Donald J. Patti

Posts Tagged ‘management’

From Chaos to Crisis to Calm – 9 Tips to Recover Troubled Projects

In Business, Entrepreneurship, leadership, management, project management, Small Business on 8 February 2010 at 9:00 am

Dan Moore, a fellow Principal at Cedar Point Consulting, recently reminded me that, “You can’t manage chaos, but you can manage a crisis.” These are very wise words, but they reminded me of the early stages of a trouble project — one which is far behind schedule, well over budget, not delivering results, or all of the above.  If anything, a troubled project is chaos waiting for a strong leader to transition it to crisis, and then ultimately to calm.

Whether you’re a C-level executive, an entrepreneur or a project manager, you may not have encountered very many troubled projects in your career, so you may not be familiar with how to transition from chaos, to crisis, and finally to calm. We consultants are often brought in to deal with just such problems, so I have a few tips that should help:

  1. Don’t Panic! Douglas Adams references aside, you may have just learned that a key project is in trouble, but it’s important that you not panic. First of all, panic spreads, so you create chaos from crisis, and it won’t be long before your co-workers and your subordinates are panicked, too.Second, panicked people don’t reason effectively – they make “fight-or-flight” decisions instead of rational ones, so you’re far more likely to make a bad decision or push others to do so.
  2. Be Methodical. At Cedar Point Consulting, we have a 5-step process that we follow to recover projects – Review, Recommend, Respond, Transition, Close. While this is not the only way to recover a project, it does consistently work – by step three, the project is making progress once again. Regardless of the technique or methodology that you choose, don’t attempt to solve the project’s problems until you have an understanding of their causes. Do take measures to stop the bleeding, until you’ve effectively identified root causes.
  3. Read the Tea Leaves. Whether well run or not, nearly all projects have documents that tell you where the weaknesses are and whether they are being managed well. At minimum, even the smallest project should follow a standardized process ( project methodology); a charter (with a project goal); a project plan that includes a schedule, a budget, and assigned staff; regular meeting minutes and regular status reports. If these exist, review them to assess where problems are occurring. If they don’t, find out why.
  4. Be From Missouri (“Show Me”). Reading current project documents is a good start, but what if someone is fudging the numbers or painting a rosier picture than reality? For select documents, like staff hours, project schedule and project budget, confirm that they are reasonably accurate independently. Which brings us to the next tip…
  5. Use an Independent Third Party. Whether you hire a consultant or have someone in another part of your business lead your project recovery effort, they should be an independent third party. Having a friend of the Project Manager, the Project Manager’s immediate superior or one of their subordinates jump in to help is unlikely to be successful.
  6. Change Leadership or Change Process. At the most basic level, projects most often fail because either the project manager is not up to the task or the project management process is preventing them from succeeding. A good project manager controls time, scope, cost and quality on a project. If they don’t control at least two of these and influence all four, then they are likely to fail. Conversely, if they control all of these but the projects headed off a cliff, you probably need to switch project leadership.
  7. Increase Communication. When you’re trying to identify problems with a project, it helps to increase communication within the team. Schedule and require participation in regular meetings – daily, if necessary, like Stand-ups or Daily Scrums. Finally, increase the frequency of status reports to key parties, such as the client, the sponsor and key stakeholders, even if the reporting is informal.
  8. To Thine Own Self be True. There’s always a need for optimism in every situation, but good leaders are also honest to themselves and to others about the current state of a project. Depending upon how far behind the project truly is, consider reducing scope or resetting the schedule. Failing to do so may doom the project and the project team to yet another failure – one from which they may not recover.
  9. Start Small, Review Frequently.  After you’ve planned your recovery, be sure to start with small deliverables and shorter milestones, reviewing the project’s progress frequently to make sure the conservative short term goals are being met. While this is not normally the best approach with a project, starting small enables the team members to practice working together as a team before they have to tackle the larger, more challenging deliverables of the project.

