F*%! Friction

In Project Management, the real F-word is Friction…  

Always be on the lookout for friction within your team.  Aside from a negative company culture, friction is one of the most counter productive elements your team can encounter.

What is friction and why is it so dangerous?

Friction is anything that impedes an individual or members of a team from working harder to make progress faster.  In general, we always want team members to feel like their contribution is directly proportional to their effort.  If you work really hard, you can achieve great things, right?  However, if there is a lot of friction within your team, working harder to do more is not always possible.

Friction within the workplace is like wind to a runner.  When you run headlong into a strong wind, it feels like you are busting your ass but barely moving.  Lots of effort and noise just to keep plodding along slowly.  Alternatively, if you run with the wind at your back you feel like you are zipping along effortlessly.  Smooth, fast, and fluid.

Friction is dangerous because it can wear down your key contributors over time.  You want the people on your team to work hard.  You want them to put in extra effort.  You want to make progress and accomplish great things.  When you add friction to that process, your team is now battling two obstacles — 1. the actual work, and 2. arbitrary friction imposed on the process of doing the work.  If this friction is too high, your team will eventually get tired of it and stop putting in the extra effort.  Why should anyone bother if the faster they try to move, the more friction they encounter?  Like sprinting into the wind, it is a crappy and unrewarding process.

Types of friction in your work?

What does friction look like?  The most common categories of friction in the workplace are People, Processes, Tools, and Decisions.

People – Team members who make your job more difficult than it needs to be.  Their work deliverables may be late or incomplete, their participation may be lacking or intermittent, or they may routinely pushback on the direction the team wants to move.  We’ve all worked with people like this, and it’s never a good situation.  One bad actor can slow down the entire group.

Process – Generally, a high friction process is a ‘required’ method of doing a common task which makes the task complicated, cumbersome, and slow.  Common sources of Process Friction include over use of generic checklists, mandatory reports (which no one reads), and repetitive manual tasks.

Tools – In my experience, high friction tools are the result of using crappy IT.  If you are accustomed to using a Mac, and someone asks you to work on an old Windows PC, it feels like trying to run in cement shoes with a blindfold on.  So much of corporate America is beholden to legacy systems that run on outdated Microsoft platforms.  Its a real shame, and a huge source of friction.

A few of the most common sources of IT friction include;

  • Old PCs running even older Microsoft Office applications
  • Lack of collaboration tools (Box, Slack, cloud based document sharing)
  • Arcane security requirements – new 12 digit passwords which change every 4 weeks but are different from the other 12 digit passwords which also must be changed every few weeks which are also different from the other passwords…

Decisions / Leadership – My personal favorite type of friction, because as a Program Manager, nothing is more frustrating to my team than the inability of senior leadership to set a clear direction.

How do you know if you are encountering decision-related friction?

  • If decisions can only be made by one person (e.g. a senior executive) resulting in the team languishing in uncertainty until this person be consulted to make a decision.
  • If your team is stuck in Analysis Paralysis, aka the tendency to over analyze a situation, constantly seeking more data on a topic, and thus perpetually delaying making a decision
  • If your leadership is unable or unwilling to make tradeoffs and establish clear priorities.

Steve Jobs famously said that focus…

means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1000 things.

If your company or project team says Yes to Everything, how can you possibly make progress in any direction?  Not making a decision is often the worst decision of all.   

If you find friction, what can you do?

Regardless of your position within the team or company, we should all do what we can to reduce and eliminate sources of Friction.  Of course, some sources Friction are easieraaan others.  So what can you do?

Step 1:  Identify the source of Friction, and clearly define how it is slowing down the overall project / team.

Step 2:  Verify this particular source of Friction with other members of your team.  Does the group recognize this is an issue, or do they have a different opinion.  There may be instances where what you see as slow and cumbersome is viewed by many people as a critical and important process, which is slow by design.

Step 3:  Independently or with your team, brainstorm ways to reduce this type of friction.

  • Can a manual process be automated?
  • Can we implement a new collaboration tool to make group work more efficient?
  • Can we encourage senior leadership to make decisions faster, or delegate some types of decision making authority to other leaders within the team?

Step 4:  Implement your ‘Fix’ as a small trial to test its effectiveness.  There is one near universal truth regardless of your company, the more people you ask for permission to try something new, the longer and less likely you will be to get approval.

Instead, just test your improvement in a small trial.  If your experiment works and team efficiency is improved, you can propose this solution be adopted more broadly.  And if your trial doesn’t work, no worries, it was only a small test.

