Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ants and Project Managers

Which ant is the project manager?

Next time you get a chance, observe an ant line in action. They are focused, know what each one has to do, and how to get there. They are a perfectly humming team working on the same objective. There is no appearance of egos or self motivated agendas. This objective of theirs is a fairly large task that requires thousands of participants to be managed and motivated properly. In our world, this type of activity would be labeled a project, program or initiative.

This begs a question: where is the project manager? Which one of these little critters is running this amazing effort? I tried to find one that's standing on the side line telling them what to do, when to do it, giving pep talks, asking for status, updating documents… but I couldn’t find her. Maybe the Queen? She wasn't taking any interviews so my question had to stay unanswered.

Why do humans, the advanced, intelligent breed (with the opposable thumb) require project management? Why do we have such poor communication skills when we have so many ways to communicate? Look at the current project you're involved in: is everyone focused? know their role and responsibility and how they will achieve their tasks?

Interesting fact about ants. Ants communicate through pheromones (chemicals). Ants use the soil to leave a pheromone trail so that other ants can find the path. When an ant identifies a food source he marks that path and as other ants follow that path, the scent is reinforced. Once the food source is wiped out, the last ants no longer mark their path. Closed loop communication. Ants are colonial and some experts say that each individual is part of the larger colony/collective. The total group is in fact one. As you can imagine, they don't do well on their own.

Recently there have been a number of books that are addressing the human/corporate tribes (Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan being one example). It turns out that we also try to find our colony/collective. And in some ways, we don't do too well on our own either.

Robert Zemekis is a famed writer, producer, and academy award winner who worked on various blockbusters like Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, Cast Away, etc (over 60 credits as a producer, writer or director). He was asked which was his favorite movie. He said Forrest Gump. When asked why, he said "Because we were all making the same movie." In other words, a team working together on one common goal, one common vision. He won a handful of academy awards for this type of teamwork. If we function as one team, what can we achieve?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Productive or Just Active

Lately, there's a lot of talk about "Productivity."

It seems that many struggle to find their way out of the deep sea of the never ending to do list. So let's start right there, by design, you will never finish your to do list… get comfortable with this concept. We are unable to ever get to the point of "finished." Like many others, this is another one of those lies that are obvious but no one ever states. We are never finished, until you're no longer with the living (even then, many will argue that you're still not finished… but I'll leave that for someone else to pick up). This is the nature of our internal engine: wanting and needing to always do more, better, faster. In an earlier blog, I argued that the concept of the expanding universe applies to all things. We are always in motion, never at steady state.

With that in mind, let's now look at the concept of Productivity. Productivity can be defined as a ratio: output produced per unit of input, over a period of time. So what? This output should produce a result, a benefit of profit. Otherwise, why do it?

This gets to the heart of the matter. Being productive, providing a good or service, is in context to a stated goal. It is relative to something else. How do you know that what you do is producing a good or service that is meaningful or important to your organization? Ask why. Demand of yourself a discipline of knowing why you do what you do. Understand if and how, what you do drives the stated goals forward. Get a piece of paper, on top write "My Goals" and write down the goals of your department, project, company, whatever. Each time you get an email, voice mail, or a drive by asking you to do something, check your list. Was that request in line with my goals? If not, think about it before you add it to your never ending To Do list. Do you need to revise your "My Goals" document? Or do you need to question the source?

The risk is that if you are producing a good or service (being productive) that no one cares about, then you're just being active. Congratulations! You have just burnt calories. Next time, try jogging. You won't waste company money, your limited resources (i.e. your time) and it may do your overall health some good.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

James Bond, Himalayan Expedition and you...

The ridiculous…
Some months back I was watching James Bond on cable (Casino Royal). I must admit that I loved that movie for many reasons but one of them was the unwavering determination showed by the actor Daniel Craig. He was ready to kill or be killed for his country. I asked my wife, "What does it take, what is it that happens, that makes anyone so committed to a cause. It's not for the paycheck. It's something bigger!" She looked at me and said, "It' s a movie."

The Sublime…
Some months back we had to evacuate our home and neighborhood because of the Porter Ranch fires. A surreal situation to say the least (I will blog about that at a later time). We parked our family and irreplaceable in my in-law's home. The whole day, going into the wee hours of the next morning, I was glued to the TV watching waiting to see what would happen to our home. Then they showed the firefighters. And suddenly I felt guilty. I wanted my home saved but not the cost of a lost firefighter. I prayed that they all got a chance to get back home. The footage was unreal. In one shot the firefighter was fighting an enormous blaze with a hose. He was in the gazebo of one of the homes he was attempting to save. A faceless man against the wall of inferno. I eventually fell asleep and when I awoke hours later the news had a segment on that very thing I was watching. The firefighters had won this round. And I thought as I drove back home, what does it take, what is it that happens, that makes anyone so committed to a cause. It's not for the paycheck. It's something bigger. This time it wasn't a movie. No actors. But the same spirit.

