Systems thinking – expanded

A while back at a networking event I was talking about my business and how for the most part I have remained the database developer for several companies for decades. The person I was talking to was surprised that I might mention this to a new client. He suggested that no new client would want to hear that I might not leave! He thought that most clients would want me to write a system to sort out their business and then leave them alone – for ever. 

But all things change and need to. The chances are that the business model and strategy that you have in place today is very unlikely to be the one you are using just a few years from now. Your systems need to change along with your strategies.

Everything is changing and so having the ability to modify, tweak and update your office management system is essential. The idea of a custom database system is that it runs your company as it needs to be run – now. Not as it was 5 years ago or even last year.

Attached is a wonderful distillation of why systems need to change. 

Yellow Stone Park Wolves

Systems thinking:

An event maybe a single occurance or part of an underlying pattern

A pattern survives when there is a supporting structure

A supporting structure is the result of the implementation or ideas and policies.

Now reverse this.

There are events that you wish to have occur – you create the concept.

You create the sturtures that help support that concept.

You create the habits and behaviours that run the structure.

The desired events take place. If they do not you make adjustments until the desired events occur at the desired rate and calibre.

I am in the structures market. I create database systems that are the structures that reinforce the habits that produce the event. They help turn your concepts into events.

10 Project Manager Traits – 5 – Obfuscator

5 - Obfuscator

Description

An Obfuscator sees every possibility and wants to cover all bases. For each proposed solution there are several options and all of them, they feel, needs to be addressed. At each meeting there are many more ideas and they keep on coming.

The intention

When this is positively intentioned the obfuscator wants to be sure that the project has considered all possibilities.

When this is negatively intentioned the obfuscator wants to complicate the project to either prolong it or demonstrate their skills and knowledge.

The Good

This type can make a huge contribution at the early stages of a project. They see all the things that a project could accomplish and can remember all the situations where are currently not ideal and which could be remedied. As this stage the motivation can be seen as them attempting to make things better.

The Bad

When an obfuscator is involved throughout a project they can seriously derail it. Each issue or topic gets subdivided into sub topics which then get divided into further sub-topics and there is no discernment or attempt to prioritise any of them.

The project gets confused and so wide ranging that the key objectives get lost.

The Story

I worked on a project that suffered from many changes in project manager but it took a real turn for the worse when a new project manager came on board who was an obfuscator. I did not realise it at first as all the ideas were sound and appeared to be constructive, but as time went on it became clear that the intention was to prevent the project from completing. 

In this case it was an architectural project and the “project manager” role was taken by the site foreman. Things were going wrong on site and to cover the problem the foreman started pointing out issues that appeared to be important. As I went about addressing each one he would come up with yet more issues that needed my attention and which, unless done, prevented any work from taking place. When the project manager’s staffing issues were finally resolved, the issues dried up and we got back on track. It took sometime to appreciate that the adding of complexity had been a ruse to buy time and distract me from what was really going on.

Remedial action

An obfuscator is best countered by always having a very clear brief, but even with one in hand, it is experience that is needed to spot when the obfuscator is at work. 

At first it is hard to believe that a person will deliberately go out of their way to create pointless complexity or redundant work. With experience one knows that this is a possibility and you can quickly dismiss ideas being put forward that do not meet the main goals of the project.

When this type is at work and the technique is not stopped when revealed and discussed, it is time to replace the project manager. This can be tricky as the ideas put forward can appear to be reasonable and useful, so one has to be sure of the motivation and intention first.

If obfuscation is being done with good will then the action required is to help the person carryout their own evaluation of the ideas before they are presented so that they can validate the idea before meeting with others and so ensure that the ideas are “on point” and contribute to the success of the project.

10 Project Manager Traits – 11 – Conclusion

Screenshot 2020-07-01 at 13.21.08

Conclusion

When I started this series I mentioned that none of the traits explored were either right or wrong. It is clear that they all have their benefits and can have serious negative consequences if not understood and managed. It is obvious that this list is incomplete.  It is also true that no one has just one of these traits and indeed we do display each of them under different circumstances. 

