Author: Jigs Gaton

Jigs Gaton is CEO of Phoenix Consulting and Training Worldwide, a company that helps developers design and implement better programs and build capacity with training and other resources. Jigs has over 30-plus years of experience in both the private and public sectors working as a project manager and PM consultant. He's currently based in Kathmandu, helping organizations with post-earthquake reconstruction and other disaster-relief efforts.

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Pros and Cons of Using ChatGPT for Project Planning

ChatGPT can be a valuable tool for project planning, offering faster research, refined text, and improved resource management. However, it's important to be aware of potential drawbacks, such as the need for verification and potential downtime. Explore the pros and cons of using ChatGPT for project planning.

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Transform Your Project Planning with ChatGPT: A How-To with Examples

Discover how ChatGPT can revolutionize your project planning process with productivity enhancements and quality improvements.

PM, CEM, and Covid-19: Reflections

The black swan* has landed, and is honking up a storm, as I am sure you have all noticed. In my 30+ years of planning, I’ve never seen anything like this; have you? Personally, I never paid enough heed to Disaster Planning and Risk Management until after leaving the USA and becoming a PM nomad, but once I was out in the world, it became clear that I had to do much better. Managing projects in the Congo was my first experience with a true swan event, and it was more like a flock of them, but those honkers had AKs and RPGs and would kidnap the workers right out from under a project. Imagine planning with Boko Haram lurking in the background…we had not. We did our best to beef up security plans and deal with the resulting delays every time a band of terrorist blew something up, or worse. For most projects, we undertook massive reactionary workarounds just to move work forward, not to mention operating with a non-functioning budget and dealing with falling mortar rounds. The outbreak of Ebola throughout the region didn’t help either, but Nigeria was surprisingly well prepared, as they have seen the worst the world has to offer. They have also managed to systemize measures that mitigate many dilatory effects of ongoing and compound disasters, while still moving forward on a timeline. It’s amazing, pure brute-force project management! If you throw lots of money and people on a problem, sometimes it works. Shout out to and to all the great folks working a myriad of UN acronyms (UNHCR, UNDP, UNOPS, UNICEF, UNESCO, UNECA, etc., etc.). These examples; however, are not what we have going on today. With the spread of the Covid-19 virus world-over and compounding critical events being spewed out like the virus itself, we see a scenario like none other. Most swans of the familiar variety fly local: tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, civil wars, economic and political instabilities, etc. When I look back at typical responses to these more common swans, I mostly see patched-up project plans, ones that are duct-taped together, after the fact! Here is what is so baffling especially now: all non-US contracts I’ve ever signed include a boiler-plate Force majeure clause, but those are clicked through faster than the legalese on a social media app, and this class of risk is rarely reflected in any of the planning exercises that these contracts pertain to. I have to ask “Why not?” If contingency plans and risk matrixes exist (in Africa, they mostly did not), the overall impact of measures taken during a swan event is mostly minimal, and at best, marginally effective. In my experience, most baby swan scenarios go something like this: before anyone can dig out a risk spreadsheet to find out what to do, knee-jerk tasks are added to plans and acted upon. The adrenaline rush is too great; calmer minds hardly ever prevail when the amygdala becomes your project manager. At this point, we seem to throw systematic approaches out the window, or can’t figure out where we filed them. The non-technical term is running around like chickens with our heads cut off. Could it be that human nature is now making many smaller projects fail, and letting larger ones go astronomically over budget? Is rampant counterfactual thinking ruining our efforts today? (Please chime in below!) Before we condemn stupidity (or counterfactual thinking), let’s step back and assess… are the tried and true PMI (or other board certified) methodologies and PM strategies working well for you during this age of Covid? I contend maybe not, and this series of articles (plus a webinar) will discuss why, and what can be done during the current crisis to prepare for the next. We might not be as stupid as they say… Let’s Tally Up the Response So Far… In preparation for us to all go twitching for the elusive honking swan, please take a few moments to complete this anonymous survey. This will set the baseline for the following discussion, and the results will be published in the second part of this article, as well as becoming useful talking points for an upcoming MPUG webinar. Create your own user feedback survey With That Groundwork Dug, Let’s Discuss the Birds and the Bees… As mentioned in a previous article, the way we have handled project management since the days of Henry Ford and Mr. Gantt has got to change, if not by PMs, then by the natural course of disastrous events destined ahead. Ask yourself, for the events on the horizon, will your organization have control over the outcome, or will the next event overcome you? The good news is that as we move into the 4th Wave Of Industrial Development, AI will be doing more and more heavy-lifting for PMs. So, it’s worth diving into how the silicon brains will try to save us from honking black swans, and flying through other mitigations that might be useful in the days ahead. Note: There is some debate over whether the Covid-19 Pandemic is a “black” or “white” swan event. I choose to ignore such back and forth, but those interested psych majors who love dwelling on the problem of Induction in Logic, may want to check out Taleb. In my experience, swan events tend to molt into multiple shades of catastrophe, logarithmically complicating our planning efforts over time. There are numerous warning signs that may or may not go unheeded before a swan defecates on well-laid plans. Events like this leave us to sift through a ton of guano, just to find footing again. