How to be a Remarkable Project Manager

Here are notes from my talk at Spark Conference 2015. Enjoy!

I broke my talk down to the following four areas.

Self-Improvement

  • One of the best investments we can make is to understand ourselves. Focus on figuring out your Top 3 Strengths and Top 3 Weakness. This can be a hard question to answer. Ask for feedback from peers or your significant other. Remember that we have the liberty to change our answers as we move along! Understanding oneself is a process, not an event.
  • I have found Myers-Briggs personality type assessment to be very useful. I first learned about Myers-Briggs as part of the Problem Solving Leadership course led by Gerald Weinberg, Johanna Rothman, and Esther Derby.
  • My favorite blogger, Penelope Trunk, talks about how self knowledge and how this is critical to getting what you want and being fulfilled.
  • Take action. It is the best possible way to know yourself and specifically your interests, strengths, or motivations.
  • A personal journal can be a great tool to understand yourself. Try to use a personal journal to note down every time you felt like you accomplished something (big or small). Review your accomplishments regularly to determine if you notice any patterns.
  • It is tempting to think of ourselves as brilliant. Most often, we are not. It is hard to see ourselves as we truly are. Peer feedback is critical in gaining a better understanding of ourselves.
  • Set high standards for yourself. As Tony Robbins says, change your “shoulds” into “musts”.

Leadership Insights

  • Max DePree’ quote on leadership has resonated with me a lot – “The first job of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say Thank you”. That is probably the best job description for a project manager.
  • Gerald Weinberg has a definition of leadership that I like – “Leadership is the process of creating an environment in which people become empowered”.
  • Glen Alleman talks constantly about the five immutable principles of project management. Following the five principles is a no-brainer to me.
  • In his book, Software Creativity, Robert Glass mentions how one psychologist analyzed political leaders and came up with a scale that ranked leaders based on their ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity. This is a critical skill-set for project managers.
  • Here are some tips around how we can manage complexity
    • Breaking down a problem into smaller chunks (aka Divide and Conquer)
    • Experts can be useful as they can help orient project teams the right way and they provide the ability to look two steps ahead
    • Smaller teams are easier to manage and can be useful in delivering value faster
    • Attacking scope is a good way to restrict complexity and increase success
  • Here are some tips around how we can deal with ambiguity
    • It’s hard to weigh both sides of an issue. Our minds seem to deal well with certainty and do poorly with ambiguity. It’s useful to look at an approach, technique, or tip and determine the pros and cons of using it. This can help you balance two opposing views in your mind instead of coming to conclusions.
    • Another key approach is to think in terms of probabilities. Each project tends to face a fair share of challenges and risks that make hitting a specific date difficult. Do not blindly believe dates or a project plan. Understand the assumptions behind a milestone, the risks in the project plan, and have necessary schedule buffers that gives you the flexibility to respond as circumstances change.
    • Project teams can freeze if there are significant ambiguities. Lack of clear requirements, lack of access to critical decision makers can pose significant challenges. Project Managers can make an impact by figuring out baby steps a team can take to move the project forward.
    • There is a need to embrace and tolerate ambiguity. However, there are situations where you do want to tolerate ambiguity. Two situations are around tasks and milestones. Ensure there is good understanding among critical stakeholders on what a task or milestone means. If all stakeholders do not interpret the task or milestone the same way, you will be in a world of pain! :->
  • We always, always, always act in ways that are consistent with our beliefs and self-image. This is probably the most important lesson I learned from Tony Robbins and Jerry Weinberg.
  • We all have unwritten rules or beliefs that drive our behavior and actions. In some cases, we are not even aware of these rules. Trying to surface these rules and re-framing them are key to success. For example, you may have a unwritten rule that says “I should be nice to everybody”. This can pose challenges when you attempt to provide feedback to a teammate.
  • Byron Katie’s The Work is a solid approach that helps you re-frame your thoughts and beliefs.

