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No Truth to This May 21, 2012

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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Seth once again drives to the root of the problem. We crave truth, demand it, reward it. But it is still not what we think it is.

A True Story

It Can Always Be Better May 18, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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As any artist knows, the job is never really finished.  It can always use a little tweak here, a different word there, a different color, another nub of clay.  The joke could be funnier, the song more in tune.

So it is with almost any project.

The plan can always use another step, another detail, a finer division of time and effort.  The scope could always be just a bit bigger to cover that one final eventuality.  And surely, for just a few dollars more we could make the product just so and really push it over the top.

As you might guess, this approach to project management will lead to what is commonly called “scope creep” (not to be confused with the project manager himself). In the engineering world, it can take the form of “analysis paralysis” as decisions are postponed until “we have all the information”.

But what about a more insidious effect, born of our need for order and solutions to everyday problems – such as “where did I leave my keys”?

When your organization or industry is changing, there can be many overwhelming activities occurring all at once.  In addition, most of us lack the ability to filter out all of them, as they actively occupy our attention.  Why?  When faced with the threat of change, our brains are wired to pay special attention.  It’s as if we are walking down a forest trail, minding our own business when suddenly

Your brain ignores the trees, the sky, and all the other things around that pose no threat.  You focus on the changed conditions and the immediate threat to your survival.  As crazy as it sounds, this happens in everyday life as well.

It is mentally taxing to worry about all the little things that can inevitably could stand some improvement.  And our brains are wired to reduce risk whenever possible.

The challenge then is to literally train yourself to focus on only the most critical items that demand your attention.  There are many small annoyances that aren’t important to the organization’s success.  They may be small inefficiencies, some extra paperwork, or a procedure that no one follows properly.  They may even be costing the organization real money.  It’s quite tempting to address them because they are easy and can provide a short-term reward because you “solved the problem”.

But if you manage a large staff, a capital-intensive operation, or a complex project, these shouldn’t even be on your radar screen.  They are distractions – and dangerous ones at that.  They lull you into a false sense of security and postpone the inevitable when the big issues finally become critical, unavoidable, and expensive.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
Albert Einstein

Cultivating Spreadsheets May 9, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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I’ll note right off that this is a somewhat dubious reference.  The review isn’t exactly begging for you to go out and grab the book, and the author’s credentials seem, shall we say, less than shining.  Nonetheless, the brief mention that it gets contains a great nugget of wisdom.  And even if the author did plead guilty to fraud, there is something to learn from even the most glorious failures.

In this case, the wisdom applies not just to entrepreneurial startups but to any business or academic environment in which there is a risk of not paying attention to the “real world”.

The reference points out that entrepreneurs need “hunters” rather than “farmers” to go forth and seek success rather than wait for it to grow at their feet.  There is a clear parallel to anyone who spends hours on analysis, spreadsheets, and powerpoint decks – if you spend too long in your chair, secluded from the rest of the organization, your farming will not yield the success you may intend.

Sure, you’ll have the shiniest, most elegant excel charts.  Your powerpoint will be the envy of Bill Gates himself.  Your presentation would awe even the TED conference.

For nothing.

Or, at least, not providing the value in proportion to the effort that you spent to perfect that last 20%.  Success is more about “good enough”.  And if you let the cobwebs grow around your feet as you while away the day at your computer, the world is passing you by and people are getting things done without your help.

Like any good computational tool, the excel world provides you with a nice, tidy box for each piece of data.  It’s gratifying to turn those faceless numbers into a picture  that explains your case and persuades your audience.  But if you don’t know your audience – if you haven’t connected with them in real life – it will be very difficult – if not impossible – to produce the ideal supporting chart.  Hunt down success in the form of meetings and face-to-face communication.  Farming is only good if you’re growing food.