Ageism: is this just another “ism” or is it a driver of social disintegration?

I recently reacted against an article praising the achievement of marketing leaders under 30, accusing the author of ageism. He neither liked nor understood my reaction.

The reality is we have an ageing population, who want change to slow down, not speed up. The public reaction against change has never been more apparent than in the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as US President.

Putting ever-younger people driving change is one of the key reasons for accelerating change, because they have the drive and energy to make major change happen without the experience and accumulated wisdom to first ask whether it’s the right thing.

I often point out that people love change for the better – mobile phones, microwave ovens etc, but then hate the unforeseen consequences – shops closing, roads cluttered with delivery vans, call centres anywhere in the world other than the UK…

I was in my 20s when I first had a manager younger than me, and in my early 40s when I first had an MD younger than me.  Both business units went under quickly. In another client, an over-generous early retirement programme had stripped out every staff member over 50, leaving the remaining staff to run around like headless chickens.

The baby-boomers with their fat pensions have nearly all retired now; those of us still working will have to work longer and harder than for decades. Writing people off at 40 is crazy when they will have to work another 30 years.

A sustainable future requires that we work to service an ageing population, and employ that ageing population effectively, otherwise society will continue to disintegrate.


Teamworking: wishing you peace and happiness at Christmas and in the new year.

Just over 4 weeks ago I went into an NHS hospital for a hip replacement. I was stunned by the efficient and effective way I was treated, and how quickly I was discharged to go home – 30 hours.  What really struck me was that the staff were working together as a team, despite the usual NHS pressures, and I was treated as a human being, not  a number.

Has that  stayed the standard? Well, not quite – when I went to see Outpatients Physio, the handover and integration were less slick and integrated.  After, I felt less comfortable both physically and mentally than I had done. My GP surgery has done a lot to balance that out though, whipping out a couple of undissolved sutures at less than 24 hours notice.

Teamworking is something that makes everyone involved feel better, which directly and indirectly boosts performance.  I spend a lot of my time building up team behaviour in the early days of the projects I lead as I know the investment will repay huge dividends.

So why is it that the wreckers and tearers-apart are in the political ascendancy? People are feeling under pressure, for whatever reason, and this forces behaviours towards the extremes of the build up/split apart spectrum.

War is a major pressure, obviously. I’ve just finished reading a reference work on the British invasion of Madagascar during the Second World War, and it revealed to me the huge political impact of individuals’ relationships; Churchill and de Gaulle couldn’t get on together, which led to decades of Anglo-French acrimony after the was was over, and the UK’s delayed entry to the Common Market. Churchill didn’t trust the Vichy regime to stand up to Germany and Japan and stay truly neutral, leading to tragic events like the shelling of the French fleet at Mers el Kebir and the consequent vicious fighting by the Vichy French forces against the UK and its allies.

However, we are not at war, and the UK hasn’t had to fight a war locally within the lifetime of many people.  It’s something that others fight and suffer through – we just have to pay taxes to support our forces. The paradox is that the apparently despised EU, with NATO, has reduced the level of military conflict in Europe almost to zero as more states appreciate that membership means stopping fighting their neighbours and minorities.

Are we just bored with peace and prosperity? In 1957, just 12 years after the end of WW2, the PM, Harold Macmillan, had to rally the country and remind them that most people had never had it so good, following 6 years of war that bankrupted the country and 12 years of austerity.

People are often quite bad at comparing where they are now with where they were in the past, and are disillusioned they don’t have everything they could possibly want, when in reality nearly everyone has FAR MORE now than when I was growing up.

According to Oprah Winfrey, “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough”

At this time of year, with the awful prospects facing the word from the “votes of hate”, and the very real  fighting destroying the lives of so many, please relax for a moment, think of everything you have achieved in your life, and decide whether you can step back from our society’s obsession with accumulating yet more money and possessions and focus on working with people in peace and harmony as teams.

Oh – and stop buying newspapers. They lie to make money, and make you miserable and dissatisfied without any basis. You won’t find anything in the papers praising the NHS!


Deadlines – the great motivators

I went to “Joint School” on Friday, our local pre-surgery induction for hip replacement patients.  I came away really fired up with all the things I need to get done before I go in for surgery in 2 weeks.

So what is it that this deadline has triggered?

