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Multitasking is a myth June 16, 2015

Posted by Edwin Ritter in career, Project Management.
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All employers want it and every employee attests they can do it. Cognitive neuroscientists will tell you that multitasking is not possible. A myth, popular misconception and a white lie employers and employees accept while knowing it is a fallacy. In fact, studies reveal that only 2% of people can effectively multitask.

multitaskingI understand how multitasking is a desirable trait to have. But, the reality is very few have this ability. Studies also have proved that you are less effective doing multiple tasks versus being singly focused. So, let’s agree to ban multitask as a phrase from job descriptions and be realistic about how to get work done. Having the ability to work on many things in different phases is not multitasking. It is just that – working on many things concurrently. Being able to prioritize is a highly desirable skill to make effective decisions. Maybe that is the better term – prioritization.

Recently, I read about how the mind works and how we organize information. Turns out that we have a system for what grabs our attention. We process information using an attentional system and it has four parts.

Attentional System

1) Default mode – fluid and non-linear thinking (let the mind wander). This is the default mode when the brain is resting. Leads to the creative state. In this mode, thoughts are inward to desires, feelings, planning, daydreaming. While in this mode, we feel refreshed after a nap or vacation.

2) Central Executive mode – stay on task; focused. This is the other dominant mode for attention. Opposite of the default mode; they are yin-yang and exclusive. When one mode is active, the other is not. Writing reports, problem solving, painting are examples while in this mode.

3) Insula – is the ‘switch’ between the default and central executive. Enables shift from one mode to another. A neural switchboard. If the brain switches too often it can lead to dizziness with information overload as a result.

4) Attention Filter – What grabs our attention and causes a change in focus from what is in the sub-concious.

Perils of MutitaskingOur brains have a finite capacity to process information. We can keep about 4-6 things in mind at once. Keeping track of too many things requires switching and leads to fatigue. All that switching takes energy, can cause information overload and leads to mistakes or otherwise being unproductive.

Along with information overload, our attention filter has a blind spot. Things that we need to pay attention to; details that impact our decisions can be easily missed. A famous example of the blind spot and selection attention involves a group of people passing a basketball. Clink on the link and watch the selective attention video if you have not seen it before. I’ll wait. See what I mean?

This is formally known as Attentional Resource Theory. When we are focused on a specific thing, it uses most, if not all or our ability to process information. Cognitive studies prove the theory and explain why performance is hampered when multitasking.

We know the brain is a very complex instrument. We continue to learn how it works and these new learnings on how we manage information and make decisions will shape how work is organized, performed and how productive (see post on Capacity & spinning plates) any single person can be.

I admit to not being a multitasker. Not part of the 2% who can. But, I am good at setting and keeping priority to make decisions and I know my capacity.

What techniques do you use to manage your workload? Comments invited, as always.

Gate Review Ramblings May 29, 2015

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Project Management.
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So, one of the projects you are involved with  is under way and soon you need to provide an update to the gatekeepers. You know, those people who approved the project and now want to know what’s going on. Depending on the tools and process used, getting a formal project update together can be a formidable task. Projects can change daily so getting the most up to date on status, issues and path forward can be time consuming.

I have found that using a consistent format to provide project updates works best. The gatekeepers know that format and also when to expect updates. I have heard that many project managers don’t like gate reviews. I enjoy them and look forward to meeting with the decision makers who have a vested interest in the project. Getting them in the same room and having one conversation about the project is great. Summarizing  the good, the bad and path forward is key.

Stage Gate ModelRegular updates on projects as it progress through each phase is a good thing. Planing for the milestone reviews helps keep the team and the sponsors in sync on where the project is. As part of the gate preparation, I review the updates with my team prior to a gate review. That way, they are aware of what is being said and can revise/improve as needed. Also, getting them in sync with recommendation(s) is also key. Last, the team knows what is the path forward and where are we in the journey to deliver the project.