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were clear warning signs and less guano? Well, here are a few: Warning signs that a black swan is about to poop over your project plans: Warning Sign #1: We Purport to Know What We Don’t Know. In 2018, the Business Continuity Institute’s Horizon Scan Report listed the five biggest threats for business in the US were: 1. Cyber-attack, 2. Data breach, 3. Unplanned IT & telecom outages, 4. Interruption to utility supply, and 5. Adverse weather. I guess they missed Bill Gate’s Ted Talk in 2015, “Not Missiles, but Microbes.” Perhaps every PM should have Gate’s quote printed on a T-shirt or coffee mug. Either way, it’d be smart to think of it as a metaphor for interacting with their project plans every day. We used to say things like, “Be calm, carry on” or “It’s the little things that get you.” Apparently, they do—repeatedly. In the above mentioned case, we were all looking for really spectacular things to worry about, like masked villains holding our computers for ransom or an infrastructure unprotected from aliens, instead of considering simpler things that could’ve gone wrong, like hey, what if everyone came down with the flu at the same time, and then they all called in sick– from everywhere! Warning Sign #2: Small Disasters Wreak Havoc Even on a Good Day. If your organization or team is frequently struggling with unforeseen, but knowable problems, that’s a sign that your Risk Mitigation planning is not where it should be. If you have no such plan (even without the daily disasters), you are pretty much sunk already, no? Maybe not, but more on that later… Warning Sign #3: PMs are Complacent During the Good Times, and “It Is what It is” when Not. Sure, your plans are rolling along just fine, stocks are up, airfare low, everything is on schedule, and the market caps are looking pretty darn good—then bam, welcome to 2020. The bird is in da house. What next, is it business as usual, or is it time to do things differently? Moving Forward, During, and After This Bird Attack… With many of us still working at home (I am), now is a great time to consider a relatively new field of study for managers: Critical Event Management (CEM), which promises to provide a holistic approach to dealing with wild swans, and enables a more unified, efficient, distributed, automated, and collaborative process to follow. In other words, it’s better than most of us do today. By way of example, let’s consider this matrix for a minute or two: Now riddle me this: does your current Risk Management Plan or PM software help solve this puzzle, on a case-by-case basis, depending on the nature of the critical event and the circumstances surrounding said event? I don’t think any of the plans or tools I’ve reviewed do. So, how do we address this? Use AI, of course! The trend in 2020 is to develop AI for puzzles like this—the ones that make our heads hurt and keep us up at night. Complex matrixes with dependencies that stretch out like jellyfish tentacles tend to overwhelm us, especially when we are in a state of crisis. So, let’s work smart and have a silicon brain fry over puzzles like this, instead of our own. That’s what the folks at Everbridge are planning for us to do. That is, to use AI to grapple with critical events like the ones surrounding us now. I spoke with Claudia Dent, Senior VP of Product Marketing @ Everbridge, and here is how she sees it: Q. What does a project manager need to know during times like these? A. Any project manager needs to know their risk landscape, and the pandemic brings a whole different dimension to that landscape. Not only is it about an impending hurricane or cyclone, but it is also about all the potential impacts and disruptions that result from COVID-19 – production stoppages, quarantines, the ability to return to work. Q. What are some specific examples of this way of CEM thinking? A. If you have manufacturing or a construction project underway, for example, [you must ask] what will the impact of the pandemic be to that project? What if there is an outbreak on your project site? Do you understand local protocols for handling such an event? [What about} privacy policies? How will quarantined resources impact your timelines? A project manager needs to foresee and understand all the impacts to business initiatives on a global basis. Q. But how, specifically, does a PM do that – it’s not in the manual… A. This is insight that you cannot always access easily. Understanding your risk landscape requires a common operating environment, bringing external risks (Pandemic, weather, civil unrest, etc. …) with your own internal threats (security, IT system failure, industrial accidents, etc. …) to see the total impact. The only way to achieve this is through automation. You need risk intelligence, correlation, and response orchestration that enable you to fully assess and put those pieces together for a faster resolution. For more from Claudia and more on how Everbridge helps leverage AI, read Part 2 of this article. I also plan to include the collective results of the survey. If you have comments so far, please share them below, and watch the on-demand MPUG webinar. Safe planning! *A black swan is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on an ancient saying that presumed black swans do not exist – until you see one! The theory of black swan events was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb [more…] Check out Part 2 of this article Watch the on-demand webinar