Summary

Friction in your work is dangerous not because it prevents the team from making progress, but because it requires ever increasing effort to accomplish the same thing in less time.  Left unchecked, friction will grind down the motivation of your team, resulting in frustration, complacency, and cynicism.  Project Managers and team leaders must always be on the lookout for sources of friction, some of which can be hiding in plain sight (e.g. inefficient tools), and should feel empowered to address and reduce the cause of friction directly.  

At the end of the day, if you want your team to move fast and do great things, you need to eliminate as much friction as possible.  

F*%! Friction and go make something awesome!

The Margin Manifesto

Margin – give yourself some now, you may need it later…

Ask yourself this:

How often has something gone exactly, perfectly to plan without a bump, hiccup, or delay along the way? 

Basically never, right?  So then, why would we ever create a plan without margin?  Why plot a course with no room for error?  Why build a schedule that cannot support even the slightest delay?  The answer is… you shouldn’t.  Anyone who is a position of making plans – Project Managers, Team Leads, Executives, Entrepreneurs, Coaches, and a host of others – should plan for some unknown degree of error, and thus give themselves the margin necessary to recover before disaster strikes.  

Far too often have I witnessed unnecessary disasters and project emergencies due to poor planning and a lack of margin.  If you think it will take 4 weeks to complete Job X, plan for 5.  If you think your prototype build will yield 60% good units, plan for only 30%.  Do you rely on a critical supplier for a specific part?  What happens if they can’t deliver, or are struck by some unexpected disaster.  Instead, try to dual-source key components, that way you are protected if one of your suppliers falls flat on their face.  It happens more often than you think…   

Furthermore, have you thought of what you could do if the thing you are trying to Accomplish / Make / Build does not work?  

  • How could you recover from a major setback? 
  • If no one buys your product, how could you adjust or pivot?  
  • Is there a way to make do with a 50% solution?  
  • What learnings could you get if the project is unsuccessful or your prototype doesn’t work as expected?  

Consider these options, consider how your project, competition, or business could adjust, absorb, or overcome some major obstacle.  Think of these scenarios before they occur and you will be in a much better position to react once they do. 

In summary – with proper planning, including sufficient margin for unexpected delays, errors and issues, and the preemptive consideration for dealing with a major setback, you can lead your team through just about anything.  There is a saying from those in the Military and other survival focused groups… 

Two is One, and One is None  

Thus, plan for margin, have a backup, and consider how you could recover if (when) shit hits the fan. 

Be Cool

In business, as in life, it helps to be cool.  

Let’s be honest, there is little to no value in losing your temper and engaging in an emotional or spiteful exchange.  It may feel good, and right, and justified in the moment – but the other person will feel the same.  You will never win an argument through insults, threats, or put downs.  If you find yourself approaching this slippery slope, take a step back.  Literally.  Step back from what you are doing – step away from the computer with the angry email you are about to write.  Put your phone down before you send the spiteful text message.  Step back from the person you are confronting in a meeting.  Emotional exchanges and temper tantrums are the domicile of children and those with childish control.  You can be the greater person, you can be viewed as the level headed leader, you can be respected as the voice of reason and clarity, but only if you have the self control to pull back when your blood starts to boil and pursue a more level headed response.  

The person on the receiving end is almost certainly being a jerk, an asshole, and a complete idiot – but you wont convince them of this, you will only harden their resolve in becoming an even greater asshole.  In the long run, and almost everything in business and life is about optimizing for the long run, you will prevail when you are the one who can check their emotional response and outmaneuver your hot headed opponent with cool, calculating precision.  They will never see it coming, as they will be blindly focused on the burning issue of contention before their eyes.  

Stay cool, step back, play the long game, and outwit emotional adversaries through level headed strategies.  

Collaboration vs ‘Not my Job’

Offers to help yield exponentially greater results, here is why…

We’ve all been in this situation – you are swamped with work, too much to do and too little time, and then someone (perhaps a manager, a co-worker, or someone from another group) asks if you can help pull together another piece of the overall project which is far outside your general scope of work.  And you think to yourself, “that’s not my job, why can’t the person responsible for it handle it?”  You may even voice this objection to the person requesting this extra work of you.  I know the feeling.  Frustration, overwhelm, anger, contempt for whoever seems to be lacking in fulfilling their duties which has lead to the request of extra work on your part.  How should you handle this, what is the best path forward?