Software Principles

  • “All problems are people problems”. This one piece of advice from Gerald Weinberg from Secrets of Consulting will save you a lot of heart ache and money!
  • Consider project pre-mortems. Talk about all the ways in which a project can fail when you initiate a project. This is the one piece of advice that Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein agree on!
  • The Mountain Goat Principle
    • “Take one step at a time up the slippery mountainside, and make absolutely sure that each hoof is on solid ground before you take the next step.”
    • Simple, powerful, and effective!
    • While you are at it, buy Tom Gilb’s Principles of Software Engineering Management. It has tons of great advice like the Mountain Goat Principle.
  • Conquer Accidental Complexity
    • There are two types of complexity in software, per Frederick Brooks: Essential and Accidental complexity.
    • Fight accidental complexity as much as you can. Accidental complexity, such as lack of right tools, organization can cause significant in-inefficiencies. They can also lead to decision fatigue.
    • Get personally organized first. Ensure you can easily track action items, tasks, milestones, open questions on a project.
    • Use ONE tool consistently (if you can!).
    • Never, never, never have code outside of source control.

Fear

Useful Links

  • Penelope Trunk’s blog – Penelope Trunk is my favorite blogger and she has the best advice on managing your career and becoming better.
  • Leap First by Seth Godin – This is a great audio from Seth Godin. Seth talks about creating work that matters and how we can work with our internal resistance and barriers that prevent us from taking the leap.
  • The Behaviors that define A-Players (HBR) – Great article from Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman on what separates high performers from the rest.
  • Glen Alleman blog – Solid blog on project management. This blog has been influential in how I think about projects in general.
  • The Joel Test: 12 steps to a better code – This handy checklist is worth its weight in gold.

Recommended Books

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Tips for better decision making

As I wrote my last post about the psychology of decision making, I started thinking about some tips that I could share about decision making. As I formulated some of the tips, I realized that Scott Berkun’s checklist captures the essentials quite well.

It occurred to me that Penelope Trunk blog posts would be a great resource, too. Penelope has written tons of posts about making good decisions on managing your career and life.  She captures some of the tougher aspects of making choices and how we can better manage our emotions and fears as we arrive at a decision that fits us (important decisions require self-knowledge).

Here are my tips that are focused on software projects:

1. Understand the context
About 3 years ago, I was leading a software project. My Client mentioned a need to import an Excel spreadsheet into a database for a custom web application we were building. My initial reaction was to use SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS) and import the Excel spreadsheet. I had some experience with SSIS and this was the first solution that popped in my head. I realized that the SSIS option could take additional effort. I worked with the Client to understand the problem and clarify the context. I found that this would be a one-time import of the Excel spreadsheet. The Client did not expect to import Excel spreadsheets with similar data in the future. This led me to write a simple Excel macro to generate the necessary SQL statements and perform the import. The entire solution took about 2-3 hours to develop. I have found that taking the step back to understand the context can lead to better decisions and solutions.

2. Clarify your goals or values
It is much easier to prioritize and make decisions when you have clarity on what you want to achieve. In a data warehousing/business intelligence project I was involved in, the goal was to execute our daily loads for a particular data mart in 2 hours or less. The goal drove the design and development process from designing the individual jobs and the approaches we took to develop the staging tables and the necessary code.

An important aspect about clarifying goals is to draw out “lullaby” language as Jerry Weinberg calls it. In business intelligence projects, data quality can be a critical goal. However, data quality can mean different things to different stakeholders. It helps to clarify what stakeholders truly want and if there are opposing goals that may prevent the implementation of a successful solution.

3. Rule of 3
I learned this valuable rule after attending the Problem Solving Leadership workshop led by Jerry Weinberg, Johanna Rothman, and Esther Derby. The rule calls us to evaluate three options while making a decision. The rule helps improve the quality of decision making as it prevents us from picking the first solution that comes to mind and running with it (which can be really tempting as a software engineer!).

A recent example comes to mind. I was leading an application integration project and we had to process flat files as part of this effort. Some of the processing involved co-relating multiple flat files and applying certain business rules. I came up with two options: writing the logic entirely in C# or creating SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS) packages. However, both options, didn’t seem very appealing. The C# option could have resulted in higher development effort. The SSIS option would have introduced another technology in the mix with more maintenance overhead. After talking with other experts at work, we came up with a third option – using SQL Server stored procedures. This was a much better fit for our particular scenario.

I am always amazed at the wide applicability of the Rule of 3. It’s a valuable tool .