  1. Priority – I now have a list of things that must be done, a list of things that should be done, and a list of things I’d like to do.
  2. Focus – I’ve immediately cancelled all the “nice to haves” that require significant time and distract me from hitting the deadline
  3. Timeliness – I’ve already done lots of things that I’ve known needed doing for months but kept postponing due to “high priorities”
  4. Energy – I will be the one to suffer if I don’t hit the deadline, and  I’ve discovered that lots of “huge” tasks have been finished pretty quickly and easily because they have to be done now, rather than shuffled off into the future
  5. Personal effectiveness – because a change is BETTER than a rest. Swapping to another task when I run out of steam re-energises me while doing something useful

Setting deadlines is a key skill in project management, and if done well can stimulate the team very powerfully.

Are deadlines always so effective?

Well, no. Deadlines can be hugely demotivating when:

  • They are not real – they have been created by an executive or manager to “motivate” the team
  • They are too tight:
    • perhaps they are labelled “stretch” but failure to achieve them is unacceptable
    • perhaps they’re simply impossible
  • They are too far in the future:
    • breeding complacency and indolence
    • relying on staff to create their own interim deadlines and motivate themselves
  • They are too abstract – the team can’t relate emotionally to hitting or missing the deadline, so their energies are not tapped into.

Ensuring these do not happen is the responsibility of business leadership, portfolio and programme management, and a critical requirement for such leaders is to have their fingers on the pulse of reality, and occasionally lift their noses from Excel spreadsheets and abstract numbers.

Over the last few years I have seen 2 glaring examples of deadlines being set without a sound justification for considering them viable, then the leaders going ballistic on being told, when the feasibility studies were completed, that the targets were not achievable.

The other end of the spectrum is as bad – many years earlier, I saw a project team that had been set up 6 years before the regulatory deadline, and had spent 5 years making very limited progress. This demanded a huge effort to rescue the project at the last moment

Business leaders need to think very hard about using deadlines to motivate teams – they can work very powerfully both towards success and right into failure!

The Elephant in the room – delay in project start

Isn’t it frightening that we take delays to project start so much for granted that we don’t recognize one of the most common causes of “failure” in projects?

Over the last 2 weeks I’ve been talking to many project professional, at the University of Manchester, in a major construction company and at the recent APM conference on Risk Management at Alderley Park (which was excellent, by the way).

We were all discussing the things that go wrong with projects, but the startling point that everyone was making is that late project start against an agreed plan is the most common problem, and that it usually threatens project success before it even starts.

It’s bad enough when the start date slips and the end date matches it, as the context of the project has changed (summer becomes winter, resource is redeployed while waiting etc) but what is even worse is that the target date often slips less than the start date, if at all.

As project professionals, we give realistic estimates for the cost and duration of our projects, only to find that we have to do most of them more quickly with less resource, in more demanding circumstances.

Late starts to projects are not a project management failure, they are a commercial issue, and project managers rarely have any influence over this, but we have to do the best we can and are accused of failure if we fail to do the impossible.

This is due to poor accountability within organisations – if Procurement were held to account for delaying the start of the project  and its consequent failure,  instead of being measured on penny-pinching and trying to squeeze out the last penny on price, things might get better. The cost or project delay needs to be understood and measured, and commercial teams held accountable.

None of that helps the project manager, of course. I’m currently working up my thoughts on this as part of a new programme for the University of Manchester and some industrial clients.



Coaching project managers – light at the end of the tunnel?

There are 2 wonderful things that have happened to me this week.

The first is that my car key turned up 3 days after I lost it – and it still works after sitting in the wet grass next to our drive for all that time!

Much more importantly, I explained about project management coaching on Monday to a senior manager in a large organisation, and  they agree it’s a good thing and they should have it!

After my previous post on why it’s such good value, it was great to be heard.

Attending  a session at the BCN on Situational Leadership (Ken Blanchard’s work) recently, provoked a discussion last night with a friend and colleague who’s a highly-qualified coach. This revealed a potential issue with the term “coaching” itself, in terms of attracting customers for coaching PMs.

In Blanchard’s model, Coaching is the name given to the quadrant where both direction and supporting behaviours are high i.e. the “coach” is both encouraging the “coachee” to do what they can better, but also provides advice and direction to ensure the job gets done. With 30 years experience, this is where I operate; part consultant, part teacher.

