Project242: Is It Failing If You Learn?

Project242 (P242) is my journey to bike 242 miles in 24 hours, across the state of Minnesota on gravel roads, in August, 2021 (the Day Across MN, or the DAMN). I’ve found many lessons experienced riding a bike can be applied to our careers. In these posts, I will share the correlations.

As my hands shook uncontrollably, I did my best to read the time on my watch.

11:52AM

I’d been biking for almost three hours. The race, my first gravel bike race ever, started at 9:02. My Garmin said I was 35 miles into a 75 mile day and had already climbed 2,567 feet. Of the 40 miles remaining, there was roughly 1,100 feet of elevation change to come. That’s not bad.

What I hadn’t fully anticipated was the weather. Cool temps were nice those first two hours. Cool turned to cold. Then came the rain, then sleet, and at this point it was half freezing rain/half snow. My glasses literally had to have ice chiseled away so I could see. My feet were starting to get numb and my hands were already there. Even with the warm weather gear and rain jacket, I could not stop shivering. I was so cold! I knew my legs had a lot more to give, but pre-hypothermia said otherwise.

So for the first time ever, I dropped out of a race. DNF (did not finish).

101 Winter Riding Tips - Village Cycle Center

I climbed into a warm Chevy pickup while two volunteers loaded my and two others bikes into the bed. There was another truck ahead of us with four bikes that I assume had a similar group of cold riders calling it quits. The driver hopped in and told us that out of the 100 who registered for the race, 45 showed up, so we should be proud of the fact we got up today and braved this far.

The fact that 55% of the field didn’t show up, didn’t make me feel better. I was pissed. I didn’t finish something I started. I thought I’d planned ahead and took measures to be successful. I was wrong.

At first I felt like I’d failed. But, then took stock on what went right.

  • My GPS kept me on the right track where others I talked to had issues
  • The cue sheets (paper that goes along with a GPS file giving turn-by-turn details) were properly placed and easy to read
  • My legs, despite being cold, felt great
  • Climbing hills went really well
  • Overall bike setup was spot on
  • Though not sexy, plastic bags on my feet kept them dry

Despite the DNF, the lessons learned of what went well will help in future events, including the DAMN. My biggest lesson learned: DON’T BIKE WITH SNOW IN THE FORECAST!! Hopefully I won’t have that problem in August when I attempt 242 miles.

In our careers, we’ll inevitably be faced with a “failure.” My first project failure was $2 million dollars. It happened because in a company of 17,000 people in one location, I missed a group of 4 when identifying stakeholders. These 4 people had the power to kill a $2M project.

Lesson Learned: Even if you think you’ve identified all your stakeholders, spend a little more time diving deeper. You never know what key people or groups may be lurking out there! It’s a lesson I share openly so others can learn from my mistakes. This lesson has also saved me on subsequent projects where, after additional analysis, more key stakeholders were identified.

I see a lot of posts about it being OK to fail. In some respects, it seems to be celebrated. However, I don’t like to say anything is a “failure.” A true failure is something that happens and you don’t learn from it, making destined to repeat mistakes of the past. If you learn and attempt again, you’re doing it from a place of experience. Even if you don’t make the finish, I bet you’ll at least make it further!

Did I fail on my first gravel race? Nah, it was just a setback. Did I learn a lot from it? Yes, and I’ll be better next time. It’s not a failure because I learned, which will help set me up for success in the future.

53 Winter Cycling ideas | winter cycling, comfort and joy, cycling

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Project242: Building a Solid Foundation

Project242 (P242) is my journey to bike 242 miles in 24 hours, across the state of Minnesota on gravel roads, in August, 2021 (the Day Across MN, or the DAMN). I’ve found many lessons experienced riding a bike can be applied to our careers. In these posts, I will share the correlations.

“How long do I need to hold this plank? Five minutes!! Oh hell, might as well get it over with.”

With that, I placed my forearms onto the towel, hit GO on the stopwatch, and held it there. After 3 minutes, I started to shutter a little bit. After 4 minutes, I was shaking. At 5 minutes, my mid section was on fire. But, I did it! Now time for 50 weighted sumo squats!

How to Plank the Right Way Plus 4 Plank Variations | MyFitnessPal

Preparing for a bike race requires more than just biking. As I learned with running, doing one thing can create a reliance on specific muscles, leading to weakness in others and potential injury (which happened to my calf muscle a few years ago). Since then, I make strength training a critical part of training.

Think of it as a foundation for your home. If the foundation is weak, then walls will crack. Or, if the outer foundation is strong but the center area that holds up load-bearing beams is week, floors sag. When a foundation is strong in all areas, your house has a greater chance of having less structural issues and will hold strong for years to come.