Project Management, Jungle-Style

It was Rudyard Kipling who popularized the idiom “law of the jungle” back in 1894, and ever since I was a kid falling asleep to passages of Jungle Book, I’ve been fascinated by everything jungle. Another popular expression, “It’s a jungle out there,” is also how I would describe my career as a PM, where I spent most of my time within the concrete jungle of corporate life. However, earlier this year I was fortunate enough to travel to a real jungle, and for a short while, I was based @ Tiger Tops Karnali Lodge, Bardia National Forest, Nepal. My professional interests during this trip fell into two camps: 1) how the local tourism industry handles jungle-related projects, and 2) how forests manage themselves, thank you very much. Within the tourism sector worldwide, most establishments can be classified as SMEs with less than 500 employees, but near the periphery of any national park, jungle, or forest, that number is more like 150 people, tops. Mom and Pops dominate this sector, at least in regards to employment. These small employee numbers may limit revenue streams, but tend to open up other important areas of business, such as community-connectivity, ground-zero partnerships, and better customer service with best–quality provided for whatever is being delivered.   Tiger Tops is a sterling example of such a Mom and Pop business, as it employs less than 140 staff members across several resorts and is one of the most successful runners of jungle lodges in the country—in addition to being a place to spot wild tigers! Tiger Tops Karnali was started in 1964 by two Texans as a tiger-hunting camp, and now the lodge is leading Nepal in ethical and responsible tourism. Through the efforts of the then buyer/adventurer, Jim Edwards, many projects were spun off to help create the country’s tourism industry as it stands today.   An Interview with Pradyot Rana Needless to say, when I wasn’t out iPhone-hunting for tigers, rhinos, wild boar, blue bucks, and other wildlife during my stay at the lodge, I had the chance to interview the nationally-renowned naturalist and lead PM, Pradyot Rana. Here’s what he had to say: Q. At Tiger Tops, do you have any have efforts that you would classify as a project? If so, please describe… A. Yes, many. We have renovation, expansion, and improvement projects that involve physical infrastructure as well as environmental impact-improvement efforts. Of late, we have been focusing on renewable energy and deep recycling of all of our lodge activities. Q. For projects at Tiger Tops, do you have designated Project Managers? A. Yes. That would be me, as well as each lodge manager. No one here has any formal training as a project manager—like I’ve heard you say before, we are all accidental project managers, but I am interested in learning Microsoft Project and more about the formal discipline of being a PM.   Q. For Tiger Tops projects, what software or apps do you use to manage projects, if any? A. At best, we use Excel to add up sums and whatnot, but nothing in the way of commercial software specific to project management. Q. For Tiger Tops projects, what hardware or devices do you use to manage projects, if any? A. Ha! We have PCs and most staff have mobile phones, but we don’t use any of those to really manage projects. We use lots of white boards (no paper either)! Q. With regard to the Tiger Tops workforce, what is the estimated time-on-the-job for all employees (in years)? A. Most staff have been here for decades—some 30+ years, and one just celebrated his 50th! We have a very low turnover.   Q. How would you describe your workforce in terms of job classifications? A. I’d divide it up this way: 30% General Laborers 60% Technically skilled workers 10% Management or Supervisory staff Q. How do you normally plan projects at Tiger Tops? Please describe the process in your own words… A. Projects come down from the Board of Directors to myself, and then get passed on to the Lodge Managers (who are de facto PMs). Then, it’s my responsibility to make sure things happen. Q. At project inception, what is your highest priority? A. Our highest priority is to live up to our ethos of conservation and preserving the environment. We work in a very fragile ecosystem, and we have to make sure that whatever we do, does no harm to the forest, wildlife, or the people living on the periphery. It’s a delicate balance…   Q. During project rollout, describe the most common issues. A. Finding skilled labor in Nepal is probably the biggest issue, and getting the work done on time is also problematic. Culturally, folks here have a different conception of time vs. workers in the west. Life moves more slowly in the jungle, especially for the people who live and work in the surrounding areas.   Q. At project close, describe how you evaluate success? A. Well that’s a tough question, but I would say that if we have improved the lives of the animals in the forest, and helped the people living on the periphery, we have succeeded. Of course, we have a bottom line, and that’s part of the balance. Q. What is your next upcoming project, and why you are excited about it? A. At our lodge in Chitwan, we have a project that will bring tourists and the elephants that live there closer together, in an ethical way. That means that there is no riding, no bathing, no elephants painting pictures as they do in Thailand, but just a camp where people can observe elephant behavior without impeding on their natural ways. Q. Describe what you consider your most successful project, and why. A. Working with the local community and captive elephants, we are providing better treatment of elderly elephants in our area—some of which are 70 years old or more! We also stopped one of our more historic services, elephant riding into the jungle, in favor of just walking along with the elephants, and that feels better. Q. Describe what you consider your most challenging project, and why. A. Well, we had to move one entire lodge from the interior of the jungle, to the exterior (as mandated by the government). While that was tough, we managed a solution in the end that is working out very well today for all involved—especially the wildlife.   If Rudyard Kipling were a PM… On the other side of the forest fence, project management is handled much like at the lodge. Nature’s projects (if left alone) are executed according to jungle law, where schedules are seasonal and fixed, and new projects don’t require a lot of interventions to happily grow and prosper. For example, in the jungle, new growth is handled organically – literally – where new species of flora and fauna thrive with little to no attention paid to them (that is, unless humans get involved). Nothing is wasted on the forest floor. Dead Sal trees fall and decompose amid 6-foot tall termite mounds, only to rise again. Hundreds of bird species roost amongst the branches of Sisoo, Teak, and Acacia trees, providing cover and helping the spread of seed, as well as controlling insect populations. Every animal seems to have an interconnected purpose: the sloth bear keeps termites in check, wild boars scarf up fungi and other forest detritus, tigers keep the boar population in check, and elephants dig for water and create watering holes for other animals to find. In short, jungle resources are self-perpetuating and abundant, if left to their natural ways. Back at the lodge, during the wee hours and after the New Year’s party, I experienced firsthand how the jungle works; as I was a lone man standing in a small clearing surrounded by miles of canopy, and I experienced a pulsating undulation of fresh air – right in my face– I was feeling the breath of billions of leaves; I could see, feel, and smell the lungs of the earth working…   In Kipling’s most famous of jungle laws, he states: “Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky, and the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die. As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” When thought about for a moment, this law is antithetical to today’s perception of the jungle, where “every man for himself,” “survival of the fittest,” and/or “kill or be killed” are all thought to come from jungle. The reality is that these concepts are most prevalent within the “concrete” type of jungle. If Kipling were a project manager, he would most likely be looking to harmonize the natural connections between tasks, instead of trying to make a competitive advantage out of them. I believe PM Kipling would run his projects using more nature-based methodologies to increase productivity, improve teamwork, and maintain a sustainable ROI. Rudyard’s management style would be less Scrum, and more Mowgli (who in Kipling’s later books returns to the human realm with a superhuman understanding of the natural world). Mowgli learns to understand how mere mortals can work in harmony with nature—as well as amongst themselves.   [For more info on Tiger Tops Lodges, see this Jan 2020 Forbes article: Inside Tiger Tops: The First Ethical Elephant Camp In Nepal]  