4. Write it down
This is probably one of my favorite methods. Writing down what you want to achieve can help clarify the decision for you. If I find that I am unable to write down what needs to be done, that’s a yellow flat that I really don’t know much about the problem. Hence, a decision to choose an option will be tough. It may be better to figure out what needs to be accomplished before spending time and energy on choosing an option.

5. Decision Fatigue
I learned the concept of decision fatigue from Penelope Trunk. There is a huge cognitive load on the brain as you keep making decisions throughout the day. As we near the end of the day, the quality of our decisions suffer as a result. Hence, it is better to devise routines that keep the decision fatigue into account. Critical design meetings at the end of the day are probably a bad idea!

The New York times article has some interesting nuggets around decision fatigue:

The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. 

 

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Psychology of decision making

One key aspect of software projects is the ability to make good decisions. At the project management level, there is a healthy tension between what can be delivered, by whom, and when (with budgets looming in the background!). Even architects, designers, and developers grapple with making critical day-to-day decisions while balancing goals such as performance, security, usability, and maintainability. Testing can surface interesting and critical decision points for management: Is a product ready for release?

The quality of these decisions affects if projects can be successful. Here are some interesting links I found around the psychology of decision making:

Strategic decisions: When can you trust your gut?

This is an excellent interview with Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and psychologist Gary Klein. There are lots of interesting nuggets that can be useful. The idea I liked the most and can be used almost immediately is the premortem technique advocated by Gary Klein.

Gary Klein: The premortem technique is a sneaky way to get people to do contrarian, devil’s advocate thinking without encountering resistance. If a project goes poorly, there will be a lessons-learned session that looks at what went wrong and why the project failed—like a medical postmortem. Why don’t we do that up front? Before a project starts, we should say, “We’re looking in a crystal ball, and this project has failed; it’s a fiasco. Now, everybody, take two minutes and write down all the reasons why you think the project failed.”

The logic is that instead of showing people that you are smart because you can come up with a good plan, you show you’re smart by thinking of insightful reasons why this project might go south. If you make it part of your corporate culture, then you create an interesting competition: “I want to come up with some possible problem that other people haven’t even thought of.” The whole dynamic changes from trying to avoid anything that might disrupt harmony to trying to surface potential problems.

What’s your Intuition?

An excellent interview with Gary Klein that discusses his insights after extensive studies of people who make do-or-die situations.

“I noticed that when the most experienced commanders confronted a fire, the biggest question they had to deal with wasn’t ‘What do I do?’ It was ‘What’s going on?’ That’s what their experience was buying them — the ability to size up a situation and to recognize the best course of action.”

“Experienced decision makers see a different world than novices do,” concludes Klein. “And what they see tells them what they should do. Ultimately, intuition is all about perception. The formal rules of decision making are almost incidental.”

“We used to think that experts carefully deliberate the merits of each course of action, whereas novices impulsively jump at the first option,” says Klein. But his team concluded that the reverse is true. “It’s the novices who must compare different approaches to solving a problem. Experts come up with a plan and then rapidly assess whether it will work. They move fast because they do less.”

How to make smart project decisions: the checklist

A solid checklist from Scott Berkun that most project teams can use to get unstuck. The checklist is in the form of questions and it can spur good thinking. I liked the following questions in the list:

What problem is at the core of the decision? Decisions often arise in response to new information, narrowing your thinking on what the decision actually is. Someone might realize “We’ don’t have time to fix all 50 issues before launch”, which sets many managers off in frantic scramble to hand pick which to fix. But a better, and less narrow problem, is “we don’t have a criteria for triaging issues”. Deciding on that criteria will make dozens of other decisions easier and delegatable. Ask questions like: What caused this problem? Is it isolated or will we deal with this again? Did we already make this decision? If so, do we truly have grounds for reconsidering it?

Who has the expert opinion? (Is this really my decision?). Just because someone asks you to decide doesn’t mean you’re the best person to make the call. Often the best decision possible is to delegate it to someone better able to make the decision. Or to at least pause the proceedings until you can get the advice of the best expert available.