By understanding that these traits exist and can have beneficial or deleterious effects on the outcome of the project, it helps to understand when the trait should be purposefully employed and when it would be wise to quell the need to engage it.

There are key roles and key moments in the life of a project where the traits described above can benefit the outcome.

Initiation

Starters are an obvious positive influence in the creation of a new project. They can see the need for a “thing” to be created and they have enough energy to overcome inertia and bring a project to life.

Obfuscators can help expand ideas producing both wise and slightly mad ideas from which a core theme can be identified and honed in on.

Starter Finishers can help refine the idea and from their knowledge of project delivery can see what ideas are just overly complex or are not essential in the early stages of design. Get them to unify the project to ensure that the goals and objectives are relevant, aligned and meet the original objectives.

Development

Specialists need to be consulted on what is essential for each aspect of the project. They will quickly identify what is really needed, what has been missed and what is just “fluff”

Perfectionists can identify where current systems or designs fail and could be improved.

Get the Starter Finishers to keep things moving and not let things get overly complex or bogged down in detail. 

Refinement

As the project evolves, get the Obfuscators back in to check the scope of the project  – they will have ideas that are outside of the box. Some of these ideas will be brilliant. 

Then get the Specialists back in to refocus on what is still the core of what is needed.

Deployment and Follow-up

This is the time of the Completers. They are good at picking up on lagging energy and willpower. They will produce the checklists that wrap up loose ends and sort out the snagging list until the project is done.

Some projects have a clearly defined conclusion, an end point. Some fade out. Fading out is the nature of software development. It rarely ends with a big party – it ends when the snagging list has been completed. Snagging lists can also become the start of the next project as the previous one hints at what else could be done. This is the start of a new project phase and so back to the initiation phase.

The four missing traits

Saboteur – the reason for the need to sabotage can be illuminating. There is an issue that is not in the open and this may hint at personal issues, personnel issues, at conflicts on strategic decisions and maybe even about morality. They are are worth bringing out into the open as, if they are not seen or handled, the sabotage may succeed.

Procrastinator – here the fear may be legitimate. Maybe the reason for holding back reveals a significant risk or, at the very least, a need for further training or counselling. Not handling this situation means the project will result in a loss to all parties.

Confrontation – This can range from passive aggression to outright open warfare. It will not go away. The circumstances that create the conflict need to be explored and handled. If the situation is handled just by removing one side of the conflict, it may well reappear when new team members are recruited. 

Swap outs – this is about the best use of scarce and valuable resources or the mishandling of poor resources. When this is about good people who are needed in several places at once, the goal has to be to find more people that have similar traits to the valued staff member and as a matter of urgency. Be clear what those traits are and deliberately seek them in new recruits. 

Where a staff member is under-performing then the situation will not be resolved by moving them from one location to another. The manager becomes the saboteur by not handling the personnel issue. 

10 Project Manager Traits – 10 – Swap outs

10 - Swap outs

Description

This is a situation arising from an 

– absent or

– disinterested or 

– distracted or

– overloaded boss. 

The project brief is created and the goals are set. As the project moves forward, the project manager is suddenly needed elsewhere or the boss decides that another manager who was not previously available would be better suited to the task. When this swap out is repeated several times the project disintegrates and/or goes way off track.

The intention

To make the best use of the staff available to manage a crisis of growth, collapse or poor recruiting systems.

The Good

Where a project lasts for years it is inevitable that mangers will come and go. New managers can revive the energy of the project and bring fresh ideas and new ambition.

Where a project is new it can be that by swapping out managers you are able to establish who is best suited to be involved with the project and this may not always be immediately apparent. However in this situation the swap outs need to come to an end pretty quickly.

The Bad

If this situation is allowed to persist, the project is likely to go way off track or veer from one aspect to another with previous objectives left incomplete as each new manager steers the project towards their own vision. 

The original scope of the project will be lost. Other parties involved with the project may lose momentum and focus and in turn they move their attention to other projects. The project is likely to have spiralling costs and could be so fragmented as to lead to it being abandoned.