The Case of the Accidental PM

Sure, “The Accidental” this and the “The Accidental” that is such a cliché, yet when you google “Accidental Project Manager,” you get 24 million results. Results like 4 Ways to Succeed as an Accidental Project Manager and 6 Tips for the Accidental Project Manager top the list. Even the PMI Learning Library has an article titled The Accidental Project Manager, wherein lies a listing of survival skills for this flavor of manager. So, inquiring minds want to know: who is this accidental manager, and how many of them are really out there? I could start by describing my own experience starting out that way, but let me talk data first. To begin, I looked up the definition of an accidental PM online, and got something like this in most all cases: “An Accidental Project Manager is a business professional where project management is a secondary responsibility, but who is asked to do important corporate projects nonetheless.” – The Google Machine Hmmm… not my experience as an accidental PM at all. On further thought; however, I suspect there are many other personas for project managers working in the field that may or may not fall into just two buckets, accidental or not. In the end, I decided to create a list and started by polling every PM I “know” on social media, just to find out who’s out there, and how they see themselves. Here’s the list I used to create my survey including some of the attributes I’ve observed over the years:   The Persona Attributes & Observations Traveler The Traveler persona is most likely found on the road and in busy airports around the globe. Majority male, this group of PMs works for major industries, and are most often found flying business class. They often purchase software with their own credit cards, as their company PO policy is too cumbersome. Most likely they have some PM experience, and most likely follow the Waterfall (or older) PM methodology, utilizing Gantt and/or Pert charts. Most likely equipped with a high-end laptop and also using a tablet or phone to get work done. More than likely looking for a SaaS that works on all devices, specifically the iOS and Android flavors.   Traditionalist The Traditionalist persona is one who has been around for years and years, and while this PM shares attributes with The Traveler, he or she is sedentary in nature; and mostly stays indoors behind a company-provided workstation. Older in habits and technology, this persona may not be looking for new SaaS to use in the workplace (they use MSP or Excel). Despite the company-provided workstation at home, they mostly like to use an iPad or iPhone outside the office. New work-related software is hard for them to learn, but they are masters on Facebook and with camera apps. At home, these folks spend a lot of time trying to stay relevant, but at work they are steeped in MSP and/or Excel, plus other industry-specific tools. More likely than not, The Traditionalist is interested in .mpp use.   Millennial The Millennial persona is one we know because we’ve raised them. This generation is younger than The Traditionalist, but older than a college freshman, with little to some experience in the work world. If working in PM, they tend to use newer tech and methodologies, such as Agile and Kanban. You can find them working in Academia and with startups. These tykes all want to become a Silicon Valley hit – overnight! Their hardware and software reflect their lifestyle (dress to impress) and are most likely using newer Apple devices to get work done. New SaaS is simple to learn for them, and has to be colorful and cool to keep their attention.   Hero The Hero persona is exemplified by those fighting climate change or some other injustice around the globe. This persona shares most all attributes of The Millennial, but is most likely in public service of some sort. Construction workers, forestry personnel, aid workers, first responders, community organizers, etc. are all job titles for The Hero. Socially conscious and socially connected, this group uses SaaS out of necessity, and prefers smaller devices to  bulky laptops. When employed, they tend to hop from one company to another, and are not reliant on any one PM tool – Google Docs is most often grabbed out of convenience, but they also flock to PM apps that perform like any other social-media apps (think Slack or   Professional Other The Professional Other persona (like many Heroes are), are engaged in some form of infrastructure development, and tend to be older construction workers, now turned construction managers. The Professional Other shares attributes with The Traveler, in the sense that they are often the road, and on-site instead of behind a desk (contrast this with The Traditionalist). These folks may be looking for mobile apps that can help those on the job-site perform better, but they themselves are using an old PC from the 2000’s. They might consider an app that can would keep them warm in the winter, but still use paper and phones to communicate.   Outsider The Outsider persona is one based outside of the continental US, and one not programmed in the traditional norms of PM—meaning they have had to learn how-to manage projects by watching YouTube videos or they are graduates from small Business Schools that showed them how to use a spreadsheet. The Outsider tends to use free software (or cracked), and/or work with paper and landlines. They share many of the same attributes as The Hero and The Traditionalist (but without MSP experience). Young and old, Outsiders tend to work in an ad-hoc style, using local currency, calendars, and languages to get work done. Most older Outsiders learn new software and techniques very slowly, and most couldn’t pick a Kanban Board out of a lineup.   