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Keys to Success

I have always enjoyed the New Year. It is a special time for me. New Year represents the start of something new – a new journey and a new adventure. I usually spend this time reflecting on what I want to accomplish and what I truly want. I have observed that I start the new year with great intentions and it almost never translates into effective action! I bet most of you are already familiar with this story! ;->

A year is also just the right size as I tend to forget my previous failures when the next year rolls around. This selective memory loss ensures that the cycle keeps repeating again and again! This time I decided to shake things up a bit. I took a step back and reflect on what it takes to be successful. I wanted to reflect on my successes and failures before I began the task of selecting goals. I wanted to determine what would truly help me be accomplish something meaningful. The following list came about as a result of this reflection.

  • Know Yourself

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves” – Sir Edmund Hillary

I came across this wonderful quote while I was at NC State for leading campus interviews.  The quote resonated with me and helped me look at goal setting and accomplishment in an entirely new perspective. The real purpose of goal setting is not about achievement. The true purpose is to know yourself and become a better version of yourself.  I was also reminded of Penelope Trunk’s quote around goal setting.

“The goal of taking care of one’s body, or sitting down to write is really the goal of being more of your true, best self. It’s about finding your best self — always changing, always elusive.”

In another blog post, Penelope points out that selecting the right goal is the hardest part of the goal setting process. This was a great insight for me. I could definitely see based on experience that the goal you set has to be aligned with who you are as a person. This requires a lot of self-knowledge and awareness. If you pick the wrong goal, you have already started on the wrong foot! The journey does not get easier after that!

Knowing yourself to me means the ability to see our selves with clarity. I view it as the fine balance of not exaggerating the reality about yourself while maintaining a positive self-image that is crucial to achieving your goals. As Penelope mentions, adult life is full of distortions. It is hard to weave through our emotions, feelings, thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and attitudes to figure out who we are. It takes time and reflection to understand our strengths and weaknesses. It takes a great deal of self-awareness, concentration and attention to understand truly what motivates us, what frustrates us, what prompts us to take action, what makes us queasy. I have found it easier to slip into un-conscious modes where I chose to ignore or acknowledge certain aspects about myself that I don’t feel comfortable with.

As a Professional, knowing oneself is crucial to understand how we learn, how we respond to challenges and how we take action.

  • Self-Discipline

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

Based on what I have read and researched, Self-discipline is the key to success. Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University summarizes the importance of self-discipline very well:

The practical significance is enormous. Most of the problems that plague modern individuals in our society — addiction, overeating, crime, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, prejudice, debt, unwanted pregnancy, educational failure, underperformance at school and work, lack of savings, failure to exercise — have some degree of selfcontrol failure as a central aspect.

Psychology has identified two main traits that seem to produce an immensely broad range of benefits: intelligence and self-control. Despite many decades of trying, psychology has not found much one can do to produce lasting increases in intelligence. But self-control can be strengthened. Therefore, self-control is a rare and powerful opportunity for psychology to make a palpable and highly beneficial difference in the lives of ordinary people.

Another great insight from Roy’s interview was that self-discipline is like a muscle. We can strengthen it by exercising it more. Consciously practicing Self-discipline in one area of your life improves self-discipline in other areas of your life.

  • Support System

I have found that the pursuit of any worthwhile goal involves facing challenges and obstacles along the journey. This is a given! We may not have the right resources to overcome these obstacles, we may not have the right skills or talent and we may fail. The key to effectively deal with these challenges is to rely on a solid support system that allows us to keep trying in spite of failures and roadblocks. One of the insights I received after listening to the Maverick Mindset by Dr. John Eliot was that the support system can be an individual, a book, audio tapes or even a symbol. It can be anything that keeps reminding us to try and not quit.

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Lessons Learned from Goal Setting .. Stories from Success

In my previous blog post, I looked at my failures around goal setting and discussed behavioral patterns I felt were the root causes for my failures. In this post, I will write about behavioral patterns that led to my success based on analysis of my accomplishments.

  • List Making

I work for an IT Consulting firm and my work is about delivering successful project for our Clients. When I look back at projects where I have been very successful, I realized that list making and taking effective action was one of the constant attributes for my success.