The Story

I have seen this situation arise under two conditions:

1. The company is expanding rapidly and the project manager originally assigned to the project is considered too valuable and so is moved on to more important tasks. Then, either another staff member is asked to take over or worse a new staff member is brought in to run the project. 

2. The company is failing and staff members need to be laid off. The project may be part of the recovery process but the attention is clearly stretched or elsewhere. Or it may be too late.

In both instances the importance of the project has diminished and its purpose (and the expected benefits) need to be re-quantified. 

Remedial action

If this situation is occurring, the project is at risk and all investments made to date are likely to be wasted. The ideal is to review the objectives of the project, determine how important it is and what are the beneficial consequences of it continuing are, as opposed to either it being abandoned or having the project put on hold.

If the project is important and swapping out the manager is also considered vital, then it is essential that the new project manager understands the scope of the project and the reasons why the project was developed as described in the brief. If the new manager brings fresh ideas then these need to be be inserted into the brief and work may need to be halted until this has been done. Any new ideas are best run past the original project manger in case the ideas were considered but rejected for reasons that remain valid but which have been forgotten.

If the new manager is a new recruit, even with near identical past experience in another company, they need to adopt and adapt to the culture and ethos of the company they have joined. With new companies this may be harder to define, but the risk is that the new manager attempts to re-create the style of their previous place of work which may not be desirable.

This situation is created by the boss and therefore it needs some of their attention to resolve the priorities.

10 Project Manager Traits – 9 – Confrontation

9 - Confrontation

Description

A confrontational project manager has a disagreement with 

– the purpose of the project or 

– does not have the skills required to see it through or 

– has a personal dislike of one or all of the members of the team working on the project. 

They need not necessarily be the lead project manager. What they do is stop everything by withholding their labour, attention, information or approvals. They may postpone meetings, block the purchase of key resources and they can undermine your reputation with the boss.

This person can be the boss of the company. If this is the case then they have reached their ceiling of competence and the new project, though necessary, is beyond their current abilities to implement and there is a risk that it will expose a fear of having a perceived flaw in their character. 

The intention

Stop this at any cost and blame the circumstances or others.

The Good

This is a cry for help. This person is successful and they have a need for the project, but they do not have the knowledge needed to carry it through. Given the right support and help this can be turned around and this can create a friend for life.

The Bad

If the person is not willing to discuss the situation or accept help there is no future for the project and if this is the boss the whole company is in jeopardy. At a personal level this is a high risk to be a part of. When the project fails, it may be hard to discern why it went wrong and you may be tempted to take on the blame. You might get stuck in the loop of “if only I had…” It may be that the project manager deflects blame onto you.

If you are the person creating the confrontation – seek help – if you do not you will either be forever avoiding this type of situation which will hold you back or you will be forced to endure similar situations over and over again.

The Story

For the most part I work with non IT people. They are managers and designers, accountants and administrators. They know that they do not know how to create a system and so they are willing to hand over control to me to get the work done. 

In the case of one project, my “client” was the head of IT and he felt that he needed to know how things worked to the extent that if he chose to, he could do the work himself. He was a very busy guy and managed a network of over 100 PC computers on his own. He did not have time to learn database development and as the project moved forward he felt more and more out of control. Even though I was the person responsible for the work, he was worried that if the system failed it would fall back on him to take over. A thing he could not do.

It took a while for me to work out why the project was so hard to move forward, it seemed to be thwarted at every stage and the attitude of the other staff members changed in unexpected ways. I finally managed to have a one to one meeting with the manager and I managed to bite my tongue, stay quiet and listen to his concerns.  Then, and with the essential agreement of the manager, I arranged a three way meeting between the IT manager and his boss  and myself. We clarified what aspects of the system each person would be responsible for and produced a document stating the conclusions. Having this open discussion with the boss, the IT manager could be absolved of any responsibility that he felt unable or unwilling to assume. The blocks were removed and the project was delivered.

Remedial action

Find out who is blocking the project, find out gently what the fear is. It could be fear of exposure of absent skills or abilities, fear of being made redundant, fear of being overworked or replaced. Talk it through – privately! If you get this right you are unlikely to be thanked, as this needs to be very much behind the scenes, but all parties will benefit.