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Deliverable Me

One of the joys of being a parent and, in my case, a grandparent is that you can indulge in watching some really good kids' movies. And way up there in my top 10 is Despicable Me. We watched it again over the holidays. I love the movie, the storyline, and ... I love the title.

So I'm playing around with this title to make a point in this article. It's about the concept of Deliverable Me.

Perhaps the most clunky piece of jargon coming out of the project management profession has to be the word deliverable. There are far better alternatives: 'output,' 'product,' 'enabler,' and so on.

As the name implies, a deliverable is what the project delivers, either at the end or along the way. It reminds the project manager that it is not all about the activities, the activity network, the resource planning, and so on. These all contribute to the busyness of the project, and although perhaps necessary, these can become an obsession, even a distraction, from delivering the end product, and beyond that, the point of it all - the what the customer really wants.

'Deliverable' must be the clunkiest piece of jargon coming out of project management.

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A few years ago I was working with a global publishing business. I ran a few project management and stakeholder engagement workshops. And then my client asked me if I could help by delivering a workshop for people to improve their personal work organisation. Overwhelm as we now call it, was rampant, and people's working lives too often seemed to border on chaos. Productivity was certainly not what it should have been.

I'd like to think the client invited me to think about this because my style of coaching project managers was plain-speaking, without too much jargon, and it helped people see the reason behind what they were asked to do on a project.

The most powerful productivity techniques were borrowed from project management.

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So although I did not consider myself at that time to be any kind of productivity ninja, or time management guru, I accepted the invitation. I developed a one-day workshop called Organising Yourself More Effectively. OK, it's not the snappiest of titles, I agree, but it set out what I hoped was the goal of the workshop.

It turned out to be a resounding success. In fact, the responses I had from delegates were somewhat surprising in the way I seemed to have helped them gain traction in their working lives.

Seeing my life as a project, the 'Deliverable Me.'

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But when I dug a little deeper into what tools they had found particularly helpful, they were mostly borrowed from my project management bag of tricks. That made me think: some of the tools we use on projects and programmes can also be very powerful for the individual, for treating my life as a project, where I see myself as 'Deliverable Me.'

Anyway, we have just opened the doors again, after nearly a year to our online version of that workshop. This time we call it Leading Yourself online. However, in this workshop we go beyond modest goals of improved personal organisation and increased productivity to something more profound: moving from the captivity of overwhelm to developing ourselves to become what I call positive outliers, people who are outstanding, positively so, people who consistently do their best work. If you are interested, check out my short Doing Your Best Work email series first.

I hope to see you there.

Call to Failure

Failure is not an option.

No, it's inevitable.

The issues is, first, will I accept that reality? Then can I act so that when I do fail, it is cheap and useful? When I do fail I do not do something worse: take failure as my identity. No, I am not a failure, but I do fail. The question is, did I learn from that failure?

Failure is not an option ... it's inevitable.

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Time was when we would develop methodologies that tried to avoid failure altogether. I now realise that this attempt was impossible and even dangerous. The way it was typically evidenced in project management was to start further and further back in design:

"We need a plan first." (This seems like good sense, doesn't it?)
"Well, we need a business case first." (Of course, who would argue with that; I wouldn’t.)
"Yes but before that, we need a Project Brief."
"Yes, but before that, we need a Project Mandate."
"OK, but before that, we need some Strategic Objectives."
"Yes, but first we need our Vision, Mission and Values."

We can carry this seemingly-rational nonsense on for as long as we wish - many consultants and business gurus do just that.
Confession time: I own up to having done that as well.
I have repented!

I sometimes think we have created a management Catch 22, where we never achieve anything substantive.

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But when do we do get around to doing something? Where is the execution?
"Oh, no. We're not ready for that yet. What if we do the wrong thing or do it badly?"
I sometimes think we've created a kind of management Catch 22 where we go around and around in ever decreasing circles, never achieving anything substantive. Fear of failure has become a sort of management political correctness. It's time to face this demon.
Is failure always a bad thing? What if the worst failure of all is never achieving a return on our efforts. I believe this is a subtle and sophisticated paralysis by analysis.

The world is more complex than our models.

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There are three challenges we need to face in breaking out of this syndrome:

  1. The world is more complex than our models. It is a world where there are unknowns. The unknowns prevent us from planning out all failure. Only as we experiment, execute, are we going to discover more about that complexity.
  2.  We often operate in a management culture of fear. Fear is always dangerous counsellor. Fear is a terrible strategy and a poor modus operandi. We need courage. With courage, we can devise small steps of execution where we are not betting the farm, but instead discovering more and learning from these unexpected results.
  3. Failure can become personal. We can allow it to become our identity. This is a lie. I am not a failure, but I do fail. The question is: Do I learn enough from that failure and adapt?