One of the projects I am particularly fond of was a large Business Intelligence effort that lasted about a year. I created goals and a list of tasks every week and constantly refined and adjusted the list every week to reflect the priorities at that time. I had a clear vision of what needed to be accomplished and adjusted my plans weekly to ensure we were still on target. List-making has been a very useful tool in my productivity arsenal and it has helped give me a tremendous focus. I use lists very deliberately if I ever find myself being overwhelmed by a problem or situation. I step back, analyze the problem and figure out exactly what needs to be achieved. Then, I break down the goal or task into smaller tasks. The act of writing down on pen and paper each individual task and crossing them off is very satisfying.

  • Support System

I have found that a strong support system has been the bedrock for nearly all my successes. For projects I have successfully delivered at work, I have always had Project Managers and other leads that I could rely on for advice and support. I have observed that having people around you as a sounding board makes a tremendous difference.

I have observed that it is important to surround yourself with people who can ask great questions instead of providing the answers. This helps you look at issues in a different light and take appropriate action.

  • Grit

It is very rare to have a project that does not have any obstacles or minor roadblocks. The ability to successfully navigate and surmount these obstacles is key to success. In the BI effort I mentioned earlier, my team faced several hurdles. At each point, I tried not to get frustrated and re-adjusted my plans accordingly. I made a conscious effort to stay in what I call my “power zone” instead of the victim zone. The power zone is a term I have used to define a mental attitude and outlook in which I am creative, resourceful and focused on figuring out a way to make things happen. The victim zone is a mental attitude and outlook in which I blame outside circumstances and feel powerless to take effective action. Naming these mental attitudes has helped me become more self-aware and allowed me to evaluate the mode I am operating in. If I believe I am falling into the victim zone, I do my best to shift my mental perspective.

  • Ritual

Penelope Trunk mentions that we are more likely to meet our work goals than personal goals. I definitely agree with that. One of the reasons this is true is probably because of the money involved. I believe another reason is that there is a rhythm to work. You consistently put in 8 hours or more everyday. You may not make significant progress every single day. However, the progress you make every day adds up. This ritual is critical to success.

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Lessons Learned from Goal Setting .. Stories from Failure

I have been setting goals for myself since 2007 and have had many failures and few successes. This year, I decided to re-visit my previous efforts and see if I noticed any patterns that were holding me back. I was mentally aware of some of these patterns. The exercise of re-visiting previous goals and analyzing my efforts proved to be quite valuable.

Here are some of the general patterns I noticed. I hope reviewing this list could help you in your own goal setting efforts.

  • Too many goals

I was looking at a personal dairy entry from 2007 and noticed that I had listed about 7 goals. There were goals such as learning C#, learning ruby, leading a training class and so on. The problem with setting too many goals was that the list overwhelmed me and I could not prioritize the list and decide what I was going to pick and focus on. When I saw too many goals, I tried to step back and figure out what is it I truly wanted. This was a tough question for me and caused confusion and prevented my efforts at prioritization. Essentially, I felt stuck. A good mentor could easily have told me – Just pick one! 😉

I approached goal-setting as an exercise in creating a list of everything I would get done. I failed to realize that goal setting is truly about picking something, sticking to it, and getting it done. The act of completing a task energizes much more than creating a huge list. It is a waste of time to list out all your goals if that doesn’t lead to action.

  • Failing to re-organize my life around a goal

I vastly under-estimated the need to re-organize my life to achieve a big goal. One goal that I constantly struggle with is the need to exercise more. I have begin to realize the “systemic effects” that one big goal can have on your life. Let’s say you want to exercise regularly. You need to figure out a schedule that works for you. If you decide you want to exercise in the morning, you need to wake up earlier so that you can still reach the office on time. If you need to wake up earlier, you need to sleep earlier. All the activities that you do on a day-to-day basis has to be re-adjusted to meet this goal. This is a huge challenge and undertaking. You literally have to re-plan your entire day around this one goal.I believe this is the reason coaches ask you to pick one goal and stick to it. The self-discipline that you get from achieving the goal will help you with other goals that you set.

  • Lack of Support system

I truly believe the lack of a coach or mentor hindered my ability to achieve some of the goals I set. I bet any coach or mentor could have seen my goal list and immediately pointed out the flaws in my approach. I could have gained a lot by having a coach who could have asked great (and tough!) questions. Nearly all goal-setting systems specifically emphasize having a good support system.

