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Robert Prol Posts

Tools don’t make us competent

Years ago I worked at a company that published content. When we needed a new editor, we’d hire random people from the produce department at the grocery store next to our offices. We’d then teach them how to use Microsoft Word. After a few training sessions, they were able to immediately create high impact content that engaged the audience and drove revenue.

Okay, I lied in the above paragraph. I’m making a point. All too often organizational leadership confuses tools with advanced professional skills. They think that if we just brought the right tools in, the current employees will suddenly do their jobs better. They miss an immutable truth about how to succeed. The first goal must be hiring people with the right skills. We then need to define the best process to get the work completed. The last step in the process is to provide tools that support the processes and complement the skills of the team.

People, process, then tools. No changes can take place without following this linear path. The short term pain of the changes will be much less severe than the failure of trying to teach unskilled people how to use a tool they see no value in using.

My almost best selling project management book is a great read. Many readers tell me how they read on section per day to allow the ideas to settle in. If you decide to purchase a copy, please write a review.

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A flood of memories

I served in the Army National Guard from 1981, until 2000. Then I transferred to the Army Reserves, retiring in 2004 as a senior NCO. In 1983 North Jersey was hit with lots of rain with snow on the ground. Over the course of a couple days, many areas were inundated with rising rivers. This wasn’t anywhere close to the scale of what’s happened in the Houston area. Yet reading about the disaster brought back many memories of my first time deployed as a member of the Army Guard.

Everyone thinks that the government does most of the rescues. Yet most of the rescues I witnessed were neighbors helping neighbors. Checking on each other, and as a group determining if they will evacuate or not. In NJ the officials advised that people evacuate before the rivers crested the banks. Many did. Some didn’t.

In the 1980s cell phones didn’t exist. As the water rose, the infrastructure failed. Electric, phones, and all the comforts that go with it. People came from the surrounding areas with their boats and rescued people from their homes. Neighbors reported to anyone in uniform where a neighbor may have stayed to ride out of the floods.

I was in the passenger seat of a 5 ton truck attempting to get to homes caught in heavy current. My job was simple. Look at the floor and let the driver know when the water started pushing up through the drain holes. I also glanced up to make sure we were reasonably on the road. Any washout could cause the truck to role. Sinking a wheel in the mud around the pavement could cause the truck to roll. We kept the windows open and talked through what to do in case it did roll. It didn’t roll.

Our orders were to tape dogs’ mouths shut to avoid fear bites. People were angry over this. I remember a man I knew from town (it was partly in my home town) who I always thought of as tough. He wept as we helped him from a boat into our truck and the eventual shelter he was headed to.

One of my mom’s best friend’s chose to stay in her home. I slipped home to grab some food in between missions, and my mom said her friend hadn’t been heard from. She stayed in her home. When I returned to my unit I gave them the address. They sent a boat and rescued her.

A boat got hung up on an obstruction in the polluted and muddy water. We drove close to see what we could do to assist. I crawled onto the truck hood and tried to stabilize the boat. I looked up. Another boat was motoring by in a heavy current. A cat sprung from a man’s arms. The man stood to get the cat under control. The boat lurched heavily, and people tried to shift their weight to stay in the boat. The boat flipped, sending everyone and their belongings into the water. The cat and all personal belongings were swept away into the nearby woods. The people all clung to whatever they could find. One person hugged a gas pump. All were rescued.

We drove up a main road putting out a wake a ferry would envy. The waves blew out plate glass windows on stores already flooded. It wasn’t intentional and at the time I laughed at how cool it was. Time changed my perspective.

By day three I’d had about 6 hours sleep in small chunks of time. The governor flew up to our armory. They made everyone who was wet, dirty, or just unattractive go outside to the motor pool. Only the support people in crisp uniforms were allowed to attend the press conference and receive his thanks.

Food was hard to come by. I started the mobilization with $16 in my pocket. I spent it all on food. Many firehouses and other rally points had food, but we rarely got there. We were so spread out that our unit couldn’t get food to us. Remember, no mobile phones back then.

