Anecdotes for Project Managers: Looking for the key

Lately, I started to realize that a lot of the project management I do has to do with anecdotes.

I like using anecdotes, it matches my mentality for managing projects, especially larger projects: I believe that problems should be solved as close to the actual work as possible, and I believe that I am in charge to help the teams to leverage their own full potential. Anecdotes have proven a valuable means to unlock successes, like in the following example: Lately, I realized that I’m using the following joke over and over again with different people:
Continue reading Anecdotes for Project Managers: Looking for the key

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Re-arranging the Blogs

Two types of people are in for a surprise when they read this:

  • Traditional readers of my “old” personal Blog, dietl.org. It now looks very different, the language has switched from German to English. A range of low-interest articles have disappeared alltogether.
  • Traditional readers of my “old” business blog, think-and-feel.net. It looks slightly different, but a couple of things are now out of order and – despite all my efforts – I had to break a couple of links. At any rate, the site itself has moved to dietl.org, and think-and-feel.net redirects there now.

My apologies for any inconvenience caused.

I realized that this kind of split-brained approach takes more energy than it’s worth. There are still a few password-protected corners for friends and family (let me know if I missed you in sending out the passwords), but the rest should come together here.

So, if anything appears wrong, out of place or missing, please drop me a line in the comments here. Over the coming weeks, I’ll clean up whatever may have gotten lost in the transition.

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Decision Analysis II

Getting an objective decision straight despite the Decision Analysis quote from the pervious article has kept me thinking since mid-December.
Meanwhile, I have drawn an Influence Diagram for one of the more tricky questions on the job. First and foremost, drawing the chart has significantly helped clarify my own thoughts, so even if I dump it here and now, it was attention well spent. Analyzing the ~5 decisions, ~25 random variables and ~5 goals that contribute to this one set of decisions was quite enlightening.

To my own surprise, the other day I managed to transform the diagram so that I could actually present it without major unwanted political implications. The breakthrough came when I was about to give up and draw separate diagrams reflecting the assumed preferences of my main stakeholders.
Continue reading Decision Analysis II

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Decision Analysis

Just before Christmas, I had a looong discussion with a friend who just entered Decision Analysis studies – a field I wasn’t even aware of until then.
Given that life for a project manager is full of decisions, studying how to do that well (both the preparation and the eventual commitment of resources) sounded like a treasure trove.
The next day, I told my boss about this discovery. He already knew what this was all about and started raving about applied maths from the lectures during his MBA. Then he quoted from his lectures:

Decision analysis serves to create transparency over actual preferences. That’s why it is rarely used in practice.

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Three types of bad design decisions

A long time ago, I had to think about architecture trade-offs and design decisions when building widely adopted frameworks. Surely you’d tell me that one just shouldn’t do such trade-offs, but in a corporate world that may or may not be an option.
At that time, it appeared to me that there are three types of bad design decisions (also known as work-arounds), and they mostly differ in their cost, and how that cost scales. So far, in every discussion I was told that it’s trivial. Still, it’s usually not observed.
Continue reading Three types of bad design decisions

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The importance of respect in the business of software

I found a reference to the article “Opinion: The unspoken truth about managing geeks“.

The reference is from Awasu’s “Anti-stupidity“. Thanks for drawing my attention to it!

Thanks to both your articles, I have nothing to add.

Hmmm… there’s always something to add, so how about this: The IT geniuses I’ve had the good fortune to meet all behave like that. But with IT becoming more of a profession and less of a vocation, I see first signs of IT pros turning “normal”. I don’t like it. Respect is – for all people involved – a better currency than credit.

I’ve been fiddling with the notion of trust, especially in distributed teams, for quite a while now, but respect is something that matters as much. I guess that – keeping honest respect in mind – even the quote “Unlike in many industries, the fight in most IT groups is in how to get things done, not how to avoid work. IT pros will self-organize, disrupt and subvert in the name of accomplishing work…” is not correct: I believe where mutual, honest respect is handled well, it will lead anybody to accomplishing their best and a little more. Which in turn tells us a bit about “most industries”.

