Living the Dream

I have a bunch of friends who founded a consulting company called Junction Solutions about 6 years ago.  They worked hard and the company has grown exponentially.  As a result, they are all very successful and likely quite wealthy.

One of the founders is named Jeff.  I talked with Jeff several times about the possibility of joining the company (a decision I sometimes question) and I’ll never forget his signature line – “I’m living the dream”.  These guys were all working like crazy and sacrificing a lot to make their company successful but they viewed it as fun and as living out their dream.

I get a little jealous when I hear that they are living the dream.  As I think about my own life and career, more often than not I look like I am in the battle for my life.  I usually look more like I am struggling and fighting for survival than looking like I am thriving and at ease.

This is a lot like my running.  When I run I am generally pushing myself, tired, out of breath, and looking like I need a long nap.  Take a look at this picture below taken moments after finishing the Las Vegas Marathon in December of 2006.  Do I look to you like I am living the dream?

Anthony_Vegas_2006

In short, no.  I look spent, completely used up, and nearly dead.  Which is exactly how I felt that day in that moment.  I was trying to get a 3:30 marathon time to qualify for the Boston Marathon and on this day, I came up short.  I was utterly exhausted and dehydrated as well.  I had my wife Norma, my brother Scott, and my friend Tim all there to support me and I felt like I let them down because I did not do what I came there to do.  I went all out and I did not achieve my goal.

The thing is, I often work like this as well.  I go all out and wind up looking like I am spent, used up, and just hanging on by a thread.  I don’t imagine it is attractive to others and I don’t believe it conveys an image of success.  It does not look like I am living the dream.

Or does it?  Is it possible to be spending yourself entirely, to be going all out, to go after your goals with abandon AND to be living the dream at the same time?  Is it possible that this look of exhaustion is also a look of living the dream?

What would living the dream look like for you?  Would it be a smile of contentment as you sit back and relax in a lawn chair sipping a cold drink

Why We Are Afraid to Tell the Truth about Project Failures

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on project failure and I have noticed some interesting patterns regarding denial and the fear of admitting failure or mistakes.

Since 1994, the Standish Group has been conducting bi-annual studies of IT projects and the success and failure rates for those projects.  Dubbed the Chaos Studies, the research is widely quoted as the industry standard (though recently there is some criticism of the data). Since the inception of these Chaos Studies, the reported statistics for projects that fail, are challenged or succeed have been roughly the same (see summary below).  The cost of these failed projects and the amount of waste represented is staggering but that is not the point of this post.

ChaosStudy_Trends

The point of this post is not project failures (we’ll tackle that later), it is fear and denial. I have been out talking to people about troubled projects and referencing these Chaos Studies.  I have found that very few IT Leaders, CIOs, and IT project managers are even aware of these studies and failure statistics.  When asked they do acknowledge that there are a high rate of failures but don’t pay attention to industry studies on it nor do they think of it as a call to action as I do.  To me, this seems the rough equivalent of a pitching coach not knowing the ERA for any of his pitchers or a life insurance salesperson not being aware of actuarial tables.

But it also seems to me that there is another factor at work and that is a professional disdain for telling the truth (aka denial).  As a program manager, I have seen many resumes for project managers.  The vast majority of those resumes state that all the projects were delivered “on time on budget” as if it were a mantra.  If only roughly 1 in 3 projects are considered successful, there must be someone responsible for the other 2 in 3 projects that were not successful.  Somebody is not quite owning up to those problem projects.

A recent LinkedIn discussion post touched on a closely related topic – “Do we really think someone will declare their project is in trouble”.  The spirited discussion revealed some interesting attitudes about fessing up to a problem project situation.  Some of the opinions stated were that it’s a professional/ethical responsibility to declare you are in trouble; it is a sign of a good project manager to own up and ask for help; we learn the most from our failures; anyone who doesn’t own up should be tarred and feathered, etc.  One common thread in many of the responses was a need for an external QA function to provide an external view on the health of the project.  That is, we need someone other than the PM to tell us what is really going on.

Here are my personal opinions on why people don’t admit their failures or reach out when in they are in trouble.  I believe that they are afraid; afraid that people will think less of them or that they are incompetent.  I also think that some people, project managers, in particular, are afraid to ask for help because it makes them look weak.

While the Chaos Studies may be skewed in their reporting of failure, I think most of us would readily admit that there is a relatively high rate of failure on IT projects.  We need to have less denial about the start of our industry, more honesty about the state of our own projects, and turn this around so that we see failure as part of the learning process.  We need to not only acknowledge our own failed initiatives but harvest them for the lessons they can provide.

