Serenity
Serenity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

A project manager has to be able to be in the moment and calmly react to any situation in order for a plan to succeed. Reacting to everything that might go wrong, or things that don’t help to achieve the goals of the project doesn’t get us to the product of the project (our “ends” or project goal).

 

Because a project manager’s biggest job is keeping everybody communicating, it’s easy to get distracted with all the chatter and worries of everybody on the team. You have to weigh the value of the cries of the Chicken Little‘s on your team in order to figure out whether the sky is actually falling or not, and if so, what to do about that fact.

 

For me this is a bit like the Serenity Prayer (written by American theologist Reinhold Niebuhr):

 

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

 

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One of the key success factors for any project is the “vision statement“, which is the Executive Sponsor‘s opportunity to excite the team, stakeholders, and customers with their vision of where we are going and how the product of the project will improve things.

When well done, the charter can be condensed into an elevator pitch for the project, and provide a clear vision to guide the project team to a common goal.

Vision: the capacity to see into the future. It’s setting a vision that people can see where their place in that vision is, and then coming across as deeply empathetic, human and intimate. The vision has to be a generous vision, such that people not only see their path in it but is excited about it. It is not just a plan, it is an enlistment. Great leaders have to be genuine and intimate: You have to feel like they touch you, and there is empathy or humanity there.

– Keith Ferrazi

The project charter‘s vision statement can galvanize the people to achieve defined objectives, even if they are stretch objectives, provided the vision is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Timely).

In order for this vision to be effective, it needs the following five elements (condensed from The Art Of Project Management by Scott Berkun):

  1. Simplifying – The most important thing to strive for is a simplifying effect on the project. A good vision will provide answers to the core questions individuals have, and will give them a tool for making decisions in their own work.
  2. Intentional (Goal driven) – This is the first source of a project’s goals. It sets the tone for what good goals look like, how many goals there should be in the plan, and how much refinement the goals may need before they are complete. A well written goal defines a clear intention for the people on the team. One popular business acronym is SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Timely. The idea is that if a goal has all five of these attributes it is likely to be well defined enough to be useful.
  3. Consolidated – For the vision document to have power, it must consolidate ideas from many other places. It should absorb key thinking from research, analysis, strategic planning, or other efforts, and be the best representation of these ideas.
  4. Inspirational – To connect with people, there must be a clear problem in the world that needs to be solved, which the team has some interest or capacity to solve. By giving the reader a clear understanding of the opportunities that exists, and providing a solid plan for exploiting it, people who have any capacity to be inspired, will be.
  5. Memorable – Being memorable implies two things: first, that the ideas make sense or were interesting in some way; and second that they resonate with the reader and will stay with them. If the vision is too complex for anyone to understand it’s impossible to achieve this. Being memorable is best served by being direct and honest. If you can strike at the core of decisions and communicate them well – even if people don’t completely agree with those decisions – they will stay with people longer than those from a vision full of ideas they fully believe in but were buried in weak and muddy writing.

So what we want is communicate as clearly and concisely as possible in a way that helps people understand what we are doing. We want to help people visualize what they are trying to accomplish, and to give them a tool to reference when making decisions as the project proceeds.

With a well written project vision, the entire team is energized behind the goal, without it, each individual has to conceive the goal on their own.

I was talking to my friend George Ross the other day about the job search that we both unexpectedly find ourselves in, and it occurred to me that I haven’t been approaching my career management with the same level of commitment to planning that I have when managing projects and programs.

A while ago, I made the conscious decision to pursue program management as a way to round out my skills in heading my career into the domain of technical leadership. I’d spent most of my career as a developer with my referent power derived from keeping one step ahead on the technology curve.

In my early career, I had managers and mentors who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, which was the ability to lead. Several managers tried to push me into leadership roles, and at first I pushed back, preferring to keep my head down, and learn as much as I could about everything that I could.

Well, you do that long enough, and those opportunities stop happening, so I found myself at a new place in my career where I actually understood the value of managing others. I’d finally realized that even if I was better than the people I managed, multiple people could get more done than I could as an individual. Even if they worked half as quickly as me, as long as there were enough of them, more work would get done and more quickly.

So understanding this, and meeting a few individuals who’d managed to make that transition from technical geek to technical leader, I set my sites on that CTO sort of role.

So I had an goal, and I had an inkling of an idea of how to get there, but still no formal plan. What occurred to me last night was that like any other goal, without a plan to get there, the path wanders, and you may never get there.

pwc

That said, I was conscious enough to know I needed to round my skills, and I did set my sight on some intermediate targets. First was to get some management experience, which was what led me to PwC and managing web development there.

The truth is, that I wandered a bit more in my career, not really making direct progress toward anything like the CTO role. I gathered a bit more experience as a technical architect, expanded my skills leading small teams, and learned a lot about being a consultant and managing expectations.  Still, without a plan time marched on.

Image representing Cisco as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

I was exposed to solid project management at places like Cisco (which is probably the most project based organization I’ve ever worked at) and the value of true project management. It occurred to me that moving into the project management end of the process would round my skills in a way that being an architect would not. It would also round out my business and soft skills in ways that the more technical role would expose me to.

