Zombie Project

If you’ve ever been in a project that limps along with extended deadlines, never taking off but never quite failing you may have been on a zombie project. I admit I’d never heard the term until a friend used it in a bit of a rant recently.

Projects are started with the best intentions; a good idea, a business reason, feasibility analysis, management sign off and resources allocated.  Some projects never really take off and make the expected progress, for a multitude of reasons – I’m sure you’ll recognise one or two of these;

  • a change in the business environment affecting the company’s finances or priorities
  • a competitor does something unexpected
  • management support dwindles
  • technology doesn’t work as planned
  • a key stakeholder withdraws
  • legal/regulatory/risk concerns start to slow progress and/or outweigh the project’s potential benefits.
  • competing priorities from other departments/teams

Often the momentum of a project will carry it on through some of these setbacks and it will go on to be successful – even if it’s delayed. Sometimes the delays accumulate and the momentum drops, progress meetings become further apart with much less to report. But the optimism behind the initial idea makes it hard to kill the project and it lives on in a strange half-life – your project just became a zombie.

We’re good at ignoring bad news, and bad at acting on what, to an outsider, might seem obvious. Our initial optimism and emotional investment in the idea make us reluctant to point out when something is not working. In addition failed projects have a way of being penalised when it comes to performance review time.

However zombie projects consume resources, and therefore have a drag on the companies bottom line. Logically companies will want to review their project portfolio and kill any zombie projects. One way to do this is to hold a “zombie amnesty”, where projects are reviewed and if they no longer promise value to the company are killed. In one HBR report a company found 20% of its IT projects fell into this category. For this to be successful you will need;

  • transparent criteria for the assessment of each project, you should ignore sunk costs and look at the cost and benefits from today
  • an independent reviewer or review team, it’s hard to be objective from inside the project
  • a “celebration” of the projects that are closed, you need to communicate the reasons for stopping the projects, and the benefit to the company as part of the no penalty clause and as a way to encourage future zombie killings.

In your assessment you may find some projects that are languishing on the border of the zombie zone but they have potential to provide value. You then have a choice to kill or relaunch.

Don’t relaunch just because there is value, check all the issues that led to the project failing. Change it up, add resources, tighten the governance, get a new – more demanding – executive sponsor. It needs to feel like a new project.

If the project is killed it may be resurrected in a shiny new form in a year or two. Try not to be the person that says “we tried that already”, but examine it as a new project.

I’ve talked about this from a manager’s perspective, but I promise you the people on the zombie projects already know that their work isn’t valuable to the company. If you can edit the projects and focus on the ones that will provide value they’ll thank you for it.

From the perspective of a project team member try to avoid these projects, they’re draining and will never reflect well on you. If it’s unavoidable then be brave enough to call time on the half-dead.

 

Image: Businessman Zombie  |  Lindsey Turner   |   CC BY 2.0 

 

Mental Health at Work

 

Yesterday was International Mental Health Day,  sponsored by the World Health Organisation (WHO).  This year the focus is on psychological first aid, WHO points out that in times of crisis it’s not just physical help that will be needed but also psychological support. I think they’re thinking of people working in the field and addressing the immediate aftermath of a crisis, however we will see people who have encountered crisis in the workplace, we need to learn some of the same skills.

I’ve worked with people who have been dealing with some personal crisis, suffering from “burnout” or who have diagnosed mental illness. I’ve come up with some “rules of engagement” that work for myself.

  • confidentiality
  • listen
  • ask for clarification, but don’t ask for more than the person is willing to share.
  • comfort in; dump out (within the bounds of confidentiality)
  • keep contact even if the person is struggling
  • allow person space for their own thoughts
  • bring the person’s attention back to work
  • be aware of my own limits and don’t be afraid to set boundaries for my own self care (this is hard as it feels selfish)

This is a pretty close match to the UN’s own guidelines, which validated my instincts.

How does this play out?