Student The Student persona manifests in those still in school, or studying for a PM certification exam. We’re talking those with little-to-no PM work-experience. These aspiring PMs use the cheapest software they can find for their studies most likely spreadsheets), and may not understand traditional PM methodologies. Most students are using low-end laptops (even Chromebooks), but have expensive phones for everything else that they do. They are agile in learning new software, but bore easily when looking at rows and columns of data. As communicators and team players, they perform poorly (outside of social media and games). However, they are open to new software, techniques, and methodologies.   Educator The Educator persona is almost the opposite of The Student, in the sense that they are older, more set in their ways, and have very little use for PM software outside of a spreadsheet. The exception here is the PM Consultant, who often trains as well as consults (and tends to be more like The Professional). Both educators and training consultants tend to be older, and behave more like The Traditionalist or The Traveler. The Educator is less tech-savvy than a PM consultant, and is more theoretically-based than hands-on, unlike the PM consultant, who is more versed in real-life PM challenges.   Professional The Professional persona is one that works hard in the field and is passionate about the work. A mix of The Traditionalist, The Traveler and The Educator personas make this professional excel, without ever using Excel. Most PPPMs are a super-class within the field, and are highly sought after by larger organizations and startups alike. Examples are GitHub, Primavera, and MSP-users, who leverage the best software tools for the job, and can quickly adapt to new software, technologies, and techniques. These alpha PMs try out lots of software all the time, and are not afraid to move on if they see something better. However, a large majority of these uber PMs know of or have used MSP data during the course of their careers, and understand the value of good project data as they are familiar with macros, formulas, and can even write code.   Accidental PM The Accidental PM persona encompasses all those thrown into a PM job—through no fault of their own. They may be in the position for just a short time, or for the life of the project-at-hand. Through both promotions and demotions, The Accidental PM may have been an engineer or other technical professional, but now finds themselves with the title of Project Manager. In most cases, The Accidental PM shares attributes with The Traveler, The Traditionalis, and The Outsider, and while these accidental PMs can be of any age, their familiarity with PM tools and methodologies is near nil. However, because of their transitional nature, these newbies are open to new software and eager to learn. Most likely a professional from another profession, they have the wherewithal to make new purchases, despite any large-org bureaucracies.   The above list was condensed into an online survey (still active today), and here are the results from all of LinkedIn members I polled (well, from all the PM groups I could find). Just over one thousand, 1,058 to be exact, responded at the time of this writing:     What it seems that PMI has neglected to tell us, is that more often than not, those of us holding PM titles were thrust into the position at no fault of our own—which is not the definition of an Accidental PM that I found on the web. Take my own case, for example. When I was a lowly IBM content writer back in the early ‘80s, I was tagging along to COMDEX (a huge hardware expo from the past), where my department was demoing a new product that I had written the manual on. The lead demonstrator got sick, and that made me next up (I was the one who stood still, as volunteers were asked to step forward, and everyone else stepped back, but me). However, after returning home and after some time, the management team who had seen my Las Vegas performance conjured up some voodoo HR, and I was magically made product manager. Back then, project managers were called product managers, as the field had not really been invented yet (sic). I’ve been one or the other ever since. Another example is my friend, Dan Lasota, who also identified himself as an Accidental PM when polled. His story is a bit like mine, but instead of working as a writer-turned-PM, he was working as a construction manager for a growing company. One Monday morning he was told that he was no longer reporting to a single construction site (Dan sure likes to hammer when he can), but instead, he was now project manager for the company’s entire portfolio. Dan is working hard to catch up, after trading in his leather tool belt for a PM software toolkit (PP365+MSP). While exploring new and better ways to plan out construction portfolios, he is also preparing for his PMI exam. Let me leave you with this one poignant quote from a survey participant (who wished to remain anonymous): “I was automated into this… we had an entire army of people on the floor a few years back, now it’s just a sea of machines. I was one of the lucky ones, I’m now a project manager for all the jobs flowing into these robotic monsters. Thanks for asking.” – Anonymous   In conclusion then, no matter what PM persona you identify with, you know that you are not alone. If you are one of the tens of thousands (maybe millions) of us just thrown into the job of being a Project Manager, rest assured that there are plenty of others out there in same shoes, all with a very loose fit.   Have another persona you would like to add? See the survey (still online), or add yours to the comments below.  

