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.