The list above isn’t a comprehensive recipe for solving all the problems of a troubled project or for complete recovery, but it is a good start.  In a subsequent post, I’ll provide a list of ways to minimize the possibility of troubled projects altogether.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

Advertisements

Taking Care of the Cobbler’s Children

In Economics, Entrepreneurship, management, Manufacturing, Small Business, Technology on 27 November 2009 at 8:35 am

“A cobbler’s children never have shoes,” a co-worker told me after we visited a healthy, thriving small business to provide consulting services. We met with the CEO, a talented entrepreneur who had built her business from one person into twenty in just under ten years. After two days of downtime, desperate to see her systems up and running and her client happy, she readily agreed to pay external bill rates for our repairing a critical part of their infrastructure. Yet, despite the obvious success of the business, the network equipment was nearly a decade old, all of the servers were used or refurbished and the employee’s desktop computers were more than two generations obsolete. “This was more than a case of the cobbler’s children being the last helped by the cobbler,” I thought. But, if not this, then why?

I recalled a day in economics class over decade before, when I learned about the Cobb-Douglas function (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobb%E2%80%93Douglas), which states that productivity is a function of capital equipment, labor and technology. In short, Cobb-Douglas says that an increased investment in technology or capital equipment (machinery, tools) increases the productivity of your employees (laborers). This seemed obvious, so I tucked it away in my mind as a good example of conventional wisdom transformed in to a simple equation.

During my years consulting, I’ve seen Cobb-Douglas at work numerous times – at a large computer manufacturer where my team deployed over $1 million in computer hardware for collaboration for their 250,000 employees; at a global heavy manufacturer who built out identical server farms for their plants; at a top-10 financial institution where a dot-0 software upgrade (version 2.0, version 3.0, etc.) triggered the purchase of entirely new corresponding hardware. In most cases, we prepared business cases that showed (1) there were sizable productivity gains through the purchase and (2) the cost of replacing hardware during a corresponding software upgrade was far lower than waiting a year or two when the hardware was seeing high failure rates and affecting customers or workers.

I’ve also seen Cobb-Douglas ignored by otherwise-successful entrepreneurs. While this may seem surprising to some, if you understand the mindset of the entrepreneur, then you’ll understand why. You’ll also understand why this is not good policy for a thriving small business.

For many entrepreneurs, the key to initial success lies in boot-strapping – finding creative ways to deliver for customers despite the lack of resources necessary to get the job done. In most cases, small business owners build their business from the ground up by repeatedly stretching human resources to make up for the lack of capital investment or technology, rewarding these employees with equity or large delivery bonuses in exchange for working lots of overtime. As time passes, the entrepreneur equates scarcity and heavy workloads with success, and a pattern that ignores Cobb-Douglas is engrained.

All is well until the business grows, resource scarcity is no longer necessary and the rewards for burning the midnight oil are no longer available. The business has entered its teen years and is in need of some major infrastructure investments, but the entrepreneurial leader has trouble making the investment. Too many years of boot-strapping have made it difficult to imagine making a sizable, long term investment in technology or productive equipment. It’s safer, the thinking goes, to keep doing what made you successful – boot-strapping.

Yet the business has changed and the keys to past success are not the keys to future success. Businesses may start by successfully bootstrapping, but they grow by improving product quality, normalizing operations and building brand, all of which require substantial investment in technology, people and resources. Few entrepreneur’s recognize this shift occurring, so their business suffers “growing pains” until leadership transitions to someone else.  Dr. Rudy Lamone, a now-retired professor of Entrepreneurial Studies and former dean of the University of Maryland RH Smith School of Business, echoed the observation that entrepreneurs are often replaced once they’ve grown a business past a dozen employees, primarily because the behaviors that led to past successes are now detrimental to the business.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to encounter a small thriving business that uses ten-year-old computer hardware and six-year-old desktops for seemingly inexplicable reasons.  The cobbler’s children have no shoes, but not for lack of leather and nails.

What has been the impact?

