#72 Drop the Schedule!

by Steven Cerri on September 15, 2008

“Working in today’s environment.”

Hello everyone!

I just read an article in the August 25-September 1, 2008 issue of BusinessWeek, that summarizes the next wave of work environments as follows:

1. People want more flexibility in their work processes.

2. People don’t want to come in to work as often to save gas.

3. People who think they are “leading edge” are saying that schedules and face-to-face work environments are no longer necessary. Work should be broken into “deliverable packages”. And work can be done anywhere.

I agree with numbers 1 and 2 above. But I’ll be laughing as people try to get number 3 into practice.

Here are my management tips.

Nearly every task a worker performs can and is broken down into a deliverable package. So breaking tasks into discreet units is nothing new. I’ve been doing it for years. I’ve always managed my direct reports to deliverables. Nothing new there.

So what is new? What is the new paradigm for managers?

First: Whether the product is being delivered by an employee down the hall, or in a city down the road, or in a country half way around the world, the deliverable must be quantifiable; clearly, unambiguously quantifiable. That requires specifications and requirements defining the deliverable so that a Martian reviewing the delivered product against the requirements would be able to determine if it is indeed what was expected. This is a challenge for some managers, but not all. The mistake most managers make is that they don’t go far enough in defining expectations. My process is to define expectations so clearly, where possible, that, as I stated earlier, a Martian would be able to tell if the product is delivered.

Second, the process by which the deliverable will be developed ought to be discussed clearly. This is an assessment of the competence of the employee(s) doing the work. Most managers handle this pretty well because they often rely on the repeatable experience of the employee or employees who will be doing the work.

Finally, the monitoring of the process between the beginning of the task and the delivery of the product must be clearly understood by all parties. This is where much of the current management discussion is going on, and frankly, it seems to be conducted often, by people who haven’t managed many projects or many people. It all gets back to what I call “Contextual Definition©”, which means that different situations require different management approaches.

I have a client who is working with several contractors, most of whom are in the United States but a few are over seas. Current management theory would have us think that my client can just ask for what he wants, trust the contractors to deliver, and let them do the work and deliver the project.

He hired me precisely because this approach wasn’t working. It’s just ridiculous to think that because people can communicate from anywhere in the world, that management is just breaking the tasks into quantifiable pieces and waiting for their delivery.

What saved my client with his contractors was, are you ready for this, managing them! That’s right, he resorted to good old management. Regular meetings and contact, by phone, by email, by internet. Deadlines. Estimates. And requirements documents and rigid change processes. And real communication.

The real key to management in this day is not abandoning schedules and milestones. It’s knowing when to use which management approach in order to be effective. My process of Contextual Definition© leads to the use of eight different management styles. Each management style is best suited to a specific situation. How can it work any other way? One management style can’t fit every situation, especially in today’s environment.

So perhaps, if I’m dealing with a very creative task, one that doesn’t seem to bend to a schedule, I might suggest a very loose work process, such as; “Go to the beach for a week and come back with the answer. And the answer ought to look like ‘this’. Are you on board with that approach?” On the other hand, I’d hate to try to send a satellite into orbit without milestones and schedules.

To all the technical managers out there… my bet is that if you adopt the latest management theory 100%, you’ll adopt another within a short time, and none will prove to be the answer. The answer is that to be an effective manager in a wide variety of situations requires flexibility, across a broad spectrum. You want many tools in your tool box not just the latest.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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