Should you strongly object to the extra work and insist that they (“Bob”) get their act together and do their job?  Perhaps go around to your friends in the office and complain to them that Bob’s department is incapable, incompetent, and totally useless?  Maybe just ignore the request and hope whatever incomplete piece of the project magically resolves itself?

Or, should you dig in to the ask.  Try to understand the gap in resources, time, or capabilities that has lead to Bob’s group being unable to complete one of their responsibilities.  Evaluate if there is a way you could help in this scenario, even though it wouldn’t normally be part of your job.  Are you really so overbooked that you can’t lend a hand?  Is your workload so high that you literally don’t have another 2 or 3 hours in the week which could be used to contribute to this incomplete task?  What if you don’t help and no one else can either?  What will be the result to the overall project if no one can pick up the slack for Bob’s team?  

It can be so tempting to knee-jerk to the negative reaction.  To bitch and moan and complain how unfair it is to be given extra work from someone else’s team.  However, there maybe a valid reason for this request, and if you could see the full picture, you would be more sympathetic to their request for assistance.  Plus, if a major piece of the overall project is in a critical state, does it really matter if your work is completed on time?  

Remember, in these scenarios, collaboration will pay dividends in the long run even if it requires a bit of overtime in the near term.  If you collaborate, if you offer to help instead of complaining that its “not my job”, you are not only helping the team meet their larger objective, you will likely gain the gratitude and favors of those you are assisting.  With an offer to help Bob in his time of need, how much more likely will Bob be to help you when you need a favor?  Is Bob a gatekeeper for someone important, can Bob allocate additional resources for your team sometime in the future, or could Bob help fast track the approval of a future proposal?  Probably.  

Helping another part of the organization in times of crisis are rarely, perhaps never, Win-Lose scenarios.  Yes, that extra work will be a challenge for you.  However, if you can suck it up in the short term, you will not only contribute to a larger group success but you will almost certainly gain a resource you can leverage down the road.  

So, do the work, lend a hand, and help the team move closer to your shared goal.  

Happy collaborating! 

Is it really a problem?

Sometimes when you feel like the sky is falling it is only a drop of rain… 

One of the hardest things about developing something new (in basically any field) is the shear number and variety of issues, setbacks and obstacles you will encounter along the way. Thus, a real challenge in New Product Development is not just envisioning the product or thing you will build, but also having the discipline and resilience to slog through the development process in order to actualize your vision. If that assertion is true, what can we as Project and Program Managers do about it?

How can you improve your chances for success during the development process?

How can you make things easier for your team?

If the problem is Problems – too many, too often, too varied, too hard, too ambiguous – then one mitigation is by objectively evaluating each and every newly reported issue with the framework of ‘is it really a problem?’

When your team brings you a new issue, ask them to evaluate the issue across the following metrics;

  1. What is the severity of this issue? For example, is this a line-down, show-stopper, or a minor bug?
  2. Who or what does this issue impact? Is this a user facing issue, or an internal nuisance?
  3. What is the rate of occurrence? For example, will this issue impact 100% of our users, or is it a corner case which may only be seen by 1% of users, 0.01% of the time?
  4. What is really failing? Is it a specification or requirement we understand well, or is it a placeholder metric which may not indicate an actual problem?
  5. Have we verified the negative outcome? If this issue occurs, do we fully understand what the ultimate impact and outcome will be? In other words, do we “think” it is a risk or do we “know” it is a problem?
  6. Do we understand the mechanisms which will cause this issue to occur?

The above questions should serve as a good first round of issue triage, however there will likely be other questions to ask specific to your industry, product or project. But the point remains, before you and your team drown trying to plug a million little leaks, first take a step back to evaluate which are real problems and which are just shiny new distractions.

If you don’t have a good process to triage and assess the barrage of new issues reported each day, you may find yourself overwhelmed and unable to make meaningful progress on the one or two (or three) really big and import problems that actually need to be solved for your project to be successful.

How to be Lucky

What is luck?  My definition of Luck is the occurrence of an event that is generally unlikely.  Luck is not a miracle, it is not the occurrence of the impossible.  It is merely the happening of something with (much) less than 50% probability of occurrence.  From this probabilistic context, Luck can be influenced, encouraged, perhaps even manufactured.  

Case in point – it is unlikely that any individual startup will be successful.  Maybe 9 out of 10 fail in the first few years.  It is also unlikely that a startup will be acquired by a major company.  However the odds of being successful and being acquired by a market leading company can be greatly increased if you focus on building something which solves a problem and/or increases convenience for a target customer.  