  • Vague goals

Some of the goals I had listed out lacked clarity. I remember one goal I set for myself – Learn Ruby. What did “Learn Ruby” mean? How would I know that I had learned Ruby? What resources would be required to learn Ruby? I had to break this goal down into specific and tiny chunks that could be completed. It’s the same principle we follow on software projects. If you don’t know what done means, you are never going to get there!

  • Obsessive need to be perfect

Last year, I decided to exercise at least 5 days a week. No exceptions. I figured out a schedule. I decided when I had to sleep, what time I had to get up, and how I would go about my day to day activities to meet this goal. I got very obsessive about this. I did not want to fail. I did not want to take a day off. The first two weeks went fine. I was literally trying not to miss a day. In the third week, I fell sick and I missed a day and I was very upset and frustrated. In the fourth week, I literally lost my drive to keep working on the goal. I quit! The goal was overwhelming me and I was obsessed with being perfect. I am an big fan of Karen Mottekaitis and listen to her podcast often during my drive. In her interview with Ariane de Bonvoisin, Ariane mentions that we need to be human instead of perfect when dealing with change. This hit me like a ton of bricks! And it made so much sense!

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Further exploring the term, “Define Reality”

I have been thinking on and off about that post I wrote about Defining Reality. The inspiration for that post came from Max DePree. DePree believed that defining reality was the primary job of the leader.

I observed several instances over the past couple of weeks where I could sense the truth behind Max’s philosophy and ideas.

I was skimming through a book by Suze Orman, The Laws of Money: 5 Timeless Secrets to Get Out and Stay Out of Financial Trouble, over the weekend while at a friend’s home. One of the 5 laws that Orman mentions in the book is: Look at What You Have, Not at What You Had. The law stresses the importance of assessing yourself and your finances truthfully. Orman states:

The principle behind this law ties in to the Tenth Commandment, about not “coveting” anyone else’s belongings or relationships, life situation, or talents. Nor are you supposed to long for something that is past, over and done with, gone. That is a terrible waste of your energy, time, and money, and no good can come of it. Let yourself see the truth about what you really have right now.

After reading the paragraph, I could immediately sense a strong parallel with DePree’s ideas and what Orman was advocating.

Last week, while searching for some material about team work and the effectiveness of team work, I came across an interview with Richard Hackman 1 on teamwork. The interviewer posed the following question to Hackman – You’ve said that for a team to be successful, it needs to be real. What does that mean? I was immediately intrigued by the question as it touches on the concept that DePree advocates – Defining Reality and was curious to see Richard’s answer.

Hackman provided the following answer:

At the very least, it means that teams have to be bounded. It may seem silly to say this, but if you’re going to lead a team, you ought to first make sure that you know who’s on it. In our recent book Senior Leadership Teams, Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James Burruss, and I collected and analyzed data on more than 120 top teams around the world. Not surprisingly, we found that almost every senior team we studied thought that it had set unambiguous boundaries. Yet when we asked members to describe their team, fewer than 10% agreed about who was on it. And these were teams of senior executives!

The materials above did help me get a better understanding of the phrase, Defining Reality. At the same time, I found myself grappling with the phrase and was trying to determine what DePree wanted to communicate and what he truly meant by the phrase, Defining Reality. I felt there was some nuance with the phrase and was struggling to decipher the subtleties.

I had a breakthrough when I could determine the root of my struggles while reading the blog, Obsessive-Compulsive Data Quality, by Jim Harris. In his blog post, The Point of View paradox, Jim discusses how “our points of view influences the way we think and the way we act”. Jim starts this blog post by mentioning Stephen Covey.

One of my all-time favorite non-fiction books is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

One of the book’s key points is that we need to carefully examine our point of view, the way we “see” the world—not in terms of our sense of sight, but instead in terms of the way we perceive, interpret, and ultimately understand the world around us.

As Covey explains early in the book, our point of view can be divided into two main categories, the ways things are (realities) and the ways things should be (values).  We interpret our experiences from these two perspectives, rarely questioning their accuracy.

The distinction between realities: the way things are and values: the ways things should be helped crystallize some of the struggles I had with the phrase, Define Reality. Define Reality guides you to focus on the present – the here and now. I believe one of the responsibilities of a leader is to set a vision for the future. In my mind, I was trying to reconcile the idea of Defining Reality, which I felt emphasized the present, with the idea of a vision and values, that emphasized the future.

