Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Keeping Current

It's the end of the year. Have you had a chance to step away from your project and see what's going on in the world. Things continue to change.  Here are a couple of emerging trends that I've been thinking about lately.

Polygot Persistence - The database is no longer running on a single server down in the basement, and it's not even relational anymore. Martin Fowler gives credit for the term polygot persistence to Scott Leberknight in this blog post. The idea is that you may have many different data storage approaches for different data, and it may be spread across many servers, even in the cloud. NoSQL is the new buzzword being thrown around (including Fowler's and Pramad Sadalage's book, NoSQL Distilled: A Brief Guide to the Emerging World of Polyglot Persistence. Tools like Cassandra or MongoDB are gaining traction in this new trend. For example, Twitter is now using Casandra, Hadoop, and FlockDB in their polygot environment.

Cloud Computing - Cloud computing is where some part of your solution is in the cloud, a term that is used to refer to the internet. If you have a cloud based tool for running your projects, such as Rally, than you have SaaS - software as a service. If you have your development servers in the cloud, you have PaaS, platform as a service. If you've gone as far as having all your administration done by your service provider in the cloud, you're using infrastructure as a service (IaaS). Here's an article from Infoworld with more details on this trend.

MobilityIn case you haven't noticed, the age of mobile computing has arrived. IBM reported that 24% of people used mobile devices to visit retailers on Black Friday (disclosure - I work for IBM, but all opinions here are my own). We can't think about mobile as something we bolt on at the end of a project. We need to consider that a significant portion of our users may be on mobile devices exclusively and we have to design for it from the start.

As project managers in technology, it's important to keep up with the trends. What other trends are gaining traction?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Authentic Leadership

The keynote speaker at last week's PMI North America Global Congress was Marcus Buckingham. If you don't know the name, he has authored/co-authored a number of books including First, Break all the Rules, Now Discover your Strengths, and most recently, Standout.

His keynote focused on research he did on leadership as part of his latest book. What he found was that for large organizations, the local leader made the difference. However, no to leaders took the same approach. Trying to apply a single leadership model to all of them wouldn't work because you couldn't transfer a leadership style from one person to another.

What he found was a set of nine strength roles. Here's a quick overview of them:

  • Advisor - someone that gives people advice and helps solve their problems
  • Connector - someone that looks as the world as a set of relationships
  • Creator - someone that's a thinker
  • Equalizer - someone that looks for the right thing to do and meets their commitments
  • Influencer - someone that is thinking about how to move people into action
  • Pioneer - someone looking for what's next or what's new
  • Provider - someone that creates a safe environment for their team
  • Stimulator - someone looking to raise the energy level and get people excited
  • Teacher - someone that looks at opportunities to learn and help their team learn
What he said that there isn't a perfect leadership profile, just leaders that understand and follow the practices of the style that aligns with their top two strengths. I didn't have a chance to buy Standout while I was at the Congress, but it will be in my next order from Amazon.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

PMI Leadership Institute Meeting

I have been in Vancouver the past few days participating in the PMI Leadership Institute Meeting. As one of the leaders of the Agile Community of Practice, this was an opportunity to meet with my fellow leaders and work on our strategic plan for next year. 

However, there were also a number of great keynote speakers to inspire the 800+ volunteer leaders that were in attendance, representing both local PMI chapters and the 36 Communities of Practice.

Annie McKee was the first speaker we heard. She talked about being a resonant leader and the aspects of a good leader. Emotional intelligence was a key part, specifically, a strong self awareness, social awareness, and self management. If we don't have these skills, we can learn them. 

But being a resonant leader is more than just emotional intelligence. We need to use our power as a leader to serve others, not for our own personal gain. Renewal is also important, but it doesn't have to be 2 hours of meditation every day. Taking 5 minutes of deep breaths can do it. 

The closing speaker, Ed Tate, talked about how we focus. He had three principles; we can only clearly focus on one thing at a time, we get more of what we focus on, and avoiding doesn't work. He gave the example of a race car driver learning to control a spin. If his instructor tells him not to hit the wall, that is the thing he does. 

