Cat Juggling

I have several projects starting up in the next few weeks, so the challenge of managing several concurrent projects has been on my mind. Managing multiple projects at once feels a little bit like juggling cats:

Even though it seems more difficult, I don’t think it’s inherently any different from managing a single project. Except, it’s absolutely crucial that each project is managed as efficiently as possible.

Being an engineer at heart, my tendency is to micro-manage things. I hate the idea of not having control and not knowing the status of every task all the time. Part of that is my nature, and part of it was learnt early in my management career.

When I first became a project manager, I was reticent to watch over the work of others. I figured, “I asked him to do this task, so it will get done the way I want it done.” The problem was that people did not always follow through and not always the way that I would have wanted them to. It was at this point that a colleague I trusted gave me this short but valuable insight. “Other people are not like me.”

Pretty obvious, but I think we all tend to assume that others will do things the way we would. Sometimes they do it differently and better, and that’s great. But other times, not so good. There were a few projects that blew up because I was not following up how tasks were getting done and so I learnt my lesson.

That’s when I got religion. Instead of assuming that tasks were getting done, I was all over people to make sure if and how they completed the work. Which made me much more effective as a project manager, but kind of a pain in the ass to work for.

I’m now somewhere in the middle, of course, but that does not mean I’ve just split the difference between absentee manager and micro manager. Instead, I have developed my own philosophy of project management that seems to work for me. Here are the 3 tenets:

Get it right early - The first few weeks of a project are the most critical, for obvious reasons. I try to make sure every person on the team knows his role, what are his reponsibilities, how they will work with others, how we communicate, etc. If I can get this part right, then things usually go smoothly from there. The first few weeks are also the time when the project goals, scope, budget go through the most change. Managing these changes and the associated risks, costs, schedule impacts, and expectations are critical to making sure the project is achievable. This is obviously a lot easier to say than do, so I like to engage everybody on the team to help us accomplish this.

Regular communication - This was one area I did not do well the first time around. I’d have sporadic 1-on-1 meetings or I’d only call people when there was an issues. Now, I make sure I touch bases with everyone on the team, and with the customer, at least once a week. It’s not always very long, but there’s that human relationship that needs to be developed that takes repeated and frequent contact, ideally face-to-face. With global teams this is not practical, so we talk on the phone, something that has been made easy and cheap by Skype. At least there is some human communication over the phone. Email and chat is used to keep in touch with quick things, but it tends to be less personal. I’ve found that if I stay in touch, people will bring me issues sooner and I can deal with them before they threaten to sink the project.

The customer, the customer, the customer - Especially within larger organizations that have been around awhile, there develops unspoken organizational and personal agendas and objectives that run counter to project success. Sure, it’s nice not to have to travel if you have a family (or to get to travel if you are young and single). It’s great to be able to work with the latest new tools or on the most challenging 28nm project or work with your best friend. In the end, however, as tough as it may sound, we’re all out of a job if we don’t take care of the customer. Whenever there is a tough decision to be made, it’s important to make project and customer success the #1 goal. That does not mean that everybody has to cancel his vacations and work 80 hour weeks, but it means that the impacts to the customer need to be considered and mitigated. Or else we’ll have a lot longer vacation than we bargained for.

There’s a lot more to project management than these 3 tenets, some of it nuts-and-bolts (how to develop a schedule, do risk management, etc), and some of it very difficult (how to deliver bad news to the customer). I like to think that these 3 tenets provide some guidelines that make the other stuff easier.

harry the ASIC guy

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2 Responses to “Cat Juggling”

  1. Blog Review: June 29 | System-Level Design Says:

    […] Harry Gries pulls up a video clip about cat juggling and compares that to time management, project management and micromanagement. If you’re a cat lover, ignore the video. […]

  2. Teddy Chadwick Says:

    Sooo… when juggling, be sure to pay very close close attention to every single cat! The customer will thank you… and so will the cats.

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