{Nothing Noteworthy}

Much Ado About Nothing

Fly the Airplane

In April of last year, I wrote a blog post called “Parenting as a Project“.  I wrote it while I was on maternity leave, pondering my return to the workforce.  I had been working on a failing project, and the PM had been removed from the contract just 3 weeks before Carrie was born.  As I found myself unexpectedly calling the temporary PM to inform her that I was in the hospital, I was wondering if I would have a job to come back to.  The project failure really was that bad.  When I wrote “Parenting as a Project”, I had been asked to become the permanent PM when I returned from leave.  The customer was difficult, at best; the team was attempting to perform beyond their capabilities (because the previous PM was an @sshat), and I knew that even if the option year was exercised, my services would only be needed until September 30th — then I would need to find a new position.  It’s amazing how God works sometimes — the one thing that I feared the most was the area of personnel issues, and that’s exactly what I had to confront head-on from the start.  I had to remove someone from the project … for cause.  And then, slowly but surely, the team pulled together and things turned around.

That experience has reminded me of something that I’ve heard John say:  “Fly the airplane.”  It’s a pilot’s mantra that boils down to:  when all hell is breaking loose, figure out how to fly the airplane, and fly it… everything else is secondary.  If you’ve ever heard the story of the United Airlines Flight 232, then you probably understand the concept.  The DC-10 suffered a rear engine failure which resulted in catastrophic damage to the entire flight control system which was located in the tail of the airplane.  With complete loss of the ability to use the control surfaces, the pilots (and “dead-heating” flight instructor) had to use the remaining engines to steer the aircraft towards a runway in Sioux City, Iowa.  That crash landing is the ultimate example of “fly the airplane.”

So, how does the Sioux City crash fit in with Project Management?  Simple:  no matter what else happens, always concentrate on running the project.  Set aside the non-essential tasks; figure out how to make it work with what you’ve got; ignore any unhelpful influences; and do your absolute best to keep it flying all the way to the end.  Sure, you might end up with a cancelled contract or even the need for a new job, but you will have your integrity intact and very valuable experience for your next go-round.  Or as Dori said in Finding Nemo:  “Just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!”

There are two other very important lessons to be learned from United Flight 232.  The first is the concept of Cockpit Resource Management.  United had been training their pilots in CRM prior to the accident, and it played a major role in the successful outcome of the incident.  Prior to CRM, the Pilot was understood to be in charge of the airplane, and the more junior-level staff were expected to obey his/her orders without questions.  But CRM was a new paradigm:  all of the flight staff, from the most senior pilot to the flight engineer, and even the off-duty flight instructor were empowered to speak up when they had ideas, questions, or concerns.  Each person brought their experiences and training to the situation, and provided valuable input.  Each person on your team brings their own experience and perspective, and they should be encouraged to express it.

The other lesson to be learned from United Flight 232, and aviation in general, is the concept of Positive Transfer of Control.  Everyone in the cockpit, and the project, should know who is in control at all times.  There should be no opposite flight control inputs or arguments from team members.  Each person needs to know, unequivocally, what they are responsible for.  With PTC, when a co-pilot takes control of an airplane, they say something similar to “I have the airplane.”  They do not actually HAVE control until the pilot responds with “You have the airplane.”  Transferring control of the airplane requires acknowledgement from both the gaining and losing parties.  John and I actually practice this when it comes to picking Carrie up from daycare.  If there is any question of who is picking her up, one of us will initiate with (as appropriate) either “I have the airplane” or “You have the airplane.”  The issue isn’t closed until the other responds appropriately.  While project teams might see it as a bit mundane, positively acknowledging ownership of tasks can remove a lot of ambiguity from Project Management and eliminate the “I didn’t understand” and “No one told me” excuses.

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Parenting as a Project

Shortly after my last post we discovered that Carrie has acid reflux, which caused a few really bad days, and colic, which has caused way too many bad nights.  Soothing a screaming baby doesn’t leave much time for posting, unfortunately.  She’s napping in her car seat, so I thought I’d finally put these words that have been rattling around in my head to blog while I have the time.  (No, I’m not a bad Mommy — she’s just still out cold from a car ride a bit ago.)

I got my Project Management Professional certification almost two years ago and managed projects for quite some time before that.  In general you have to balance schedule, scope, cost, and customer expectations in order to complete a project successfully — defined by on time, on budget, and with a satisfied customer.  That’s not a perfect formula, unfortunately.  Sometimes you end up having to ride a project into the ground because of things that are totally out of your control (management that won’t make decisions, inadequate resources, uncooperative customers, etc).  I’ve had some real successes, I’ve had bad management, and I’ve had bad customers too.  It happens to everyone — but I digress.

I’ve spent my days for the last few weeks puttering around the house with a baby in tow (in my arms, over my shoulder, in a bouncer, or even strapped to me) and have found myself thinking a lot about managing projects … and babies.  I’m finding that being the parent of an infant is a lot more like being a project manager than I ever could have imagined.  I fully believe that this experience will enhance my project management abilities, once I can actually get a full night of rest, lol.

One of the most important things I’ve learned during this time is to do the best thing that I can be doing right now.  Every couple of minutes I’m asking myself: “What is the best thing that I could do RIGHT NOW?”  Why?  Well, situations change fast — the baby goes from sleeping to screaming in 3 seconds flat.  Maybe now isn’t the best time to finish washing the bottles.  Or, Carrie actually lets me put her down for a nap…. this might be the time to mop that yucky kitchen floor.  Sometimes the thing I started is no longer the best thing to be doing.  Sometimes the best thing for me to do is something frivolous in order to get some “me time.”

Sure, I have a list of things to do a mile long that I try to get done the second Carrie sleeps more than a minute:  wash the bottles; check her diaper station supplies; wash her laundry; feed the cats; vacuum the carpets; take out the trash; empty the Diaper Genie; get dinner started.  While all of those are very good things and need to be done, sometimes they’re not the BEST thing I could do in those infrequent moments.  Last week the “best” thing was to sweep, mop, and vacuum all of the floors — because it had been a while since it had been done and it just made me feel better; more in control of my house.  A couple of weeks ago, the best thing was to spend a couple of hours cross-stitching because I hadn’t been able to do that since we were discharged from the hospital.  Of course, often the best thing is to just hold Carrie and love her because I don’t have much time left before I go back to work.

So, how does this relate to project management?  Sometimes you end up doing something because it’s the next thing on the schedule — but it might not be the best thing you could do in order to meet the project goals.  A PM needs to be flexible enough to recognize when a different task would be more worthwhile done now than later (as long as it continues to meet schedule, scope, cost, and customer expectations, blah blah blah).  Managing a project isn’t just a suicide march toward a calendar date.  You’ve got to constantly look at where you are, analyze what’s going on, and be prepared to refocus your efforts elsewhere when it makes sense.  How often should you be evaluating what’s the best thing to do right now?  As often as you need to.

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