His presentation resonated with me from the view of not being able to multi-task. He cited some of the same examples of studies I've used when I present on the topic. I think this message is getting out, but there are still a lot of people and organizations that think they can multi-task, and then they don't realize why their projects fail. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Are you good enough?

I'm currently reading Different Work by Bas de Baar and Lori Kane. It's a set of stories about people that have found work that they love to do. The fourth story is about an interesting couple. The husband has moved away from corporate life and is now a one-man consulting shop. The wife is an artist. One quote from the wife really stuck with me;

A lot of my energy had gone into worrying about not being good enough, instead of strengthening my abilities. 

Do we spend too much time worrying about how good we should be? How often do you really spend thinking about what your strengths are rather than worrying about what your weaknesses might be. Maybe you are in the wrong job, how do you know? There were a few bullet points at the end of the chapter that I think can help;

  • Start with what you're curios about
  • Pay attention, notice where your energy is, and trust that energy
  • Move farther away from work you don't love

Have you had a job where you didn't think you fit in? You felt drained from work, not invigorated? You didn't even want to get up in the morning? I was there once. It took a layoff to get me to move in the right direction. If you need multiple alarm clocks or hit snooze to many times in the morning, maybe you need to start looking for a new job that's a different work where you don't have to worry about being good enough.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Turning Estimates into Commitments

Guest Blog by Timm J. Esque
The Language of Planning
Think for a moment about the types of statements that get made during the planning of an upcoming project:

-        This project will need more resources than the last one
-        That task will probably take 4 people about 5 weeks to complete
-        We should be able to get that done by the end of the month
-        Meeting that goal is going to be a stretch

These are all examples of a certain type of statement called an assertion.  Assertions extrapolate from our past experience.  We make assertions because we learn from the past, and those learnings are valuable for planning the future.  But those learnings can also hold us back. 
Assertions are an important part of the planning process, but they are only the beginning.  If the conversation of assertions and estimates becomes our schedule, we remain chained to the past throughout the project.  In our modern project environment, full of uncertainty, lots of things don’t go as planned.  And when they don’t we want to revisit and rationalize our assertions - “We said we could do it in 5 weeks because based on what happened last time we expected…”  So our progress reviews tend to get mired in “what ifs” and “shoulda’s” and blame. 

What we really should be talking about in our regular project meetings is the future we are going to create.  This requires a different type of statement called commitments.  At a certain point in the planning process, we need to shift the conversation from assertions to commitments.  Commitments are not tied to the past; they are only and always a declaration about what is going to happen in the future.  When we use commitment language on projects, we are not basing our statements on possibilities, we are declaring that something will get done by a certain time.   Further, when we make commitments, we are putting our personal reputation on the line.  These language distinctions derive from “Speech Act Theory” as posited by John Austin, his student John Searle and his student Fernando Flores.

Commitment, Trust and Reputation
Putting our reputations on the line (operating from commitments) greatly increases the chances that we will create the future we have declared.  It brings the whole issue of trust to the fore.  But it is not as scary as it sounds.  Trust is not black and white, all or nothing.  You can miss a commitment and still build trust with your team mates.  This is a concept we call “early warning”.  When someone realizes a commitment they made is in jeopardy, they need to speak up immediately.  Often times another teammate can help, or the commitment can be re-negotiated so that the team remains on track (maybe the whole committed outcome wasn’t needed to stay on track and the key parts of the deliverables get clarified).  On teams, personal commitments are made in the context of a shared goal, so the issue at hand is not did someone miss a commitment, but what commitments will keep us on track now.  There is no faster or more effective way for teams to build trust than to make , manage and meet commitments to each other on a regular basis.