When you’re a manager and someone in your team is suffering from burnout you have to listen to them. You don’t explain or justify it. You believe them.

When a colleague who has mental health issues confesses to a history of abuse, you don’t tell anyone else – even if it becomes apparent that other people also know.

When a New Arrival in your country starts working with you don’t introduce him to everyone as a refugee – that’s just an immigration label and it invites the question “how did you get here?” Introduce someone by their name and the role they’ll perform. Let him/her talk about how they got here when they’re ready. Which may be never.

There are thousands of new arrivals who will become our colleagues, there are people who already have PTSD, sufferers of depression and other mental illnesses. We may all need psychological support through tough periods in our own lives.

Take the time to think about how you can help, think about how  you would lead your team in supporting someone who was struggling. If you see someone struggling, reach out, invite them for coffee and a chat… and keep the invitation open if they’re not ready right now.

Image: Mental Health via pixabay

Work Out Loud

We’re in the middle of “Working Out Loud” week, it’s a way of working within a network to create results around a common purpose. It encompasses a set of working skills that make a lot of sense as we work in a world where collaboration and agility are growing needs.

So what does it mean?

It means building a network around an idea or joint purpose, sharing your work, improving your ideas/programme/product within the network, being generous across your network.

Here’s how it all started.

It turns out that it’s an approach that can be used by independent people, and by those working in large organisations.

If you’re trying to build collaboration practices in your company then Work Out Loud circles are worth trying, there’s a twelve week process set out on the Working Out Loud website with pdf guides for each step.

I’m sort of in two minds about this method, in theory it sounds brilliant, but I know I find it hard to share half-baked work, I think there’s too much of the “good student” in me and I want to only show the good stuff. I know, I need to get over it.

I’ve just downloaded the kindle sample of the book, so let’s see if that helps me.

Image: Chinese Whispers  |   Ricky Thakrar  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

Giving Feedback

My Uncle went off to study at agricultural college as a young man, this was before Facebook and mobile phones so he used to write letters. He sent a long letter to his mother. She corrected the letter, in red ink, and returned it. He never wrote again.

Giving good feedback is much more than knowing what is right or correct. It is understanding what will be useful, and delivering the feedback so that it can be heard and used.

The feedback model proposed by the experts at Manager Tools has some really helpful podcasts, it’s a three step model and it focuses on behaviour. Simplified to a script template it looks like this;

When you [describe behaviour] the outcome is negative [explain how], how will you repair this/change your behaviour next time?

In their podcasts the guys from Manager Tools give several working examples of this and I’ve found it a really simple, workable method. Using this script has kept me focused on the work behaviours that really matter, removed an personal or accusatory tone to the feedback and put the responsibility for the change/improvement squarely in the employee’s hands. Of course I’ve also offered concrete help when needed.

I’ll give an example. One colleague, let’s call him David, who I was coaching, tended to pack too much into meetings meaning that he would be rushing to get through all the content in the last ten minutes,  even though the most senior people would be already preparing to leave. Instead of saying “hey, you should plan your meetings better” I had a conversation that went something like this;

Me Can I give you some feedback about today’s meeting?
David OK, I guess
Me Did you notice at the end of the meeting that the managers were closing their laptops and wanting to leave while you were still talking?
David Yes…
Me They have other meetings to go to and when you plan your meeting to go right to the hour they don’t listen for the last about 10 minutes. What do you think would work better?
David Um… Should I plan to finish at 10 to?
Me Yes, be wrapping up then. So when do you think you need to ask for the decision?
David Quarter to?
Me Yes, or perhaps earlier, to allow for discussion and wrap up. What will you do for the next meeting?
David Put less on the agenda and try to ask for the decision at about half way.
Me Let’s try that, I bet they listen to more of what you have to say that way.

This works best when the feedback is about correcting a behaviour, but it can be extended to bigger changes, either with longer discussions or repeated discussions.

