Working in the “Gray Zone”

“Yeah, well, you know gray is my favorite color
I felt so symbolic yesterday
If I knew Picasso
I would buy myself a gray guitar and play” – Mr. Jones by the Counting Crows

I heard this on a “Classic Hits” station (released in 1993) and had to chuckle. I can still remember most of the lines and mouthed along to a lot of the words. Then, the line that got me thinking…”Yeah, well, you know gray is my favorite color”. In a world of yes or no, black or white, right or wrong, being comfortable in the gray seems to be a rare attribute for someone to have.

So what does it mean to work in the gray? Google it and you’ll get all types of answers. But in essence, GRAY areas are situations where there is no definitive answer and requires a person’s, or team’s, best judgement to solve a problem. You’re OK with ambiguity and not always having it “figured out.”

Sounds familiar, huh? Strategy and scope changes, risks, issues, team dynamics, stakeholder management, resource availability, consultants, vendors, and the list goes on and on. So many areas where there’s no clear-cut answer and requires our best judgement and the assistance of others. Hmmm…maybe that song was written with project management in mind.

“Yeah, well, you know gray is my favorite color”.

As a project professional, the ability to work effectively in the gray is critical. Most projects, regardless of the industry, size, level of complexity, and type, will have gray zones that must be navigated. Some common attributes of those who work in “the gray zone” are:

Right mindset. If you’re looking looking for a clear path with little deviation, you’ll be VERY uncomfortable working in the gray zone. Be comfortable with ambiguity and things being a bit (or a lot) fuzzy. Remember, we live in a VUCA world!

People-centric. I’m not the smartest person in the room, therefore, I want to be surrounded by great people and trust their opinions. Even if they do want things black and white, it’s my job to explain though it’s fuzzy now, we’ll get more clarity soon. Build a dynamic team.

Managing Risk. When in the gray zone, assess the risks. Engage leadership in the conversation, especially if there is a financial and/or regulatory risk involved. Risks some with some quantifiable and quantifiable measures associated with them. And remember, not all risks are “bad”. Some risks could be the pursuit of gains, not only the avoidance of losses.

Experience. Since you’ll inevitably run into situations you’ve never learned or read about, experience is your guide. Don’t be afraid to tap into others experiences, also. They may not have seen this exact scenario, but maybe something similar.

There’s no tool or policy for this one! Policies are good at establishing guidelines for how work should be done. But, policies don’t cover every situation and a project leader must know when to bend them. Being in a compliance-driven environment is tricky, so be sure to have the right people with you. Also, tools are great, but may not be useful in the gray. Let a tool advise, but don’t let it dictate.

Same map, one destination, different routes. I’m a bicyclist. I ride a lot and share the road with cars, trucks, semis, farm equipment, and on one occasion, buffalo. When I plan a route, I often look at biking maps and apps where others have gone. What you find quickly is everyone is looking at the same map, going to the same destination, but it’s OK to take different routes. Some people (myself included) will accept a little longer ride so I have a road shoulder to ride on (less risk). Others go for the more direct route. No matter which way you go, know there are multiple routes to get to the same destination. Sometimes, you don’t figure that out until you start your journey. Have your team help plan and adjust the route.

Don’t get rattled if it doesn’t go well. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson. Operating in the gray can be frustrating. You may try something and it doesn’t work right away. Or, there are signs of success, only to blow up later. The key is to not get rattled. As mentioned before, experience is our best teacher and you’re bound to have things happen. Instead of get upset and raise the anxiety level of your team, remain calm, understand you’ve been hit in the mouth, and start working your way back.

Mike Tyson's paltry fee for 'Mike Tyson's Punch-Out' was the bargain of the  century | For The Win

Let’s pick the lesser of the two shitties. I like having options. Management likes options too. So I come with at least a couple. I explain the situation, options the team developed, risks involved, and my recommendation. You try to pick the lesser of two evils, or as I like to say, the two shitties.

“Yeah, well, you know gray is my favorite color”.