Tina Seelig wrote about failure as a learning opportunity in her 2009 post, You can’t spell failure or success without U.  She talks about how she requires students in her class to write a failure resume showcasing all the mistakes they have made.  She sees this as a valuable reminder to extract all the lessons from failure and to see failure as a key part of the learning process.  As she has noted, if you want more successes, you have to tolerate more failures.

Here are what I see as the lessons for project managers:

  1. The truth always comes out and so it is best for you to share it. You will be more favorably regarded by telling the truth rather than denying problems or reaching out for help. It may take a while, but the truth eventually comes out.
  2. Reach out for help when you need it.  Asking for help is not only responsible, it is also good and appropriate communications and expectations management.  Besides, you stand a much better chance of heading off major problems before they grow if you are willing to admit you need help and seek it.
  3. When hiring project managers, watch out for those with a spotless record.  Be suspicious of those who say ‘on time on budget’ as if it were a mantra or a secret passphrase. Ask people about their failures and see what they are willing to share.
  4. Harvest every project for the lessons to be learned.  A project post-mortem should be conducted for every project, especially those projects that are canceled mid-stream. Also, PMs should maintain a journal of every success, failure, and lesson learned through the execution of the project. Ideally, this is something that is done using a few minutes each day or once a week.
  5. Expect failure as a requirement for success.  If you and the people around you are not failing with regularity, you are not trying hard enough or taking enough risks.

IT Project success rates aren’t going to improve until we start telling the truth about where we are and what is causing the failures.  We need to extract the lessons from our failed projects and use them to continually improve our project success rates.

Cheers!

Anthony

When in Doubt, be Nice!

Last week, a good friend and mentor of mine overheard a conversation I was having with one of the team leads on my program.  I was not satisfied with the leader’s performance and I was not nice in my remarks about what I expected.  My friend observed the exchange between me and the team lead and she spoke up and said: “When in doubt, be nice”.

Her comment stung.  I pride myself on my political correctness and being nice to others.  Being called out for not being nice hurt.  And she was right.

Spinner2 The truth is that I have a hard time balancing being kind and getting the results that I want.  I am not suggesting that these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive, but I think that I have placed a higher premium on one than on the other.  I choose to be nice rather than to be satisfied, and this is a real problem for me.

I was recently in a weekend workshop on growing as a leader.  While the workshop helped me to spot several strengths of mine, it also revealed to me a couple of key weaknesses:

  1. I don’t go for my own personal satisfaction; I am OK with coming up short.
  2. I am not honest with myself about my lack of satisfaction.  I am ok with feeling like a victim, rather than getting what I really want.  I don’t tell the truth about what I really feel or mean.  (For more about telling the truth, see my previous post Tell the Truth).

Going for Your Own Personal Satisfaction

Let’s start with the idea of going for your own personal satisfaction.  The principle of responsibility says that I am responsible for my actions and my outcomes.  If I don’t get the results that I want, or if I am not satisfied, that is my responsibility and mine alone. That is all great but the problem for me is this – I am OK with being dissatisfied as it gives me something to complain about, a reason to blame someone else, a way to be a victim, or just a general ‘out’ about not giving it my all.

The better approach is to go for 100% satisfaction of what I want.  This requires being clear about what it is that I want and working with others to make sure it happens.  No excuses, no complaints, and no blaming others.  Just going for what I want and not being satisfied with less.

I like what I wrote about personal satisfaction in this post from January 2009:

“Instead of seeking comfort, we should seek our own satisfaction.  In every situation, we should be monitoring our own level of satisfaction and using that as an internal gauge for whether we are doing the right thing.  My mentor Rich Blue calls this going for our 100% satisfaction.  If you seek to get 100% satisfaction out of every meeting, presentation, project assignment, and workshop, you won’t have to worry about feeling comfortable.  Being satisfied is a higher value than being comfortable.”

Let me give you a real-life example.  If you are at a restaurant and you order a salad with the dressing on the side, what are the odds that the waiter will remember and bring your salad with the dressing on the side?  I do this often and I think the odds are about 90% – that is, the waiter will correctly put the dressing on the side about 9 out of 10 times.  What happens when they don’t, and they bring the salad with the dressing already on it?  What do you do when that happens?