What kind of company would you have if everyone there was driven by an unstoppable commitment to make a difference. Not only to win (against the competitors, etc) but to transform a process such that what is left after you are done will alter everything?

Look around the office and read people's faces. What are they up to? What are they ready to cause? Are they just going through the motions? Are they creating something? Then find a mirror and look carefully at yourself. If today was your last day, will you be able to say that you were committed to something so great that you can go in peace?

The concept of commitment is tightly coupled with integrity. You cannot be committed without integrity. Your claim to integrity is empty without committing. Think about the founding fathers of the United States that signed their name on the Declaration of Independence. They mad a commitment to a liberated people… you can bet the British Crown had a different perspective. And they lay down they lives for the cause. They embodied integrity:

"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Not a movie, no actors. Just courage.

This next excerpt cemented for me what commitment can do. It was given to me when I was enrolled in the Landmark Forum:

"But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money— booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence.

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!
- W. H. Murray, from The Scottish Himalayan Expedition (1951)

Think about the commitments that you've made in your life. Think about what led up to them (marriage, your job, education, last project at work, …). I would bet that you weren't sure how things would turn out, but when you committed, really committed, providence did step in.

Question: is your job a paycheck, or can you commit to creating something that's bigger than you?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Mergers & Acquisitions = Marriage & Acceptance

Imagine that you meet someone. Imagine that you fall in love. Imagine that you decide, that together you are better, more complete, greater than when you are apart. So you decide to get married.

So far so good. You look at your possessions and your expense. Each of you have a place of your own. In your respective homes, you have the following: satellite/cable, local and long distance phone, internet, water, electricity, TV, couch… oh and of course the mortgage or rental feels.

Are you with me? Good. So you decide what any smart couple would do… you agree to keep things as they are, pay all the redundant services and say no to the opportunity to improve as a result of this combined union. You, in effect are saying no to the concept of "economies of scale and scope."

Yes, this is asinine. Plain stupid. I mean, who would do that? Who I ask you?

Try this for size: the overwhelming majority of large corporations that acquire companies. The lack of integration is criminal. The acquirer and target seldom integrate their back office solutions (ERP, etc), their policies and processes. They continue to work as independent companies within their own silos. Then everyone wonders, why didn't we get the value that we thought we would get?

Leaders have the foresight to understand the true benefit of the merger. It is not that 1 + 1 = 2 , but rather 1 + 1 = 3. Yes, you did the math right. The combined company is now producing something that they individually would never have been able to produce. Unfortunately, most acquisition generate this equation: 1 + 1 = 1.5. In these cases, the acquisitions destroy value. They don' t create value... and to compensate for this missed opportunity, the organization resturctures and everyone forgets that bad episode. After all, there's a hot acquisition prospect in the horizon... it's a no brainer!

I'd love to hear stories about acquisitions that you've been a part of or have witnessed.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Expanding Universe

Blogger's Note: Apologies for not posting for some time. I got sidetracked with other matters: evacuation form home due to Porter Ranch fire, Holidays, and overall focus on other matters that are near and dear to my heart.

Momentum is an interesting phenomenon. Are things getting better, worse or stagnant? Our ability as leaders to really understand these states of action will help us understand how well we're doing.

I was watching a great program on TV about the universe. It walks the viewer through the history of the universe, from first scientists that studied the heavenly bodies, the evolving theories, the conflicts between schools of thought, etc.

One topic that was of interest to me was the concept of the "Steady State Universe" vs. "The Expanding Universe." Today we understand that the universe is not steady state (never has been), that it is expanding (always will be), and it has been expanding for billions of years, every since the big bang; Where from a singularity was born the cosmos. Key point: we are in an expanding universe. Since our inception we have been in motion… always in motion.

Typically in management we look at our operation (project team, support team, operations, etc) and we analyze our health by saying that things are getting better, worse, or pretty much steady state. It is this third state that worries me. Most of us interpret steady state as the "good" or "OK" state since it is predictable and implies management has a handle over the operation. Hey, at least it's not getting worse right?

I say that there is no such thing as steady state. Steady state causes a false sense of security. You are either improving (i.e. driving the operation towards stated goals) or getting worse (i.e. not driving the operation towards stated goals). To be clear, you may have a stated goal of 95% On Time Delivery. This goal is steady but all the things that happen in the background are always in flux and need to be managed.

As the universe shows us, we are always in motion. The dynamics of teams, customers, and the economy are applying forces in chaotic patterns. To think that all is steady is to close your eyes to the obvious. A good manager will be vigilant to the slight fluctuations and understand what the underlying causes are so that corrections can be made. Fundamentally, isn't this the concept behind continuous improvement? If you don't always improve, then you are always getting worse. Your competitor will make sure of that.

Don't get me wrong. There is a place for "Stabilized" operations. A bad operation will need to go through a maturity cycle where you get control of the situation. But that is a brief and short period of time. The next step is move this operation towards greatness. Getting control and stabilizing is part of the journey. But to stay there is the equivalent of going to the airport and not boarding a plane.