A quick article with opinions from six people on project killers: 6 Experts Share the #1 Thing That Derails a Project | Smartsheet.  Of course, there are six different things listed as "the #1 thing."  And there are a few more listed in the comments.

I mention this article because my friend, Johanna Rothman is quoted as suggesting multitasking is the killer, "The silent project killer, and in my experience the thing that kills more projects, is multitasking."  Of course, I had to smile, seeing this.  I often talk about this in my discussions of project management and Critical Chain Projects - specifically I talk about multitasking killing flow.  Too much switching from task to task to task without getting anything done.  This means we can't hand something to the next step in the line (without it getting stuck as well).  

Please note: Having a queue of work is not multitasking. It's when I am forced to pull things into active mode before I finish what is in front of me.  

A couple of the other suggestions in this article in my mind have to do with understanding what the project is.  When there isn't alignment or agreement on what we are doing in a project, it almost guarantees that the project will get stuck in swirl and scope creep.  Which often leads to even more multitasking as we try to figure out what it is that we are really supposed to be doing.

Lean Learning Center has a nice article on a familiar topic, creating more time for what is important. Click "Like" If You Have Enough Time

Time is the only resource we have that we cannot get more of. Yet time is squandered at an unbelievable rate. Organizations manage money with obvious structure and measures of return on investment. When it comes to time, individuals are left to Darwinian survival mode. Hundreds of emails daily, multiple meetings with unclear return on time spent, and administrative tasks consume high percentages of time. Studies have shown that management spends 10-20% of work time on current priorities, coaching, and identifying improvement opportunities. The remaining time is spent on other stuff.

I find that it isn't only management where this happens.  It could be the salespeople meeting with decision makers 5-10% of their time. Or project team members spread across many activities and several projects.  If these people could increase the focus - have dedicated time for their most important activities - what would be the benefit to them? What would be the benefit to the organization?

The post goes on to recommend some specific actions around observing how one's time is spent today.  Essentially: are people doing that which is most important, or are they doing whatever happens to be in front of them at the moment.  

Reflect back to Covey's 4 Quadrants (Urgent + Important; Not Urgent + Important; Urgent + Unimportant; Not Urgent + Unimportant): Clearly, dropping those activities which fall in the "unimportant" quadrants can make a big difference.  Most people who talk about this topic also suggest that doing better with focus means that the level of "urgency" also drops - when people have time to focus on the important aspects of their work, many of the urgent activities get handled correctly and with much less fanfare. Time gets created by not wasting it.

One big area I always check: how much multitasking are people doing?  How much of the unimportant or the last-minute urgencies get in the way of being able to focus on very few things at one time. How often do people get started (hurry, hurry, this is really important) only to discover that there are incomplete preparations that stall the effort?  How much benefit would be gained by giving people mechanisms - and the organization trusting those mechanisms - to enable focus and finish, rather than start-stop-start-stop of multitasking.

The folks at Realization, makers of the CCPM software Concerto, post newsletters and articles on topics related to Critical Chain from time to time.   There’s No Such Thing as Good Multitasking one talks about the classic problem of multitasking and somehow people think there is "good" or "bad" multitasking.  (I even talk about "bad multitasking", as this comes from older CCPM discussions.) 

I love this anecdote:

The chief engineer from one of our clients kept track of every time he interrupted his first-line managers during one day. It got so bad, that by about 2 p.m., when he had already interrupted his managers more than 20 times, he felt too guilty to interrupt them again, and instead collected a list to be discussed in the next morning's meeting.

It is often not enough for individuals to say "no multitasking".  They may not control the incoming requests - but their managers?  How much control do they exert over this process?  In these kinds of implementations, we often find the sources of interruptions and requests coming from exactly the people who want their people to "work smarter, not harder."  

So, what to do?  Seeing the problem is a big portion of this.  The anecdote above had the manager listing all his interruptions.  Other teams use CCPM tools to list out their tasks to provide focus - focus on the task with the most buffer consumption for which they have responsibility.  Other groups go simple: use white board and sticky-notes to show the work and decide where to focus.  

"You can only find things by not looking for them." - Kenneth Stanley

Another interesting link from my friend Luis Suarez.  This time the video of Kenneth Stanley talking about his new book, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective

Obviously, the statement at the outset seems counter to much of the thinking in business and in life. The talk and the book suggest that you cannot often get to the goal.  And he uses his Artificial Intelligence research project called pic breeder that has inspired the thinking in his book. 

