Parenting Skills Take on Project Management

Thursday Apr 29th 2004 by Eric Spiegel
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Are you thinking what the heck does child discipline have to do with project management? Well, stay with us. Our Datamation columnist looks at setting limits and expectations, and how to enforce it all.

''No!'' This is the response I got from my toddler daughter to express her dissatisfaction with my very polite request to clean up her toys.

I said, ''That's ONE. Now, please, pick up your toys.'' She giggled, not appreciating my poignant use of the word ''please'', and then kicked over a stack of alphabet blocks. ''That's TWO,'' I said, trying hard to sound indifferent.

Then she picked up a menacing-looking clown doll and proceeded to wind up like a big league pitcher. Before I could say 'boo', the doll bounced off my forehead. Fighting back the urge to exclaim, ''Great throw!'', I instead said, ''That's THREE. Take a time out.'' She skulked off with lower lip protruding.

Are you thinking what the heck does toddler discipline have to do with project management? Stay with me for a minute.

The point of the clown-throwing story was about setting expectations. If your child expects the same response when they do something wrong, they are more likely to anticipate your actions and act favorably in the future. When they hear, ''TWO'', they know that, ''THREE'' is always next. Eventually they will adjust their behavior to avoid the consequences.

Now let's try to put this into the context of project management.

At the start of a project, it can be easy to overlook expectation setting. Many managers would rather assume that team members and customers automatically will interpret project goals into their own expectations. It is one thing to tell someone they must meet a goal. However, the real management skill is gaining acceptance from that person on exactly how they will meet that goal. The acceptable methods and behaviors must be documented for benchmarking during the project and for review after completion.

Yes, write them down. No need to play the ''he said, she said'' game if things go badly.

Setting Limits

During the project post-mortem, it is typical to gauge success by whether or not project goals were met. But you need to dig deeper to ensure future success. Did the team members accomplish the goals based on the agreed upon expectations? If not, you many have a hard time repeating success the next time.

For example, meeting a software delivery goal by skipping the required peer review is not an acceptable outcome because now the precedent has been set and regular peer reviews will fall by the wayside. When an undesired action like this takes place, you must provide an expected, measured response.

Joe Spina, a client manager with CD Group, Inc., an Atlanta-based ERP consulting firm, agrees that you are heading down a slippery slope if team members aren't held accountable.

''The minute you give in, you are being taken advantage of,'' says Spina. ''You lose credibility with your team and your customer, resulting in unpredictable and costly project results.''

Sound similar to toddlers?

If you give them candy before dinner, after telling them candy is not allowed, you cannot be expected to be taken seriously the next time. And you can't effectively discipline a toddler or a team member if you haven't been consistent in the past.

But if you follow through with the same fair response when behavior deviates, surely future results will become more predictable. In the adult world of project management, predictability leads to savings in time and money.

Continue on to hear how to best captain your project management ship...

Setting Expectations

Let's use a very basic example where your team members must provide a weekly status and you in turn must provide one to the customer.

You set the expectation of Friday status reports that must include critical issues. First, the status reports come in sporadically. You ask the team to be more prompt. Then more late reports -- some of them are even phoned in -- with an abundance of excuses. Your customer status reports are now turned in late. You scramble to gather status information every Friday and find less time to thoroughly read the reports.

The ship is sinking and the captain is still trying to steer.

As a result, an irate email arrives from the customer about a missing component. You ask the team member responsible, and she defensively states that it was listed in the critical issues ''just like you asked''!

The problem is it was buried in with all the other bullet points and it slipped under your radar.

By properly setting expectations and consistently following through, this downward spiral could have been avoided.

First off, provide a required status template that highlights critical issues to avoid them being buried in the details. Secondly, make sure everyone knows the consequences of not turning in a status using that same template every Friday.

Finally, use the 1-2-3 method for consistent reinforcement.

The first late status results in a reminder. The second results in a meeting where you reinforce the importance of sticking with the process and the consequences if they don't. Being late a third time results in the predetermined consequences, such as removal from the team or ineligibility for an incentive bonus.

The key is that there are no surprises.

Spina has found that emphasizing and accepting expectations at the start of a project leads to everyone starting and finishing on the same page.

''At a project kickoff meeting, I like to review the implementation methodology, scope of customizations, change management, project plan and schedule,'' he says. ''I let them know right up front that this is what I'm looking for you to do, how to communicate and how you are expected to execute.''

Spina goes on to say that setting communication methods is crucial for his team and the customer. ''You have to have a means to adjust expectations as the project unfolds, he adds.

In other words, you have to set an expectation on how to change expectations. By following specific rules, you truly reduce the risk of failure, Spina points out.

Of course, I realize there are differences between teaching toddlers and managing a project team. You can actually negotiate expectations with your team and gain a respectful working relationship by treating everyone fairly. You can lead by example by following the expectations set with your team, the customer and your own manager.

Most importantly, you can't fire your toddler. At least that's what my wife keeps trying to tell me.

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