So having no idea what project management was, I talked to a few of my friends and heard about the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI). From watching a few of the better PM’s that I knew go through this certification, I had no doubt that it was a challenging and as real a certification as any I’d come across.

I took a couple of PMP prep classes and studied as much as I could, in order to understand the best practices of project management. I began to understand things that I was doing right, and reasons for things I had not understood before (like what a critical path actually was).

The Golden Gate Bridge as seen from Fort Point...

Image via Wikipedia

During the “downturn”, I became more involved with expanding my skills through volunteering and continuous learning. I helped to form a non-profit aimed at getting people jobs, and learned a great deal about interpersonal networking (both virtual and physical).

Continuing that growth in leadership, I’ve joined the board of directors of the PMI San Francisco Bay Area Chapter as Secretary and VP of Operations (officially starting on April 1st, 2011).

Now I’m feeling the skills are getting pretty rounded, and I still don’t have a real plan to get from here to there. So the first step in my plan is to write down that I need a plan. Next I think I’ll need a few good mentors to help me figure out a real plan ….

There’s a saying I’ve heard in self-help and twelve step programs that basically means you will learn more about yourself if you continue to do the work: “More shall be revealed …”

I’ve always been a very confident person when it comes to my ability to adapt to work, and always felt that as long as there were challenging problems to solve, I’d have no problem finding work. And while I am highly skilled, I have come to believe that I have been very lucky, and I may have therefore been a bit arrogant about my abilities.

Recently I recognized the fact that intentions and actions don’t always meet. I was flying home and the overhead bins were full next to my seat, so I walked back and placed my bag in a bin a few seats back. As I turned to go back to my seat, I saw a woman who obviously had been ready to put her bag in that spot. I work very hard to be a nice guy, but in this instance, I just continued back to my seat. My intention hadn’t been to upset this person, but my actions did so.

Last year, in October, I was released from a contract that I’d been on for a few years. I had been brought in to temporarily fill a vacancy, but was able to keep extending the contract by doing good work. The organization I was working for was worried about cash flow due to some expansion they were doing, so it seemed like this would be a temporary cost cutting measure.

Immediately after that, the market tanked, and jobs started disappearing. I wasn’t too worried, knowing that typically when jobs get scarce, contracts become more plentiful. I hadn’t had any time off for years, so I decided not to look too hard for the rest of the year.

Even though I wasn’t working too hard at finding a new job, I started to become a bit worried. I was only seeing contracts that had rates lower than salaries for the same work, and often were all inclusive out of state jobs. I did the math on a couple of these and found that I would be working for free by the time I paid for airfare and hotel.

So after the first of the year, I figured I better step the search up. I started working full time on my job search, and spending a lot more time on networking. I went to Job Connections nearly every Saturday, called and emailed friends and former coworkers, and talked to every recruiter that called. I spent hours trying to redo my resume to make it work for a couple of different types of jobs.

And during all this, I took advantage of my time off, studying for, and getting my PMP (Project Management Professional) certification. The silver lining in being out of work for many months, was that I was spending a lot of time on self improvement.

The biggest downside was watching the dwindle, and trying not to panic. We reviewed finances and realized we spent way too much money on a lot of things, and cut our expenses neatly in half. We dropped our burn rate enough to extend our expected “run out of cash” date to be somewhere around the end of the year. Somehow, even though we’d both lived in the paycheck to paycheck mode before, it was almost scarier to see the cash reserves disappear. There was that unfounded fear that we’d lose everything and be homeless.

Luckily for me, my network did pay off, and I picked up a contract that a friend of mine found me. Seemed like things were rolling again. But my lesson wasn’t yet over: I underestimated some politics and made some mistakes at this contract, and I was quickly out of a job. My intentions were to help improve a less than optimal process into one that was efficient, making the lives of nurses and patients better. My actions however only gave a politically charged situation more ammunition.

I lost that job because of two bits of arrogance: not paying attention to the inner voice that told me I should uncover my stakeholder’s needs early, and overestimating my abilities. The contract was supposed to have taken me through the end of the year, instead it lasted only a few weeks. I had been humbled again.

In the mean time, people in my network continued to struggle with the job market. The average time people were unemployed was beginning to stretch out beyond a year. People with more impressive backgrounds than mine were having trouble finding jobs. Companies that really needed employees weren’t hiring to minimize risk from another downturn, or were doing things like taking advantage of the downturn to replace expensive people with less expensive ones.

So after losing that job, I really came to the conclusion I had to take whatever came along, as long as it was something I could do. I started working on equity projects for startups, splitting my time between several of them. I went to meetups, and any free networking events I could find. I took a short contract doing development work. Still the bank account dwindled.

And then out of the blue, I got a call from a woman I had worked with a couple of years ago. I work really hard to stay in touch with people, but I’m definitely humble about my abilities in that area, so I was really happy that she thought enough of me to give me that call. It was perfect timing. It was a salaried job, which I haven’t had for years. I’ve always looked at contracting as just a different way to be compensated however, so I gladly took the job.

As it turns out, it’s a huge job, that I’m sure will challenge the limits of my abilities. I have confidence in my abilities, but humility about my ability to mark the boundaries of those abilities now, which I think will help me grow and meet these challenges.

And I’m sure, as they say: “More shall be revealed …”