As the water subsided and our operations slowed, I took a shower and put on a fresh uniform. I went back to our battalion headquarters. I was in the operations section. A couple of the senior NCOs quickly walked me around back and told me to get on a helicopter with our battalion XO. Any one of them would have paid to go up, but they saved the spot for me. The devastation from the air was shocking. We flew over miles of Pequannock, Wayne, Lincoln Park, and other towns impacted. We saw a few homes that were flattened. As though someone lifted the roof, and lay the walls out in all four directions, dropping the roof back in the hole. The pilot explained what happened. The water rose in the basement, putting out the pilot lights on the heating and hot water systems. The gas kept coming out of the pilot line filling the inside of the house with gas. When the water hit the first electrical outlet, it sparked. The air ignited. The home was flattened. Years later as my wife and I prepared for potential flooding during a hurricane, I tied a spanner wrench with a dummy cord to the gas line. I practiced getting there, and simulated shutting the gas off. Thankfully it didn’t come to that.


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Trust relies on transparency

 Trust is like an egg. Once you break it, you can’t get it back to its original state.

Always use real dates. Ensure that your teams understand that the dates aren’t padded. That late is actually late. That someone else will need to make up their lost time.

We can’t be effective as a project manager if our teams can’t trust us. When we provide inaccurate deliverable dates to hedge our bets that the deliverable will be late or will need rework, we send a clear signal that we can’t be trusted, because we don’t trust the team. This translates into not being taken seriously the next time we send out a schedule.

With only a couple weeks left this summer, be sure to purchase my almost best selling book from Amazon. It’s under $10, and is Prime eligible. Sales were brisk in June. July was a little slow. Let’s end the summer with a bang!

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Running projects

There’s no indicator of how things will go at the start. We may have done this before, or maybe it’s more, or less complicated than the other times. We can start with lots of confidence or start without any. The path to the end will be different each time. Sometimes getting to the start line is enough for success. Other times it’s the easiest part.

We collect our tools, come up with a plan, then start. Maybe we sprint at the beginning, then settle into a rhythm until the end. Or we may start with a good rhythm, then have to vary our effort to maintain momentum. We draw energy from those around us. Or they suck the energy from us. We never know.

This is what I pondered as I ran my second half marathon of the year, and the third one in my life. I felt a little weak at the start and decided to just run without any expectations or goals. There were over 500 runners on the scenic Westport, MA course. I started near the front and settled into a decent pace. At about the 6 mile mark I started to feel confidence that I’d go the distance. I finished 22nd overall, and 4th in my age group. It was a personal record for a half marathon.

Long runs are a lot like projects. There are so many variables, that we can’t easily predict an outcome at the start. All we can do is monitor and adjust our efforts as the variables change.

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Be candid or be gone

Most performance management processes are designed to collect unsubstantiated feedback on team members. I’ve sometimes been befuddled to determine what people are trying to say when they bring up a perceived weak area. They are comfortable in their anonymity when they provide their feedback. Being able to hide behind a keyboard is one of the reasons we shouldn’t discuss politics on Facebook with strangers. It can get a life of its own very quickly.

Several years ago I changed how I provide feedback on team members. I copy them in my response to the request. This places the burden on me to be truthful and consistent in what I write. If I write an area for improvement that I’ve never discussed with the subject of the feedback, then it’s my bad. I’m the one who needs to improve.

Project managers must have well-developed feedback skills. We are unable to lead a project if we’re not comfortable providing our team with on-the-spot relevant feedback on their performance. The first few times we do this it will be uncomfortable. Over time it becomes second nature and our team members will appreciate the opportunity to grow their skills. They will trust us more and the team as a whole will benefit. If you can’t provide performance feedback when an issue occurs, please find a new career field. Your teams deserve better leadership.


Don’t forget to purchase your copy of the almost best selling business book of 2017 – Haiku for Project Managers. Buy a copy for everyone on  your team.

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