He picks out an idea of deception. When the goal is far away from where you are today, there is no obvious way to get there.  And there are some paths which seem to be right but lead you astray either through local optima or some other effect.  It's the classic line of "You can't get there from here."  You have to go somewhere else first - somewhere that doesn't appear to be related.

He talks about the idea that objectives can lead to convergence on something that is not really what we want - that they don't take us to where we really want to go.  He pulls into the idea of group dynamics and collaboration.  Objectives might lead to compromise, rather than new bright findings.  

Rather than heading for big objectives, people / teams who create new things operate at a level of "stepping stones".  They find interesting or useful way points - maybe those way points are their creative output.  Then they move from those stepping stones to new ones.  Or different people take these stepping stones and move in completely different directions.  This is staring to sound like the history of discovery - scientific or otherwise.  "Fortune favors the prepared mind" (Louis Pasteur).  The prepared mind may be familiar with many of those stepping stones and can try something new from there.  

"Those with expertise have the ability to identify when things are interesting." - Kenneth Stanley

I have to think, as I listen to the video, that there is a specific type of objective that is being described.  Much of the other thinking and reading on the topic of "goal attainment" talks about similar struggles to meet the real goals of a project, business, enterprise.  Often the issue has to do with truly understanding what is the goal - what is the intent behind what someone has stated as an objective.  "Implement X" might be fine as a statement for a project, but if you don't understand why X is needed, what underlying problem you are trying to solve, maybe X isn't actually going to help you with that. People need to know the intent behind the goals.  They also need to know things like why the current proposal is the right path or direction. Where are the restrictions/constraints we must follow? What can we break?  

This puts me in mind of the Cynefin concept of complexity: the environment in which you are sitting is such that you cannot control it.  Rather than trying to add control (or goals in this case),  take small steps and look at the results.  Reinforce those things you like to see, and dampen the things you don't like to see.

Cameron Conaway has a familiar-sounding piece on Work Email is Dying. What's Next?.  He opens with the familiar / fun story of the creation of email in 1971 - in the early days of the ARPANET.  Yes, 1971. Over 40 years ago.  [Hat tip to Luis Suarez of Living in a World Without Email for the link.]

And there it is. Good ol’ 1971. The year email began its journey to becoming the world’s premier workplace communication tool.

As it still is. Even as it approaches its 44th birthday this October.

And even as new tools have risen up and made many parts of it obsolete.

Conaway's article has a fun way about it. I love the quotes from various business leaders on what they are doing / trying to get work done.

Sadly, though, the essence is very familiar: We spend too much time in email, and it isn't a terribly effective means of collaboration.  And yet, for many people and organizations, it doesn't seem there is any impetus to operate differently.

The recommendation? Give it a whirl - try something more focused on the task at hand.  And if it doesn't work, email will always be there, like an old habit that you can't break.

Mike Gilronan, a Boston local knowledge management friend, has a nice piece on collaboration in the Boston Business Journal, Five ways to improve collaboration among remote teams. Mike has worked in the collaboration world for a long time, so these topics are familiar.  Mike is currently doing enterprise content management at McGladrey.

As we learned in Boston this past winter, the ability to be productive and collaborate with team members, even if nature or other circumstances prevent us from being in the same place at the same time, is critical to success in modern business. More and more, our workplaces and teams are virtual, with remote workers and teams being asked to connect and collaborate. Teams that do so effectively can build a real competitive advantage by providing access to the best resources, delivering products and services more efficiently, and accelerating the pace of innovation.

His five items are sometimes obvious, and yet do we use them all?

  1. Hire for it.
  2. Foster a culture of collaboration.
  3. Connect securely, from any device, anywhere. 
  4. Invest in tools that work the way your teams do.
  5. Know when to escalate.

And of course, other people write about this stuff as well, such as my friend Johanna Rothman's thinking on remote Agile teams, where she focuses on trust, flexibility and internal cohesion.

In 7 Wastes That Impact Business Growth Jon Terry, one of the founders of LeanKit, presents a nice way of thinking through the Lean / Toyota Production System idea of waste and how one my think about it in the context of business growth in any type of organization.   

Since LeanKit tends to serve software developers and knowledge work environments, it feels like these ideas particularly apply to knowledge work, even though the blog post talks about business growth in general.  I also love how the writing here dovetails very nicely with more recent thinking in the TOC community around flow and how the primary goal of any system has to be around flow of value to the customer.  And a big implication of that statement is the removal of impediments to flow.  These wastes are one way to think about those impediments!

