How to be a Remarkable Project Manager

Here are notes from my talk at Spark Conference 2015. Enjoy!

I broke my talk down to the following four areas.

Self-Improvement

  • One of the best investments we can make is to understand ourselves. Focus on figuring out your Top 3 Strengths and Top 3 Weakness. This can be a hard question to answer. Ask for feedback from peers or your significant other. Remember that we have the liberty to change our answers as we move along! Understanding oneself is a process, not an event.
  • I have found Myers-Briggs personality type assessment to be very useful. I first learned about Myers-Briggs as part of the Problem Solving Leadership course led by Gerald Weinberg, Johanna Rothman, and Esther Derby.
  • My favorite blogger, Penelope Trunk, talks about how self knowledge and how this is critical to getting what you want and being fulfilled.
  • Take action. It is the best possible way to know yourself and specifically your interests, strengths, or motivations.
  • A personal journal can be a great tool to understand yourself. Try to use a personal journal to note down every time you felt like you accomplished something (big or small). Review your accomplishments regularly to determine if you notice any patterns.
  • It is tempting to think of ourselves as brilliant. Most often, we are not. It is hard to see ourselves as we truly are. Peer feedback is critical in gaining a better understanding of ourselves.
  • Set high standards for yourself. As Tony Robbins says, change your “shoulds” into “musts”.

Leadership Insights

  • Max DePree’ quote on leadership has resonated with me a lot – “The first job of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say Thank you”. That is probably the best job description for a project manager.
  • Gerald Weinberg has a definition of leadership that I like – “Leadership is the process of creating an environment in which people become empowered”.
  • Glen Alleman talks constantly about the five immutable principles of project management. Following the five principles is a no-brainer to me.
  • In his book, Software Creativity, Robert Glass mentions how one psychologist analyzed political leaders and came up with a scale that ranked leaders based on their ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity. This is a critical skill-set for project managers.
  • Here are some tips around how we can manage complexity
    • Breaking down a problem into smaller chunks (aka Divide and Conquer)
    • Experts can be useful as they can help orient project teams the right way and they provide the ability to look two steps ahead
    • Smaller teams are easier to manage and can be useful in delivering value faster
    • Attacking scope is a good way to restrict complexity and increase success
  • Here are some tips around how we can deal with ambiguity
    • It’s hard to weigh both sides of an issue. Our minds seem to deal well with certainty and do poorly with ambiguity. It’s useful to look at an approach, technique, or tip and determine the pros and cons of using it. This can help you balance two opposing views in your mind instead of coming to conclusions.
    • Another key approach is to think in terms of probabilities. Each project tends to face a fair share of challenges and risks that make hitting a specific date difficult. Do not blindly believe dates or a project plan. Understand the assumptions behind a milestone, the risks in the project plan, and have necessary schedule buffers that gives you the flexibility to respond as circumstances change.
    • Project teams can freeze if there are significant ambiguities. Lack of clear requirements, lack of access to critical decision makers can pose significant challenges. Project Managers can make an impact by figuring out baby steps a team can take to move the project forward.
    • There is a need to embrace and tolerate ambiguity. However, there are situations where you do want to tolerate ambiguity. Two situations are around tasks and milestones. Ensure there is good understanding among critical stakeholders on what a task or milestone means. If all stakeholders do not interpret the task or milestone the same way, you will be in a world of pain! :->
  • We always, always, always act in ways that are consistent with our beliefs and self-image. This is probably the most important lesson I learned from Tony Robbins and Jerry Weinberg.
  • We all have unwritten rules or beliefs that drive our behavior and actions. In some cases, we are not even aware of these rules. Trying to surface these rules and re-framing them are key to success. For example, you may have a unwritten rule that says “I should be nice to everybody”. This can pose challenges when you attempt to provide feedback to a teammate.
  • Byron Katie’s The Work is a solid approach that helps you re-frame your thoughts and beliefs.

Software Principles

  • “All problems are people problems”. This one piece of advice from Gerald Weinberg from Secrets of Consulting will save you a lot of heart ache and money!
  • Consider project pre-mortems. Talk about all the ways in which a project can fail when you initiate a project. This is the one piece of advice that Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein agree on!
  • The Mountain Goat Principle
    • “Take one step at a time up the slippery mountainside, and make absolutely sure that each hoof is on solid ground before you take the next step.”
    • Simple, powerful, and effective!
    • While you are at it, buy Tom Gilb’s Principles of Software Engineering Management. It has tons of great advice like the Mountain Goat Principle.
  • Conquer Accidental Complexity
    • There are two types of complexity in software, per Frederick Brooks: Essential and Accidental complexity.
    • Fight accidental complexity as much as you can. Accidental complexity, such as lack of right tools, organization can cause significant in-inefficiencies. They can also lead to decision fatigue.
    • Get personally organized first. Ensure you can easily track action items, tasks, milestones, open questions on a project.
    • Use ONE tool consistently (if you can!).
    • Never, never, never have code outside of source control.

Fear

Useful Links

  • Penelope Trunk’s blog – Penelope Trunk is my favorite blogger and she has the best advice on managing your career and becoming better.
  • Leap First by Seth Godin – This is a great audio from Seth Godin. Seth talks about creating work that matters and how we can work with our internal resistance and barriers that prevent us from taking the leap.
  • The Behaviors that define A-Players (HBR) – Great article from Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman on what separates high performers from the rest.
  • Glen Alleman blog – Solid blog on project management. This blog has been influential in how I think about projects in general.
  • The Joel Test: 12 steps to a better code – This handy checklist is worth its weight in gold.

Recommended Books

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