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Controlling Chaos: 6 Agile Steps To Finding Sanity

Have you lost control of your day? Is the pace of everything getting faster and faster, so that you just can’t get done what you need to? Do you feel like your projects are spiraling into chaos? Finding ways to maintain one’s sanity while managing large, fast-moving projects is a creative dance. Recently, while teaching a course on “Managing Projects in e-Business,” one of my students asked me how I controlled chaos on my projects. My answer: “I plan for it!”

chaosMy job as the Project Leader is to keep the project moving forward; to meet deadlines, budget constraints, ensure performance, and most of all to manage the client’s expectations. I know better than to think that I can ever ‘really’ control things, so I put processes and procedures in place to make sure that maybe the roof won’t blow off when the tornado comes through (if you get what I mean), and to know what I might do if, and when, it does. I have been managing chaos for years (long before there was Agile PM), with solid planning,  a deep understanding of my team and client, and with a nimble attitude.

What is Chaos Anyway?

On a project, especially in today’s complex and dynamic environments, chaos can be defined as “a state of the (project) system where the future development of the system is not predictable, or only poorly predictable.” (Avoiding and Managing Chaos in (Construction) Projects, Sven Bertelsen and Lauri Koskela, 11th Annual Conference on Lean Construction – Denmark, 2009  ) Basically,  a small unpredictable event, like the delayed arrival of key resource materials, may seem like nothing more than a nuisance when it happens, but the cumulative effect of many deliveries not taking place over many months can delay you to the point of no return. When you are dealing with complex projects, you are sitting on the edge of chaos most of the time. If you plan accordingly, it is less likely that you will be overtaken by events. (How to Save a Failing Project: Chaos to Control, Ralph R. Young, Steven M. Brady, & Dennis C. Nagle, Jr.. Management Concepts, Inc., VA, 2009)

Sanity = Practicing Good Project Management

  1. PLAN:  Make a plan, work the plan, and update the plan continuously. Do you have a Project Management Plan (PMP)? If you don’t have a roadmap, how do you know where you are going? You don’t have to document a tome of stuff, but as Agile Modeling tells us, “keep your plan simple enough, but not too simple.”
  2. TRACK: Know where you want to end up and keep your focus there. Stay on track. Do you have a Project Charter? Knowing what you are sponsored to deliver is critical to getting there.
  3. MONITOR: Have a metric by which you know how to check the health of your project. Do you have an analytics dashboard? How do you know you’re on track if you can’t show it in a graph somehow?
  4. PREDICT:  You need to know what your mitigation strategy is because something will go wrong. What is your Plan B? Do you have a Risk Management Plan? Chaos management is really just risk management. You may not know what is going to happen but you can plan how you will fix it when it does.
  5. FIX: Prevent everything you can from going sideways. You do this by a continuous (iterative) review. Do you have a Change Management process? Remember to change the easiest things first and get them going in the right direction. Repeat after me:  CHANGE IS GOOD when it gets you closer to your goal. Little changes along the way are a lot easier than a big change near the end. (It’s that cumulative thing again.)
  6. DANCE: Be agile in approach and attitude. You need to be open to alternatives when you need them. Stay close to your client and your sponsor so that you can make decisions when they are needed in the moment.

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I know it may sound oversimplified, but most of the battle of controlling chaos is staying calm and practicing good project management.  What dance steps have worked for you?

Communications Management: 5 Virtual Team Tips For Better Understanding

When I started to manage global teams, it became apparent to me that people everywhere were generally bad communicators. People tend to talk, not listen, and with the loss of visual cues, multiple native languages, and different writing styles, I saw a recipe for significant misunderstandings. On a project, especially an agile one, misunderstandings can cost time and money.  miscommunications

Virtual environments of communications, (email, text, and phone, to name a few) pose a higher risk of miscommunication because they lack the ‘visual components’ that we find in face to face communications. This poses both challenges and opportunities for us as Project Leaders (“Social Networking, The “Third Place,” and The Evolution of Communications,” 2007). The challenge comes because we lose body cues that help us understand whether the other person is listening, or mulling over our questions, or getting ready to answer. We are not necessarily sure that our communication has been received as intended. On the other hand,  we have the opportunity to incorporate new modes of contact into our virtual communications that can provide us with enhanced team collaboration, knowledge sharing, and understanding. (“Six Sigma Team Dynamics, Roles, and Success Factors,” Skillsoft, 2017)

I put this list together after decades of successful virtual management of worldwide teams to maximize project communications and minimize misunderstandings.

pascal1. Be Brief: Use as few words as possible. Utilize the technology medium (email, twitter, instant message), that will convey your message without extra fluff.

“Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” (translation: “I have made this [letter] longer than usual, only because I have not the time to make it shorter.”)Blaise Pascal

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2.  Choose Your Medium Wisely“Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.”Martin Lomasney

3. Pick Up The Phone or Skype: If a text or instant message dialog goes for more than 5 minutes (5 texts back and forth), it is best to pick up the phone or Skype and talk to the person.

4. Practice Good Emailing:

  • Less is more. (See Rule #1 & #5)
  • Try to make it fit on 1 screen.
  • Be clear about your point and organize using bullets and headings.
  • Write using good grammar.
  • Avoid attachments.
  • AVOID ALL CAPs, emojis, text-messaging language and colored type.
  • Proofread each sentence.
  • Don’t send something you would not want the world to see.

5. Choose the 1 Question you want to be answered: If you send a note with several questions in it, typically, only one question will get answered. Often, it is the last one. Occasionally, it is the first one. But usually, it is the most interesting one.  Why not decide instead of leaving it up to fate?

Miscommunication poses an unnecessary risk and cost to any project.  In a future post, I will talk more about successful global team communications and communication plans. Following some simple virtual rules can make all the difference in being understood.