The lazy project manager: the art of productive laziness

Abstract

By advocating being a 'lazy' project manager I do not intend that we should all do absolutely nothing. I am not saying we should all sit around drinking coffee, reading the paper and engaging in idle talk whilst watching the project hours go by and the non-delivered project milestones disappear over the horizon. That would obviously be plain stupid and would result in an extremely short career in project management, in fact probably a very quick career full stop!

Lazy does not mean Stupid.

No, I really mean that we should all adopt a more focused approach to project management and to exercise our efforts where it really matters, rather than rushing around like busy, busy bees involving ourselves in unimportant, non-critical activities that others can better address, or indeed that do not need addressing at all in some cases.

Welcome to the world of ‘Productive Laziness’, a world that will help you focus on what really matters and to remain in control, even when your project threatens to run away from you.

'”Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” (Heinlein, R. 1 1978).

Introduction

In this article we will consider the essence of prioritising and remaining positive when facing problems in your projects; of addressing the challenges to our projects but in a ‘productive lazy’ way.

Learning how to avoid being reactive whilst still maintaining control of issues when those difficult times inevitably arrive, as well as understanding the potential impact of low performance that might result from a reactive state, is a critical skill for project managers.

As important is the ability to utilise your project team to the very best effect in order to keep your project afloat when the flood of troubles threatens to drown you.

In summary, we will learn the importance of “Breathing normally”.

The benefits of staying calm in a crisis

Breathing Normally

You are on yet another flight, either to or from your latest project engagement, somewhere in the world. Maybe you have been lucky, maybe the flight is on time and you know your luggage is safely stored in the overhead locker, you are not seated in the middle seat between two sumo wrestlers with body odour and this flight does offer complimentary in-flight beverages.

You settle back in your seat and begin to drift in to that ‘yet another flight’ snooze, vaguely aware that the air hostess is, for the one thousandth time, explaining to you how to complete that complex conundrum of buckling and unbuckling your seat belt. You begin to disengage from the world around you…

But wait!

The lady in the uniform, vainly talking to everyone but knowing no-one is listening in return, is about to utter a supreme piece of wisdom.

“In the event of an emergency, an oxygen mask will drop in front of you from the panel above. Place the mask over your mouth and nose, straighten out the strap, and pull the strap to be sure it is tight on your face. After you are wearing it securely, a tug on the hose will start the oxygen flow. It makes sense to put your own mask on first, before helping others. Breathe normally.”

Breathe normally.

To begin with, I used to think that this was the craziest thing possible to say. If I was ever on a flight where the oxygen masks were to drop down you can be sure that I would place the mask over my face, pull the strap as tight as possible, tug the hose until I felt the sweet taste of oxygen flowing. But the last thing I would do would be to breathe normally. I would breathe like it was my last moments on this earth (or air at this point, earth presumably about to enter the equation in a rather nasty crashing, crushing, exploding sort of way).

Breathe normally.

Not a hope!

But actually breathing normally is really, really good advice. Being calm, wasting less energy, wasting less oxygen, thinking clearly and considering the situation in a reasonable, objective manner is absolutely what is most likely to help you to survive.

In the project world when all around you are going crazy with panic (and that may well include the sponsor), breathing normally will allow you to consider the situation, assess the core issues, plan a response and carry out the actions with the minimum amount of effort and to the maximum effect.

What is the productive lazy approach?

The Science behind the Laziness

This isn’t all just made up you know, there is science behind all this theory of productive laziness.

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) states that for many phenomena 80% of consequences stem from 20% of the causes. The idea has rule-of-thumb application in many places, but it's also commonly misused, for example, it is a misuse to state that a solution to a problem ‘fits the 80-20 rule’ just because it fits 80% of the cases; it must be implied that this solution requires only 20% of the resources needed to solve all cases.

The principle was in fact suggested by management thinker Joseph M. Juran and it was named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of property in Italy was owned by 20% of the Italian population. The assumption is that most of the results in any situation are determined by a small number of causes.

The Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule can and should be used by every smart but lazy person in their daily life. The value of the Pareto Principle for a project manager is that it reminds you to focus on the 20 percent that matters.