There are a couple of other things to look out for;

  • the person has to be willing to hear the feedback, in the case above David was someone I was already coaching, so we already had an agreement in place that I could give him feedback. However I still asked his permission.
  • the feedback has to be useful, David had been frustrated that people weren’t listening to him, so suggesting something to change that was useful to him.
  • the feedback has to be specific,  David walked away with something to try for next time
  • the change proposed should come from them, you can ask them to think about it and come back to discuss with you or you can seed a few ideas if needed, but the answer should come from them.
  • the person receiving the feedback should feel positive and that you are helping them get better at what they do.

It is as much about usefulness of what you’re saying and delivery as the correctness of what you say.

Back to my Uncle, although he did call his mother after he stopped writing letters, my Grandma later saw her mistake. She’d given feedback that wasn’t really useful, and delivered it in a rather cruel way. She did regret sending that letter of corrections.

Image: feedback via pixabay

Support versus Commitment

In every big project in every company you need your senior executives on board. If you’re the project manager you’re asked to get the support of leadership.

On paper leadership support sounds good; it often comes with budget and it can pave the way for decision-making.

It’s not enough.

You need commitment of your leadership. So what is the difference?If you think of the bacon and eggs breakfast; the chicken was supportive, the pig was committed.

Commitment is visible in the organisation. If your executive is visible connected to your project then she has a real stake in its success. Budget will be more easily released, decision-making will become easier, other leaders will want to be part of it. Perhaps more importantly a number of the doubts about the project will dissolve, the fact that an executive puts their name on a project gives it a credibility vaccination.

Years ago when I was involved in implementing an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) at a large financial institution we’d done really well with good adoption numbers and some real business results. We also had the support of our CEO, who’d even featured in a launch video. I was happy about the momentum we were building.

Then we got a new CEO who wanted to use the ESN to reach employees and have a real discussion. Wow. What a difference, his name was on a community and he was interacting with employees. The questions people had about using an ESN changed from “why” to “how”. There was a growing assumption that this would be how we worked.

So, look for executives who are ready to commit, ask for their visible commitment, and move the conversation from “why” to “how”.

Image:  After a Night’s Fast  | Pekka Nikrus  | CC BY-NC-SA2.0

 

5 Things to Increase Happiness at Work

Sunday is the International Day of Happiness,  I’m not sure who decides these things but I thought I’d take the opportunity to look at happiness at work. For many people “happiness at work” will sound like an oxymoron, but it turns out there’s good research to demonstrate that happiness increases motivation and productivity. Shawn Achor talks about the “happiness advantage”, which significantly increases performance “your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed.”  Alexander Kjerulf, Chief Happiness Officer, has come up with five ways happiness is important at work one of the really cool things he cites is that relatively small actions can have a big impact. 

5 Things to Make Work Happier

Here are five ways you can make your team happier as a manager,  and the good news is you’ll be happier as well

  1. Team Purpose
    According to Dan Pink’s research a sense of purpose builds a person’s motivation. Knowing how your work and your team’s work fits into the company’s goals helps you feel that your contribution is valuable.
  2. Help Someone
    One way to make yourself happier is to help someone else; by sharing expertise, suggesting solutions, or sharing a tough task. Helping someone in your team provides a positive role model for others in your team, helps the person and will improve your happiness.
  3. Give Positive Feedback
    Genuine, open, freely given positive feedback and appreciation is guaranteed to improve someone’s mood. I’ve written before on the importance of saying “thank you“, but I’m sure we’ve all experienced the mood-lifting effect of positive feedback from someone we trust.
  4. Team Jokes
    Laughing together is a bond, a mood improver, and it can help your team be resilient in the face of challenges or crises. The best teams I’ve worked with have had this, with lots of the jokes relying on a particular brand of “geek humour”, which is why my farewell card from one job is a poster of memes.
  5. Share food
    I happen to like baking, so have taken in cakes, muffins, biscuits to share in my team. Many teams have a tradition of bringing back food from exotic holidays (which is how I developed a taste for Turkish delight), and one team I worked with had a tradition of having a team lunch outside the office.  Whatever suits your team, but nothing beats eating together as a metaphor for sharing and a move improver.