  1. One entrepreneur lost their largest client by failing to buy and implement a defect tracking system capable of handling a dozen developers and QA resources. The software was delivered, but it was so defect-ridden that the client’s employees could hardly use it.
  2. Another entrepreneur lost two key developers who grew tired of developing on old desktops and outdated software.  When the phone call came from a recruiter to work for a business that provided new equipment and regular training, they jumped ship, creating a one month backlog of development work in their wake.
  3. A third entrepreneur suffered a one week outage of their production system because they failed to stock a redundant firewall for their network.  The pricey firewall, a $5000 unit, had a one week lead time for replacement.  The cost was $80,000 in revenue and breach-of-contract complaints from nearly every client.
  4. A fourth entrepreneur, mentioned at the beginning of this blog, suffered a three-day outage, but was able to avoid a breach of service level agreements by holding the network together for two more months, then upgrading the infrastructure after the contract was renewed.

The effects of tacking care of the cobbler’s children are evident to me, but they’re still anecdotal.  So, I’m asking small business owners and entrepreneurs – when your business is thriving, do you hesitate to make long-term investments in infrastructure? If so, why? If not, what criteria do you use to make the buying decision?

When Taking Over Means “Steady as She Goes”

In Business, leadership, management, project management, Small Business on 15 November 2009 at 8:00 pm

You’ve taken a new leadership position, so you’re ready to take charge and make your mark. There’s just one problem – all’s well. The division you’ve inherited is running smoothly, or the project you’ve taken over is on target. What do you do? Here’s how to tell you’re in this leadership situation, and what to do if you are.

Confirming All’s Well

Because leadership changes usually occur when change is needed, it may be difficult to tell that nothing is wrong. But there are a number of indicators that appear when everything is just fine. If you answer “yes” to most of these questions, you’ve probably inherited a steady ship:

  1. Your predecessor retired. While some people are forced in to retirement and not all recent retirees were good leaders, it’s a good sign that all was managed well if your predecessor retired in the position.
  2. Your predecessor held the position for more than 10 years. Particularly in disciplines like information technology and marketing, ten years is a mark of seasoned leadership. While times may have changed and forced a change in leadership, it’s a good sign that your predecessor enjoyed the position enough to stay in it for a decade or more.
  3. Turnover was low. You’ve talked to the staff below the prior leader and they average five years or more with the company. This means the prior leader knew how to hire and retain the right people for their positions.
  4. The numbers are good. Whether the key performance measures for the division are customer satisfaction, profit-per-unit-sold or days-ahead-of-schedule, the key measures all look good, especially after some independent validation confirms they’re accurate.
  5. You’re allowed to phone your predecessor. When both sides haven’t parted on good terms, it’s rare that you’re allowed to pick up the phone and call your predecessor. When you ask, “Do you mind if I give the prior manager a call?” an answer of “yes” with no cautions or caveats is a good sign.
  6. The echo of kind words. In initial conversations about your predecessor and their work, co-workers and subordinates speak fondly of them and readily point to past successes.

If you’ve responded, “yes” to 4 of 6 of the indicators above or more, there’s a very good chance you’re inheriting a well run division or team that needs few short-term changes. The next section describes how to lead in this situation.

An Even Keel

Once you’ve confirmed that all is well, you have quite a management challenge ahead of you. (Yes, that’s correct – a challenge). Your predecessor was well liked, the team performed well, and you have to do at least as well for the transition to be considered successful. Here’s what you should and should not do:

  1. Give credit. Once you’ve confirmed prior success, give credit to your predecessor and the team, noting that you respect what they’ve already accomplished. This is more than phony ego-stroking, it’s confirmation for your staff that you knew can properly assess a business situation and take the correct actions moving forward. They’ll appreciate that you’re recognizing them, but they’ll respect your business intuition even more.
  2. Avoid radical change. While it’s very tempting, do not try to transform the organization to suit your own management style and don’t attempt a major reorganization. It’s likely to cause resentment by your co-workers and subordinates who were very happy with the way things were. Even worse, it may turn a productive team into an unproductive one.
  3. Make change slowly. An obvious converse of the prior point, if some changes are necessary, make them slowly. This will give people an opportunity to know and trust you, but it will also give you time to understand why the team was so successful in the past. After a little wait, you may find that some of the changes you’ve planned aren’t needed and it will definitely put the distance of time between you and your predecessor.
  4. Learn from the management style of your predecessor. They were successful sitting in the same chair you now hold – who better to study than them? Review old reports and deliverables, review performance results going a few years back, and see how the division ran in the past.
  5. Give them a call. Invite your predecessor to lunch and ask them what worked so well. What management style did they use, what methodologies or techniques. Also, if possible, ask them about your staff – what are their likes and dislikes, what makes team members tick, who doesn’t get along with whom? In a couple of hours, you’ll be a lot closer to making a smooth transition.
  6. Review goals, then consider more ambitious ones. It’s possible your predecessor already set some pretty solid target for the team, but there’s also a very good chance that the bar has been a little too low most recently. If this is the case, raise expectations a bit, work with the team to identify new opportunities to excel, then add them to your strategic plan. By doing so, you’re most likely to add value to an already good situation.
  7. Adjust. While it may not be YOUR management style, your predecessor’s approach worked well. Consider adopting all or part of it, even if it’s a stretch for you. You may find that you grow as a leader by adding arrows to your quiver in this way.