Lessons Learned from Pilots … for Safe and Successful Projects

Wheels up! Even though I’ve logged many more hours in Microsoft’s flight simulator than on anything that flies, I have come to appreciate a pilot’s habits and routines in my own day-to-day project work. Flights in the air and projects on the ground both follow a similar regimen when examined side-by-side. From aviation protocols and procedures, I’ve drafted up five “lessons learned” that I think can be applied to any project management workflow, or at least will be useful when planning and executing project work. From the Flight Book… The fundamental tool used by pilots, regardless of the aircraft flown, is the almighty checklist. Checklists are beloved by pilots and PMs alike, and can be used to successfully land any flight or project. Let’s consider a few of these pilot checklists and protocols, and consider how they apply to the field of project management. The following five “lessons learned” are pulled from the aviation industry, and treat a typical project just as a pilot would treat any flight mission…   #1 – The Alertness Assessment Checklist This one begins with a health assessment of the pilot on flight day. Did he/she get enough sleep before embarking on the mission? Was there any alcohol consumed in the period before work? How much flight time has the pilot logged recently? These assessments go from the simple to the extreme, and in many cases, involve an independent auditor that double checks all the pilot’s criteria. I recommend making “enough sleep” a memory item in whatever checklist you choose to create. In pilot parley, a memory item is a specific action (or set of actions), appropriate to the nature of the event, that are required to be performed before making reference to any printed or online checklists. These actions are committed to memory by each pilot as part of their training programs for different aircraft types, and are performed in response to any emergency situation—immediately. Now as a project manager, one can see how having a few memory items stored up would be critical. For example, if your CEO comes to tell you on the first day of your project that half the workforce is being laid off, you will have no time to dig out your Risk Management Plan; you have to know what to do in real-time! And, in front of a boss that is deciding on the spot in which half of that workforce you belong.   #2 – The Pre-Flight Inspection Checklist Following a pre-flight inspection checklist is crucial for the safe and successful operation of aircraft. I suggest it’s also crucial when taking off with a new project plan. In the aviation world, there are certain safeguards and checks put into place to make sure, for example, you don’t takeoff with the cargo bay doors open … or with a flat tire. Most projects have a risk matrix that was drafted up early the planning process (and then filed away somewhere for safekeeping), but research shows that risk rankings formulated by managers are often arbitrary and produce errors.1  For the sake of our analogy, it’s important to note that pilots don’t use them, as any confusion or error can be instantly catastrophic. I’ve started developing a pre-flight inspection checklist of my own (which I hope to document someday). It consists of a list of must-do’s, that I check before ever pulling a project out on the tarmac. One common check for me is to have an alternative runway planned in case of engine (or other serious) failure occurs within the course of my project. In short, I like to have a project schedule for the project schedule, or a plan to follow in case a project fails to even get off the ground. Hopefully the alternative plan can provide some pointers on where will we go if left hanging completely in midair. Another check I make is related to load vs. resource calculations. Pilots do this even before releasing the handbrake. Why start a project on such and such date, when you don’t even have the funds or people to begin takeoff? Here’s one that bit me on my last project worked, an effort to construct wind sensors before installing wind turbines across remote regions in Nepal. The project charter did mention a bit of rough terrain, but little did I realize that some sites were so remote, it would take a three day hike on foot to get there. Heck, I just assumed one could cruise to these points with all-terrain vehicles! As it turned out, in a few locations, we had to build the road to get us where we needed to go. Pilots never have that problem; they always know where they are going, what is needed to get there, and what the terrain is going to be like when they do – even before departing the airport! There are many other comparative checks that can help us manage projects, and I suggest that all project managers browse through a few from the aviation library.   #3 – CRM and the Sterile Cockpit Rule CRM, or Crew Resource Management, was pioneered in the ‘50s by former RAF pilot, David Beaty, in his seminal book, The Naked Pilot: the Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents. In short, this pilot described a management technique that promotes the use of teamwork and decision making to ensure sound situational awareness and problem solving during every flight. CRM is followed by all major airline crews today. I suggest that every project manager explore this view on successfully handling command and control, and that they apply those lessons within your PMO. In what seems contradictory to proper CRM, pilots also follow the Sterile Cockpit Rule that restricts communication between pilots and crew during certain phases of a flight. It’s interesting to note that, as with proper project plans, flight plans are divided into set phases (for example, planning, design, implementation, post-implementation, etc.)     Of course, I am not suggesting that you forgo communication during certain phases of your project, but I do suggest that you follow some rules to limit the chatter during critical phases. In my experience, flocks of emails, Twitter strikes, and slack sloth during periods of intense activity is not productive, and even worse, can result in an all-engine project flameout. On a philosophical level, if you can’t quiet your team during critical periods, at least try to quiet your mind when things get rough. Every experienced pilot I know stays calm and collected under pressure. As they say in the Air Force, stay frosty!   #4 – Flying the Beam “Flying the beam” is an old aviation term used to describe how a pilot lands at airports utilizing technology to guide them home safely, often when they cannot even see the runway on approach. In order for a project manager to land a project successfully, I recommend doing likewise. Use automation to beep, blink, or yell when your project schedule is going off the rails, or otherwise warn you when things are seriously amiss. The most common MS Project navigation aids are milestones and the RAG indicator. A RAG indicator is programmed into your project schedule using a simple formula (click here to learn how to install a RED-GREEN-AMBER alert system). Milestones in MS Project are akin to waypoints on a pilot’s flight plan, and these points within a GPS system not only make up a complete flight plan, but tell the pilot where to turn within the entire series of turns. Project managers should also use milestones, or they are destined to lose their way.   In addition, there are MS Project Add-ins, like the free QCheck-IT from QuantumPM that acts as a gauge on a flight deck alerting you when somethings not right. Go to Project > Get Add-ins to install it (and others). These types of tools build automation into your project schedule, and just as pilots rely on automation to safely operate their aircrafts, today’s project managers need automation to safely operate a project schedule.   #5 – The Two Pilot Rule Long ago, aviation authorities determined that some aircrafts needed two pilots instead of one to safely fly. I propose that certain types of projects need two project managers to successfully bring them home, too. While we in the PM world have no such authority to make the rules, if a project is planned to last many months or even years (or is complex and technical in nature), a co-pilot could be needed to navigate across the void.   Having a “backup body” on call (for example, if the lead PM falls sick or is on vacation) may not be sufficient. It’s always better to have a pilot/co-pilot configuration to help with the workload, especially on difficult or risky projects. For pilots in the air, the acting Captain is focused on flying the aircraft, while the 1st Officer is monitoring all details of the flight, including communications. Both the Captain and the 1st Officer can switch it up midflight; however, as both are qualified to fly the plane. As such, a project co-pilot should not be just a name on a list with an email attached. Just as within the aviation industry, justification for having a double-teamed PM crew may not balance out. In fact, the NY Times recently published an article entitled, Will Robots Take our Children’s Jobs? in which a robotic co-pilot developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that had flew and landed a simulated 737 was mentioned. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed working in an environment where there is a matrix of lead PMs and co-leader PMs, all working together on the portfolio, and I dread the day when project work is completely led by artificial intelligence, instead of my own. (But, that’s coming soon as well.)   We hope you enjoyed your flight!   All in all, I’ve found aviation-related checklists (and metaphors) to be useful in my life, no matter if I’m flying an Airbus from my simulator chair, or working on a project from my office chair. Similarities between the industries abound. From Alertness Assessments to Flying the Beam and more, these metaphorical connections can help you navigate your next project safely and successfully home (I swear). Feel free to add your own aviation / project-planning metaphors in the comment section below, and here’s hoping you always keep the shiny side up—and the greasy side down.     1 Thomas, Philip, Reidar Bratvold, and J. Eric Bickel, ‘The Risk of Using Risk Matrices,’ SPE Economics & Management, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 56-66, 2014, doi:10.2118/166269-PA.

