A PM’s Toolbox Tour: Inside the Lid

Toolbox LidThe first thing I see when I open my toolbox is the inside of the lid, so here’s where I post reminders of the things that will have the most overall effect on my work: my project management principles and mantra.  The project management principles define how my values are implemented on the job.  I know that, consciously or unconsciously, they are the underpinnings of all the decisions I make.

More than once my personal values conflicted with the values of the person/organization I worked for.  The fact that I’d taken the time to reflect and clarify my values and principles helped to delineate my ethical boundaries and made it simpler to deal with the decisions I faced.  

Although my core values haven’t changed much throughout my career, as a consultant I now have a different perspective of the work from the one I held as a salaried employee, so my principles have evolved.  Here are three of my project management consulting practice principles: 

  1. Practice what I preach
  2. The best engagements are those that conclude with a self-sufficient client
  3. Amplify positive deviance 

Practice what I preach.  Stating this publicly is like telling people you’re on a diet, knowing that someone will catch you at a weak point with some Cherry Garcia.  I do my best and fall down occasionally.

When I started as a salaried employee, the concept of self-sufficiency for customers just wasn’t on my radar at all.  That’s changed, and now as a consultant, people suggest that client self-sufficiency isn’t such a great business proposition for generating income.  I disagree.  And as an individual, this principle reflects my value of self-sufficiency so it’s necessary for self/career alignment

Amplify positive deviance comes directly from Soul in the Computer, a wonderful book by Barbara Waugh.   She writes, “In every community in the world, certain individuals find better solutions to problems than their neighbors, despite having access to exactly the same resources.  These individuals are ‘positive deviants’ – they are deviating from the norm by being more successful.  Identifying these ‘positive deviants’ can reveal hidden resources, from which it is possible to devise solutions that are cost effective, internally owned and managed, and sustainable.”  This principle reflects my value of focusing on the positive, or as Barbara would say, an “asset model”.

Project teams can really benefit from taking the time to establish their values and principles.  This kind of effort is a great facilitator for moving through the “orming” stages; it creates a foundation of common understanding and enables success: understanding the Why is essential for understanding the How. 

One way to formalize working agreements based on values is to use a series of brainstorming rounds.  During the first pass, provoke the team into offering one-word values that speak highly to them (candidates that show up frequently include Quality, Respect, Fun, Growth, Balance, etc.).  Prioritize these, and take the top seven into the next round.  The second pass seeks to turn the one-word value items into phrases that help guide and reward the behaviors the team wants to share (“Quality”  might become Quality Trumps Schedule; “Respect” could evolve into One Speaker At A Time, etc.).  Posting these principles on a public wall helps reinforce their significance, and they can serve as a referee when touchy situations arise. 

My project management mantra is the Agile (software development) call to “inspect and adapt”.  Project reviews on a regular basis (vs. only at the end) enable process modifications to be made asap in response to early identification of best practices and what would best be done differently.  As an enthusiastic proponent of retrospectives, it’s exactly right for me. 

If you’re interested in the relationship of principles and values to work and the workplace, check out Positively M.A.D., edited by Bill Treasurer, True North by Bill George or Principle-Centered Leadership by Stephen Covey.

Ainsley Nies


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