Woody Allen once said “80% of success is showing up” (IMDB, 1990, Personal Quotes ¶59), I’m not so sure about that, I have seen projects where there was a physical project manager around but you would never have believed that looking at the project progress, or lack of progress.

No, better I believe to appreciate that of the things you do during your day, only 20 percent really matter.

Those 20 percent produce 80 percent of your results.

So, you should identify and focus on those things during your working day.

Do this well and you will enjoy the world of ‘Productive Laziness’, even when things are going wrong in your projects – in fact, even more so at these times of crisis.

Applying the productive lazy approach

Stay calm in a crisis

So to begin with your must stay calm in a crisis, really, this is most important.

The majority of potential critical situations that you may well face in a project should have, in fact, already been considered as part of your risk planning and mitigation activity. If you have done a complete and proper job at the start of the project (you remember, that point in time when even the productively lazy put in a solid days work to get the project in the right shape to begin with) then you should have at hand plans of action for the majority of crisis you are likely to face. Each eventuality should have been considered, reviewed, discussed, planned and have a conceptually proven response defined by yourself and your project team.

Plan for the crisis

If so then for these situations you have at your fingertips a menu of actions that will mitigate or at least reduce the issues you are facing. No need to panic there then.

That will still leave a small percentage of situations that you either did not consider as part of your risk strategy plan (if so this will be a learning exercise for you for future projects) or really have blind-sided you because of their completely unexpected nature. Maybe the ‘Big Red Bus’ that is so often joked about really has caused mayhem for you?

Breathe normally

Begin by counting to 10 – seriously, try it. There is something in the human nature that says when there is a major issue identified, that action is instantly required to resolve it. In reality a short calming moment will allow a better chance of considering the issue in a more complete manner, and this in turn will result in a decision of action that is more likely to address both the issue at hand and any associated consequences. The last thing you want to do is put out one fire only to start another one somewhere else, one that could be worse than the first one.

Equally there is something else in human nature that can lead us to that “rabbit in the headlights” state – that is frozen in complete inactivity by the oncoming crisis. With the project team looking to you to make a decision and set the required recovery plan in to action, you do …. nothing.

Breathe normally.

You need to be in control and you need to make the right decision, so look after yourself first – “It makes sense to put your own mask on first, before helping others” – and once you are ready to consider your response to the problem then you should filter – filter – filter.

Filter, filter, filter

Identify the issue or issues and the source of those issues, and filter out those that either do not require you to resolve them or indeed are better resolved by others on the team. Nothing in the rule book says the project manager is the best person to deal with every issue, every crisis, and every threat to the projects success. Quite the opposite is true in fact. Don’t try to be the project hero all of the time, it is not your job and the move from hero to zero comes damn fast!

Once you have filtered the issue or issues then take the next step which is to delegate – delegate – delegate. You have a project team for a good reason, so use them, and use the breadth of their skills and knowledge to help you and the project overcome whatever is causing the problem.

Delegate, delegate, delegate

Remember whilst a problem shared is a problem halved, a problem delegated is a problem not on your plate right now thereby leaving you free to get on with your real job, consider all implications of any recommended actions ,and oversee the project being steered back to safety. Hurrah!

Your one true job is to breathe normally. Don’t forget this!

Applying the ‘Productive Lazy’ rule I would personally aim for 80% of the issues being solved by others and maybe 20% of them being solved by you, or at least with you leading the resolution. You still don’t have to do it all on your own.

So you have filtered (filtered, filtered) and you have delegated (delegated, delegated) and now what you need to do is to prioritise – prioritise – prioritise!

Prioritise, prioritise, prioritise

Even those issues that do end up on your plate may not need immediate and urgent action – maybe you have an issue coming at you but right now it is not showing signs of ‘clear and present danger’. If so you have even more time to think and consider before you act.

Deal with the ones that you have to and monitor the others that you don’t have to deal with just right now. For those that can wait a little while maybe you can consider options of action that are open to you and the team ready for future action. Gather insight from you team members, and any other source of knowledge that you can reach out to, and continue to do that single most important thing.

Breathe normally.

A project manager’s tale of enduring the perfect storm

The situation

At the height of a particular project and working with a particularly demanding team of people, the project I was managing some years ago hit a problem.