Here is the list from the article with some of my thoughts.

  1. (Too Much) Work In Process. This is one of the biggest killers, and it is one of the hardest to see - particularly for those of us wrapped up in work that is invisible.  Getting this out into the open is one of the best ways to start the conversation around improving this.  And I have to love the comment that there is always a bottleneck (constraint) that limits the flow.
  2. Delays. This seems obvious to state - delaying delivery to a customer is clearly bad.  But think about the flow of work from start to finish: how many delays, pauses, downtimes are there?  In TOC, we often talk about the customer tolerance time - will they put up with a one week lead time, or do they want it right way?
  3. Extra Capabilities
  4. Technical Debt. This a term I only see in IT / Agile circles, but it equate to quality in my mind.  I think there is also a context behind technical debt around developing usable products or products that don't require a lot of work arounds. 
  5. Handoffs. I like the Relay Racer analogy.  Handoffs have to be well-practiced, and well-understood for the whole race to succeed. The same goes in projects - handoffs happen, but we have to understand they are a source of friction in projects.
  6. Task Switching. I usually think of task switching and too much Work In Process as heavily intertwined. Too much WIP means people are switching between activities without getting anything done. They might also be in a situation where they are forced to switch due to delays, poor handoffs, defects, etc.  
  7. Defects.  Goes without saying - no one wants to pay for defects. Pure waste.

For reference, here are the classical Lean Seven Wastes (from the Muda article on Wikipedia): Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-processing, Over-production, Defects.  There are other lists and other articulations, of course.  

I've had Stephen Bungay's The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions, and Results on my reading list for some time, as it has shown up in a number of overlapping communities as relevant thinking.  Most recently, his name came up in my last post with respect to the Spice Girls Question.

The book is a study of military history as a guide to seeing how leaders might deal with uncertainty - in particular the German military thinker Carl von Clausewitz (18th-19th Century).  Of course, while the military angle is interesting, there are clearly parallels into the business world.  And that is why Bungay wrote the book in the first place.

A lot of the discussion in the book had to do with the sources of uncertainty.  In war, this is classically the "Fog of War" and more.  It isn't clear what the enemy are doing.  Even more, it isn't always clear that your own people and equipment - and the plans for them - will do what you expect.  And doesn't this happen in business too?  

Of course, the opposite of accepting and working with uncertainty is to try to remove it.  While there are good concepts around reducing the sources of uncertainty, sometimes the effort required to do so is more expensive than simply expecting and working with the uncertainty.  This is the direction Bungay goes in the book. Dealing with uncertainty and various knowledge gaps is the reality of any business - businesses need to move forward, regardless of those knowledge gaps.  

There is a quote about one of the military leaders described in the book, "He remained calm and unruffled because he never expected his predictions to be correct."  This eventually led to a discussion of the idea of Leader's Intent and strategy and tactics.  And how these things should be discussed and communicated within organizations.  Bungay's claim is that many organizations spend a lot of time on strategy and tactics without clearly articulating the intent behind them.  He also suggests that many people find themselves being overly-specific in giving direction to their people, and this then leaves those people without much flexibility and power to make their own decisions.  It is as if the managers in these situations believe if they force certainty (in the form of specific direction), then everything will work out fine.  But this doesn't acknowledge the fact that we can never know everything - nor can we wait until the level of uncertainty becomes "acceptable."  

This was a good read, as it coalesced many of the concepts and ideas I've been hearing and reading about elsewhere.  With some colleagues, we had even been using the "intent" language more often, though it is nice to see it brought together with the other elements discussed in the book.

FlowIn my work the idea of "flow" is all about ensuring the right work gets started - work that will create value for the organization.  And, once it has started, that it doesn't get stuck or stopped or held up until the value is created.  Ideally: customer buys the results; savings are truly achieved.  Once this idea is stuck in my head, I see the implications in many areas.  

I flagged this article to read and ponder back in April, but only just got around to it recently.  Arne Roock wrote about his company on InfoQ, Culture is the True North - Scaling at Jimdo. Good stuff.

In essence, he talks about the situation at his company, particularly as they grow their business.  They don't want to (and can't) just "throw money" at the situation, so they have to be more careful.  

At Jimdo, our approach to scaling relies on three major factors: culture, communication, and kaizen. Let's discuss them in reverse order.