Strong House Foundations: Materials, Weight, and Process - This Old House

Same goes for your body. Having a strong core, low back, shoulders, legs and arms create a solid foundation to be built from. You’re less likely to have injury and can push yourself a little harder.

A solid foundation not only helps your body, but also your career.

Think back to the start of your career. I came out of college ready to take over the HR world! Six months later, the magic wore off. After a year and a half of other positions, I found myself taking over an in-flight project with no formal training to help me or the team be successful. Unsure of myself, and with the help of an amazing boss, I was partnered with a fantastic mentor.

The mentor taught me a lot about relationships, conflict, and general “soft skills.” But what I lacked was the solid Project Management foundation. I didn’t understand a lot of the terminology, why we were using certain artifacts, and how to create those damn Gantt charts everyone was so eager to see.

Thankfully, I worked at a large company that had its own “university” and held a number of project management classes. I started with the foundational class, where I was also first introduced to this book they called the PMBOK. Then I went to other classes that dove into the process groups. Next, a couple more classes specific to how this company did projects. Then, this awesome tool everyone was falling in love with called MS Project. Finally, classes on conflict resolution and negotiation. I read and reread my notes, and even created some of my own templates. After 9 months, I felt confident enough to take on progressively larger projects.

Since that time, I’ve continued to learn new tactics and skills, continually building upon the foundation put in place 20+ years ago. This is important so as not to rely on just a few processes (or muscles) and allow other areas to get weak. Having that strong foundation helps you build more skills which can last a lifetime.

So next time you don’t want to do that plank, take that class, or listen to a webinar/podcast, do it anyway. Continually reinforce your foundation and keep it strong!!

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Traits Shared by Effective Project Professionals

Every project manager knows they need to execute on projects within the constraints of time, cost, scope, and quality. They also know to be successful requires meeting project requirements consistently.

But truly effective project professionals go above and beyond the traditional standards set forth by cookie-cutter HR job postings. They understand how important it is to deliver value to a diverse stakeholder group and customer base. They build dynamic teams who can deal with a constant bombardment of potential changes and distractions. They fearlessly ask questions and aren’t afraid to push back when needed. And, they’re strategic partners who are committed to organizational success.

Time to Shine: How to Make Sure Clients See the Value You Deliver – Channel  Futures

Below are 10 traits I believe are shared by effective project management professionals.

Focus on Stakeholders: I’ve learned the hard way stakeholders can sink your project! First, figure out who your stakeholders are. Once determined, spend time getting to know them up front. Build rapport and a trusting relationship. Follow through on your commitments. Also, remember they have full time jobs and family obligations, so be mindful of their time. Instill confidence in your stakeholder group you can effectively lead!

Culture of Recognition: Project Managers know they need a team to help them deliver organizational value. As Lee Lambert states, “Project managers don’t do work. They get work done through others.” Recognize your team members and those helping the project. Don’t take credit for yourself.

Change Agent: Projects bring about change. Though the sponsor or a change agent may be assigned to help implement the output of the project within a company, the project manager has a huge impact on this. In some instances, the PM is the change leader, also. The PM is able to discuss the change, its importance, and how individual contributors impact success.

Be a Respected Leader Over Being Liked. Humor, easy going, empathy, working as a team, and being agreeable are attributes that are likeable. But, if we focus too much on being liked and don’t make “unpopular” decisions based on not wanting to be perceived negatively, we’re not being effective leaders. Respected leaders make tough decisions but also explain the why behind it, and work with teams so they understand (even if they don’t agree).

Accountability: There’s two sides to this coin. First, as a project manager, hold yourself accountable to working with (and sometimes protecting from outside influences and noise) your teams, timely communications, stakeholder commitments, and moving the project forward. If you commit to do something, you make it a priority. You also hold others accountable for what they commit to. Sometimes it’s a gentle nudge. Other times it’s a direct conversation. But in all instances, you act with good judgement and integrity.

OK With Gray: Given the complexities of projects, there are bound to be issues and gray areas to navigate. A PM must be comfortable dealing with ambiguities and seeking help from others to resolve. There are very few black and white, straight forward projects!

Effective and Influential Communicator: This goes without saying since the majority of a PM’s time is spent communicating. But it goes beyond a status report or talking in a meeting (which are very important). Active listening for what is said, and not said, is just as important. Practice empathetic listening, ask good questions, and truly understand what a person is saying.

Understands Strategic Alignment: One of the first questions a project manager asks when being assigned a new project; how does this align with strategy? If a project doesn’t deliver strategic value, why is it being done in the first place? It’s probably someone’s “pet project” that’s very limited in its impact. One piece of feedback I’ve heard from senior leaders is how they wished project managers understood strategy. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Results Over Processes: Don’t get me wrong, I love processes. I believe they’re a corporate asset and competitive advantage. Where you lose me is when there’s too much process and bureaucracy instead of leading and delivering. Effective leaders understand what processes and frameworks work in their situation, and use the right tools for the job. They want to deliver results, not focus on filling out forms.

