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Managing the true reality

Appeared in Portland Press Herald, March 16, 2008

What’s going on here?
When you’re managing a difficult workplace initiative, the quick answer often isn’t the right answer. Reality can be hard to handle. It can be hard to face. Sometimes it’s even hard to figure out what it is.

That’s why each of us, having viewed the workplace around us, has a storybook rich in examples of failure, avoidance and the grand old tradition of “solving” a favorite problem whether it’s the right problem or not.

Of course, there also are plentiful instances of striking success against great challenges. Unfortunately, those are less noticed and less fun to talk about. Just for laughs, refer to your most recent favorite Dilbert episodes -- you can see what gets the attention.

When the heat is on

Projects are the pressure cookers of organizations. An organization launching a complex, risky, deadline-driven innovation starts with its pre-existing strengths and weaknesses.

Yet, when this thing is something new, your familiar routine won’t do. The first thing the leadership must do is specify just what it really is facing, and what it will take to accomplish it. Too often, this vital step is bypassed, defined in a fuzzy or superficial way, or simply reduced to a more comfortable level.

Maine’s chapter of the Project Management Institute has been tracking this innovation phenomenon for five years through its Project of the Year competition.

Over that time, dozens of organizations – in construction, social service, business, marketing, politics, manufacturing, health care, education, software development – have submitted reports on their management of projects large and small.
There have been four winners of the Maine Project of the Year award and 11 winners of Project of Distinction.

Each year, a panel of judges who are expert in appropriate specialties review the nominees’ entry packets, and provide brief explanations of their conclusions about the award winners.

A thread that runs through the judges’ remarks reveals a basic strength in management of the winning projects: The successful project managers understood the true character of their challenges, and therefore handled the projects in ways less-perceptive leaders would not have understood.

The Maine Turnpike Widening project was completed in 2004 under budget and ahead of schedule. It also, though, was superb in managing the needs of thousands of drivers and all the towns impacted along the right of way.
USM’s Mitchell Center construction in Gorham coordinated the needs of numerous academic constituencies, plus the educational interests of students, both those who occupied the original structure until June and those who walked into a fully ready doubled facility in September.

Scarborough’s Chamber-High School Career Development project was so tuned to the needs of both businesses and students that it was oversubscribed at both ends.

Technical project? People project?

Many projects are designed and led by managers who miss the essence of the problem they are solving, or the opportunity at their disposal.

For example, managers installing a new technology system often occupy themselves solely with the machines, the cabling and the requisite physical realignments. While that is going on, the employees who will be using the new process are left to speculate among themselves.

By the time full information and training are provided, opposition can be entrenched. In the end, “culture change” turns out to have been the core of the project all along, and it was botched.

The reality in such a project is that the human factors are equal in weight to the technical factors. The project is a technical innovation driving a process change. It must involve the user stakeholders early and often, so the project not only will include the knowledge of the workers who will use its output, but they will be bought in.

That kind of involvement can be messy and time-consuming . . . but not so much so as failure of the project.
Once it is understood that the organization indeed is into something more complex than a new paint job, the wise project manager will ask a lot of questions of a lot of people. All pertinent points so uncovered will be incorporated into the planning.

Full and open communication leads to a dependable definition of what the project really is about, and establishes the foundation for the broad-based partnership that is the hallmark of competent project management.

That successful approach to the reality of project management doesn’t do much for providing Dilbert material, but it is a big plus for the end users of the projects . . . and immensely satisfying for those who pulled it off.

Organizations need frequent tune-ups to maintain effective workflow amid change. Jim has long experience – plus creative tools -- to help executives analyze their organizations, then design and implement better ways.
Project Management is the 21st-century model for managing complex, risky innovations to on-time outcomes within budget. Jim Milliken offers workplace-tested designs in customized formats for onsite implementation and classroom training.
Communication is the lifeblood of human organization, in small partnerships and large corporations – and the pipeline to their markets. Jim provides practical approaches to all the oral and written forms.
Personal Productivity is fundamental, and it consists of skills that can be examined, practiced and perfected. Likewise Leadership and Supervision. Jim has common-sense training designs for dozens of these essentials.



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