Same Crew, More Knots

As a manager and leader, taking on a successful team may be the most challenging experience you ever face. It’s likely you’re a leader because you can take charge in difficult times to steer a new course, but the winds of change simply aren’t blowing. In this case, the most prudent course is to learn from the successes of the past and adapt to the new team. It will take longer, but eventually your team will improve upon past successes. If nothing else, resist the temptation to immediately set a new course – ironically, you’re far more likely to fail.

“But They Said They Understood…”: A Common Mistake with Indian Off-shore Teams

In Business, Culture, E-Business, Ethics and ideology, management, off-shore, Technology on 6 February 2009 at 1:23 pm

If you’re a long-time U.S. IT Manager, you’ve probably already led international teams composed of individuals from all over the globe.  I was fortunate, for example, to have one project with team members from England, Germany, Australia, Singapore, India and all four continental U.S. time zones.  While the mix of cultures and talents can cause conflicts, once the team gels, the results can be overwhelmingly positive.  It’s amazing to see what a team working nearly 24X7 can do when you lead it properly.

One mistake I’ve seen made by U.S. IT managers involves managing Indian off-shore teams, in particular, and has been repeated at three different client sites in the last five years, so it’s worth a good blog entry.  First I’ll explain the scenario and then I’ll explain why it is legitimate – NOT bigoted – to point out this common mistake so it can be avoided.

The Mistake

To explain the situation, you’re running a newly formed off-shore team and you’ve just assigned them a particular set of tasks that make up a deliverable. You ask, in front of the group or over a conference call, “Do you have any questions?”  When no questions are heard, you move merrily on and end the meeting, continuing on with your week’s work until you have your next meeting with your team.

“Is the work done?” you ask.  No.

“How much progress did you make?” None.

“Is it not explained clearly?” Yes, comes a response. Then, silence.

It’s at this point that we leaders usually begin our rant that it is not acceptable to complete nothing during a given week.  We consider terminating people, canceling our contract with the entire team, or trying to recoup costs now that the team is one week late.  As much as all of these actions would be acceptable in our culture given the outcome, this neither the way to deal with the problem, nor is it in the long-term best interest of your company.

The Cause

If you thought the problem was with literal understanding of your words, it’s possible, but unlikely.  Most Indians receive a healthy dose of English throughout their education and can understand it even if their pronunciation doesn’t sound like a Hollywood movie. But if you’ve figured out that the situation above occurred because of cultural differences, you’ve come to a more likely conclusion, though it will help to understand it in more detail than to merely say, “it’s cultural”.   Enter Geert Hofstede, a Dutch researcher and author of “Culture’s Consequences and Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind”, which can be found by googling the ISBN 9780071439596 or visiting this page on Amazon.com.  

Mr. Hofstede and his son Gert studied different cultures throughout the World but within the same company, IBM, and determined that there are five key differences in World cultures that can be scored across a continuum.

Individualism v. Collectivism: The extent to which a culture emphasizes speaking up for oneself and taking a unique path in life versus belonging to a group and benefiting from group affiliation.

Masculinity v. Femininity: The degree of emphasis on traditional Western male or female roles, such as assertiveness in males and subservience in females.  (If you don’t like the way I’ve phrased this ladies, I’m sorry. I’ve done my best to make it accurate and fair without losing the message. Alternate ideas on how to phrase this are appreciated).