This was the case for AuthenTec.  A startup which was very nearly part of the 90+% of companies that crash and burn.  A startup which found some degree of success but was very nearly killed by the resulting avalanche of customer requests.  However, what helped AuthenTec get lucky (and indeed they were very lucky), was a focus on solving a real problem and offering a real increase in convenience.  Solving real problems and increasing conveniences – two of the foundations for developing a successful product.  The leadership of AuthenTec continued to focus on these two aspects, despite numerous headwinds to change directions, and from that, they were able to prove that they could create a solution which might, just maybe, meet the demanding standards and requirements of Apple.  For that effort, AuthenTec was acquired by Apple, and their technology went on to become TouchID, a fundamental feature of Apple products for many years, and the tipping point for biometric technology to be adopted en-masse by other consumer electronics companies.  

Thus, if you want to ‘Get Lucky’, identify the requirements for that lucky scenario and then put in regular, diligent, and focused work towards achieving those requirements.

Taking Risks

Are you taking big enough risks?

Mark Twain famously said; “I am an old man and known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”  What Twain is saying here is that most of the risks we perceive are unlikely to happen.  Think of the many things you might want to do but are afraid of trying – ask for a raise, go sky diving, talk to that pretty stranger at the end of the bar – all with high perceived risk, but from a probabilistic perspective those risks are highly unlikely.  Evaluating options in terms of the worst possible outcome will result in a state of ultraconservatism that will guarantee mediocre results at best. 

Instead, evaluate options in terms of all possible outcomes and the likelihood of each.  Asking for a raise might result in a swift and vicious reprisal from your boss, but that is highly unlikely, especially in today’s hyper sensitive HR environment.  What is more likely is a career conversation which may result in a promotion, expanded responsibility, or in a realistic worst case scenario – nothing at all.  However, not taking action, not asking for a raise, not discussing career ambitions with your management will certainly keep you stuck in the status quo.  

Why don’t we read more?

I heard a very successful person say, that the difference between you and those that you admire, is that the people you admire read.  They educate themselves.  They are perpetually curious and striving to learn more.  They want to be inspired, to have their thoughts challenged, to see the world from different view points.  Reading is the gateway to all of those things.  

So why are you not reading?  

No time?  You don’t have to spend hours reading some hefty novel.  Try just 15 minutes in the morning as a warm up to your day, or 15 minutes at night before bed as a period of winding your mind down.  In addition, Audio Books are fantastic for those that spend time commuting each day.  Instead of listening to the same 10 songs on the radio for an hour each day, listen to an audio book from Audible or iTunes.  You can easily consume 1 book a month, just by listening to it while driving.  

Nothing of interest?  Reading doesn’t require you to pour over some dusty text book.  I’m not advocating a return to High School literature class.  Read about something you like, or someone you admire.  Whatever your hobbies are, whatever you want to do or be, whoever it is that you admire in business, sports, or arts – there are books, interviews, and podcasts on the subject, and/or by or about the person of interest.  

Laziness (be honest)?  Its certainly easier to spend two or three hours a night mindlessly watching TV and sporadically checking our phone for completely meaningless updates and nonsense.  But its also not that hard to read.  You don’t have to skip TV altogether.  In fact, you don’t have to skip it at all.  Watch your shows in the evening, watch sports on the weekend, but carve out 15 minutes a day to read or time when commuting to listen to audio books.  The hardest part is taking the first step and getting out of your routine.  After that, its super easy 

Read something, learn something, expand your mind and knowledge of the world.  

Building Relationships

How do you build relationships in business? 

  • Empathy
  • In-person one on one engagement
  • Camaraderie outside of work
  • Displays of trustworthiness
  • Shared struggles

Empathy.  Simple enough but often overlooked and/or too rarely practiced.  Try to understand the other.  What are they struggling with, how can you help, what pain points or frustrations can you alleviate, what do they need to get their job done?  Ask yourself these questions, and try to think of the other first when building a relationship.  It is not about what YOU want, its about how you can help THEM.  Do that, and what you want will come without effort. 

In-person engagement.  This one is fairly obvious I think.  It is 10x easier to build a relationship with someone in person vs. over the phone / email / chat, etc.  We don’t have relationships with text on a screen or an unfamiliar voice.  We have relationships with people.  So get out of your office and go meet them.  This could be as simple as walking to someone else’s desk to discuss an issue or ask a question, or as involved as flying halfway around the world to visit a vendor or customer in person.  That personal interaction is so tremendously valuable, and can accomplish in hours what would take weeks or months to do via remote interaction.  Yes, you can work remotely, but you won’t build many (strong) relationships if all you do is email and call. 