I stepped back and tried to explore the phrase, Define Reality, further. Was the phrase truly emphasizing the present? I felt, Define Reality, was stopping me from thinking about the future. I asked myself if I was interpreting DePree correctly.  Is this what DePree was trying to communicate? Was I misinterpreting DePree’s intention? Were my ideas about the term, Define Reality, too narrow? I felt a little lost in the sea of questions I posed to myself!

I conducted a thought experiment to unravel these questions – Are we defining reality when we express our feelings and thoughts truthfully about where we wish to go, what we would like to achieve and the values we want to live by? I believe the answer to the question is yes, if our dreams, goals and values that we want to pursue are something that we truly believe in and not merely wishes and fads. If we speak about values that we truly do not believe in, we are not defining reality, we are defining fantasies. If we talk about dreams that we are not willing to work hard for, we are not defining reality, we are defining fantasies.

I would be lying if I say that I was able to crystallize the concept of Defining Reality completely in my head. However, these exercises make me feel like I am headed in the right way! ;->

I would love to hear your comments and thoughts about this.


  1.  Richard is a professor at Harvard University who teaches and conducts research in social and organizational pscychology. Here’s a brief bio of Hackman.
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Root cause of software project failure

While reading Glen Alleman’s blog, I came across an article in CrossTalk – The Journal of Defense Software Engineering – that discusses the core problem of project failure. The article was titled, Knowledge: The Core Problem of Project Failure. I found the article very interesting as the author, Timothy Perkins, asserts that knowledge is the core problem of project failure.

I tried to relate the article to my own personal experiences working in the IT consulting/professional services industry. I have noticed poor project planning, unclear requirements, unrealistic schedules, ineffective communication as some of the common causes for software project failure. I found the article insightful as it explores some important questions about project failures and tries to expose the root causes.

Having led and participated in more than 10 Independent Expert Program Reviews1 (IEPRs) for the Software Technology Support Center and the Tri-Service Assessment Office, and having spent my military career as a project/program manager, several individuals have asked if there is a common thread among programs or projects that are having difficulty. The answer is yes. Some expect the thread to be project planning, others risk management, and others expect one of the other project management themes. However, the root causes can be reduced to two issues: either project managers do not have the knowledge they need, or they do not properly apply the knowledge they have.

I tried to explore the assertion that Knowledge was the core problem from various angles and determine if I found it to be equally valid. While examining the premise of the article, I asked myself what caused project managers  to not apply the knowledge they had. I loved the simplicity of the assertion and it did not feel simplistic. At the same time, I was questioning if the root cause could be boiled down to knowledge. Would digging deeper help us uncover other factors?

The article seemed to emphasize personal responsibility on the part of the project manager to navigate the projects toward success. I was reminded of Jerry Weinberg’s books on Quality Software Management where Jerry mentions the importance of mental models that Project Managers employ and the ability to act courageously in situations where PMs feel afraid, threatened, and under emotional  strain. I could sense some parallels with what Jerry talks about in his book and the article.

Given the emphasis on the project manager and knowledge, I wondered if software teams and other team members had an equal responsibility on navigating the project towards success. If the proper knowledge was not applied, couldn’t the team members provide the necessary leadership? How much does the environment and culture play a part in the success or failure? By focusing on the individual, were we missing the environment? I was reminded of Deming’s quote on the system playing a major role in performance.

The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.

I was also reminded of Barry Oshry’s work and his Top-Middle-Bottom systemic model. I believe Oshry’s thoughts and ideas about the Mindless Middle may help explain why project managers do not apply the knowledge they have.

Overall, I found the article very stimulating and believe it provides clarity around some thorny questions about software project failure.

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You get what you ask for!

I had a discussion with an acquaintance recently and the discussion reinforced some of the lessons that I have learned in my own professional career. The acquaintance mentioned an application that they had developed in the past year. The application was was designed primarily for data entry and storing information provided by the users. After deploying the application, the organization soon realized that they had missed an important feature based on user feedback – They did not provide any means for users to view or retrieve the data they had entered! The acquaintance mentioned that the programmers were not to blame as they only designed what they had been asked for.

There were many lessons I could glean based on this interesting discussion.

