Tag your tasks – Eliminate Static Hierarchy

Last year I wrote a post called “Microsoft Project doesn’t work“.  The headline is a bit sensational, but the sentiment is something I am going to explore further in this post.

Project management tools usually require the entry of tasks and all their accompanying data via hierarchies.  A group of tasks are made a subset of a parent task, which fits within a project, etc….  The end result is a single view hierarchy for a scope of work.

The problem with static hierarchies is that they are just one view of a complex world.  Another person in the exact same job as you, might see the structure/relationships differently.  Yet another person in a completely different role from you will almost definitely create different groupings and sub-structures for the tasks.  Over time, even YOU are likely to believe the task relationships aren’t quite right due to new information about the world changing around that structure.

Despite most project members’ mild buy-in to the initial work breakdown structure and despite the fact that almost all project plans become rapidly irrelevant, they are still the favored structure for project managers.

What if rather than grouping tasks and building a hierarchy, tasks are just tagged with keywords?   There are relatively sophisticated tools now for building views on top of those tags to show the work plan in the way that makes most sense to the viewer.  There could also be filters to take out extraneous (to that person) information and simple hyperlinks to view related sets of tasks.

There would still need to be dependencies between tasks, but those related tasks could be initially found through keyword searches and links could be established via collaborative project start-up sessions.  With dependencies established, individualized views could allow software to display specific gantt charts.

Avoiding the static hierarchy means one less artifact pinning down the original plan thereby giving more opportunity for the plan to stay ahead of the reality taking shape around it over time.

Does anyone know of any project management tools out there that work more like this?  I have not found them yet.

Brainstorming technique – Asking all the questions

Every time we have a new idea, it takes into account a wide range of assumptions that are based on our own personal background/experience.  Just because we have personal data that leads to an assumption, does not mean that assumption is correct.

There is a group brainstorming activity which does not seek answers or solutions.  Instead the process looks to define the scope of a particular space through exploring questions.  The process seeks to eliminate assumptions and take nothing for granted.

This is just the start of a strategic planning process, but it is a really important one to make everyone think broadly before starting to hone in on answering questions and solving problems that you feel are most pertinent for your idea.

Before you begin, you should lay out some very high-level goals and carve your idea space into a few sub-topics that you want to explore.  This works best if your facilitator also is versed in the topic you are discussing.

You will need the following materials

  • large 5″x8″ colored post-it notepads (at least one per attendee)
  • sharpee pens (at least 1 per attendee)
  • colored sticker dots (at least 20 per attendee)

Note: optionally you can hand different colored pads to different attendees if you are interested in visually understanding which people are asking what questions.  For example you might have Marketing folks and Management in the same room and it might be interesting to get a sense of the different perspectives.

For each sub-topic you will build a wall of questions:

  1. Using the pens on the pads, ask each of the attendees to begin writing down questions on that they feel are important to know the answers for in that topic area
  2. Pass each note up to the facilitator
  3. The facilitator will read each question and ask for clarification where appropriate
  4. Each question follows one of these paths
    • The facilitator asks for question to be modified or broken up etc… and then re-submitted.
    • Facilitator determines that a question is better suited for another sub-topic: writes that sub-topic on the note and puts it off to the side
    • Facilitator asks author if question is perhaps similar to one already on the wall.
    • Facilitator places that question on the wall grouped with other related questions when possible
  5. As each participant hears the questions being read, that is going to spark additional questions in their heads.  They should keep writing them down and passing them up as this happens.

You will find that the stack of questions waiting to be read may grow longer and shorter as the process continues.  Keep going while there is a steady flow of questions that are not repeating previous questions.

Now you are going to rate the questions via a process called dotmocracy

  1. each attendee gets X sticker dots.  X is any number you decide
  2. Attendees are allowed to place their dots on any of the notes on the wall
  3. They can place more than one dot and in fact as many as they like on any note.

There is nothing explicitly to do with the ranking of the questions.  There may be some that garner more votes because they are broader while others may receive less because they split votes with other similar ones.  The votes should just be used as one data point when using the questions to build a strategy.

Anyone used a process like this?  Parts you liked?  Parts you didn’t?

The Singularity

It is human nature to estimate based on a linear progression. In other words, we look back over the last x amount of time, consider how much progress has occurred and then just calculate based on that factor to determine how long whatever we are estimating will take.

But that is not the way that many things in our society change. In fact, many changes are happening at an exponential rate. The classic is the speed of computing which was predicted and has doubled every two years or so (Moore’s Law). Another good example is the speed of sequencing human DNA. 1/2 way to the deadline, they were only 2-3% complete, but because everything sped up so much, it was finished on time.

Because of these exponential curves, we tend to underestimate in our prediction of progress that will take place. The key is that each new level of progress achieved enables new types of change to take place. We are using what we newly develop to develop other new things that were not before possible.

Ray Kurzweil’s singularity premise is that we will not be satisfied with the speed of evolution and so we will enhance ourselves and our helpers more and more. We are already doing it with contact lenses and prostheses. Why is it such a stretch that we would start enhancing our brains or building external “brains” at some point?

Once that starts to happen, we have a very key element in the innovation process that is no longer constrained and this opens up even more opportunity for the speed of change. At some point (Kurzweil predicts 2029), we reach a speed and complexity that the “human” part of us cannot really understand and the human life form, as we know it today, essentially disappears. That is the singularity.