All About…Project Manager Nomads

  The Day I Knew I Was One… Ironically, it was while managing a program to provide upgraded yurts to nomadic people in Southwest China. I realized that after almost 40 years of doing this type of work, I’d become as nomadic as those on the Tibetan plateau that I was trying to help—only perhaps more digitally so. For the first half of my career, projects seemed to come to me, and not the other way around. In the days before my world traveling began (pre-9/11), I’d worked exclusively for IBM, and from a windowless office deluged with an endless stream of projects, for that matter. My workspace was just adjacent to a raised-floor littered with products and services yet to take life. I must admit that most never did! So, what changed? How did I go from sedentary to nomadic without even noticing? As with any slow-motion evolution, the long answer is nuanced, but the short answer is that almost everything had changed right under my feet. A myriad of new global opportunities, upgrades to technology, deepening social and cultural connections, and the availability of cheap international travel fares were all factors that influenced my decision to go where the work was, instead of letting the work come to me. In essence, I became part of a nomadic workforce without realizing it. It’s a workforce that’s been growing year after year. The Economist estimates that there are currently millions of people working nomadically, and that this figure could rise to a billion by 2035.   One of my favorite mentors when I was first starting out in the biz was Gene Kranz, NASA’s Flight Director for all the odd-numbered Apollo Lunar Missions; most notably Apollo 11 & 13. He coolly commanded a huge raised-floor full of technicians at Cape Canaveral, most huddling over crude computer consoles from which they sent astronauts into outer space. Yet, Kranz and his project team hardly ever left the Cape, not even for vacation. I was enthralled by Kranz’s machismo management-style while working at IBM, as any scene from Kranz’s Mission Control was reminiscent of my own workplace during the 70’s and 80’s. Only from where I sat in Boca Raton (just a few hundred miles away), we were sending products into unexplored space, instead of brave test pilots made of the right stuff. Still, we both managed to go where no one had gone before. In my case, with new computers inserted into the home market instead of rockets making low earth orbit. In addition to introducing computers into the home (and thus changing the workplace forever), IBM was one of the first corporations to explore sending employees home to work. I know this first-hand as I had participated in IBM’s first Work from Home program. I’d lug a “portable” PC from my office to my apartment (it was size of a carry-on suitcase), and from there, work three days a week. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that was the genesis for my becoming nomadic. Fast forward an entire career, and now every manager I know is equipped with multiple devices that completely digitizes the Apollo Command Center of old, sans all the sweat and swearing. A 21st century manager can be onsite, offsite, on multiple sites, and in the cloud all day, any day, and from anywhere in the world. Gone are large, centralized and physical project centers; today you can easily manage projects from public work hubs, use software to teleport you offsite, and utilize Uber, the most efficient transportation system in history. This nomadic concept of old (moving to greener pastures with your home packed on your back) has evolved into a newer, more expansive digital age, full of nomads working the world over. Now even project managers are joining the ranks of traveling baristas, extreme sports guides, and doctors without borders.   Tales from the Trail… Meet Dan, he’s an American millennial managing infrastructure projects—ones that incorporate new stabilized soil technology designed to keep roads intact in ever-shifting terrains. We met up at a local Kathmandu café, and here is what he had to say about being nomadic:   Me: Do you consider yourself a nomad, or just someone who likes to travel a lot? Dan: Yes, I do consider myself a nomad. I don’t really have a permanent home per say, and I don’t keep a place back in the States. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not homeless, I’m an opportunist. I find opportunities everywhere when traveling. Being able to follow these opportunity (wherever they lead) fits my lifestyle, pays well, and is just flat out fun. Me: Tell me about a project you’ve worked when you’ve felt most nomadic. Dan: Well, there was a project in in Nicaragua where I went as part of a humanitarian relief effort. We had to rebuild housing after a major hurricane. Everybody seemed nomadic at that point. Seriously, doing project work in new environments can be challenging and unknowing (like in a Nicaraguan jungle after a hurricane), but it’s quite an adventure starting and finishing projects like that. I’m having a blast. Then, there is Albert, an architect from my hometown of Brooklyn NY, who splits his time as CEO and lead PM between Nepal and several places in the States. He typically has several projects in multiple countries going on at once. Here is what he had to say during our last latte together: Me: Do you consider yourself a nomad, or just someone who likes to travel a lot? Albert: I’d say yes, I’m a nomad. While I like to combine business with pleasure as much as possible, I find that the world is filled with all sorts of interesting people and perspectives. For me, interacting with a diverse population is stimulating, educational, and really gets your blood flowing. I think that with all the advances in technology and new global opportunities out there, anyone can work anywhere, as long as they are flexible… Me: Well at our age, flexibility is not really a thing, is it? Albert: [Laughing] When I’m feeling a bit weak in the knee, I can always send out an associate with a drone or a GoPro or whatever just to capture what I need. I recommend working abroad to all of my elderly colleges. It stimulates the imagination, revises your ideas on how to tackle a project (for the better), and keeps you young in body and thought. Working like this can actually reaffirm what life is all about and even renew your reason for living.   Albert is amazing, and our conversation reminded me of my recent years in Africa, where it was my mission to train PMs and provide aid and comfort to newly established PMOs. Like a nomadic tribe of dispirit, but work-bound peoples, our teams spanned from Cape Town to the Congo (and even further north). We completed projects just as nomadic people of Yore moved around to find better hunting grounds, only our yurt was an Airbnb or a nice hostel and our prey was the project tasks at hand. Again, I reflect on this nomadic (if not tectonic) shift in the way that project work is being done these days. Take for example the Belt and Road Initiative, where project teams are spread the entire length of a new Silk Road which spans 152 countries in all. Future mega projects also come to mind (mostly climate-change related) that will require project teams to replicate project success along vast coastlines and within the wild interiors of the planet. I myself was drawn to my current “yurt” by disaster recovery plans, renewable energy ideas, and earthquake-restoration projects. And, I am constantly meeting others who are moving along this same nomadic work path. Dan is even thinking of starting a service for others like myself, or for any project manager hunting down work around the world which would match them with a company looking to hire a PM nomad. He’s currently getting his PMI certification, all while traveling from project to project, and he would like to make that lifestyle easier (and more economical) for others in the same boat. Here is a little of what he has to say about that: Dan: I use LinkedIn (and all the other social media sites), as well as a dozen or more bid / tender / open contract sites to find project work. I’m also subscribed to sites where I can learn more about project management and passing my certification test. Then, there are all the sites where I rent software. Too bad it’s all not in one place… On the flip side, there are also a lot of companies out there looking for managers who can work in remote and rough places. So, Jigs, how can we connect the dots? We need a tool, just for peeps like us!   I agree with traveling Dan, who hopes to continue this conversation online and someday create a digital platform for nomadic project managers sometime soon. How about you? You can let him know by joining his mailing list or let us know of your nomadic interests in the comments below. Whether you are already nomad, just thinking of being more nomadic, or at this very moment moving about with a digital yurt on your back, we’d be interested to learn more about how you’re doing ☺  