  • You only get what you ask for!

I was immediately reminded of an experiment that Jerry Weinberg and Donald Gause mention in their book, Exploring Requirements: Quality before Design. The experiment was interesting and here are the details:

In a typical experiment, five teams were given the same requirement for a computer program except for a single sentence that differed for each team. One team was asked to complete the job with the fewest possible hours of programming, another was to minimize the number of program statements written, a third was to minimize the amount of memory used, another was to produce the clearest possible program, and the final team was to produce the clearest possible output.

The results were quite fascinating. Each team aced the objective it was given. Jerry and Don shared the following conclusion:

In short, each team produced exactly what it was asked to produce, and didn’t produce what it wasn’t asked to produce. Before these experiments, we had often heard software buyers complaining about the inability of programmers to give them what they wanted. The experiments convinced us that in many cases, the buyers simply did not tell the programmers clearly what they wanted.

This is exactly what happened with the incident I related earlier. It was a little surreal to hear about a real-life example of the experiment!

  • Information Age and Data

In an age where we find ourselves overwhelmed by data and information, an application that only allows for data entry seems to be anathema to the Information Age. One of the many insights I gained from reading Data Driven was that data needs to flow to be of value. If data is just sitting in a database, it does not add any value. It needs to be able to flow to the right users and decision makers who can make effective use of this data. We cannot lock data up without hearing from the users!

  • We cannot ignore the Requirements Process 

Software projects may or may not have a requirements document. However, there is always going to be a requirements process – the process of determining what the Client wants. I believe that as software engineers, we have a responsibility to ensure that we ask the right questions and ensure that Clients and users receive a quality product.

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More inspiration from John Bogle!

In a recent post, I talked about John Bogle and how John’s podcast interview with Greg Gallant inspired me. After listening to the podcast, I started to explore and read material authored by or involving John Bogle.

I noticed that  John had written a book titled Character Counts where he talks about the creation and building of the Vanguard Group. I was piqued by the book and decided to buy it (this was about 3-4 years back). The book is chock-full of inspirational and thoughtful messages, speeches, and ideas. I highly recommend the book!

I felt it would be a good idea to share some of the material in the book that I enjoyed and have bookmarked.

In the chapter, The Impossible Dream, John mentions a poem from the musical play The Man of La Mancha that seems to be dear to his heart. I enjoyed reading the poem and am filled with energy and a desire to strive for excellence in whatever I do. I hope you enjoy this, too!

The Impossible Dream.1

To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow,
To run where the brave dare not go.

To right the unbearable wrong,
To love, pure and chaste from afar,
To try when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star,

This is my quest, to follow that star,
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far,
To fight for the right without question or pause,
To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.

And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm, when I’m laid to my rest,

And the world will be better for this,
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable stars.

I also enjoyed a quote mentioned in the beginning of the chapter Rejoice!. The quote helps me in understanding and accepting that good things can happen from what we may perceive as bad or tough circumstances.

The Letter of Paul to the Romans (5:3)

Rejoice in your sufferings in the knowledge that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.

I was reminded of a verse in Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem, Savitri after reading the quote above.

None can reach heaven who has not passed through hell.

There is a belief in Hinduism that suffering and challenges in life are nature’s way of elevating us to the next level of consciousness and accomplishment. The above quotes seem to be hinting at these subtle truths.

In the chapter, The Road Less Traveled By, John narrates an Aesop fable that I found very meaningful.

Aesop’s fable, Hercules and the Wagoner:

A wagoner was driving his team along a muddy lane when the wheels of his wagon sank so deep in the mire that no efforts of his horses could move them. As he stood there, looking helplessly on, and calling loudly at intervals upon Hercules for assistance, the god himself appeared and said to him, “Put your shoulder to the wheel, man, and goad on your horses, and then you may call on Hercules to assist you. If you won’t lift a finger to help yourself, you can’t expect Hercules or any one else to come to your aid.”

John mentions immediately after narrating the fable that, God helps those who help themselves. This fable helped me realize that instead of acting as a victim of circumstances, I could rely on my personal power to effect the changes I want.


  1. Copyright © 1965. Words by Joe Darion. Music by Mitch Leigh. Andrew Scott Music, Helena Music Company. ASCAP.
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