While the singularity is certainly too far away for business to care much at this point, exponential curves are all around us. If you can overcome the linear bias and use a faster predicted change rate to get out in front of something changing in your industry, you may well do better than your competitors. What will changes in other spaces enable for your business. Can you start planning for that now?

Disagree? Agree? Have a values/moral/ethical opinion?

Book Review – Super Sad True Love Story

I aim to cover progressive approaches to business.  Reviews of fictional works don’t usually qualify.   However, a novel I just finished seems germane to my “future business” theme:  “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart.

Shteyngart explores one possible future that may follow from some of our current trends.  He painfully describes in detail the distopian demise of the american society and economy.  It would not be quite so painful if it were not obvious that we have already started down many of the paths he treads.

In his future, people have become fanatically involved in their personal information devices;  to the point where face to face interaction has become somewhat awkward.  People relate to each other based on a series of public scores/rankings.  Starting to sound familiar?

In this fictional society the US is even more indebted to foreign powers who have grown impatient with our inability to handle our economic and social issues.  Everyone is so worried about their personal status and their purchasing power that they have lost all sight of what it takes to create real value and drive an economy.

Happily, I can envision some different paths for the US.  I am heartened by the new class of social entrepreneurs and the recent increased focus on education.  We have a growing set of people with good ideas and the gumption to execute.  If we can win the masses over from their sense of entitlement, innovation could usher in a new wave of prosperity.  The US has a rare combination of access to capital, resources, and tools for innovators to succeed.

My hope is that more and more people will weave innovation into their day job, ideas they have for a side business, or social projects they pursue.  Future business in this country can be even more successful than ever if the majority stop acting like cogs and begin working as engines.

Anyone else read this book? Even if you haven’t, what are your thoughts on where we are headed?

Microsoft Project doesn’t work

I have been using Microsoft Project for years.  There’s been a lot of love and a lot of hate.  Often at the same time.

In my opinion, it is still the best available software for setting up project tasks and project dependencies.

Unfortunately, that is where the party almost always ends.  The problem is that reality almost never follows the path we envision on Day 0.  The timeline is not the only element that changes.  What steps are required and the order of those steps ebb and flow as well throughout the project.

This is where the best part of MS Project also becomes its downfall: it is so good at identifying dependencies and assigning resources in order to build a nicely structured gantt chart, that the interdependencies are usually massive.  When elements start to shift, the number of data points and task relationships that must be maintained becomes unwieldy.

Most PM’s realize eventually that nobody else on the team is really paying much attention to the project plan and they are spending inordinate amounts of time trying to keep it current, so they give up.  In a horrible scenario, they try to deathmarch to the beat of the original plan.  In a better scenario, they find an alternate way to track progress and predict success.

I have found MS Project is a useful tool at the beginning of a project to identify critical path.  A critical path is the longest dependency chain.  It is a set of tasks that if one of them slips, it will slip your entire project.

Once I am ready to begin a project, I slim it down to a format that the whole team can relate to and that can be kept up to date more easily.  I also like frameworks such as IBM’s 7 keys approach which takes a much more holistic approach to project status tracking.

Anyone using MS Project all the way through a software development project?  Anyone using agile and MS Project together in some way?

Pre-mortem for risk mitigation

If you wait until a post-mortem to review what went wrong, you are already dead!  It’s not going to help.  :(

Guy Kawasaki mentioned another approach on his recent Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcast appearance.

Before your effort fails, get everyone to close their eyes and imagine it has failed.  Have each person describe the scenario that they believe could have led the team to that point.  Then all you have to do is capture all the described wrong turns as risks and decide which ones are important to mitigate.

Just like so many good ideas, this idea’s simplicity is its genius.  Participants will be emotionally involved and therefore will cut straight to the heart of the matter during an exercise that can otherwise be pretty dry.

Guy may have drawn the idea from this HBR article: Performing a Project Pre-Mortem.

Anyone ever tried it?  If not, give it a shot and let me know what you think.

Book Review – Nudge

This book covers an approach with which I agree : Paternalistic Libertarianism.  Two big words that mean everyone should have the right to make choices for themselves, but that the system should be set-up to subtly encourage choices that we, as the decision framers, believe are in the decision-makers’ best interest and the best interest of the larger population.

I think Libertarian ideals are great, but game theory tells us that when we are left to each fend for ourselves, we do not always end up with an optimal solution that creates the most total utility.  In situations where there is a history of people making choices that are sub-optimal, a paternalistic nudge can be for the individual and overall good.

However, problems start to arise when you think about who should be the framer of these paternalistic decision choices.  Do they have motives beyond the common good?  Do they measure common good in different ways than we do?  While nudging is certainly better than legislating against something (from a Libertarian point of view), it may not match with our own personal definition of “good”.

This book, like so many business books, would have been much better as a long magazine article.  It gets quite repetitive.  I feel that the authors could have traded out some of the endless examples for more space to help potential framers think through how to best approach setting up a nudge.

Though I skimmed it at parts, all in all, I thought it was an interesting read.  What I learned will hopefully inform my approach next time I am faced with framing a decision for others.

Please share if you have ever experienced or set-up a nudge and what you felt about the experience.