 

And as a bonus three ways to build your personal happiness this weekend;

  1. Practise Gratitude
    Write down three good things that happened to you in the last week. If you can build this into a daily habit you’ll learn to see the positive things more easily, which builds your happiness.
  2. Perform a Random Act of Kindness
    Helping others increases our own happiness, if you’re stuck for ideas there’s a website dedicated to kindness.
  3. Meditate
    Twenty minutes of meditation a day gives rise to measurable changes in the brain, increases creativity and reduces anxiety.  It’s a tough habit to build, but there are some apps to support you, start with fewer minutes and build up.

Happy International Day of Happiness everyone.

Image; Youth via pixabay

 

 

Positioning Thought Leaders

This is the third post in a series; in the first post of this series on thought leaders I wrote about defining thought leaders and gave some well-known examples.  In the second I talked about finding your thought leaders. Today I’m going to suggest ways to position your thought leaders to best represent your company or organisation. Most often this is a “big company” question, so I am assuming some internal support, but a number of the ideas can be adapted for smaller organisations.

Your thought leaders need to have the credibility of the organisation behind them and they need to be speaking on their thought leader topic both internally and externally. Here are some ways to make that happen.

Job Title

Their Job Title needs to match their role in the company and their authority as a thought leader.

AOL has a digital prophet, David Shing (known as Shingy), who turns up at conferences and event around the world. Would he be so popular as a conference speaker with a job title “Trend Analyst”? There are plenty of other creative job titles out there to consider, are you more curious about the Chief of Operations or the Chief Troublemaker?

Maybe such edgy titles aren’t right for your organisation, pick one closer to your organisation’s business culture that reflects the authority and expertise of your thought leader.

Internal Role

Your thought leaders should be known across your company for their vision and expertise. Your employees should be be inspired by your thought leaders otherwise who are they leading?

Having your thought leaders speak at internal events builds their reputation as visionaries, it gives them practice at speaking, and it gives your employees confidence to “spread the word” with their own networks which builds the thought leader’s external visibility.

External Visibility

Speaking Events

Identify the key events that your thought leader should speak, go beyond your own industry and look for more events with a wider audience.

Pitch your thought leader as a speaker, many conferences have open calls for speakers, but don’t be afraid to contact the conference organiser and discuss your ideas. The more  you know about the conference the more specific your pitch can be.

Support your speaker, with training, speech-writing and preparation sessions. You want to have a high impact.

Promote your thought leader’s participation in all speaking events – before, during and after the event; this could be internal announcements, press releases, company tweets, or relevant articles sharing some content from the speech, or publishing the presentation online.

Online

Use online tools to build and re-inforce your thought leaders’ reputation.

  • profile on company site makes a clear association between the company and the thought leader.
  • company blog – on company’s own site or via an external platform such as Medium – gives the thought leader
  • social media,  which platform you use will depend on your audience but likely candidates are;
    • LinkedIn profile, a quality profile will support your thought leaders’ reputation, you can add presentations to the profile to boost the content
    • LinkedIn Pulse,  you’ll have to work with LinkedIn to make this work, but it’s a great way to build a reputation. Part of joining pulse means committing to a minimum publication cycle of one post per month..
    • Twitter, use of twitter depends very much on the target audience, but even if your consumers are not using twitter other business people and journalists are.  It can be a great way to promote content for other content, and during events. One of the best CEO’s on twitter has become a bit of a thought leader on organisational culture, Peter Aceto.
    • SlideShare, this is a great way to store and share presentations made by your thought leader, and they can be embedded into other sites, or shared on social media.

It’s an integrated approach that will take discipline and time, but it will build the reputation of your thought leader across audiences.

Image: The Thinker  |  Christopher Brown  |  CC BY-2.0