Where Do We Start?
When my company Ensemble works with teams, we begin the whole planning process with a technique called map day that sets the stage for managing the network of commitments between team members.  But a great place to begin experimenting is with your most immediate team.  Follow these steps:

1.     Using your existing plan/schedule pull off the tasks representing roughly next 6-8 weeks of work
2.     With your small team, identify the outcomes (deliverables) from those schedule items.
3.     Have some discussion about how you’d know each deliverable was complete and done well.
4.     Now have each team member identify their individual deliverables for the next several weeks (we often have team members write their items on post notes and put them on a timeline).
5.     Scrub this plan for dependencies and take into account vacations, etc.
6.     Now moving from left to right on the plan, for each deliverable, ask the owner if they can commit to deliver that deliverable on that day. (Making this a deliberate step is key)

For Agile teams operating from a backlog of stories, simply identify the personal commitments required to support each story.  It is important to remind people at step 6 that these are not estimates, you are asking for their personal commitment.  Most likely, before you get through the 6-8 week horizon, people will start balking – there is too much uncertainty.  That is no problem.  Start tracking the commitments you have together as a team each week.  Every week, you can see if team members can turn some of those future deliverables into commitments.  Over time, when done right, teams will build “commitment muscle”, meaning individuals will be willing to commit further into the future, in spite of uncertainty. 

For 17 years now we’ve been helping teams large and small operate from commitments.  We recommend teams track team performance against commitment with a simple tool we call a PAC chart.  Not only does the chart predict which teams will meet their commits in the future, but productivity measurably increases almost immediately. What is stopping your team from operating from commitments?

Timm Esque is author of No Surprises Project Management (1999, ACT Publishing) and Co-founder of Ensemble Management Consulting.  He has been cited in the Wall Street Journal as an expert on performance under pressure.  If you’d like some help turn estimates into commitments (and maybe to learn the map day technique), consider coming to an Ensemble Commitment-Based PM Workshop.  All workshops include follow-up coaching.  We also offer a performance-based CBPM Certification.  The next workshop is in Silicon Valley on November 7&8.  Click here for more information. For an additional 10% off the Early Registration price for The Complete CBPM Workshop enter promo code "fromzenpm" at the workshop registration page.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Agile - not just for technology any more

A fellow volunteer of the PMI Agile Community of Practice pointed me to this article on non-software uses of Scrum. As someone that has been using agile for some time, I'm not surprised at some of the uses. Think about how much we do in our day to day life that is really projects and how any project can benefit from the right amount of structure. If I can save 1 additional trip to the hardware store with a little planning, it's worth it.

I even have my wife doing Kanban. I set up a board on Trello and she is adding tasks for me; things to do around the house. We haven't started doing daily stand-ups, but I can look at what she put on the "to-do" column and discuss with her what is next on the list that needs to be done in the upcoming weekend. 

I didn't tell her she was doing Kanban. I think I'll let her get used to the idea first, then maybe introduce her to the book Personal Kanban. I know with some of my clients, they became apprehensive when I started using terms they weren't familiar with so I didn't want to get hung up in terminology now.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Building Community

A portion of the leadership team from the PMI Agile Community of Practice participated in a Leadership Institute Meeting (LIM) with members of the other PMI Communities. The meeting was organized by PMI for the purpose of planning activities for 2013.

The meeting was held following the principals of "World Cafe," which includes;

  • Speaking with your mind and heart
  • Slow down and take time to think
  • Listening together for patterns, insights, and connections
  • Focusing on what matters
  • Having fun

As part of the process, we had a graphic facilitator. This person's role was to capture our conversations on paper; in this case on 4 foot by 8 foot posters. Each day we had a colorful set of pictures and words that captured the discussions. According to the World Cafe website, this technique is for;

Enabling people to see their contribution to the whole increases participation and fosters trust and connection and the large displays of themes and insights naturally weave together diverse perspectives into a composite "picture" that reflects the collective intelligence in the room.

This was the first time I had seen a graphic facilitator, but it was interesting to watch. She was in a front corner of the room capturing her impressions of the meeting. At the end of each day, we had a summary of the key points of the day, and at the end of the 3-day meeting, the main facilitators walked through each drawing and commented on the points that resonated with them. You can read more about graphic facilitation here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

3 Ways to Use Technology to Build A Servant Leadership Culture

The following is a guest post from Ginni Chen, Chief Happiness Officer at iDoneThis

