services

2016-11-17T08:25:52+00:00 0 Comments

The secret to good project management lies in the detail?

My father was an architect, he designed buildings from the inside out, he realized that a building has to be functional first and aesthetically pleasing second. No matter how attractive a building, if it is not functional it will be demolished over time.

I know an architect who does not like to draw, when you meet with him to discuss an idea he never picks up a pencil to sketch it through. My father on the other hand used to draw everything to the finest detail, how one section of the building would link with another, where the coat hangers would be placed when you walked in the front door, even how large they would be and how they would be fixed to the wall. What surface the wall should be, so it could be cleaned easily. “The secret to a good design lies in the detail” he would say.

I know project managers that run their projects with only the very rudiments of a plan, like the architect who does not like to draw, they do not like to plan either. They think that whatever the problem that comes their way, one way or another it will be solved by someone (in the case of the architect, he mostly leaves it up to the builder). But when it comes to project management, someone needs to take control and to ultimately take the responsibility. And for me that is the project manager.

The secret of good planning is not to micro plan and micro control (if you do, you’ll kill creativity) but to detail enough so that you can think the project through, to foresee the issues before they appear, to calculate risks and thus to calculate budgets accurately.

In my case, I like to highlight potential issues and to ask my managers to find solutions for them, before they become a risk to either the timing, quality or budget of the project. I like to say things, in the planning stage, like ‘I have no idea how we will deliver this milestone when these tasks, according to my plan, are still only half complete’ – by handing over problems for comment or debate, early on, very creative solutions can most often be found.

It is the blend of pragmatism based on experience with the discipline of forward thinking that makes for successful and fun projects. Without this blend I find that projects tend to deteriorate into endless discussions on how best to solve all unforseen open issues waiting to be solved. Long issue lists are created and sap all they enthusiasm out of the project team – nothing but endless problems. And usually it is always the same brains left to solve the inherited mess.

I find that team members like to see a well thought through plan. I pin them on the office wall. Everyone can see what is going to happen and when and by whom. These plans help in themselves to create a sense of team and importance. People in the team like to study these plans and to try and find gaps and holes in them, adding their own expertise and comments – so much the better, this all goes a long way to foreseeing problems, way ahead of them ever becoming a serious risk. In this way the level of buy in is so much higher and a sense of team can be so much stronger. This is in contrary to many peoples thoughts, who believe that an ‘over planned’ project excludes the team members. This is only true if the project is ‘over planned’ (for example specifying the size of the hole for the wall fixing to fix the coat hook on, six months before building starts) and if the Project Manager, or Architect (in this story) does not share their plans openly with the team and encourage creative input and commitment to deliverables, quality and timing.

Anyone who has worked on one of my projects will know that I do not handover deadlines to my teams, I suggest them and ask for their commitment to them. If they find them unrealistic, we examine them closer, together, and come to an agreement. Thus my tasks become contracts between two agreeing parties. This process allows me to better assess if the person I am offering the task to has the skills and resources to handle it. But when they take a task on, heaven help them, if they then let me and the other teams down for no good reason.

So how do you run your projects? Are you really in control of them? Do you plan and share your plans, or are you more a freestyler, letting your projects take you to where they want to go?

2016-11-17T08:25:53+00:00 2 Comments