Things have been going great. Vertabase is a lifesaver on our end.
We are expanding into the tasks and experimenting with time sheets. We have a production supervisor who is now up to full swing with all our projects and I’m sure we will use VB a lot more.”
– University Medical Center
Announcement: The Vertabase Timer v3.0 is now available for free. We are offering the opportunity to pay it forward by contributing $10 to charity: water. The Timer is a standalone product. We do offer a paid integration service that can connect the Timer to your copy of Vertabase project management software on the web. Tasks on the Timer can be populated directly from a person’s task list and timesheet data, including notes, automatically populate your Vertabase projects and reports.
This newsletter explores the boundaries of system design issues. Project management, at its core, is a way to organize and design the way people, time and information interact to get things done. These articles are about how we think about systems as a whole and thereby how we set-up the environment’s for our projects. They span theoretical approaches through to concrete cultural issues that impact the success of our projects.
In the Speed of Light and AIDs we discuss breaking down informational silos. Then we move onto the softer side of a project’s structure, personality and culture, with a discussion In Praise of Humility and Cultural Barriers to Project Success. We end with an article about Tools and the limits of system design itself in the Power of the Ugly.
A Happy Thanksgiving to all.
Here’s to good projects,
IUE 2011 Roundup
Mark Phillips spoke at the Internet User Experience 2011 conference on October 12, 2011.
Here is a quick round-up of the three Keynote Speakers. All of whom gave amazingly information presentations.
A shout out to Dante Murphy who gave a great preso at IUE2011 on creating the right environment for collaboration. It was creative, fun and informative. It used moshing and hardcore punk shows as the overarching metaphor for the right and wrong ways to work with other people. This was wildly heartwarming to the music lovers in the audience who appreciated the soundtrack and enjoyed the cool concert photos.
Another incredible preso from Peter Morville on IA in a cross-channel world.
Dr. Susan Weinschenk provided a thought provoking intro to her book on 100 Things Every Designer Should Know About People by highlighting 10 of them. It’s about documented quirks in human behavior that determine and impact people’s interaction with technology.
The Speed of Light, AIDS and How We Can
Two remarkable events in the scientific world over the past month shed light on how we can improve projects and deliver the right solutions: the decoding of an AIDs protein and the publication of the CERN findings on a faster than light particle.
These are incredible accomplishments in their specific domains. However, what strikes me as particularly relevant from the project management perspective is the context in which these events are happening.
They each represent changing paradigms about the context in which knowledge is created. Decoding the AIDS protein occurred under conditions where the data was made public, where strictures on applicable problem solving methods were removed, where the downside implications of a team’s failure were minimized and where there was sufficient information to approach the problem yet not bias potential solutions. Creativity, cross-domain sharing of tools, techniques, knowledge and processes occurred, and people were rewarded (either externally or by an internal feeling) just for trying.
This is a powerful model for the kind of environment we can create on projects and throughout the life cycle of the project’s objective (its product, service or result).
Similarly, the CERN announcement represents a blended paradigm of traditional scientific knowledge creation melded with an open approach. The CERN scientists are asking for the world to go at the data to disprove or confirm the results. There doesn’t seem to be a traditional, silo based aspect. Given the magnitude of the discovery (and the fact that it was experimentally derived rather than theoretically) the team is putting it out there for the world, professionals and amateurs, to approach.
Take note, having empirical data makes it easier to share the problem across domains. The data, like in the AIDS protein example, becomes a boundary object for cross-domain sharing.
On projects, we can encourage this kind of approach by creating true boundary objects (and not just project artifacts that pm’s, engineers or other specialists can understand).
Creating an environment and artifacts that foster meaningful and useful communication can have a significant impact on the success of the project’s objectives to meet the underlying goal /problem that sparked the project’s initiation.
In Praise of Humility
Humility can very often be the most right thing you can do on a project. Sometimes, the more important the work of the project, the greater the need for humility.
The CERN scientists bring this message home in the closing paragraph of their paper on the faster than light particle.
Despite the large significance of the measurement reported here and the stability of the analysis, the potentially great impact of the result motivates the continuation of our studies in order to investigate possible still unknown systematic effects that could explain the observed anomaly.
Rather than touting their results, they are exposing them to further scrutiny -for the sake of finding the truth.
An inspiring statement in the tradition of noble scientists.
(Is there a model for the noble project manager?)
Cultural Barriers to Successful Projects
Scope is a function of meeting requirements.
Here are three mindsets that create non-productive project cultures. They reduce the probability of implementing change successfully and of your project really changing anything. I’ve seen them in different countries around the world, across national boundaries (though some regions tend to exhibit one or more to greater degrees).
- Harmony Above All
- I’m the Boss
- Short-Term Grab
1. Harmony Above All. This mindset shuns conflict (and project truths). Harmony above all denies problems, preferring to report that everything is possible, everything is going great on a project and that everyone is happy. It stems from a belief that pleasing the project manager is dependent on words and deference, rather than results.