The gray zone; that ambiguous place we all find ourselves in at some point. As project leaders, we can find ourselves there more often than others. But, if you have the right mindset and are OK with fuzzy situations, Gray can become your favorite color, too!

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Don’t Crash on the PPM Mountain Bike Trail!

I listened to a podcast recently where the guest compared entrepreneurship to riding a mountain bike down a hill. Until that point, the talking was background noise. But, because I love all types of biking, they had my attention.

The premise is, when you mountain bike down a steep grade, you’re only looking 10-20 feet in front of you. You’re focused on those immediate turns and obstacles that could send you tumbling into a tree or off the trail. It can be challenging, but also fun. Only on occasion do you look up, and most of the time when you do, you DON’T like what you see.

Image result for mountain bike downhill pov

How true is that!! I love flying down a technical single-track trail on my mountain bike, skidding around fast corners, going airborne over jumps, and dodging rocks. But, when I look up and out, the view may not be too good. Tight, slow-turning switchbacks, steep and long climbs, and my most dreaded enemy, an obstacle on the local trail called the “ladder” (biking UP narrow wooden stairs and if you don’t make it, risk taking your foot off the pedal and falling into a shallow creek that runs on either side).

As someone who’s started a couple businesses, I can relate to the entrepreneurial analogy. But even more so, I see it in the Project Portfolio Management (PPM) space almost daily. Let me break it down a little more.

Mount PMO. An astounding 50%+ of PMO’s fail within three years. Though there are a number of reasons, one I’ve seen often is PMO leaders are focused down on processes, templates, and project completion. They don’t look up at organizational strategy and portfolio prioritization. Strategy and priority and can be a messy, ugly business. It’s a big mountain to climb, especially if there are some challenging personalities and egos involved. Instead, they focus down on things that add project value, but maybe not organizational value. These diminishing organizational returns can lead to PMO failure. Crash.

Image result for mountain biking

Program Ridge. Program Managers have a unique and challenging job (some days it can even be fun). Not only do they deliver business value by understanding strategic goals and working with leadership teams, but also get to help the individual project managers working on their projects deliver on scope. It’s a never-ending juggle of looking up and down, in and out. But, those that look only down and in, focusing on the individual projects, don’t see what may be coming up. Changes in the market cause one or more projects to pivot. Internal process updates. Technology shifts. When the trail turns, you may have been looking down too much and miss the ledge. Over you go! Crash.

Project Pain. PM’s usually have a lot on their plate; managing schedules, scope, risks, stakeholders, team members, and status reports, just to name a few. But if you stay too heads down, looking only at tasks and dates, you could miss a low hanging scope-stick. This low hanger can knock you (and your project) clean off your bike. Crash…plus a really big headache.

Image result for mountain bike crash into tree branch

If you’re a mountain biker (and I’ve had the same experience on a road bike also), you know what it means to focus on the 10-20 feet in front of you. But if you’re a project professional, focusing on what’s immediately in front of you can be fast and sometimes fun. But looking up to see the bigger picture frequently is critical as challenges and change are every present. DON’T CRASH!!

Image result for mountain bike downhill pov

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My PMO Can Beat Up Your PMO: A Tale of 2 Defunct Departments & Why PMO’s Fail

A couple years ago, back when we could have in-person events, I attended a local PMI presentation on process and experience mapping. It was informative with engaging exercises and great conversations. After the presentation was over, I overheard two people having a disagreement about the PMO’s they worked for. I’m paraphrasing their conversation here, but…

“Your PMO isn’t that great. You just handle the administrative functions and templates. We’re an EPMO. All project managers report into it and we have greater control over what goes on.”

“Yeah, but your PMO is too big and bureaucratic. You get things done but it takes too long and you can’t respond to change as quickly as we can.”

I couldn’t tell; was this a legitimate argument over who thought their PMO was better, or were they giving each other shit? After a couple more exchanges I realized that yes, it actually was a legit argument.