Now the problem was, initially, undefined, the cause unknown, but the effects were quite worrying.

Let me paint the picture a little more. There was a deadline, a quite aggressive deadline, and there was steering committee, a quite aggressive steering committee. There was also a project sponsor of course, an extremely demanding, loud, opinionated, driven individual who I was convinced never actually wanted to see this particular project succeed (quite an unusual project sponsorship position but one which I was sure they had taken).

Anyway, the deadline loomed towards us on the project team and the technical challenges seemed never ending, as quickly as one was resolved another (if not more) seemed to take its place.

The working days got longer and the toll of all this pressure began to cause serious stress faults in the project team, their ability to work together became fragile shall we say. The slightest thing had people at my desk or on the phone complaining.

The problem

So, in the midst of all this fractious harmony we hit the problem. I won’t go in to the details of the actual problem itself, it was technical and complicated to understand, but not complicated to resolve it turned out.

Now, if the team had be at full efficiency and working as one, I am sure we would have spotted the cause earlier and resolved the issue quickly and quietly. As it was, we didn’t do either of them. The cause went unresolved and the effects seemed to spiral ever towards being out of control completely.

Rapid response meetings were convened, but all the team seemed to do was argue and point fingers of blame at each other as well as at any and every other part of the organisation.

There was a whole bunch of problem solving techniques attempted and no doubt some real out of the box, blue sky thinking applied without success. Everybody was trying to resolve this issue. Some even headed to the pub to try and find a cure there, such dedication should be admired.

The result

Well, the result was a whole bunch of ‘headless chickens’ running around the place and each and every one of them just stopped doing their day job. This resulted in further delays threatening the project, and put ever increasing pressure on the poor project manager (me) who had to provide updates to the steering committee and project sponsor.

A less than relaxing experience as I am sure you will appreciate.

The solution

Just when I honestly thought it was all going to implode I had one of those ‘eureka’ moments. I can’t say it was planned and I can’t say it was done in a positive or creative spirit. It was, if I am completely honest, done in a moment when I just lost my temper.

I ordered various parts of my project team off to various parts of the company offices to ‘go and do their jobs and get us back on track’. Inadvertently I gave a number of people the authority to stop worrying about ‘the problem’ and to concentrate once more of their scheduled tasks. In addition to this, and once again I can claim no real skill in orchestrating this, I was left with one fairly junior technical guy and, for the want of anything else to do, told him to head off to the IT department and find someone who could help think this problem through.

And what did I do? Well, I was the one who went to the pub. I admit it, I just needed to escape the pressure and think. I had fallen in to the trap of becoming subjective in all the chaos and panic and I know now I should have remained above everything and objective in my view.

What happened then were three things.

First, I had a very nice steak pie, chips and peas with a pint of beer. Second, the junior technical guy just so happened to talk to the right person, in fact the right person was a combination of the right person inside the company and, purely by chance at that point, the right person visiting from another part of the company. And third, the issue was initially worked around and later resolved through some third party intervention.

I was lucky, the crisis passed and the project staggered on for a while and eventually delivered, later than expected but nevertheless it did deliver.

But it did teach me an important lesson – filter what you should deal with, delegate everything you can, prioritize what is left and then focus on what is important.

In this case I did none of these things and was lucky to get the result I did.

Final Words

So, it is all about ‘breathing normally’ at all times.

  • Stay calm in a crisis and one way to do this is to get the planning right, not to panic but to stay calm and therefore in control when you do hit a problem
  • Always; Filter, filter, filter then delegate, delegate, delegate and finally prioritise, prioritise, prioritise each and every problem that comes your way, don’t try and solve everything yourself – use your project team
  • Breathe normally at all times to make the right decisions in order to keep the project on track

Heinlein, R (1973) Time Enough for LoveNew York, NY: Penguine Putnam Books

IMBD (1990) Biography for Woody Allen Retrieved from: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000095/bio

Taylor, P B (2009) The Lazy Project Manager. UK: Infinite Ideas Limited

Taylor, P B (2009) The Lazy Project Manager. Retrieved on 03/25/09 from www.thelazyprojectmanager.com

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2009, Peter Taylor
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Amsterdam, Netherlands

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