New Post at AITS: On Being Intrepid as a Project Manager

My latest article for AITS was published today: On Being Intrepid as a Project Manager.

The word “intrepid” comes from Latin and means “not alarmed.” I often say my primary contribution to a project is being a calming influence. Intrepid behavior – the ability to perform effectively under conditions of uncertainty in complex environments and difficult circumstances – is often what the team needs most from the leads, project manager, and sponsor. Practical applications include risk management, stakeholder engagement, and of course, dealing with financial and other resource constraints. If you have comments on this thought, please leave a comment at AITS. If you have suggestions for future topics, please leave a comment here.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read my stuff.

To a Millennial

The pace of change increases at an exponential rate, and over the next two or three decades, our civilization will undergo more change than in the last millennium – changes that may make entire institutions, including nations and religions, obsolete. By the end of this century, from artificial super-intelligence to life spans approaching two or three centuries, the human experience may be completely unrecognizable to today’s school children. We can’t possibly imagine what it will be like, any more than Gutenberg could imagine the Kindle Fire, or understand it without falling into utter despair.

As a sixty-something, it’s time for my cohort to make room for Millennials to step up and lead. And to you, I humbly offer some thoughts on how you might prepare to ensure that people do what is right, rather than what is merely possible. Much of what you will learn during your life will be obsolete before you master it. But learn, you must. Indeed, your children will likely experience foundational changes in a range comparable to those that led from Clovis points to COBOL, and riding that avalanche must be the natural thing for them to do.

Learn to be Skeptical

For the Boomers, an undergraduate degree was a differentiator. For Generation X, it became table stakes. For your generation, education is just a sunk cost and memorization is simply ridiculous. But if you have learned how to research, to think critically, to separate facts from mere assertions, “sponsored” search results, fake news and outright bullshit, and to unlearn everything that once mattered so much to you, then you are empowered to not-drown. Note that this doesn’t mean you will swim, or even float.

Learn to Change

Discipline is freedom. Your ability to change your behavior, whether it involves reinforcing the good things or stopping the bad ones, reshape your body or preserve your health is entirely a function of your ability to take disciplined action. Learn to be still, to be reflective, and to be mindful. But also learn to abandon old habits, design and adopt new habits, and continually assess the effectiveness of your behaviors in helping you achieve your goals. Embrace the process, and the results will follow.

Learn to Make Decisions

If you’ve learned nothing else from your games, you should know that hesitation is a decision, and often the wrong decision. Learn to quickly decide in the absence of certainty, to take assertive action with minimal actionable information, to recognize a bad decision, and to abandon it. Don’t just fail quickly – backtrack immediately. This means taking risk management to places we’ve never gone before – be sure to send us a selfie, if you’re still doing that sort of thing.

Learn to Influence

Yours is the collaborative generation – you swarm a problem in ways that make us Boomers feel like equestrian statues, covered in pigeon-shit. The next skill beyond collaborating is influencing. To influence opinion is to influence action. Just don’t be selfish. Don’t be exploitive. Don’t drive people to behave unethically, or cause them to regret falling under your influence, even if they have no idea who you are.

Learn to Lead

Once upon a time, in a world without social media or even telephones, we believed that we led by example. But in the last few decades, it’s become obvious that even odious examples could inspire followers. I don’t know how you should proceed here, because my generation’s thinking is simply invalid in this subject area. I ask only that you embrace equality, justice, kindness, and respect, and that you never abandon them for hate and tribalism.

Aside from these principles, I have little to offer you and can give no reason for you to feel like your world will be a better place – that will be entirely up to you. Peace be with you.

The Impossible Deadline

Limes or Lemons?Another day, another question on a LinkedIn project management group discussion: “How to refuse your sponsor for the impossible deadline committed to by him?” Or, to put it another way, how do you tell him his lime is actually a lemon?

First of all, you aren’t refusing – you are simply calling his attention to reality. Good project managers are a force for truth. You can’t fit ten pounds of flour in a five-pound sack, as Dolly Parton once said, and no one benefits from spilling a lot of flour all over the floor, trying to make it so.

Exploring Alternatives

Explain why the scope to be delivered cannot be done in the time frame the sponsor outlined; ask if it makes sense to cut some things out of scope; then ask if there is budget to add resources. If the sponsor wants to make it about you, reply that you are simply doing the math – the project will not succeed, as currently envisioned. Ask what was the basis for the timeline that he provided. The answer will probably be about lack of support for the project at senior levels, whether it’s said that way or not, or about the sponsor’s personal ambitions. If you’re not making any progress with the cost or scope legs of the triangle, ask if it makes more sense to cancel the project. At that point, he’ll either deflate or explode.

Consequences and Culture

If you simply try to overcome reality (you can’t) in order to please this sponsor (you won’t), you’ll end up as the scapegoat when it becomes obvious the project is going to be late. Better to take the abuse up front, and get whatever credit there is to be had for putting the organization first.

Of course, I say this recognizing that, in some cultures it isn’t easy to stand up to authority. Deference and obedience to the manager are valued over loyalty to the best interests of the organization. I’m describing what I would do, with my American upbringing and cultural values. But even in our culture, it takes a lot of personal integrity to do all of this, especially when the sponsor is an ambitious tyrant. Before signing on to be a project manager, do a gut check: how would you handle this situation? Because you will face it, if you manage projects as a career.