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These two had worked together previously in another organization’s PMO and had different styles of managing projects. Both left to go to different companies; one to an entrepreneurial company that was quickly growing, and the other to a well established, large public company.

Fast forward to the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021. Both PMO’s are defunct, gone, dead, no more! They’ve joined the other 50%+ that die within 3 years. The EPMO was absorbed into individual business units. The entrepreneurial company decided a PMO was no longer needed and the project managers were distributed into functional areas.

What the hell went wrong? Well, rumor is both were so process driven that responding to change was non-existent (i.e. COVID). Another is the entrepreneurial PMO hired a new PMO manager, who told the CEO “No, we can’t do that” when they were doing some COVID strategizing. In any case, both are gone.

I’ve stood up, lead, consulted for, and worked in, a number of PMO’s in my career. Some of these PMO’s were wildly successful and are still in existence today. Others, not so much.

I’ve seen some of what’s worked and what doesn’t. What follows is a list of reasons why PMO’s fail that I have experienced either directly, or with peers of mine who I’ve spoken to. These are the common themes I’ve noted, though I’m sure there are more that can be added!

  • Executive stakeholders that are not fully committed to the PMO. It’s a familiar story: The executive team realizes there’s a problem with projects. They’re not executing properly, constantly failing, contending for too few people and resources, and/or not delivering results. So, they authorize a PMO and hope it solves the problem. But, when it comes time to attend a steering committee meeting and make hard decisions or debate priorities, they send someone else and don’t delegate the authority to make those decisions. Then, when projects are once again failing, they blame the PMO and eventually eliminate it.
  • PMO leaders who don’t know how to pivot and adapt. What I’ve seen, and also done myself, is assume that worked well in one company will work in another. Not true. If you think you can take a cookie cutter, playbook style approach to PMO leadership, you’re probably going to fail. Instead, take time to do an assessment and understand the pain points and drivers for the organization. Also, learn the people and personalities of key stakeholders. Be willing to adjust if you see something isn’t working. 
  • The PMO becomes a project manager’s “colonoscopy”. I once worked with a project manager who compared the number of documents and status reports we had to do in our PMO to having a “weekly colonoscopy”. I’ve never had one, but I assume it’s not fun (at least that’s what I hear). If the PMO becomes the process police and forces chaotic and/or unnecessary methods, it will become a pain in the ass (maybe literally) and possibly skirted or ignored by the project managers. This can lead to inconsistent stakeholder experiences, which leads to frustration, which leads to PMO failure.
  • No vision or strategy for the PMO. PMO’s need to focus on those day-to-day tactical matters. But, this cannot be all day every day. PMO leaders and their teams also need to see the bigger, organizational strategic picture. If the PMO leader doesn’t spend time with senior leadership to understand their challenges and opportunities, they can’t develop strategies to add organizational value. And, if they don’t add value and focus only on the tactical matters, they can become irrelevant.
  • Disconnect between company strategy and project scope. What if Elon Musk went to his PMO with a strategy to build a cutting-edge feature, and they delivered a washing machine? I’m sure it would be a kickass washing machine! But, the project goal didn’t deliver on corporate strategy (unless, of course, a washing machine is what he asked for). Delivering projects with no strategic value doesn’t move the company forward. It only takes one “pet project” to slip into the pipeline, and the PMO loses credibility.
  • Lack of reporting the “right” metrics. I once saw a 22 slide weekly status report deck sent to the CEO of a company. Really? These people don’t have time to go to the bathroom most days, let alone read a 22 slide deck. There is a place for status reports, but they also need to keep the audience in mind. Execs need short and sweet with high-level information (since we just had the Super Bowl, think how is the team progressing towards winning the Super Bowl vs. individual player stats). Other functional-level managers may want more details specific to their department as well as accomplishment against broader organizational goals. If you report nothing but details that execs won’t read and probably not understand, they’ll wonder what value the PMO is delivering and start to lack trust.

