Strategic Priorities: Figuring Out What You’re Doing And What You’re Not

The excitement. The laughter. The ideas. The energy. It was amazing!

Imagine you have a business idea, one for a very niche market where your friends are lining up to subscribe. It’s something you enjoy doing and want to share your passion with others. Sounds great, doesn’t it?!

That’s what two friends were describing over dinner to me and others. Jim and Sandy (not their real names) are HUGE bicyclers. Between their stationary, road, gravel, and mountain bikes, they ride thousands of miles per year and have traveled all over the world on different cycling adventures. They invite people to go with them when they do local rides or use their home gym equipment. Jim and Sandy also have had injuries throughout the years, so Jim became a certified trainer and teaches others exercises and stretches specifically for cycling.

With all this knowledge and equipment (2 Pelotons, 1 Nordic Trak, 6 other stationary bike holders, and an entire garage stall setup as a gym), an idea was beginning to take shape. Why not lease a space and start a gym specifically for the local cycling community?

I’m in! We’re all in! They asked for our help to develop strategies to get them off the ground. Before we knew it, not only was it a gym, but also organizing and leading weeknight rides in the summer, planning cycling trips around the country and even the world, leading an 8 person RAAM team, selling online classes, and being a retailer for their favorite brands. All great ideas, but a lot for two people who also have “day jobs”.

We took each idea and broke it down a few levels so they could see at a high-level the work required. The list was big. Each item was awesome, but the more we talked, the more heads started to spin. After a little bit I only had one question; what is most important and what are you NOT going to do?

Michael Porter has five essential tests of a good business strategy.

The first is a unique value proposition, which Jim and Sandy have focusing on cyclists. The second is a tailored value chain which would lead to greater margins. The next one was critical for the discussion with Jim and Sandy; choosing WHAT NOT TO DO! The conversations got a bit more difficult.

Prioritization and tradeoffs! That was the name of the game from that point on. To focus and be good at something, means you need to not focus on something else. Going back to Jim and Sandy’s list, what started at 12 was narrowed to 6, then to 4, then only the top 3 were prioritized. Those became their strategic priorities, which we helped plan to be completed within the next 12 months.

We all know if we try to prioritize everything as #1, very little gets done because we can’t focus and execute. But, this can be difficult because it means you’re accepting limits. And some of us, (me included) don’t like putting limits up! We think we can do more, but quickly find it’s tough. We can’t make more time, so maximize the time available.

If you think about the company you work for, there are (hopefully) strategic priorities that will be achieved within a certain amount of time. Chances are there were more ideas tossed around than what was approved, but priorities and tradeoffs had to be made. Depending on the company and situation, priorities could have been made based on ROI, the market, efficiencies, compliance, or a whole host of other considerations. The main point is, priorities were made and some things are not going to get done.

As for Jim and Sandy, their 12 month strategic priorities are 1) market research and business plan creation, 2) funding secured for capital expenditures and lease expenses, and 3) property identified, designed, and lease signed/secured. A “sub-strategy” is to build excitement through word-of-month within the cycling community this may be coming. They’ll have a client in me!

Next time the creative ideas are flowing, remember you can’t do them all. Prioritize, figure out what you will do and what you won’t!

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The Value of Informal Communication

A 30 minute coffee meeting turned into 90. Before we knew it, we both had other meetings to go to. Where had the time gone? What started as reviewing the scope of a program turned into a conversation about our personal lives, one that found many commonalities. Your kiddo swims? So does mine! My family enjoys camping in the summer also. You worked with [name] at [company]? Yeah, they are pretty funny.

The stakeholder I was meeting with, a manager with over 20 years at this company, was labeled “aloof and unengaged” by other project staff. As an IT leader, we relied heavily on his department to assign key personnel to projects. This program was going to have nine individual, yet interconnected, projects needing his staff at every turn. If his department was so critical, why the aloofness?

“I hear about projects coming, but no one ever talks to me about what they are. I just get an email from someone I don’t know that says they need someone ASAP. Then I have to juggle what’s important, which everything is.”

But with this conversation, he knew what was coming, about when, and what key skills were needed at the different phases. We also got to know each other and build rapport. A trusting relationship was established. We exchanged cell numbers with a commitment to call whenever needed.

I also understood how best to communicate with this key stakeholder. He didn’t like status reports but liked quick 5 minute chats. Formal communication was OK, but Informal was way better! Throughout the program, we primarily used informal communication to get things done.