Power Distance: Power distance refers to the social distance placed between people in authority compared to those who are not.  Because authority is relative (I have a supervisor, but I also supervise others), you can expect a middle-manager to behave just as their subordinates to them, but with their own manager.  As one would assume, the greater the power distance in a culture, the more deference and subservience subordinates display to their superiors; the lesser the power distance, the less deference displayed.

Uncertainty Avoidance: The desire or need to avoid uncertainty in relationships or dealings with others.  Cultures that try to avoid uncertainty have lots of rules.

Time Horizon: Some cultures have a short-term time orientation, while others have a long-term time horizon.  As an example, business leaders in the U.S. tend to manage to maximize short term, quarterly profits, while those in Japan and China manage across lifetimes and generations.

If we compare scores between the U.S. and India, we can better understand (or at least speculate) about why our mistake occurred.  While there are similarities in masculinity and uncertainty avoidance scores between the U.S. and Indian cultures, there are dramatic differences in power distance, individualism and time horizon between us.  The specific scores are here, but it’s important in our situation to note that Indian subordinates are far less likely to speak up when talking to a person with more authority and are far less likely to contradict or challenge someone in front of a group.   So, when you asked, “Are there any questions?” it was pretty unlikely you’d hear any from your team – even if they had them.

It’s probably good for me to note, as well, that these are generalizations. Just as all Americans are different, this is equally true with Indians, so you may well see different behavior from your team members.  The Hofstede’s describe the norm within a culture, not the exception.

A Better Response

Having managed over a dozen projects composed of Indian development and quality assurance teams, I have found that there are better ways to avoid the “Understanding Gap” and prevent it from occurring.

  1. The confirmation question. In our situation, we asked, “Does any one have any questions?” to the group as a whole.  Instead, ask each individual slightly different questions, phrased in a way that confirms they understand specific elements of the task.  As an example, one might ask, “<Name here>, I’m a little uncertain how I’d complete your portion of the work, so maybe you can help me understand. How were you thinking you’d test the <insert name> functionality?”  Or, “You’re most likely to find building the <insert name> component challenging.  Have you thought about the steps involved?”  This approach not only confirms the person’s understanding, it results in better design because the person asked may have a better approach than you do (unless you have a monopoly on brilliance?).
  2. The one-on-one. After asking confirmation questions, if you find one or two individuals struggling, schedule a one-on-one to go through their work and answer their questions.  In a one-on-one, they are more likely to feel comfortable asking pointed questions, and may even propose a better way to complete the work.
  3. The follow-up call. This one is simple.  If you’ve assigned a task, don’t wait one week to check on progress.  Check back with the team at least every other day to make sure they’re making progress and understand what you’ve asked.  Over time, this will be needed less and less, but initially, the follow-up call is a true time-saved
  4. The “you’re among family” reminder. Regardless, of culture, everyone has the fear that a “stupid” question or a mistake will threaten their jobs.  In some cases, the fear is warranted.  Particularly with teams that have just formed, remind the team members that “they are among family” when speaking to team members and that team members are here to help each other.  Even more important than saying, “you’re among family” is to live up to that statement. Do not brow-beat subordinates for small mistakes and do not cavalierly fire people because of a single error.  If you do, you’ll find the two-way channel you need to effectively lead a team is suddenly closed.

Possibly, you’re reading this article before you’ve managed your first global, off-shore or Indian team, so it’s been a good primer.  But there’s far more to know about the subject than can be posted in a single blog entry.  Though it’s very academic in the way it’s written, I encourage you to buy and read Hofstede’s book, referring back to the cultural dimensions the book provides on graphs so that you better understand each team member’s cultural before you try to relate to them using a purely American mindset.  I’d also use the following links for quick reference once you’ve read the book through:

http://www.geert-hofstede.com/

http://www.geert-hofstede.com/hofstede_dimensions.php

Doing so could save your company thousands, if not millions of dollars, keep your projects running smoothly and – most importantly – help you to build a harmonious work environment where people look forward to each and every day.  After all, isn’t that what keeps us from burying our heads in the pillow and hitting the snooze button twelve times?