I remember when I spoke alongside my friend and former colleague, Richard Rose, at an Agile Project Management conference. We found many there who were new to Agile. Others, by contrast, had been so long immersed in Agile practice that they had forgotten the real value of incremental, Just-Enough-Design-Up-Front management.

At one point I said, "Failure is not an option, it's inevitable." I saw lights go on all around the room.

Those weary with traditional management that promised much but delivered little, and those immersed in newer, more empirical approaches both need to be aware of the value of limited failure. We hypothesise about this complex world, test, examine the results, adapt and move on. W.E. Deming had nailed this years ago in his PDCA cycle. See an earlier article on this: Ever-Increasing Circles.

We need an empirical humility about what will happen if we do such-and-such, test and then see if we are right.

Maybe we need a CTF, a Call to Failure.

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Marketers talk about the Call to Action, the CTA. Maybe we all need a CTF, a Call to Failure.


OK. So I have a question for you. How do you make sure you learn from a 'failure'? I'm really interested. Please share your approach below in 'Leave a Reply.' The rest of us would really value it!

Outcome Thinking for Projects

Most people in project management have been told about the classic triangle: time, cost, quality; sometimes called the scope triangle. Its overall focus is on stewardship of spend, on containment, on control. You know, the one that looks like this:

It encourages managers to consider how the impact of a suggested change might affect the scope of the project and to consider the knock-on effects between time, cost and quality.

Fair enough. It is a sound management framework, focusing on three of the key areas in a complex resource system.

But my concern is that this view comes from a control mindset, a mindset most managers consider normal. It is not really leadership, is it? It focuses on setting and defending project budgets in these three dimensions. Apart from maybe the focus on quality, this is pretty reactionary - it reacts, rather than initiates or creates. It is a controlling, defensive way of seeing a project through.

I submit that a better triangle is one that appears in my book, Practical People Engagement (Elbereth, 2013) and it is this:

Now, this triangle requires a shift to outcome thinking. Essentially, it is success oriented.

Let me explain by looking at each of these interactions in turn.

Different stakeholders will recognise different benefits; they will benefit from the same project in different ways. We see this using a benefits distribution matrix (see our Exploring People Engagement programme). For example, an replacement website might be justified by increased sales forecasted, something the Board really wants. However, line managers may also benefit from that website helping them brief new staff in a way that saves their time in induction using that new site. Also, by engagement, stakeholders such as the marketing team, can improve the benefit realisation of benefits already identified (sales growth).

Here we see the two-way connection between stakeholders and risks. Good engagement of one particular stakeholder (say the web developers) can reduce the threat of unforeseen cyber vulnerabilities, but can also open up new opportunities for a website that would otherwise be fairly hum-drum. By the same token, a good risk analysis - both opportunities and threats - can help us engage stakeholders with whom we would otherwise ignore.

Finally, risks (both opportunities and threats) will have an impact on both benefits we have identified in the project business case, and on benefits we have yet to recognised and claim for the project. Benefits themselves, may well reduce strategic and operational threats to the business, as well as opening up new opportunities beyond the project.

So, all in all, these three dimensions, stakeholders and their interests, risk and benefits all interact with each other. 

Outcome Thinking

Customers of projects don't buy budgets, they buy solutions.

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This is a shift to outcome thinking. It is success oriented. Customers do not buy a budget estimate, they buy solutions. They buy results. They look for the benefits of the new solution. And the three key areas of success are the individuals and groups involved or affected (the stakeholders), the threats and opportunities as they arise (the risks), and the benefits, both intended, emergent and unwanted (so called 'dis-benefits').

The success triangle is a shift to outcome thinking. #projectmanagement

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The Project as Mere Scaffolding

Think about a project as the equivalent to scaffolding in a building construction. A project is really management scaffolding. Nobody intends to live in scaffolding, but rather they will use the scaffolding as a means to an end. Eventually, we hope to take the scaffolding away. In the same way, with a project. I've noticed that some in the project management profession has become so obsessed with the scaffolding of the project that they have made it an end in itself. It would be far better if they led towards the beneficial outcome. So an alternative focus is on the end benefits.