It’s unfortunate so many PMO’s fail when there is so much potential to add business value. But knowing why so many fail can help PMO leaders from making the same mistakes. Don’t become a statistic!

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Impacts of Multitasking on Relationships

I got busted. Big-time busted. Imagine you’re leading a meeting with a number of managers on the call. You’re sharing your screen, walking through an important process and outlining critical tasks. A couple attendees start talking, and you notice that little email icon light up. Your email is on another screen, so you click it. The email opens. You start reading, thinking about the contents of the email and not the meeting.

Then, “Jason, what do you think of that approach?”

Shit. I missed it all. What were they talking about? What approach? Ugh.

“I’m sorry, I got distracted on another matter. Can you repeat that?”

I hear an exhale, followed by “Let me repeat that again…”

Multitasking. Let’s be honest, we all do it. Especially us project professionals who have things thrown at us all day, every day. Checking emails while on a call. Scrolling through social media while writing a report. Watching someone’s lips move and tactically nodding while you’re making a mental list of all the things you have to do yet today. Driving and texting (which can kill you). The funny thing is, we all think we’re really good at it!

I’ve read studies about how multitasking can hurt our brains and actually make us more dumberer. You can read that on your own (just after you read this though). Instead, I’ll focus on two other area wheres there can be serious impacts from multitasking; relationships.

You’re Not Important. In my opinion, this is the biggest issue. I was talking to my son recently about my day after he asked how it went. Instead of looking at me, he was staring at his phone. I was telling him about my day, then started making random stuff up. “After my meeting I milked a cow and fed the chickens, then jumped back on another call.” He barely flinched. Then I stopped talking. After a minute of me staring at him, he finally noticed I’d quit talking. I asked if what he was looking at was earth-shatteringly important. He said no.

Have you ever been talking to someone and they instead focus on something else? It’s happened to me. I’ve also been called out doing it to others. When we focus our attention on something other than the person we’re talking to, we convey a message of they’re not important. We value something else more than the person. Whether it’s with our family, friends or coworkers, be mindful of your multitasking and show this person how important they are in the moment.

This has become such an issue they’ve named it; technoference. I kid you not! Google it.

High Quality Alex Baldwin not interested Blank Meme Template

Can I Actually Trust You Heard Me? In the example I gave where I missed a conversation and asked them to repeat, do you think they’ll fully trust me next time something similar happens? They’ll probably think I’d just agree so I wasn’t busted for focusing on something else. It’s going to take time and action to prove I was in fact listening, and comprehended the conversation.

Have you ever given instructions to someone and noticed they were doing something else while you were talking? Or, especially during COVID, gave instructions to someone over the phone and later it was not done correctly? Was that person multitasking? Do you trust they’ll hear you correctly in the future? This puts stress on the level of trust you have with people. Repeating what you heard back or putting it in writing definitely helps!

Image result for no trust

Multitasking. We do it and probably will continue to. But, be mindful of when you start multitasking. Focus on the person or people you’re interacting with. This will show they’re important to you and also helps with trust.

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Create A Culture of Recognition On Your Project Team

As I watched my boss get an award and recognition for work my team and I did, I got pissed. Not only did he do jack shit, he didn’t even know about our project, or that we’d completed it early with 100% of requirements met, until two days ago! I shared status updates with him and tried to keep him informed, but nothing was read and a lot of 1:1’s were cancelled. When he wanted a summary of the project’s scope so he could talk somewhat intelligently about it, he kept calling me by the wrong name, even after I corrected him. “OK Josh, can you walk me through that again?” “Um, sure and my name is Jason.”

What an ass. But, he taught me a valuable lesson; those who get recognition don’t always deserve it. I will be the person to recognize the contributions of my team, even if others don’t. I will create a culture of recognition.

