Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Before the Project Becomes Yours

Ever "inherit" a project? Ever inherit one where the expectations seem unrealistic? Or just plain crazy?

Yeah, I've had a few of those, too.

So what do you do? Your boss calls the project as an "opportunity" for you to show your stuff? It's a vote of confidence. Or is it? Could you be the scapegoat being positioned to take the blame for someone else's brain fart?

Or perhaps while the expectations may look high, you agree it's a noble endeavor -- good for the company, that is.

But is it good for you?

Maybe. But maybe not. It all depends on what you do. And what you do never matters more than what you do when you first take the reins.

What are the choices?

You could dive right in and start problem solving -- that's probably your natural reaction. It certainly was mine. The usual rationalization is there's no time to waste, or that you can learn what is going on best by doing, digging, and responding.

You could review status, testing the resource levels versus the targets. Checking to make sure the right people are deployed in the right roles. You could develop a new pathway to a successful project end. This is a useful step, but not where I recommend you start.

Before the project becomes yours, you should review the justification. Review the project documents. The write ups, the financial analysis, the presentations. Test and evaluate the underlying assumptions. There is no more important place to start than here. Why? Because I've observed that the vast majority of projects are already successes or failures BEFORE they are started.

Someone in senior management wants to do something (for example: open a new plant, or maybe close an old one). Do you think they waited for a thorough analysis to support their desired project? Most don't. And even if they do, they, or at least their staffs, already know what the "right" answer is. They often bend and twist the analysis to support their preconceived outcome. I've seen it happen over and over again. Conversely, the number of times I've seen objective analysis drive the decision (without the pre-existing prejudice) could be counted on two hands.

If you're inheriting the project, it probably comes complete with such assumptions -- ones that aren't particularly realistic or well founded. And if you don't raise the red flag early and often, they will become your assumptions. You will own them, too.

So what do you do? Test every assumption, especially the ones that look risky. Bring up your concerns with bosses at every opportunity. Call foul if you can. Better to say -- "This project is never going to pay off" on day two, rather then being assessed as a failure on day two hundred.

Of course, you have to play politics as you do this. If you just inherited your boss'es pet project, and he drove all those crazy assumptions, your hands will be at least partially tied. But do what you can to protect yourself and your reputation from the faulty project

And remember -- silence is viewed as agreement. Always.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Express Concerns until Success is Assured...

I once had a guy who worked for me, say: "This project is the best one we've ever done". He made this statement to our CEO during a review meeting.

I silently cringed when I heard this -- not because the execution of the project hadn't been pretty good up to this point -- but instead, because he was just setting himself up for huge criticism if even the smallest thing went wrong. At the same time was getting very little credit for the brag -- an eye-roll over his stupidity, rather than an 'atta boy.

This incident helped me learn an important work lesson -- it is safer and more prudent to raise issues about any project or activity going on within your area of responsibility, than it is to communicate any certainty of success. There are several reasons for this.
  • Until the project is at its end, unexpected things can happen to derail success. You are better off having people recognize there are risks, than for them to be counting on an easy win. Call it the psychology of disappointment -- it is better to be a last minute hero.
  • If it doesn't look a little bit like a struggle, then you won't get as much credit. Overcoming significant obstacles is more highly valued than cruising across easy finish lines. Perhaps unfair, but definitely human nature.
  • It gives you a platform to show off your thinking and managing skills. Issue -- analysis -- action. Management loves to see this process self-initiated by an employee. Just remember not to stop at the Issue stage.
Yes, there are downsides -- you will often get help you don't want. Sometimes there will be suggestions from higher up that you know won't work. Often, senior intervention will be clever, but the timing will be bad, causing you to back up and redo something already put to bed. There might a resource assigned that will make the task more difficult, rather than easier. You could even lose the project if you overplay your hand. That's why you should use this technique with a light touch. Use it sparingly, but use it. And never, never, ever brag about work still in progress.

So what happened to the guy and his project? He ran into problems from an unexpected angle soon after making this statement. The problems added huge complexity to the project, increasing costs and delaying it significantly. Eventually the project had to be abandoned. And the CEO brought up the statement made in that review meeting regularly until the employee eventually left the company a couple of years later. It was the impression stuck in his head about the employee -- not the impression you want to make...

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Published today 11/13/11.

I published INCENTIVIZE, A Corporate Thriller, today. It is the story of a young auditor who is sent to Africa to validate copper reserves in a corporate mining operation and discovers "Irregularities". The heroine becomes a target, while a corporate attorney continues to investigate what she started.

And what is it that they're up to anyway?

Read Incentivize to find out.

You can find INCENTIVIZE through the book's website at:

or purchase directly at CreateSpace (paperback):
or at Smashwords (various electronic versions):

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Corporate Blues

The recent publication of LEVERAGE has given me an opportunity to meet and talk with quite a few people I haven't connected with in a while. Most of these friends continue to slog away at the corporate grist mills.

But I've sensed a common theme: A lot of pent up frustration.

The current job market -- a hirer's market -- has created some interesting dynamics. Managers realize their subordinates are not as mobile as they were a few years ago, and some are taking advantage of the situation. They are clamping down on liberal work practices, pushing their employees harder, and generally giving a "take it or leave it" message.

In short, they appear to be exercising their power. Perhaps not consciously, but for an increasingly large number of friends, work doesn't appear to be fun anymore. And the impacts are clear on the faces and in the voices of many of the people I talked to. They are unhappy. They are dissatisfied. They are marking time.

When things improve, many will change jobs. A few will change careers.

Not everyone can do what I did and exit the corporate world. It takes a solid safety net, or a lot of guts to do so (I went the safety net route). But I believe there are more disillusioned workers out there than ever, and more people dreaming about getting out. And where there's a will, often a way can be found.

So here's my advice to those restless souls -- the same advice I received.

Spend a few minutes each day thinking about where you want to be in ten or even twenty years. Not with just your career -- with your life. This is needs to be a deep examination, and don't be afraid to say "I don't know". Think about options, opportunities, and alternatives. Keep the blinders off. Consider being a vagabond, fishing guide, counselor, teacher, artist, or anything else you've ever wishfully contemplated. But now give those wishes a real voice.

Write out where you've been, and study it. Is that direction going to get you where you want to go? Or is it the wrong trajectory? What could you do to change it? Or should you just start over on a new one?

If a change makes sense, when could you start? Could you take a year sabbatical to explore your options? How about a month? Even if you have to explore them concurrently with your current job, plan it out and design a real examination -- one where you can really see if the direction makes sense for you.

Just don't consign yourself to living the rest of your work-life as a corporate cog. There are alternatives to the corporate blues.