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… and nothing is going to happen

Today, I had an interesting discussion about empowerment, especially in a weak matrix organization. Eventually, the discussion reminded me of the Obituary of Richard Neustadt, the adviser to several presidents ($) of the USA, in The Economist (November 2003). The central part is (quoted from memory):

“He’ll sit here,” he [Truman] said [about Eisenhower], drumming his fingers on the desk, “and he’ll say, “Do this! Do that! – and nothing is going to happen! – it won’t be a bit like in the army!”

Well… if this is the amount of empowerment the most powerful man on this planet can command – how could I as a project manager as a project manager ask for more?

I think that project management is a lot about convincing and only a little about “empowerment”, and this means that there are three potential problems:

  1. First, it so happens every once in a while that somebody confuses “empowerment” with “veto right”. Such cases are particularly frequent among so-called internal governance bodies. Yes, this is empowerment in a sense… but it’s “wrong-way-round”. Real empowerment is the power to make things happen, not the power to stop.
  2. Second, the power to influence or convince actually means that the project manager can build a “bridge” between the project member’s personal goals and the project goals. Clear, aligned, specific goals within the company are a fairly obvious prerequisite to make that work.
  3. Third (or actually “2b”), incompatibilities of interests between different organizations that contribute to a project obviously break the “empowerment” of the project manager.

So what?

Upon closer inspection, the so-called line managers are often not more empowered: They can’t fire (at least not in Germany), and at least now in the financial crisis, they may have only very little financial freedom like over salaries etc. Don’t tell anybody, though 🙂

Eventually, what it all boils down to is, provocatively exaggerated:

There  is no empowerment!

There is dis-empowerment.
There is an illusion of empowerment, and a good project manager knows how to sustain that.

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“Thinking Product”

The other day, a friend gave his parting presentation titled “Thinking Product!”. One really nice metaphor he used was: Making standard software is, in many ways, like making cognac:

  • First, we try to bring the essence of market demand into the product, along the entire value chain – very much like good cognac brings the essence of the grapes through the distillery.
  • It’s the essence of the market (not just the wishes of one individual customer) that we are trying to realize – very much like no cognac fan is looking for the taste of a grape – that can be achieved by eating the grapes individually (or making custom development, respectively)
  • Eventually, when the time comes, cognac is sold by emotion, not because the company has the best chemical processing equipment. In the same way, we shouldn’t sell the how the software was made but the benefit it brings.

One may like brandy or not, but I do like this example.

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Distributed Teams

Today, two blog posts collided with each other in my head:

Under the heading “Collaborating Across Boundaries“, Tessa Lau is contemplating which tools the computing community could offer to alleviate the challenges associated with distributed projects: It’s becoming harder and harder to cooperate – in my experience largely (though not exclusively) within the same company – with team members because people are chosen by expertise, never mind where they live.

On the same day, the social network XING reflects on this year’s nobel prize for economics: “XING und der Nobelpreis” (German :-/) explains that Oliver Williamson received the nobel prize this year for his work on transaction cost theory, the fact that the cost of conducting a transaction is one of the factors causing corporations to exist. I understood it like: Companies exist among others because they save transaction cost as compared to a same-sized community of freelancers. In a company, one doesn’t have to worry much about customers or suppliers, they are just there. As one might expect, there is a nice article at Wikipedia.

Social networks nowadays have a similar role for freelancers: They reduce transaction costs for individuals. That’s the link between XING and this year’s nobel prize.

Combining the two: geographic distribution imposes transaction costs that hit large cooperations about as much as individuals, but corporations are more rigid: while an individual could choose the second-best but geographically close specialist, a company has a certain department, say, in China. And if we are honest to ourselves: almost all of us are second best most of the time – is it really worth the effort? So, for knowledge workers: is geographic distribution a factor creating large companies, or is it rather inhibiting large companies?

Could this be the dawn of a new age of small, regionally oriented IT companies?

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The elephant – again

A kick-off meeting to a project.

Situation: People already know each other, views have already diverged significantly. Over the past month, outside communication was strong (so expectations are huge), but inwards communication was weak (so opinions are scattered).

Complication: How to turn this bunch of minds into a team with “punch”?

Solution: Enter the story of the elephant… Continue reading The elephant – again

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The Essence of Making Software