The contributions of others, including project team members, stakeholders, and functional leadership, strongly impact a project leader’s effectiveness. By recognizing the contribution of others for their outstanding performance, a project leader can create an environment of achievement on the team. Recognition of others is a powerful motivator a project leader can use to:

  • Retain top talent on your team (and maybe even for the company)
  • Increase employee engagement
  • Raise morale
  • Encourage high performance

Highly effective project leaders share credit for work well done and encourage all members to participate and contribute at their highest levels. Here are some tactics I have used, and learned from others, to create a culture of recognition.

Make recognition timely. “Hey remember that time you did something awesome? Well, that was awesome! Yeah, I know it was a few months ago, but just wanted to tell you.”

Sound familiar? Have you ever done something, good or bad, and after quite a while someone finally says something about it? Most of the time we have no idea what they’re talking about and have forgotten.

When a team member does something worth of recognition, recognize them right away. If they helped another team member, highlight that at the next team meeting. Worked late to finish a feature prior to release? Let them and their functional manager know the next day. Solved a complex problem? Talk about it at the next management project status meeting. In any case, be sure to recognize the person right away.

Be predictable, and unpredictable. First, don’t reward the same people over and over again. I used to watch a mail PM give recognition to a female project team member because he had a not-so-subtle crush. It was creepy.

bubbelsoda | Words quotes, Words, Happy quotes

When I say be predictable, find opportunities to celebrate team accomplishments at those key dates or milestones throughout the project. Did you roll out the first release? Lunch for the team and congratulate everyone during the management project update meeting. Project complete? Happy hour with everyone including the project sponsor and any key stakeholders. Recognize the team at major project intersections.

Unpredictable requires more attention on your part as the project leader. You may not always see a team member jump in to help someone else. Or, they worked extra hours because an issue popped up they overcame. You can recognize them on a one-on-one basis, to the project team, and to management. I know some people who hate any level of recognition, but I send them an email anyway and cc: their boss. Pay attention when they do something and unlike my former creepy co-worker, don’t recognize the same person every time.

Make recognition public (or as public as the person is comfortable with). On a M&A program I was leading, I had the opportunity to give an update to the executive team at their monthly leadership meeting. I was short, to the point, and done in a few minutes. At the end of the update, I mentioned a couple people who were going above and beyond. Thankfully, some of the leadership took notice of the names I’d mentioned at reached out to those I recognized, thanking them for their efforts. One person loved the attention. A couple others were PISSED at me! Turns out, they hated being put in the spotlight and choose to fly under the radar.

When you give individual recognition, understand their level of comfort with how you communicate that out. Some don’t mind having it shouted from rooftops, or at least team meetings. Others would rather have an email saying “Thanks.” In any case, I always make sure their functional manager (and maybe their boss’ boss) is copied so it’s noted during their review cycle.

Encourage teamwork and camaraderie. It’s one thing when I recognize a team member. It’s something even more awesome when team members recognize each other! In fact, make it ridiculously easy for people (project team members, sponsor, stakeholders, etc) to recognize each other. Find ways where they can tell you so you can do the recognition. Or, give them opportunities to recognize each other, either publicly or privately, or both. Recognition increases teamwork!

Ask for the team’s feedback, and thank them when they do. I’m admittedly NOT the smartest person in the room. I’m OK with that.

I’m frequently asking my team for feedback, whether at team meetings, retrospectives, 1:1, or anytime I get the opportunity. I’ve gotten some great feedback and always recognize the person who gave it. This can also help encourage others who are shy to speak up and share their ideas.

Tie recognition to organizational values. I learned this from a leadership consultant. In her experience, most managers have no idea what their organizational values are. So in giving recognition, you can also be an educator of corporate values along with highlighting the contribution of others. For example, if the company has a value of “Continuous Innovation,” you could email something like this to the person and their boss:

Jenny has prominently displayed her alignment with [company]’s value of continuous innovation through…

Recognition is critical to an employee’s satisfaction. Whether they’re a project team member, sponsor, stakeholder, or someone else, giving them recognition is quick, easy, free, and has long-lasting positive implications. Next time someone deserves recognition, don’t hesitate to give it! Trust me, it goes a long way.

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