They’re Comfortable Pushing Back and Asking Questions: You’re not working at a drive through taking orders. You’re working with a team of skilled professionals delivering value. If someone comes along and says “Add this to scope now and have it done Friday!”, you don’t automatically shift gears to do it. Instead, find out why it’s important. Let the requester know the impacts. If there is a change board, be insistent it goes through them for approval. Just because someone above you in the hierarchy wants something doesn’t mean it makes sense to do it.

One common facet to note on the above list is most of these focus on interpersonal, soft skills. Those “PMBOK-y” processes stay in the technical category. With all the automated software on the market, they will become easier to perform. Whereas the interpersonal and change management skills will continue to be a critical success factor.

Interpersonal Skills - What They Are and Why We Need Them - Psychometric  Test & Interview Advice - BlogTestPrep

Project management goes well beyond the triple constraints. To be effective takes confidence, courage and the ability to communicate effectively across multiple levels. Understand how individual pieces fit into the larger strategic picture and ask tough questions. Being an effective project leader will make you a valuable asset to your company!

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Project242: A Career is Like an Ultra Endurance Event

Project242 (P242) is my journey to bike 242 miles in 24 hours, across the state of Minnesota on gravel roads, in August, 2021 (the Day Across MN, or the DAMN). I’ve found many lessons experienced riding a bike can be applied to our careers. In these posts, I will share the correlations.

Ever heard someone say “This is a marathon, not a sprint!!” Basically, they’re telling you be ready to play the long game and pace yourself accordingly.

Premium Vector | Running and marathon logo design, illustration vector

However, if you think about your career, it’s much bigger than a marathon. There are probably multiple marathons contained within one’s career. Instead, I think of a career as an ultra endurance event.

First, let’s define what an “Ultra Endurance” sport is:

  • Exceeds 6 hours in duration (in some cases, it goes multiple days)
  • In running, more than 26.2 miles
  • In cycling, more than 100 miles
  • In swimming, it’s somewhere in the 19.7 km range (someone correct me if I’m off)
  • In Ironman, starts at double and goes up to deca
Hydration for endurance and ultra-endurance events | Bartis Nutrition

Having done an endurance running event and now training for an ultra endurance bike race, there are some correlations that can be made between these and your career:

Have a Plan, But Remember It’s a Guide: “What are you going to be when you grow up?” A question that starts young, builds in high school, and peaks in college. I remember creating a plan to have a fruitful HR career. Along the way, I realized HR wasn’t for me and switched to business communications, then into Project Management. The plan was never set in stone, but a guide to help with direction. Same with an ultra training plan. Though it’s proven to help you train and get across the finish line, everyone is different and should adjust accordingly.

It Starts With Day 1: There’s always a day 1. Maybe it’s your first day of college; a job; starting a new business; starting on the bike, or lacing up running shoes for the first time. Day 1 gets you off the ground, but not necessarily in the air. It’s a starting point, one we all take.

Build Up Over Time: You won’t decide to run one day and do a marathon the next. It takes time to build up. Same with your career. It takes experience, training and knowledge to build to be a better professional, as well as an athlete. Play the long game!

With Time, Comes Lumps: Remember the first time you got yelled at in the office? I’ve had my fare share of stern conversations. Some warranted, others not so much. But each taught me something even if it was uncomfortable at the time. Training can give you literal lumps; like a broken bone (more on that coming up), falling on your face because you tripped on a tree root, or ending up in an ice-cold stream because you missed a corner mountain biking. Most lessons come with physical and mental lumps!

When Starting, Don’t Start Too Fast and Stay Strong Throughout: My first ever bike race, I came across the starting line going hell-bent! After mile 10, I was dragging. The rest of the race was a slog. The people I passed right away passed me looking good. Same goes for our careers; we can go like hell right away and gain spots, but could wear ourselves down and burnout after awhile. Sure, there are superhumans that start fast and don’t slow down for anything, but they’re a rare breed!

Accept There Will Be Setbacks: I trained for an ultra bike race of 110 miles a number of years ago and two weeks before the event, crashed and broke my elbow. I’ve also been working at a great job, then marched into HR and informed my position was being eliminated. Setbacks WILL HAPPEN! Accept it. You may not control the situation, but you do control your reaction. It’s OK to be upset and disappointed for a little bit, then get back after it.

Be Prepared Mentally: Somewhere during training and on race day, my mind will say “Just quit; it’s OK!” It’s natural and happens to everyone when doing something hard. You have be ready mentally in endurance events. Same goes for those really tough projects with tight deadlines and long days. Mentally you’ll want to stop. But don’t. Find a way to push through.