All About People … for Project Managers

In parts 1 and 2 of my All About…for Project Managers series, we’ve explored novel relationships between time and work, in both a historical and a futuristic context. This article continues along those lines, but with a focus on the final point in the PM triad, people. People are arguably the least-defined variable within our PM equations, yet unlike time and work calculations, we struggle with ways to accurately quantify the effectiveness of workers. For time and work, we know what we are dealing with, but for people, we have to add chaos and uncertainty into the mix. Our software is great for predicting outcomes of work (in duration, cost, risk, etc.), but less so for qualifying our most valued resource: people. For example, we take on faith that if Bill is assigned a project task, he will try to complete that task to the best of his abilities in the time allotted, or by a specific date. As a project manager, we might not know much about Bill before we make this assignment, except that he appears in our resource pool with job title and email address. What other attributes do we need to consider about Bill? We may have his resume, his availability, and his previous work stats, but can those facts alone be used to predict and measure Bill’s efficacy? Herein lies the rub. We may be able to look at peak (or weak) efficiency data, but we have little to go on for predicting if Bill will be more successful than Jill, who has a like-set of variables and constants. In fact, we can’t even accurately predict (or measure) what really happens with Bill during the course of a project,  outside of using limited descriptors such as % allocated, hours worked, and % work done. We therefore run the risk of assuming that since the project was a success (on time /on budget) that Bill’s participation was a success as well. After all, Bill did complete his tasks, and during the post-mortem, we find the limited metrics we have for Bill all to be positive. So, as well, right? Sadly, this false assumption adds to PMO woes of any size – one woe being that, on average, most attempted projects fail, or are only partially successful.1 Even if these projects are efficiently run, they often fail to meet their charter. If we dig deeper into these project stories and scenarios, we may find clues that indicate to us that even though Bill finished his work on time, if we had instead tasked Jill with the work, the outcome would have been better. How could we have known? Better math and science may help…   Better Math for Better People MPUG member, Oliver Gildersleeve Jr., suggests one idea (posted in his comment here) – range estimates within a critical chain recovery plan. He notes a unique method of predicting productivity, and then customizes a few columns in a Microsoft Project plan, based on using CCM (Critical Chain Method). Good, we are on the right track… But let’s zoom out a bit – say 90,000 feet – to see how others are determining “if Jill can be more successful than Bill” within any given project (in short, how are others calculating effectiveness of workers using hard science and math). Take Mitsubishi of Japan, now using a novel approach of just letting AI make the staffing decisions, based on big data. That’s right, Mitsubishi now has AI supervisors managing people – as they build some of the world’s most impressive 4th Wave machinery.     In this way, the job of the project manager (if there is one left standing) is greatly simplified when resourcing a project. Incredible enough, there are other Japanese corporations toying with this idea, with one notable company taking it to next level. Japan’s Cyberdyne is the maker of Hybrid Assistive Limbs (the HAL 5), and that device is revolutionizing quadriplegic medicine with their exoskeleton tech. In this case, you have AI not only managing people, but helping them work harder / longer / better, as well. (If references to the movies Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and 2001: A Space Odyssey escaped you, good, you’ll sleep better tonight). This brings into focus another important variable when looking at people from a PM perspective: culture. Having an AI boss might work well in Japan, but I doubt there are many workers in Dogtown, Alabama that would be happy with this unique management shuffle – would you?   Better Data for a Newer Math China is also working on predictive HR systems, again using AI, big data, and supercomputing to solve the people-productivity puzzle (as well as other conundrums far more nefarious than project management ones). Let’s allow the folks at Brookings worry about that, while we concentrate on the effectiveness of workers… First, Chinese culture allows for the surveillance and data gathering on an extraordinary scale, and second, they are using 4th Wave tech to profile individuals down to their courteousness and trustworthiness indices, as well as dozens of other data points (many HR-related).     For the AI “project manager of the future,” this is a goldmine that can be used to schedule workers and predict outcomes, based on previously unheard of data points. For example, how fast a worker is walking across the factory floor, using gait recognition in real-time. While to most participating in western democracy, this type of surveillance integration (full-time) may seem creepy; the idea of digitally pre-determining worker biometrics (even down to levels of their consciousness) is fascinating from a PM perspective, even if the practice seems invasive. Newer PM and HR systems are being based on big-data and machine learning world over (with some data derived organically from worker’s backgrounds collected outside of work). This class of innovation inevitably will be deployed within cultures that allow the practice. However, the “West” seems to be approaching the integration of 4th Wave tech within the workforce much differently…   Better People for Better Work In Part 2 of this series, we examined IBM’s Project Debater, an AI system seen as a prototype decision- maker, designed to partner with a human manager when making those tough calls. Other companies are taking a different approach, one that injects AI directly into the manager’s brain… Neuralink is an American neurotechnology company (founded by Elon Musk), that is secretively working on Brain-computer interfaces, cortical implants, neurorobotics, and Stent-electrode recording arrays. In short, this all means that Neuralink (as well as others) are planning on wirelessly connecting us to all aspects of the workplace – directly to work tasks, to other co-workers, and to a central AI-controlled command post. New 4th Wave devices are being developed to assist, augment, and yes, repair human cognitive and sensory-motor functions. In short, this more “democratic” approach of increasing productivity integrates new tech into our very being. We have already started down this path. As any casual observer of human behavior can see, there is now a 5th appendage in the hands of most all, the smartphone.     Regardless of whether 4th Wave industrial tech winds up being wirelessly connected to the inside or outside of our bodies, as project managers in 2019, we must start to think about 2030 and beyond. For those already working on 5- to 10-year plans, you must already be grappling with ways to predict the productivity of our future workforce. For example, how can we manage Bill and Jill using today’s software, when the Bill’s and Jill’s of the workforce are now connected to augmented reality devices – or just directly connected to a super computer, operating at hundreds of petaflops per second.     Let’s face it, we are on the cusp of a technological singularity (where the advent of artificial superintelligence will trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization…oh my! At this point, I find solace in the words of Carl Sagan: “Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get a hold of ourselves. To steer a safe course.”   Steering a Safe Course… As shepherds of the workplace (my favorite descriptor for project managers), the coming decades will be taxing. We might be scheduling work for newly-settled workers on Mars, leading AI-augmented workforces in virtual spaces, and managing massive re-training efforts to support a disruptive re-tooling of the workplace. Unfortunately, after the tech-singularity hits, we may find ourselves with more resources than suitable work, reversing previous industrial norms, such as having too much work and not enough qualified humans. We may also be managing Plank time instead of Standard time, and dealing with computing systems that manage us, instead of the other way around. With all of this quantum change on the horizon, our traditional role of steering a safe course within the workplace is more important than ever. Best of luck!   1 See Mayday! Project Crash Investigation, Determining Why Projects Crash,, Sept. 2016.  

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