Common sense says that when working on a project with results that really matter, one should agree on a plan of how to achieve the goals, consider what might go wrong, and make sure everyone who needs to deliver results is committed to doing what needs to be done to make it happen. However, here’s a bit of news about the real world of project management: Common sense isn’t common practice. It’s not even common knowledge! It’s so obvious that people think “It goes without saying.” Well, my experience says NOTHING goes without saying. Planning never feels like the right thing to do when there is a mountain of work to be done and you’re already late. Projects routinely suffer from under-planning. Executives seem incapable of imagining what might go wrong. Even teams that do take the time to identify risk usually don’t lift a finger to prevent or mitigate it. Abdication of responsibility is rampant. The fear of failure is assuaged by the complete absence of any commitment or any clear responsibility that could be tied back to the individual. Even a smidge of planning, a pinch of risk mitigation, and a dash of clear roles and responsibilities can put you head and shoulders above most project managers.
Plan? We’ve Got Real Work to Do! The first temptation that any project manager must overcome is the tendency to start working on the project before the goals are clear. After all, no code is written, no sheet metal cut, no circuits laid out, during the planning process. The temptation is to get that team busy, busy, busy, working on stuff, rather than planning.
Stop!! Planning SAVES time, it doesn’t WASTE it, and it will NEVER feel like the right thing to spend time on! Don’t wait to “feel” like you have time to plan. Plan with the future in mind. Sometimes project planning overly focuses on the past,k what happened last time, what has been possible up until this point. This is like driving 90 miles an hour with your eyes glued to the rear view mirror! Only slightly better are those who are driving with their eyes focused on the windshield: focusing only on the immediate concerns of the day. Their plans amount to “doing their best.” When someone tells me that they are doing their best I worry! Projects can fail quite nicely when everyone is doing their best. Winston Churchill is one of my favorite leadership role models and he said, “Sometimes doing your best is not enough. Sometimes you must do what is required!” Yeah, that’s right, Winston.
Time to Think. People tend to think they know what to do, and don’t need to write it all down, especially when things will change anyway. But the faintest pencil is more persistent than the strongest memory. As a project leader, you can best serve a team fighting to avoid the grip of the mobocracy by insisting that they do 3 things:
2. THINK! (at least for a nanosecond)
3. Then, and ONLY then, ACT!
Believe me, people with adrenal glands working overtime are NOT going to think of this option, but they desperately need to spend time, individually and collectively, thinking and planning before tackling the next pile of work. The best way to do this is to have a set of guiding principles for project planning, and to stick to them.
I know a pilot who has flown 7000 hours. I asked him the other day, “Chuck, the next time you fly are you going to use your pre-flight checklist?” “You bet!”, he replied. Now why would a jet pilot with that much experience use a checklist? Because that’s what professionals do. Professionals know that in the heat of battle, much of our blood rushes to our arms and legs, where it is useful for hitting, kicking and running (the fight or flight response), leaving little to nourish the one major advantage that we have over monkeys: our frontal lobes. Professionals do what needs to be done, regardless of whether they have time to do it (there’s never enough), and regardless of whether they think other people will like it (One sure-fire way to get a busy team member to roll their eyes is to ask them if they have time to set clear goals, make a schedule and discuss roles and responsibilities.) People rarely think that they have time to pause and plan.) Don’t ask – insist! It’s the project leader’s job to assure the team avoids predictable failure, and lack of planning is a biggee. A checklist, or a set of operating guidelines, is one way to instill this kind of discipline. It’s a rock in a sea of flotsam and jetsam. It’s the next best thing to being lucky.
Scrappily yours, Kimberly
P.S. Feel free to pre-order this book at my publisher’s website. It should be in my hot little hands by August.