2. I’m the Boss. This mindset breeds conflict. It uses any interaction as a mechanism to assert one person’s control over the other. I’m the boss focuses excessively on interpersonal issues and a project’s politics. Truth and project metrics are used subjectively to illustrate the reporter’s point of view. It stems from a belief that a person’s relative position is more important than results and that the highest reward is to be in a good position relative to other people.
3. Short-Term Grab. This mindset is opportunistic and scheming. Participation in a project is viewed as a means to fulfill a short-term need. People take actions to fulfill those needs, regardless of their impact on the project. Interactions are used to attain those needs or position one’s self (or someone else) to attain those needs. It stems from a paucity of opportunities over the long term and an inability to forecast a consistent path to basic-needs fulfillment with any degree of certainty past today or tomorrow.
These mindsets distort a project away from results. They share a common feature in that failure is viewed as bad and that a project’s result is secondary to the opportunities presented by simply being involved in a project. Only in a culture where failure is acceptable can change succeed. You can strip these mindsets of their power by rigorously focusing rewards on results and accepting failed outcomes (make sure to communicate the consequences of failure to your team, namely, that it’s a learning experience and not the end of their opportunities –of course, these needs to be handled delicately to reduce moral hazard).
Make Tools and Make the World a Better Place
Good tools tend to sell well. They inspire creators, enable tinkerers and fill Sunday’s with the promise of accomplishment.
One of the reason’s tools sell well is that they are a unique category of goods. Tools can have currency-like characteristics. Their value is in the eye of the beholder. Every goal is different. Everybody uses a tool differently.
Tools are boundary objects between the present and future. They represent a promise. Tools open us to the realm of improvement. With the right tool, we can achieve our goals.
If you want to create something people will buy, think about creating a tool. If you want to gain sponsorship for a new project, think about a project that will result in an expanded capability for the sponsoring organization. Every person or organization has a dream. Create a tool that will help them realize it.
The more flexible a tool, the easier to use and therefore the more easily we can see ourselves using it to achieve our goals, the better the tool will sell.
In a tip of the hat to Steve Jobs, a consummate tool maker, dream big and help others dream big. By building the right tools, tools that help others build tools, we create a cycle of societal enablement for innovation and attaining big dreams.
The Power of the Ugly
Recently, it seems there has been an overflow of devices and software with good, well designed interfaces. These have put powerful capabilities in the hands of many people, unlocking creativity. But there is an interface beyond design and chaos beyond channeled creativity. Design is an organizing principle. It is a construct for accessing capabilities. It provides an interface and a context. Way beyond good, intuitive design there is the ugly. We are in the early stages of the ugly.
Intuitiveness is a function of how well an interface conforms to a person’s expectations. Great interfaces can be a step beyond the expectations, making design nearly invisible. A person’s expectations are often a function of the environment in which they operate or into which they have been acculturated. Interfaces have gone through various stages reflecting the environments which have surrounded people. Earlier interfaces (user controls, manuals, processes and procedures) reflected a person being in a production line. They played a part in a larger, linear process.
After, interfaces reflected the hierarchy of functional organizations, adding dimensionality to the interface and the capacity to do more across multiple functions. The sharpest designed interfaces of today are refinements of this approach, paring down the functions and assuming the dimensionality required for any particular person. Where we are now, are task-based approaches mashed-up across multiple service capabilities. Interface definition is “me” centric rather than being oriented around tasks defined by the organization or functionality. In some sense, this is a special case of personalizing the tasks. But a powerful case. The tasks are user defined. The person is at the center of the definition and accesses the capability directly. The capabilities available are beyond the boundaries of the pre-definition of an organizational structure or design principle.
A testament to the power of the design is the extent to which the capabilities are in demand (see article on why we buy tools), which has allowed the creation of supply chains that make those capabilities affordable, available and easy to replenish.
“Me” centric design has opened a new frontier. Where the frontier is once again open, constructs will be challenged. There will be interfaces that are ugly, ineffective, un-intuitive and just plain hard. There will be power unleashed in a chaotic fashion, without a “beautiful” or even discernable organizing principle. They will be so because the capabilities created will be beyond existing contexts. The capabilities will define and create a new environment.
Then from there, the cycle will start with an organizing principle evolving to exploit those capabilities most effectively. Effectiveness will be defined, as in all human endeavors, in the marketplace and battlefield (in fact we are seeing it already with app developers, low-cost tablets and IEDs – capabilities beyond existing organizing principles). Barriers will grow to those capabilities as their range and dimensionality are explored and organized into interfaces (processes, procedures, etc.). Then again, good design will make them commodities and re-open them to creativity and innovation.
We are in the early stages of the ugly.