Camaraderie.  Again, this should be obvious, but its worth mentioning especially as work life balances continue to tip in favor of work and time outside the office can easily be consumed with family and other personal responsibilities.  If you really want to get to know someone and foster a friendship, try to do something outside of the office.  This can be as simple as grabbing a beer after work, or taking a vendor out to dinner during a business trip.  The point is to engage outside of the field of play.  Go to a neutral, non-business venue, and spend some time getting to know the person – their family, their hobbies, their story.  Do this, and your future in-office interactions will be so much richer.

Demonstrations of Trustworthiness.  Are you trusted?  In general, and in absence of any glaring untrustworthy indicators (think sleazy used car salesman), then probably yes.  The question is not one of general trust, the question is one of specific trust to do your job, to do a difficult task, to find and fix the root cause of a problem.  This is the trust you must earn from your team.  Saying that Tim is responsible for X is irrelevant if Tim does not know how to do X or if Tim has demonstrated an inability to perform X in the past.  In building relational trust, you must demonstrate through action and persistence the ability to meet the expectations of the other, and to fulfill on schedule and to the requirements, any task for which you are assigned.  If you are given an action in a meeting, follow through.  If you are responsible for completing a critical part of the design, deliver that on schedule.  If you are responsible for managing the budget, keep track of expenses and highlight risks when you see them.  Do your job, help others, and gain their trust through action.  

Shared Struggles.  The type of relationships which are formed through shared struggles are unlike any other.  When you have fought side by side with others, literally or figuratively, the two of you or the group will share a sense of purpose and a shared experience that will last for years to come.  This is as true in business as it is in sports or combat.  When the heat is on, everything is going wrong and you absolutely must deliver, fighting through insurmountable obstacles over weeks or months to meet your goal – this will forge steadfast relationships.  Can you foster this for your time?  Can you architect a Shared Struggle scenario to build deeper relationships with key members of your organization?  I believe it is possible, but with very careful consideration to the circumstances and goals.  The reason being, the psychological principal at play is an ‘Us against Them’ mentality within the group.  If the ‘Them’ in question is a boss, team leader, or someone else within the organization, it won’t be beneficial to unite the group against them.  However, if you can focus your team on an external threat or a supremely challenging technical problem with a real sense of urgency and a non-negotiable deadline, the group should align to battle their adversaries and in so doing become stronger in the process.  

The flip side to building a relationship – the power of influence.  You can certainly, and perhaps more easily than you realize, influence someone to do what you want.  For a master class on influence and the power of persuasion and pre-suasion, read the seminal books by Robert Cialdini.  However if you have a relationship with someone, you won’t need to influence them to assist in your goals.  That is the value of a relationship.  It is a well you can reliably tap, with moderation, to help you in times of need.  

What is Leadership

What is leadership?  What does leadership look like?  Is it knowing the ‘right’ answer.  Is it having years of experience.  Is it being in a position of power, influence or authority.  No, I think leadership is a combination of courage, respect, and selflessness.

Courage to face head on the challenges that your team faces both internally and externally.  Courage to make the hard call when time is short and information is imperfect.  Courage to have uncomfortable conversations with others if and when deficiencies or issues need to be addressed.  Courage to push back on demands made of your team which are beyond their ability or outside of their scope.  Courage to admit mistakes and correct course when necessary, not to plow onwards in vein trying to prove yourself right. 

Respect from peers, superiors and your staff.  Respect for the experience you have, but more importantly, respect for your work ethic, capabilities, and motivations.  Respect that you not only know what you are doing, but that you are doing the right thing or the best thing when the path is unclear and the situation is ambiguous.  Respect that you are trying to make the best possible product, the most amazing service, or provide the best advice on how to perform a challenging task. 

Selflessness in your pursuits.  A true leader does not ‘get ahead’ by plotting and scheming to advance their career.  A true leader is one whose primary focus is to elevate their team.  How many new managers fall into the trap of spot checking their employees work?  This is folly.  As a leader, your focus isn’t to double check others, it is to set the example and develop the skill sets of your team. To leverage your experience, best practices, and tools with the intellect and knowledge of your team.  Your team should never be as good as your ability to provide diligent oversight, it should be as good as the multiplication of the leaders expertise with their employees.  Every leader in a management position should strive to advance their employees skills to the point where they are in a position to leave the group so that they can lead others.