However, many schools of coaching thought do NOT operate in this quadrant, their coaching is non-directive, and falls in Blanchard’s “Supporting” quadrant, with high levels of supporting, and no direction. Confusing, isn’t it? This might be OK for CEOs, but is of limited value to accelerating project success through better-performing project managers. If I thought coaching would be non-directive, I wouldn’t buy it for PMs.

Labels have huge power, terminology is always a risk – the benefit of many methodologies is simple to provide everyone with a common language – and the area of coaching and mentoring is particularly fraught.  I even coined a new term for my offering, but no one understood that either.

It’s important to power through the misconceptions to deliver a true picture;

Report card: C- must try harder!

Business Readiness for “IT” projects – the final frontier?

For many years, the most satisfying experiences I’ve had professionally have come not from the investigation of some wonderful information technology (and I’ve done some amazing technology!), but from the successful application by business users of that technology to make a real difference to their effectiveness and efficiency.

IT projects have far and away the worst track record for project failure, and there are some good reasons that success is challenging:

  • The rate of change of technology is phenomenal
  • The complexity of IT solutions is often orders of magnitude higher than other projects

However, there are some less-good reasons that seem to come up time and again:

  • The demographic profile of both IT and business leaders is drifting towards the younger end of the spectrum, reducing experience of managing the art of the possible
  • Abdication of responsibility for project success to the IT project manager
  • Limited engagement between end-users and IT staff
  • Failure to ensure that the IT team understand what the business is all about, so design something truly good and fir for purpose
  • Delivering a “solution” to business users that haven’t been trained how to use it, don’t know what it can and can’t do, and worst of all, don’t understand it imposes changes to the BAU way of working

To a certain extent, Agile approaches address the first 4 points, but it’s the last point that makes me weep, because it happens so often and is completely unnecessary – it really isn’t rocket science, just planning.

Where does the problem arise?  Business readiness falls in the gap between the senior business management and the IT team.

  • The business managers are focused on their targets and BAU of their team, expecting the IT PM to sort out business readiness
  • The IT team don’t understand the needs of the business is getting ready for change, thinking their management is dealing with it
  • There’s no point just automating the existing process – computers can make the whole thing slicker, and this requires change in BAU processes

Business readiness requires special skills:

  • the ability to speak “business” to the business managers
  • the ability to speak “IT” to the techies, and explain what the business is all about
  • the ability to create a plan that fuses user needs with IT needs for implementation

With one client, I was able to completely transform the performance of 2 critical  IT staff simply by helping them understand the business paradigm their “customers” were working under. These were “lightbulb” moments for them – no gradual transition but sudden understanding.

So long as business and IT functions are treated separately, business readiness may well be the final frontier!

Hope for the best, plan for the worst – the art of contingency planning

Recent events in UK government suggest that no one seriously expected there to be a majority vote for the UK’s exit from the EU. There doesn’t appear to be any Government plans for the withdrawal of the UK from the EU ready to swing into action. It seems likely that no one in the Brexit camp had really thought through the consequences and requirements  of exit, and the Government was firmly “Remain”.

Contingency planning is an uncomfortable thing to do, as it’s about thinking through things you don’t want to happen – “thinking the unthinkable”. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be done, though, because when things do go wrong, it’s often too late to work out what to do. In developing business continuity plans for one organisation, they realised that one system was so efficient, and so difficult to reintegrate any manual working, that if it went down they would wait more than a month before invoking any contingency actions. Another organisation’s disaster recovery plans, when audited, revealed that  no one would be able to do anything for 4 days, then could start to operate again in the DR site – this was swiftly changed!

Thinking through things that might go wrong, in a realistic way, requires imagination and planning, and is incompatible with working hard on the day job. It takes skilled facilitation and time out, but most importantly a refusal by the leadership to accept a shrugging of shoulders. A system I delivered to the NHS underwent 3 disaster recovery tests before the client was confident, and we’d already ensured that it met the SLA with a 200% safety margin. The system (NHS Direct website and symptom checkers)  hit the SLA level within 5 weeks, much to everyone’s astonishment, leaving us with the warm feeling that we’d addressed that contingency.

Perfect Planning Prevents P**s Poor Performance!

We can continue to watch the current comedy in wonder.