In this discussion of kaizen (from Lean terminology), he describes the heavy use of the Kanban Method, which I've used and written about previously.  Interesting to me, though, as he highlighted the six core practices, I saw something new in them.  They are (bolds intentional)

  • Visualization
  • WiP limitation (WiP = Work in Progress)
  • Flow management
  • Explicit policies
  • Feedback loops
  • Improvement through collaborative experimentation

I've been referencing the Four Concepts of Flow that Eli Goldratt came up with in looking at Ford, Ohno and others (in the article Standing on the Shoulders of Giants):

  1. Improving flow (or equivalently lead time) is a primary objective of operations.
  2. This primary objective should be translated into a practical mechanism that guides the operation when not to produce (prevents overproduction). 
  3. Local efficiencies must be abolished.
  4. A focusing process to balance flow must be in place.

While the language is not the same, the underlying concepts align closely.  It's all about flow - explicit in both of these lists.  "Preventing overproduction" is most often connected to limiting the work in process (WIP), whether that is in a manufacturing, projects, sales, or in retail.  And the policies that Kanban wants to make explicit are tied to the flow idea #3 around local efficiencies - changing away from metrics that unbalance the flow to policies that encourage more and more flow.  Kanban Method makes the improvement process more explicit, where the Four Concepts of Flow put it into the focusing process (and in other aspects of Theory of Constraints).

There are other great ideas in Roock's article in the sections that he categorizes as communication and culture.  I particularly like items in there on focus - the Spice Girls question, "Tell me what you want. What you really, really want!" from Stephen Bungay that has led Jimdo to talk about "Goal #1" - the one thing that will move the company towards its goal.  Again, one of the primary ideas in Theory of Constraints is that there is one constraint that limits your ability to get more of what you want.  Understanding that goes a long way to improving the system overall.

[Photo: "Flow" by Carlo]

The latest HBR Ideacast interview with Erin Reid talks about Why We Pretend to be Workaholics (based on a related HBR article).  I enjoyed the discussion, but what really got to me is this idea of "pretending to be busy."  

This relates to observations I have made in working with organizations on critical chain project management.  I have found an interesting dichotomy with respect to the question how busy people might be.  Some project modeling tools allow you to model resources required on project tasks.  Taken in aggregate across many projects, this should give a sense of how much (project) work is upcoming for those resources.  And this should give a sense of how "busy" they are.  

What I often find is that the "busyness" based on the project models and the busyness claimed by the people on these teams is vastly different.  Of course, there might be discrepancies because the project models aren't right or because people do a lot of non-project work.  This can be checked.  But the interesting thing I've found is that there are many situations where it is not possible for team members to admit that they have available capacity.  They believe (and it may be true) that they are in an environment where "nothing to do" means they will be punished - even if that "nothing to do" is actually important protective capacity to enable fast response to emerging situations.

Of course, this links back to the HBR Ideacast above.  People have figured out how to appear busy, whether or not they truly are.  They operate in a system that almost forces them into this pattern of operation.  Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to help people realize there is extra capacity. And that this extra capacity can help improve the whole organization.  

It's hard to NOT link to this article (which is probably the point).  First impressions depend on our assessment of the person's warmth and their likelihood to do us harm.  Science of Us provides a nice way to think about this in The Simpsons First-Impression Matrix.


Navel OrangesI've been listening to Megan Murray and Euan Semple's Shift podcast since its inception.  In Episode 35, they talk about a bunch of things (as usual) related to the idea of how people take on the idea of improvement - mostly around improving themselves and their business practices.

In this episode two masters at the art discuss navel gazing and how it might just be a key business skill for the future. 

The thing that struck me hard enough to do a quick blog post is the idea that some people get wrapped around the axel of self-improvement without thinking why.  On the opposite end are people who have no interest in self-improvement (but who are happy to point out situations in which they are unhappy).   

I have always liked the idea that if I am upset about something / someone, it is because something inside me is out of kilter.  It is not the other person / situation is necessarily wrong, but my take on it has me upset.*  In other words, it is my responsibility to figure out why that business meeting made me so angry, and then DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT.  Take responsibility for which I have control, rather than pointing the finger at things I don't like.

To me this is the point of navel gazing, so that I can change those things over which I have control.  And where do I have control?   It's inside. 

* Yes, there are some world situations that are truly horrible, and I should be upset. But I think even there, what is my part in it? How can I make it better in my part of the world?

[Photo: "Navel Oranges" by Madhu Madhavan]

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