The Chinese philosopher Lao-Tsu said, “To lead people, walk beside them … As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!”  
This is now more important than ever as businesses gain a competitive advantage by nurturing the productivity, creativity and talent of their workers.
Today, innovative founders and CEOs at tech startups are engineering ways to build servant leadership directly into the fiber of everyday life at their companies through the use of technology.  In doing so, they’re becoming some of the most sought-after places to work for top talent.  
1.  Walking beside your team -- use technology to make your company culture open and transparent.
Open and transparent communication channels without hierarchy reinforces that servant leaders walk beside their team, not in front of them.  In a transparent company, the CEO is just as accountable for getting stuff done as any other employee, and the only way to lead is by example.
Facebook founder Dustin Moskovitz created Asana, a task management application. Unlike traditional task management applications, Asana not only makes it easy to divide and assign tasks and deadlines, it makes the process transparent so that everyone can see the tasks and objectives of everyone else.
It’s a radical change that has the potential to upend corporate hierarchical structure -- individual employees now can see what the CEO is working on.  Moreover, they can assign tasks to the CEO!  

2. Get out of the way -- software provides channels for constant feedback without micromanagement
In The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer found a surprising result: 95% of managers were wrong in thinking that the #1 motivator for employees at work was bonuses and financial incentive.  Rather, employees are most motivated by daily progress towards a meaningful goal.  A manager’s job then, is to lead with a compelling vision, remove causes of setbacks and impediments to progress, and then stay out of the way.
At Google, they use an internal software program called Snippets to embody this idea.  Every week, employees receive a weekly email asking them to write down what they did last week and what they plan to do in the upcoming week.  Replies get compiled in a public space and distributed automatically the following day by email.
The Snippets process encourages reflecting on progress made and giving thought to making the most of the upcoming week.  The power of reflection to recognize progress and focus on the company’s most important objectives has made Google one of the world’s most productive companies.
As Google diaspora spread throughout Silicon Valley, so did the process of Snippets.  Many hot startups, such as Foursquare, use iDoneThis as a simple way to bring the process of Google snippets to their company.
3.      Celebrate accomplishments as a team -- encourage feedback and gratitude every day.
Rather than traditional performance reviews, bonuses, and company parties, innovative tech startups have come up with ingenious ways to celebrate accomplishments as a team on an ongoing basis instead of once a year.
At Shopify, an e-commerce software startup that’s doubled in size in the past year, they’ve built an internal system called Unicorn that makes it fun and profitable to recognize the accomplishments of others.
When a colleague does an awesome job, it’s easy to go into Unicorn, log her accomplishment, and give her one, two or three unicorns by way of thanks.  At the end of each month, a proportion of the company’s profits are set aside for Unicorn bonuses.  Every employee gets a bonus that comes straight from the coworkers who sent her unicorns in appreciation for her hard work.
This is how the most innovative companies are engineering servant leadership into their work culture.  How have you been successful in building a culture of servant leadership?  Let me know your thoughts on what helps you encourage service in your company’s leaders.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


I was out on vacation last week. My son and I traveled to Utah for a week of climbing and hiking. It was a week away from email, conference calls, and status reports…very refreshing. The picture is from Lake Blanche in the Wasatch range.

I'm continuing to read The Five Keys to Mindful Communication. I came across the idea that in order to be open to listening to others, we first have to be able to listen to our self through meditation. "Relaxation is the key to mindfulness practice…" 

When someone comes to you, are you ready to listen to them? Can you stop what you're doing and focus on them? One practice I developed back when I worked in an office was if someone came into my office, I would stop what I was doing and focus on them. I wouldn't continue to type on the computer. I'd put my magazine or report down. I'd listen.

Listening is an active process. By taking time to meditate, we learn to quiet our own mind and listen to ourself. That gives us the ability to quiet our mind and listen to someone else when they come to us. A good vacation can do the same thing, bring you back to the office ready to listen. Have you meditated or taken vacation lately? Maybe you're overdue.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Dog and a Polar Bear

I recently started reading the book the five keys to mindful communication by Susan Gillis Chapman. In the beginning, she tells the story that goes with the pictures that you can find here. As she tells it, Churchill the dog was tied to a stake outside a cabin somewhere in the Arctic. The owner (National Geographic photographer Norbert Rosing) spotted a polar bear coming towards his dog. The owner knew he was already to late to do anything, so he grabbed his camera. What came next surprised him. Churchill didn't get defensive; he started wagging his tail playfully as the bear approached. The bear didn't act aggressively either, he responded to Churchill's behavior and started playing with him. As the story goes, the bear came back on several occasions to play with Churchill. 