There are essentially two types of communication; Formal and Informal. Let me define both, but focus on the Informal.

First, let’s define Formal Communication. I define it as those communications which can be measured and put on your formal reviews. Did you send the status on time? How do you communicate in status updates? Are meeting notes sent on time? Did the presentation cover all expected points? On a scale of 1-5, where do you score?

Informal Communication is where work gets done!

Disadvantages or Limitations of Informal Communication - QS Study

You’ve probably been there. You need a SME for maybe 30 minutes. Their input can help define and finalize a key requirement. You reach out and they say to ask their manager. The manager wants a formal resource request. It takes 20 minutes to fill out and 48 hours before it gets approved or sent back with questions. By that point, you’ve said screw it and went forward without this SME’s input.

Conversely, you spent 20 minutes at the front of the project having a conversation with the manager and establishing a relationship. You find yourself needing a SME, so you cash in some relationship capital and ask a favor. The manager says sure but asks you keep it to 30 minutes. You say yes, schedule 30 minutes, and keep your promise.

I say informal communication is where work gets done because these can be quick conversations where decisions are made and action taken. If I have a quick yes or no question for someone, instant messenger gets it done! A phone call with someone is more efficient than scheduling a meeting.

The same goes for me when a stakeholder or a team member needs something quickly. Call, message, or text me. Chances are I can make a decision quickly without having to schedule a formal meeting. These informal conversations save time, thus saving the project and the company money!

One thing I will say is the most effective informal communication is built off trust. Take time, especially early in the project, to get to know key stakeholders. Know what they do at the company. Also, know what they do outside of work. I have yet to meet a stakeholder that I couldn’t relate something with. Trust is key!

Formal communication helps you with your annual review and to inform a large audience on project status. Informal communication helps you deliver value through getting people, decisions, money, and any host of things quickly. Be good at formal communications, and really good at informal!

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A Binary Look at Conflict

I’m paraphrasing here, but this was a conversation I’ve actually had (names changed to protect the innocent):

  • Me: What’s the deal with you and Rita?
  • Megan: She’s loud and I don’t like the color she dyed her hair.
  • Me: Her hair? You don’t like her hair? That’s why you argue with her?
  • Megan: Yes, and no. Her voice is loud too.
  • Rita: That’s because I’m hard of hearing! I try to keep it down but I’m also 58 years old. My hair’s dyed because if it wasn’t, it’d be bright white! Instead of listening to music all the time, why don’t you try talking to the rest of us once-in-awhile? You’re standoffish.
  • Megan: I’m 24 and your conversations don’t interest me. And I don’t listen to just music. I listen to podcasts too.
  • Rita: Can’t you at least say hi once in awhile and smile? You’re moody.

Somewhere around this point I knew two things. One, I needed Advil and a glass of something very strong. Second, this conflict had nothing to do with the tasks these two were performing on the project, and instead was of a personal nature. I’d let this conflict go on WAY too long and their angst impacted the morale of the team. It had to end.

Now, let’s start by saying conflict makes us uncomfortable. Whether people are yelling, swearing, pounding fits, or giving a death glare, when conflict arises, we want to naturally step away from it. The first project conflict I participated in was between two product teams. Thankfully, I was being mentored at the time and he helped navigate the distressing situation. I still wanted to crawl into a shallow hole in the fetal position and pray it would end, but I sat there petrified taking it all in.

But I’ll also tell you, as hard as it will be, try to put your fears aside. In fact, embrace it! Conflict can be healthy and increases awareness a problem exists. If everyone is aware of the problem, positive change can take place. Not all companies and cultures embrace conflict, but those that do I find have greater success than those that don’t.

In my 20+ years of experience, I’ve been involved in all types of conflict. From the passive-aggressive to a couple construction guys about to exchange blows. I found workplace conflict is binary and falls into one of two categories; Professional and Personal.

Professional Conflict. Professional conflict revolves around how to complete work to achieve maximum business value. These conflicts can orbit around strategic direction, portfolio prioritization, project tasks, or any number of work related items. Most often, they can be resolved with “adult” conversations, or if needed, bring in a 3rd party to help make the decision. Though it can cause some team disruption, it won’t derail them (usually).

I was leading a large IT and business operations program. During the initial phases of the program, I was working with two Enterprise Architects (EA) on how the technology infrastructure would be configured to allow for all the individual projects and applications to easily be integrated. One EA wanted a “picture perfect setup”, while the other EA figured out how to get it configured quickly and work out the kinks as applications were implemented. Both had valid points.

