Posted by Margaret Gerber on Oct 02, 2010
My project management skills around home are likened to the story of the cobbler’s children having no shoes. I can manage highly complex, multi-billion dollar initiatives for my clients; it’s just that when I’m at home, I don’t want to think about things like dependencies or resources or estimates. (I’m still forced to do so, but it’s under duress.)
Such is the case with our recent landscaping project. I started building a retaining wall soon after we moved into our house almost 15 years ago. Note the use of the word “started.” Also, note the lack of the word “finished.” Being so busy managing others’ projects, I ended up ignoring my own far too long. I decided it was time to outsource the project to a true landscaper, in order for us to put this one in the “done” column.
I collected bids and selected a landscaper with a proven track record and a good understanding of what I wanted and needed, who could complete the project within budget and within a reasonable time frame. Before any of that could happen, I had to define what I wanted, and I had to let all of the bidding contractors look at what was there now.
As many of your know, I’m a HUGE big ol’ geeky fan of systems thinking. What I had to do before any of the work could begin, or before any of the estimates could be written, was define the OUTPUTS of the system. If you are a business analyst, you call this requirements. All of the contractors found out I wanted a two-tier retaining wall on the south side of my walk-out patio, and a three-tier retaining wall on the north side. I had to specify the height of the wall. I had to let them know what kind of bricks I wanted. In other words, my ideas (OUTPUTS) became their INPUTS to their estimates. It also became the criteria for the FEEDBACK LOOP to determine whether the project was correctly completed.
Project management is filled with systems thinking. J. Alex Sherrer wrote an amazingly informative and comprehensive piece a few months ago on the use of systems thinking in projects. He drives home the point of relationships between systems quite well:
And systems don’t just interact with themselves; they’re part of ever larger and more complex systems. Because of these internal and external relationships and influences, a system is complicated; take away any part of a system, its behaviour is altered; rearrange the relationships within a system and it’ll function differently; make a change to a component within a system and that change could reverberate with unintended consequences to other systems.
When you become a project manager, post this paragraph on your wall. EVERYTHING you do is related to somebody else. You will receive information from others, which will prompt you to make decisions. You will create things which others’ use as inputs to their systems.
I just led a workshop on this very thing at the LavaCon conference in San Diego. At the end of my workshop, I gave the participants the paragraphs from the website’s main page, articulating the business reason for attending the conference, and asked them to map it into the systems model. They soon found it wasn’t as easy as it looked, until we stepped back and agreed on our system’s output. Then all of the pieces fell into place.
My landscaping project turned out amazingly well thanks to BW Construction in Urbandale. Bob Wolfe, the contractor, took my thoughts, and from it he was able to create his own outputs in the form of successful project completion.
What input-output relationships exist on your project? How can you manage them? What can you do to ensure you are successful at communicating those relationships?