This story is a great lesson for how we communicate. If we get defensive, putting up a wall, our conversation will be different than if we are open and engaging when someone approaches us. Early in the book, Chapman talks about how we need to pay attention to how we respond and have an open mind. She talks about moving away from "Me-First" to "We-First" in our relationships.

This last idea started me thinking about Servant-Leadership. A project manager that practices Servant-Leadership thinks in terms of how they can help the team before they think about themselves. They are aware of their team's needs and they listen.

So next time you are in a conversation, stop and be aware of how you are communicating. Are you really paying attention to what the other person is saying or are you going on the defensive and preparing your next response? 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mobility and the Project Manager

I read a blog post today about mobile BPM (business process management) written by a colleague of mine, Scott Francis. Scott and I have worked together on BPM projects over the past few years. Having recently purchased the latest iPad, his post got me thinking about how mobile technology is changing the world of project management, or is it?

I am taking over a program after the first release went to production. The user stories are all in a cloud-based PM tool, organized in iterations and releases. So when I created a card board and put the user stories on post-it notes and stuck them up there, my developers made fun of me…but they have been keeping it updated without any prompting. So the question is, how much technology do we need? Can a project be successfully run with just a white board and a stack of post-it notes?

I will always take the simplest solution. When it comes to managing a co-located team, a cardboard is very effective. You can take a quick look and know exactly the status of the iteration. If you have 2 days left in the iteration and a bunch of cards in the column for waiting user acceptance, you know where you need to focus you time. One of the principals of Kanban is to make your process visible, and a cardboard does this very effectively, even if you're not using Kanban.

However, in a program like I'm running, with multiple iterations and releases, you need something more comprehensive to keep track of everything. We planned our next iteration this week. We were using our on-line tool to have a view into all of the stories. As we whittled down the stories for the next iteration, it let us know how many points we had selected, so we knew when we were within our velocity.

Going back to Scott's article, from a mobility standpoint, I carry my iPad around with me all day. I use it to capture notes in meetings, rather than using pen/paper. With Evernote, my notes are available on my laptop when I get back; or even my iPhone if necessary. I can also access our PM tool thru the iPad, so I have our plan at my fingertips, regardless of where I am. It's this instant access to information that makes the mobile tool valuable.

So, what's your favorite approach/application for managing projects?

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Are You Invaluable?

I just finished reading the book Invaluable by Dave Crenshaw, who also wrote the book The Myth of Multi-tasking. At first, I thought the book was kind of light. Like Critical Chain, it's told as a story with characters learning as they go. I realized after I was about half way through the book what I was looking for. Unlike something like Drive by Daniel Pink (another favorite of mine), this book doesn't go into a lot of theory. It gets right into some practical steps to help you become more valuable in your work.

For example, Jason, the main character, develops a chart of his activities and identifies those that are his strengths and areas where he would be hard to replace. The full exercise is available in the appendix for the reader to go through. The book continues to provide exercises to help the reader focus in on how they can make themselves invaluable at work.

So if you're looking for a book with a lot of theory that you can use to impress your client or discuss over drinks, this isn't the book for you. However, if you are looking for some straight forward exercises to help you be a more valuable contributor at work, I recommend it.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Resource Flexibility

I had a conversation with Yoaz Ziv, Director of Marketing for Realization the other week on using Critical Chain at the program level. I was gathering some information for an internal project, but one concept, Resource Flexibility, struck with me. I'll admit, I don't like referring to team members as "resources" but I'll stick with Yoaz's terminology.

To use resource flexibility, you first plan out each project in the program assuming full staffing. Then you pull 10% of the resources and put them in a pool that isn’t assigned to any one project yet. By watching the consumption of buffers on each project, you can predict which project may be running into trouble. You can then throw your extra resources at this project to help get it on track.

Be using Resource Flexibility, you take some of the politics out of staffing decisions. Each project manager knows that if their project goes critical to the point of impacting the overall program, they will get resources to help them recover. It's like having a SWAT team around to come in and save the day on the critical project. They come and help out, then go help the next project that needs assistance.