I know what I do – I eat the salad.  I will sometimes mutter under my breath, or make idle threats about reducing the tip, but I rarely draw attention to the fact that I did not get what I ordered and I am not 100% satisfied.  You see, I have been conditioned from an early age to be OK with that, to even expect that I will be disappointed and to minimize the importance of it.  This is not a healthy response for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it builds resentment that can surface later in undesired ways.

I don’t tell the Truth about my Satisfaction

The second big idea here is that I don’t tell the truth about my level of satisfaction. Just like with the salad, I suck it up.  Quietly.  I tell myself it is not really important, or not worth fighting about.

I am increasingly aware that I do better or worse with certain people or in certain situations.  With some people and in some situations, I have this large blindspot that I have come to think of as a form of ‘corporate denial’.  It is as though with certain people or situations, I completely toss out my expectations the idea that I could be personally satisfied.  I am unable – no, unwilling – to clearly see the truth in what is happening and orient to my own satisfaction.  A good example of this is with authority figures.

I am learning that this corporate denial has become so ingrained in me that I think of it as normal.  It is like the water in the fish tank that the fish cannot see or appreciate.

Being Nice

How does all this relate to being nice?  Well, generally I am very nice.  I am often ‘nice’ at the expense of being effective, as I can be in the restaurant example.  The problem is that while I may be nice on the surface, underneath the surface I am hurt and angry.

Let’s be clear though – being hurt and angry is what I have co-created.  It is also what I expect to happen.  The shift that I need to make is to be crystal clear about what I want and determined to have things the way that I want them.  I need to go for 100% satisfaction for myself.  This needs to be a top priority.

Spinner4 Initially, my need to go for 100% satisfaction may come at the expense of being nice.  Because I have been off balance for so long, the pendulum needs to swing the other way.  I need to have an extreme focus on my 100% satisfaction.

So for me to speak up that day and in an unkind way to challenge my team lead to do their job better, was actually a grow for me and a step in the right direction.  It wasn’t pretty, and I know that I can improve on that.  But I need to continue to get in there and be willing to be messy but insist that things be done the way that I want them done.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts and reactions, in particular, if you pride yourself on being a nice guy ora nice girl.

Cheers,

Anthony

 

 

 

Committing to a Year of Risk-Taking and Failure

I am committed to changing my relationship with failure.  Failure was something I was deathly afraid for most of my early life.  I think I was 30 years old before I took any serious risks at all and that included leaving a secure job at IBM, moving to Chicago, and getting divorced.  That year of risk-taking was one of the most important and formative years of my entire life.  But before we go further into failure and risk-taking, I have a small confession.

I think that I love Seth Godin.  Yes, it is true.  I don’t mean that I am in love with Seth Godin, just that I love what he writes and find myself inspired by it.  Every day I find myself excited to find something from his blog in my inbox.

Lately, I’ve been struck how often Seth writes about failing.  Maybe I even love him more when he talks about failing.  It may be that I have been thinking about failure more or that my mentor Rich Blue has been talking more about failure, and all of a sudden I am seeing it everywhere.  In any case, I noticed what seemed like a trend so I went back through Seth’s blog posts to see what he had actually written about failure.  Here is a somewhat random dozen of my favorites snippets from his blogs on failure:

1/17/2008: Is it worthy?
Our birthright is to fail and to fail often but to fail in search of something bigger than we can imagine. To do anything else is to waste it all.

1/18/2010: Unrealized projects
[writing about director Tim Burton] One key element of a successful artist: ship. Get it out the door. Make things happen…The other: fail. Fail often. Dream big and don’t make it. Not every time, anyway. 2/27/2010: Genius is misunderstood as a bolt of lightning
Genius is actually the eventual public recognition of dozens (or hundreds) of failed attempts at solving a problem. Sometimes we fail in public, often we fail in private, but people who are doing creative work are constantly failing.

7/16/2010: A hierarchy of failure worth following
Not all failures are the same. Here are five kinds, from frequency = good all the way to please-don’t!

FAIL OFTEN: Ideas that challenge the status quo. Proposals. Brainstorms. Concepts that open doors.
FAIL FREQUENTLY: Prototypes. Spreadsheets. Sample ads and copy.
FAIL OCCASIONALLY: Working mockups. Playtesting sessions. Board meetings.
FAIL RARELY: Interactions with small groups of actual users and customers.
FAIL NEVER: Keeping promises to your constituents.
1/17/2011: Cashing the check
The opportunity to step up and to fail (and then to fail again, and to fail again) and to continue failing until we succeed is greater now than it has ever been.