Some project managers make the project an end in itself. #projectmanagement

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VUCA (the environment of volatility, complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity) means that the project journey will mostly be somewhat exploratory for the customer. They will be catching up with the possibilities of what current technology can do for them. Realisable benefits will change. So a better mindset becomes one of cultivation, not control; cultivation and nurturing of benefits, optimising them, and being alert to windfall benefits.

This makes the whole project less about a cost burden, to one which is an investment, where we look for a return on investment. It is a more entrepreneurial way of looking at a project. In this way, we may even find that our project business case improves as we go along.

Purely focusing on cost blinkers the project manager to the customer’s potential outcomes.

Thinking Risks

Now risk is an interesting dimension as it can be much more inclusive of time, cost, scope and quality. Thinking risk, particularly in how it relates to benefit realisation, begins to steward everything to head off, mitigate or minimise anything that might threaten our benefits.

Risk, as including both threats and opportunities, is a large enough mindset to allow that entrepreneurial approach, where risks are not merely threats, but also opportunities. We begin to think in terms of considered risk-taking rather moving from fear. Psychologically, for both customers and the project manager, this can be very powerful.

Risk, as including both threats and opportunities, is a large enough mindset to allow an entrepreneurial approach. #riskmanagement

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And risks lead us to one of the most important sources of risk: people, our stakeholders.

Being Negative

We all know that people can be a nuisance, uncooperative or even openly resistant. They can become a drag on the project, unless we engage them well.

A rather clumsy term in use is dis-benefit. (I hate the term, but I can't think of a better one.) This is where we know that some stakeholders will be disadvantaged by the change the project brings. It's not the possibility of a loss (a risk) but is something we know the project will bring. We know that there is always loss with a change, there is always dis-benefit. Particular stakeholders will be disadvantaged in some way, will lose by what we do as a project. 

With dis-benefits we must never assume that we are more aware of someone else’s dis-benefits than they are. The opposite is almost always true. If we don’t appear to recognise how they lose or cannot show empathy for their losses then that stakeholder could easily resent us and the project. As a general rule, it is far better to be open about dis-benefits. With this stance, we will find that our credibility grows.

So then, all three dimensions in this triangle can be positive or negative: risks as both threats and opportunities, and benefits as positive benefits and dis-benefits. And people can be a nuisance, uncooperative or even openly resistant, as well as being key enablers of the outcome we want.

Shaping Success v Managing to Cut Losses

Overall, though, the success triangle focuses us more on shaping success rather than operating merely to cut our losses.

So, how about the success triangle appearing on our project dashboards? Might it begin to shift mindsets for the better?

Leave me your comment on this below.


Advice from the TOP 30 Influencers in Project Management

This week I was sent a report containing Advice from the 30 TOP influencers in project management. If you are not involved in project management professionally, I can quite understand that this will not set your heart racing! However, it is interesting to see the patterns that emerge from these ‘TOP influencers.’

(Full disclosure: I was chosen as one of the 30. The authors asked me and the other 29 contributors to give our take on what was our top tip.)

Click here to download the report.

Much of this so-called ‘top’ advice focuses on planning and re-planning. Important though planning is, it is nowhere near the top thing for me.

Many others get rather nearer the mark, in my opinion, and focus on stakeholder engagement and developing key relationships. See my own work on this.

However, I suggest – with apologies to JRR Tolkien – that there is one thing to rule them all:

developing your self-awareness.

Now, I recognise that to many people my choice might look pretty abstract and dull. Maybe even a little surprising. “Is that it??! Self-awareness. That feels very psychological and not very practical. What about the Time-Cost-Scope Triangle. What about the Critical Path?”

[shareable]Thinking about your thinking – self-awareness – is the key to driving all other habits that bring success.[/shareable]

Let me explain. The research I did a few years ago with my colleague John Edmonds revealed that self-awareness was key to high performance: high performing programme and project managers all exhibited a high degree of self-awareness, of mental clarity about their own thought processes. They all think about their thinking. Self-awareness drives all the other behaviours that give the high-performer real traction in the complex world of project management: behaviours like building and protecting personal margins, leaning to action, and leaning to people. See this diagram:

Self-Awareness: One Thing to Rule Them All

So how do we all develop self-awareness in our work? I show you how in my new book, Leading Yourself: Succeeding from the Inside OutI have since come to believe that this kind of high-performance is not for the exalted few, any of us can develop the right habits to get exceptional results.

[reminder]How do you think about your thinking?[/reminder]