I know there's one school of thought that says putting additional resources on a late project will make it later. It increases complexity, complicates communications, and the new team members have to be "brought up to speed" - taking someone else away from doing their job. But in this case, you start the project deliberately lean and by adding the additional people, you are only bringing the team up to its full size. I think this is better than starting a project with to many people. I've experienced over-staffed, bloated projects that just don't seem to move very fast.

Will this approach only work with Critical Chain? Probably not, but if you don't have buffers, you will need some other indicator to show if a project is getting behind. It could be a burn-down chart. It should be more than just a hunch by the program manager. But regardless of what project management methodology you are using, Resource Flexibility may be a good program level tool for you.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Critical Chain, Agile, and Program Management

I've been doing some research for a project at work on Critical Chain (a result of my articles <here and here> for Projects at Work being noticed within the company). I started by re-reading Goldratt's book Critical Chain. If you haven't read it, I recommend it. It's written as a novel and is an easy read, but still has some good content.

What I've been pondering is how to use Critical Chain in Program Management. I've come across some agilist talking about Critical Chain and Theory of Constraints (TOC-Goldratt's work in manufacturing). Dave Prior recently wrote an article for Projects at Work on transforming to agile where Drum-Buffer-Rope (part of TOC) was mentioned. There was also Mike Cottmeyer's mention of Theory of Constraints I mentioned in a previous post.

So is Critical Chain the answer to scaling agility? When Mike talked about scaling agility at the PMI North America Global Congress last year, he argued that Scrum isn't the answer to scaling agility. Some other tool that can address constraints needs to be used. I think many of us have experienced resources being the big constraint in a program. Critical Chain provides an answer to this.

When using Critical Chain, your first step is to identify the constraint. Let's say it's the number of U/I designers you have. You can't run four projects in parallel because your two designers will be constantly pulled back and forth, and we all know multi-tasking is bad! Critical Chain would say that you need to delay some of your projects to address this constraint, even if this means other resources are idle.

It sounds simple, but will it work? How else can you address constraints across a program? Do we also need to be concerned with buffers? Goldratt spends a lot of time talking about buffers on the project level, including resource buffers. But how does this scale to the program level? Do we need program schedules with resource buffers? I'm going to keep digging in. If you have any suggestions, let me know.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Afraid of Falling

I was out climbing with my son earlier this week. He's home from college on break; he got serious about climbing last year and dragged me into it. My first route was pretty technical (for me) and there were a couple points when I was about to stop but I pushed through and made it to the top. When I got down, my son had some wise advice. He said I will improve if I don't worry about falling and If I'm not falling, I'm not pushing myself hard enough. 

I came across a set of videos on Yahoo; The Failure Club. This was created as a reality TV show that never got picked up by a network, but it's along the same lines as my climbing; go do something without fear of failure…even expect failure…and see what happens.

It's easy to play it safe at work. We don't want to stand out as a trouble maker or risk taker, especially during an economic slowdown. But is that the best choice? If we knew our boss wouldn't penalize us if we failed, how much risk would we take? What could we achieve? 

If you're like a lot of people, you came up with some resolutions at New Years. How many risky items are on your list? How many new things are you going to try? How many things that you could fail at? When I'm climbing and not having a good day, it usually isn't because I'm falling; it's usually because I'm afraid to try and I convince myself that I can't do it. So get rid of the self-doubt and don't be afraid. 

Tuesday, January 03, 2012


I am working in Iowa this week. Today, Iowa is the center of the universe…or at least the US.  For those that don't follow American politics, the Iowa Caucus is the first stage in selecting the candidate that will run against President Obama in November. Winning here is a good first step on a long journey.

How is your project political campaign going? Are you on course to win the election? While a political campaign is a type of project, most project managers have to handle politics as a part of getting the project delivered. A good project manager knows to pay attention to their stakeholders and figure out how to resolve conflicts between parties. They can respond effectively to a negative campaign and win the popular vote.

Ignoring politics can be a mistake. A project can easily be derailed by someone that has the right influence with the right person. This doesn't mean you have to stoop to the level of a mudslinger, but you should at least be aware of the impact they can have on your project.

So after today, Iowa will fade as the political campaign moves on. Good luck in the elections.