4/14/2011: How to fail
All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else.

5/3/2011: Hard work vs. Long work
Hard work is frightening. We shy away from hard work because inherent in hard work is a risk. Hard work is hard because you might fail. You can’t fail at long work, you merely show up. You fail at hard work when you don’t make an emotional connection, or when you don’t solve the problem or when you hesitate.

10/5/2011: Failures and the dip
In the Dip, I’m arguing that big successes happen when people with good taste see the failures, evolve and keep pushing anyway. The good taste comes when you know the difference between failures that are better off forgotten and failures that are merely successes that haven’t grow up yet.

12/18/2011: The difference between a failure and a mistake
A failure is a project that doesn’t work, an initiative that teaches you something at the same time the outcome doesn’t move you directly closer to your goal. A mistake is either a failure repeated, doing something for the second time when you should have known better, or a misguided attempt (because of carelessness, selfishness or hubris) that hindsight reminds you is worth avoiding. We need a lot more failures, I think. Failures that don’t kill us make us bolder, and teach us one more way that won’t work, while opening the door to things that might. School confuses us, so do bosses and families. Go ahead, fail. Try to avoid mistakes, though.

1/9/2012: Out on a limb
That’s where artists do their work. Not in the safe places, but out there, in a place where they might fail, where it might end badly, where connections might be lost, sensibilities might be offended, jokes might not be gotten.

1/29/2012: Prepared to fail
“We’re hoping to succeed; we’re okay with failure. We just don’t want to land in between.”
–David Chang
He’s serious. Lots of people say this, but few are willing to put themselves at risk, which destroys the likelihood of success and dramatically increases the chance of in between.

Which brings me back to my mentor Rich Blue and his recent failure kick.  He keeps encouraging me to live a big life by saying, “if you aren’t failing then you are not taking enough risks”.  (I would also mention that I love Rich Blue but I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me!)  It was Rich that introduced me to the Mindset book by Carol Dweck.

In this book, Dr. Dweck thoroughly explores our beliefs about our abilities, our growth, and about learning new things.   These beliefs form the ‘mindset’ that we carry about ourselves and others.  There is a fixed mindset that says that people are born with certain traits and abilities and that defines the full extent of their capabilities.  Then there is a growth mindset which believes that people will continue to grow and develop through their own efforts.

Individuals with a fixed mindset tend to avoid failure at all costs.  To fail means to define yourself as a failure.  So as you can imagine, taking risks or trying something new isn’t practiced by those with a fixed mindset.  I think this pretty well describes the first 30 years of my life.

Individuals with a growth mindset tend to value taking risks and being willing to fail.  They see failure as an opportunity to learn about what is not working or to adjust their approach.

The concept of failure is also pretty big in agile development, an area that I have been exploring a lot lately.  In fact, a key saying from agile is “fail fast”.  This is often used to justify pulling the plug on risky projects sooner rather than before a major investment has been sunk.  (Note:  I think we have to be cautious about this application because it could also lead to pulling the plug too early, or not fully throwing yourself into a project or initiative, just because it is risky.)  I think the description from James Shore in the Art of Agile Development is the one that I like the best:

Failing fast applies to all aspects of your work, to examples as small as buying a bag of a new type of coffee bean rather than a crate. It frees you from worrying excessively about whether a decision is good or bad. If you’re not sure, structure your work so that you expose errors as soon as they occur. If it fails, let it fail quickly, rather than lingering in limbo. Either way, invest only as much time and as many resources as you need to be sure of your results.

With these principles guiding your decisions, you’ll fear failure less. If failure doesn’t hurt, then it’s OK to fail. You’ll be free to experiment and take risks. Capitalize on this freedom: if you have an idea, don’t speculate about whether it’s a good idea—try it! Create an experiment that will fail fast, and see what happens.

I just spent the previous 3.5 years doing so-so consulting work for a great client. Unfortunately, I became quite complacent during this time and I took very few risks. I wrote less than previously, spoke less, and read less. I CREATED LESS!  I was not challenging myself, I was not taking risks, and I was not failing fast. When a colleague mentioned to me last year that he was reading one business book a week, I was incredulous. “It can’t be done,” I thought as I silently reflected on my own 1-book-every-2-months pace. (Since the beginning of this year, I have put myself to the task and found I could actually complete 2 or even 3 books in a week when I applied myself.)