Trust me, marathons are tough. But ultra endurance events are a whole new level of suck! And though some days are tougher than others, if you understand that if you have a guide, get going, stay strong both physically and mentally, know setbacks happen, and brush off the lumps, you’ll find success in the long term. Stay strong and good luck!!

4 Keys to Preparing for an Ultra-Endurance Cycling Event | TrainingPeaks

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Not Every Story Your PMO Tells Will Have a Happy Ending

I’m sure you’ve all seen them. Those Disney movies where life is happy and carefree in the beginning. Then, bad shit happens and there’s chaos, sadness, and destruction. The hero, or heroes, fight evil with help of their friends and in the end, triumph! Everyone is great again and life is grand. Happy Ending!!

As an adult, these movies definitely don’t have the same effect as when I was younger. Yeah, I’ll root for the villain. Not all stories need a happy ending.

So, what do Disney movies and PMO’s have in common? Funny you should ask!

While having coffee with a PMO director, he mentioned the PMO he’s leading is maturing at a good pace. We talked about the usual; portfolio prioritization, greater stakeholder engagement, better processes/tools, and change management.

But the one comment that stuck out was their ability to end projects mid-flight if they don’t add the value they did at kick-off. As he put it, “Not every story we tell in the PMO has to have a happy ending.” Though this happens less than 10% of the time, he noted it as a mature step by the PMO and company to terminate projects, and be OK with it!

If you think about it, every project is a story. You have:

  • A Main Character, or Hero, with a deep desire and vision to accomplish something – Sponsor/Champion/maybe an Exec Team/Client
  • Main plot around which the story is built – Project Scope/Deliverable
  • A funny and lovable cast of characters – Project Manager/Project Team
  • Conflict & Obstacles – within the team, with vendors, with scope creepers, with other inside and outside influences
  • Villain – those who try to increase scope, or a project saboteur
  • Resolution and Finale – project DONE and delivered! (or in this case, die)

A PMO manages a collection of stories, and each has characters in them. Each story is unique with its own struggles. And though we want every story to have a happy ending, sometimes they don’t! And what’s more, it’s OK they don’t. Below are common reasons why in-progress projects are terminated:

  • Change in Product Direction: The hero in our story sees an opportunity to create a new, shiny product that will revolutionize the market sector. Yeah! The cast of characters starts their work when WHAM!, there is no longer ROI, and the project is terminated. An example could be, what was thought to be a niche market, was suddenly commoditized by lower cost competitors. ROI gone! So is the project.
  • Change in Company Direction: I’ll give you a true story from early in the COVID days. A friend had a small company focused on wiring/networking of small office suites. Business was good until everyone started working from home. His business model changed from office suite to home & office wiring. Because of the pivot, a project he had to increase the efficiency of office networking as well as a potential partnership with a MSP ceased until COVID ended. To date those have not moved forward again.
  • Uncontrolled Scope Creep: These shouldn’t happen, especially if you spend the time up front to uncover what DONE looks like and good requirements. But it does…a lot. Villains enter the story and ask for more. Our cast of characters allow it. No heroes stop it! I won’t get into the reasons, but if scope creep is out of control and the expected ROI or margins will not be met, maybe it’s time to pull the plug. There will be sunk cost, but at least the PMO will mitigate any future financial bleeding.
  • Funding is Pulled: “We have to make some project decisions. Because of budgetary concerns, we have to stop 25% of internally focused IT projects.” It’s a conversation our PMO manager had to have with us. If the company or client has decided to pull funding as either a cost-saving measure or invest in other things, projects could end early. Would you rather stop one project or all future paychecks from this company? Should be an easy choice.
  • Revolving Door of Sponsors: Six months, six sponsors. Yeah, you read that right. That’s a lot of supposed heroes in our story. The client called this a “mission critical” project, but literally every month a new sponsor would show up with different ideas. Finally, I had to say ENOUGH!! I talked to my main contact, told them about the rotating sponsors, and recommended we stop until ownership and definition of done could be established. We did and turned out, the project wasn’t that important! It never started back up again.
  • People and Resources Moved to a Higher Priority: This one hurts and has happened to me and other peers. We have a project chugging along and suddenly, we’re told to stop and shift our people to another, higher priority project. Is this a temporary halt? Maybe. Is the project terminated? Maybe. If strategic priorities are set and portfolio agreed upon, this should be a rare occurrence based on extreme circumstances. Maybe it happens more than I know. In any case, the cast of characters are helping another hero win the day!

You may be saying, “Well, what about this? What about that?” Yeah, I’m sure those are relevant too. There’s probably 100 reasons projects end early, but I find these are the most common.

When the PMO kicks off a project, there is an expectation (coupled with a lot of hope) it will be a success story in the end. But sometimes, for a host of reasons, the project is terminated early. And that’s OK for a mature PMO.

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