Advice to My Younger Self

Layla and AbbieSomeone on LinkedIn suggested we write a letter to our 22-year old selves, with the things we know now that we wish we knew at that age. The expectation was that new graduates, just starting out their careers, would benefit from that perspective. I’m not sure how many 22-year olds have LinkedIn accounts, but I’m pretty sure that good advice will be shared. So, with that in mind, here’s the best advice I can give:

Make a List

Every day brings things that must be done, that should be done, and that you simply want to do. Capture them in a list, and work your list. Those who accumulate responsibilities, whether family, career, or community, also accumulate things to do. Develop the habit of maintaining lists of things to do, and you’ll be better prepared to fulfill those responsibilities.

Prioritize

You can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t try. You can’t do everything, and you need to have realistic expectations.  Once you have your list, prioritize it. Work your list in priority order, and be ruthless about it. The term triage refers to the military practice of prioritizing medical treatment of the wounded by putting them into three groups: those will live, whether they receive immediate treatment or not, those who will not survive, given the available treatment, and those for whom treatment means the difference between life and death. I’m not suggesting that your to-do list should be seen as a matter of life or death, but you should internalize what the term means. And when you have difficult conflicts to resolve, remember that battlefield medico, who has to make those choices and then live with them.

Delegate

Early humans had only two specialties: hunter and gatherer. These days, nearly everyone has some specialized way of making a living, using tools and techniques the average person isn’t exposed to. Our economy is based on trading for goods and services provided by others; in other words, delegating. You should be prepared to delegate items on your to-do list to others, who are either better at them, have available time, or simply need the experience. That’s how you’ll get the experience you’ll put on your resume. But follow up on whatever you delegate, to be sure that it was done to the quality level you expected – you delegate work, but not accountability.

Update

As you delegate or complete a task, mark it as such. But when you do, glance at the items near the bottom of the list. You won’t get to everything, unless you have a short list and lots of time. Give yourself permission to cross off the ones you won’t get to. Economists talk about opportunity cost, which is the “cost” incurred by not enjoying the benefit that would realized by taking the second best choice available. If this task is at the bottom of your list, I would suggest that it isn’t the second best choice. There is value in the work deliberately not done, in that you free up time to do more valuable work.

Celebrate

The satisfaction you get from completing a task and crossing it off your list is, for many of us, part of the reason we take on difficult tasks. Don’t just grind things out – take time to look back on what you’ve accomplished. Remind yourself that you’re on a journey, and that, for the moment, you are in control. Those moments are fleeting; don’t let them pass without notice.

I’ll close with a phrase borrowed from Star Trek: Live long and prosper. The expression is not merely an eccentric way to say goodbye; it is a mandate and a responsibility. How well you fulfill that responsibility will determine the satisfaction you’ll get a few decades from now, when you sit down to compose a similar missive to your younger self.

Roles and Responsibilities

Flower GirlMy wife and I recently traveled to Seattle for a wedding. Our daughter-in-law was the matron of honor, and our granddaughter was one of the flower girls. Since Abbie is only two and a half years old, this was her first wedding. Fortunately, there was another flower girl, who went first and modeled the appropriate behavior. She walked the length of the aisle, scattering rose petals along the way. Abbie followed for a few steps, and then stopped to look at the rose petals on the floor. Being OCD (like her Dad), she started picking them up and putting them in her basket. Not quite what Mom had expected when she gave her the job, but the audience loved it.

Roles and Responsibilities

For many people, being assigned to work on a project is a novelty. They have regular jobs, where they have well-understood, routine practices and procedures. However, their additional project duties may not be clear to them. When in doubt, they may default to the behaviors that have made them successful in their regular job (like cleaning up the floor after play). This default may not be beneficial to the project, especially for tasks in the critical path. Consequently, it is important to make the responsibilities, procedures, and project relationships clear for the people assigned to each role, especially if they’ve never worked on a similar project. There are several tools available for clarifying roles and responsibilities:

  • Project Organization Chart – A simple hierarchical diagram of the reporting relationships can usually answer most questions, especially on a cross-functional team.
  • Role Description – Many project charters or project human resource management plans have a narrative description of the duties and responsibilities of each role. This can prevent confusion over who is responsible for what activities.
  • RACI Chart – A table listing the work packages or deliverables, identifying who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed for each, usually adds enough structure for most teams to establish a well-understood workflow.
  • Samples and Templates – Many “new” tasks are best understood by looking at the result of a previously completed task, or a fill-in-the-blanks form. This is especially true for work packages resulting in a document deliverable.

Minimizing Overlap of Responsibilities

A primary goal of planning for the human resources aspects of a project should be to ensure all tasks are covered, exactly once. If two people are responsible for the same task, there is a reasonable chance that neither of them will do it. Use the RACI chart to fine-tune who participates in the production of each project deliverable. Ensure that all work assignments are unambiguous, and all participants understand how the work in progress will be handed off. Work with the team to define cues, and follow up on transitions from one person or group to the next. And don’t forget to note completion – I like Kanban boards, because they make work in queue, in progress, and completed visible to the workers.

Coaching

Of course, nothing beats coaching. Whether it comes from the project manager or another experienced team member, a bit of guidance can go a long way. Any task performed for the first time naturally raises questions, before, during, and after. I regularly work on SaaS or software implementation projects with people who will only replace their enterprise software once or twice in their career, so the coaching is less about developing skills than it is about getting them through the assigned task.

Effectively communicating roles and responsibilities can make the project a positive experience for the entire team, while ensuring the timeliness and quality of the deliverables. It takes a bit more care in planning, but it makes execution go much more smoothly.

Selecting Means of Communication

Master Kan“Avoid, rather than check. Check, rather than hurt. Hurt, rather than maim. Maim, rather than kill. For all life is precious, nor can any be replaced.” — Master Kan (Philip Ahn), “Kung Fu”

I’ve seen a lot of different estimates of the amount of time a project manager spends on communication, but I’ve never seen an estimate below 70%.  So if we’re going to be interacting with others for most of our working day, we might benefit from a rubric for selecting our means of communication for maximum efficiency.

A rubric is used to assess a performance task, but it can also be used to determine the best approach for performing the task.  The table below describes a rubric for assessing planned communications.  Each element is associated with criteria, which correspond to numeric values.  Communication tasks with lower totals benefits from use of one-to-one communications, whereas somewhat higher totals benefit from one-to-many communications, such as Tweets or Email.  The highest totals benefit from many-to-many interactions, such as conference calls or in-person meetings.

3 2 1
Number in the Audience Many A few One
Proximity of the audience Distant In between Close
Physical distribution Widely distributed In between Co-located
Need for audience interaction High Moderate Low
Familiar with subject matter Yes Somewhat No
Potential for emotional reaction Low Moderate High
Complexity of subject matter High Moderate Low
Need for immediate response Low Moderate High

The goal of communication planning should be not to reduce the amount of time spent communicating, but to making planned communications as efficient as possible. Analysis by rubric can be very useful in preparing our project communication plans.  To paraphrase Master Kan: Speak face to face, rather than by telephone.  Telephone, rather than Instant Message.  IM, rather than Tweet.  Tweet, rather than Email.  Email, rather than schedule a conference call.  Conference, rather than schedule a meeting.  For everyone’s time is precious, and their attention and participation should not be wasted.
Dilbert Meetings a Waste of Time
I’d appreciate your thoughts on the rubric elements and criteria – I’m pretty sure my first pass can be improved.  Leave a comment below and let’s collaborate on it!