Negotiations 101: Five Effective Steps To Resolve Professional Conflicts  Easily! | Flipping Heck! Learning To Be Productive One Day At A Time

Well, it took about 32 seconds for a disagreement to break out. To their credit, both kept the conversation professional and civil (these can turn personal if they’re not resolved quickly). However, neither budged on their stance. Not until the CIO was brought to hear both sides and make the decision, did we have alignment and direction. Great thing was, the resolution took both approaches into account and created a new Enterprise Architect process for the company.

Personal Conflict. Personal conflict is way more toxic and can derail a team. This conflict can come at any point and doesn’t always make sense. An “adult conversation” may resolve it, for awhile.

I had another personal conflict arise similar to the example given at the start of the blog. Two small groups were having a conflict that caused them not to communicate at all with each other. It started because a member from each group started arguing about something, then had other members side with them. When I communicated “We’re not the friggin’ Sharks and the Jets here!”, we started back on the path of collaboration again. My strategy was to push them hard so frustration was geared towards me and not each other. It worked.

A Conflict Resolution Approach: Focusing on Individual and Shared Needs

One very important thing to note about personal conflict; get it resolved ASAP. Do it quick and aggressively if needed. I’ve even asked team members be replaced because of it. Personal conflict is toxic and if not treated, can impact the morale of the team.

There will always be conflict. Whether you’re working on a project or within your operational role, you’re bound to come across it. As uncomfortable as it can make you feel, don’t shy away from conflict. Instead, embrace the professional conflict and handle the personal conflict quickly.

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2021: A Retrospective

Time to say goodbye to another year. 2021 wasn’t a shit-show like 2020, but still had its unique challenges and opportunities. As we look to the future, tis the season to do a retrospective of the past 12 months. Here are my highlights and take-aways of the year.

Biking and Business. When the fireworks went off at midnight on the morning of August 14th, it was the last day of a journey that started in April. During that time, I had cycled over 2,300 miles in preparation for the Day Across MN (DAMn), a 24 hour, 242 mile, gravel bike race across Minnesota. Upon crossing the finish line 21 hours later, I was elated, exhausted, and hungry!

In getting ready for the DAMn, I branded the preparation as Project242, or P242. In blog posts, I related training and riding a bike with business challenges faced on a regular basis. It was fun and I found it easy to relate the two. Two local business leaders read those posts and asked if some morning they could bike with me. Before I knew it, our 3 person group turned into six. Biking and Business was born! I learned a lot from this group and look forward to riding with them in 2022.

Investing, an Important Language. In 2020 I setup a Robinhood account, bought a couple stocks, and that was it. In ’21, I wanted to learn more about investing. So, I bought a book, read investor blogs, and soaked up information. Then, I’d target a few companies, study them, their financials, leaders, board, and buy one or two stocks. No, I will not get rich. But what I have learned is being able to read a company’s financials and what story those numbers tell. I’ve had a couple winners, and I’ve had a couple losers. What I’ve learned, though, is the true ROI.

Presentations Galore! I presented more this year than the past few combined; seven in total. All but one was virtual and had the opportunity to present to global audiences. Most were given to project and business analyst professionals, and a couple to business leaders interested in project management. Each presentation I learned something and honed my speaking skills. It was enjoyable and hope to present more in the future.

PMO Leadership. I consulted for three different PMO’s at three different companies. Each one had their own unique set of challenges, stakeholders, and requirements for delivering business value. Though I came into each with experience, I had to treat day 1 with an open mind and listen intently to what was needed, not what I wanted. Learning is a big part of my continued PMO journey, and I spent time with experts like Laura Barnard, PMO Joe, Pete Taylor, Bill Dow and others on webinars and podcasts. PMO leadership can be challenging, and rewarding. I love every minute of it!

Mental Health and Disconnecting. The last time I took a full week off with no meetings, emails or phone calls was August of 2020. I tried in 2021, but while getting ready for camping trip, someone asked that I take my laptop with me “just in case.” Stupid me did it and guess what? I got a phone call and spent a couple days working when I should have been relaxing and hanging out with my family. That’s a mistake I won’t make again. In ’22, I already have plans to disconnect and spend some quality time with my family.

2021 was a good year and look forward to what lies ahead in 2022. Happy New Year and I wish you continued success!!

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