I am committed to changing my relationship with failure.  2012 is going to be a year of ramping up the risks and the failure rate.  I am going to live like it is 1993 again (sans the painful divorce!).  I am going to fail fast.  I started last month with a new certification and partnering with two different consulting firms.  I am reading, and writing.  (If you are an agile enthusiast, please note that I have launched a new website specifically about agile and program management at www.vitalitychicago.com. )

Stay tuned here for more.  And do please let me know what risks you are taking this year.  I hope they are big ones!

Cheers!
Anthony

Tips for Leading Agile Teams with Emotional Intelligence

As I noted in my last post, I am working on the second edition of Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.  Thankfully, I was able to send the manuscript on time today, so that is no longer hanging over my head!

The second edition includes a new chapter on Success with Agile Teams.  Anyone who has used Agile methods though will attest to the fact that leading Agile teams is not the same as leading traditional teams.  Agile teams are expected to be self-organizing. This doesn’t mean there are no leaders,
but it requires a style of leadership that is less prescriptive and more supportive.  It is often called Servant Leadership, and it requires a lot of emotional intelligence.

I ended the new chapter in the book with the following 9 tips for leading Agile Teams with Emotional Intelligence.  I’d love to hear your feedback on these.

  1. Evaluate your level of Command and Controlism.  Take a step back and really evaluate the ways you use command and control.  Are you holding back the teams you lead by trying to control them?  If you are having trouble seeing it in yourself, note whether you see it in others.  Or, ask those you trust to provide you with accurate feedback on your behavior.
  2. Proactively step back and let others step up.  Try stepping back and letting others decide what to do.  Spend less time trying to force your will on others, or to manipulate them to do what you think they should do.  Trust that whatever they do, they will learn from their behavior.
  3. Say less; a lot less.  Rather than always being the first to speak up, trying shutting up and listening more.  Really tune in to what others say, rather than your own internal chatter, or simply waiting for your chance to speak.  See where the leadership comes from when you don’t hog all the airtime.  Try the empathetic listening techniques we’ve discussed in the blog and in Chapter 5 of the book.
  4. Practice some form of daily mindfulness.  This is important for all PMs, but it is especially important for leaders of Agile Teams.  Whether you use meditation, prayer, journaling, or some other technique, establish this as a daily practice that you do to be clear with yourself before you engage with the team.  Put to use some of those Self-Awareness techniques discussed in this blog.
  5. Get underneath your fear.  Most of us who feel the need to control do so out of fear and many of our fears are irrational or unwarranted.  Look below the surface to see if you can determine what you are afraid of.  I know for me this is usually a fear of failure.  I am afraid that the team will fail and that it will reflect poorly on me.  Some of us also fear a loss of relevance.  After all, if the team can do great work or come up with great ideas without me, what value do I have?  Dig deep into what your underlying fears are so that you can understand how those are affecting your behaviors within the team.
  6. Use Jedi Mind Tricks – When it comes to decisions, put the decision back on the team rather than jumping in and making the decisions for them.  Try holding back on your own opinion even when asked.  Take time to pause and to ask the team, “What do you think we should do?”.  You might be surprised at what they say.  Or you might say, “Is anyone else feeling the pressure to decide right now besides me?”
  7. That’s a Great Idea! – Some of us are so hungry to be affirmed, that we often find it hard to accept new ideas or perspectives from others.  We’re used to saying things like, “that is a good idea BUT it won’t work because of… “.  To overcome this type of behavior, practice saying “That’s a great idea!”, and then look for every opportunity to say it. It may not come easy.
  8. Use Positive Regard with Everyone – See the team at its very best, not necessarily in their worst moment.  Know that the team will rise to the occasion when they need to; that they will learn from their experience, and that they will get better over time.  Hold each member of the team, and the team as a whole, with high positive regard.
  9. Be a Servant Leader – Agile team leaders, Program Managers, and Functional Managers all need to support the agile team.  They frequently need to serve as a buffer between the Agile team and the rest of the organization.  Tune in to the organizational norms that run counter to Agile and run interference for the team.  Help streamline mandatory documentation or other PMO requirements do that the Agile Team can be empowered and self-organizing.

I’ve mentioned this before, but a great resource for Agile project managers, coaches, program managers, and functional managers is Lyssa Adkins 2010 book, Coaching Agile Teams; A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition. Lyssa provides many ideas for supporting Agile teams, overcoming command and controlism, and leading ourselves.

I’d love to hear your comments, whether you are an agile project manager or one who is using more traditional methods.

Cheers!

Anthony