Some of the lessons learned I found from gate reviews include:

  1. Be honest – provide the facts, do not gloss over things. Provide the good, the bad and the ugly. Most managers know what is going on in the area of expertise anyway so confirming what they know is a good thing.
  2. Be clear – summarize progress, current status and recommend path forward. Use a stoplight chart or milestone summary to indicate what is done, what is left and what is next.
  3. Be candid – ask for help where you need it. By being proactive and committed to success, you are indicating what is needed to keep a project on schedule. Assistance can take many forms and  can include resources, applications, training and funding.

GateReview StopLightEach organization executes the phase and gate process differently. Using a stop light chart is great to visually show the project health. It also provides a way to review the top issues and how to resolve them. Getting everyone on board with what, how and who is one of the best outcomes of a gate review. The best is a pass of course and moving on to the next phase.

At each gate review, there are basically three recommendations:

1) Pass – all deliverables are done for the current phase and the project is ready to move forward.

2) Fail – major issues are unresolved and need to addressed to move forward. Regroup when the issues are completed and ready to pass the gate.

3) Shut down the project. Not used as often as the first two recommendations. However, a viable and valuable recommendation when using the process correctly. This recommendation provides a way to show when a project will not succeed, does not have positive ROI and/or does not satisfy the requirements assigned to the project.

When there are multiple projects in a portfolio, using the stop light chart condenses the project health clearly and provides a great visual of how each project is progressing. Typically, the project management office collects and manages this information on all projects.

Use gate reviews to your advantage. Ask for help where you need it, stay on track and report progress at the next gate milestone.

A project is more than a schedule April 26, 2015

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Project Management.
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There are many things involved to run a project. Documentation, people, time and money are always involved. As data sources, they are used to develop a project schedule. To manage the tools and processes, a project manager needs skills. Hard skills, soft skills, people skills and technical skills are a few.

Sample schedule

Sample schedule

As a PM, one of the simplest questions asked is “What’s the schedule say?” A good schedule provides the data on what’s done, what is being worked on and what’s left to do. The schedule easily answers the question “Where are we?” Variations of this include “Are we there yet?” or “What’s next*?” and “How much longer?”

*A favorite of mine, especially when asked by someone on the team. Shows commitment, dedication and confidence on their part. Always good to have those people on a project team.

At times, I have seen an over-reliance on the answer of what the schedule ‘says’ by a manager or customer. Heresy, I know. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for planning, scheduling and getting tasks assigned to dates.  But a project is more than a schedule.

The schedule is one part of the project. It shows where you’ve been, where you are and where you are going. Other parts of the include budget, resource allocation and responsibility. Combine those with the assumptions, risks and choices made that then result in a project.

When someone asks “Well, what does the schedule say?”, it says to me that they don’t agree with what they heard. Expectations are not met and something must be wrong with the schedule. When, not if, a PM is then asked “What is wrong with the schedule?”, the answer(s) should be “Here’s what is wrong with the project that results in this schedule.”

There are ways to find out why a project is not aligned with the schedule. From a previous post, here are six signals to review.

What’s your take? Comments invited, as always.

 

The Level of Math in Risk Management March 28, 2015

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Project Management.
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Managing risk and selecting the best mitigation choice can be hard. There are many factors that will influence what choice is selected. Using data to manage risks and assess choices is always good. Having a process to use that data to evaluate choices is better. Having good data to assess risks and a process to determine choices is the point of this post.

Some background first. Decision theory is a complicated subject and is used in many different fields in business and leisure (i.e. – games). There are 4 basic elements in decision theory: acts, events, outcomes, and payoffs. A formal definition is “the mathematical study of strategies for optimal decision-making between options involving different risks or expectations of gain or loss depending on the outcome.” An informal definition of decision theory could be “identifying the valuesuncertainties and other issues relevant in a given decision, its rationality, and the resulting optimal decision.

Got that? Good. Sorting out between what is known and unknown can assist in which risk mitigation choice is best. It is always preferable to be in the magic quadrant and deal with knowns rather than unknowns.  Consider these groups in a matrix:

  1. Known Known – circumstances or outcomes that are known to be possible, it is known that they will be realized with some probability.
  2. Known Unknown – circumstances or outcomes that are known to be possible, but it is unknown whether or not they will be realized. This is known as a Risk.
  3. Unknown Known – circumstances or outcome a modeler intentionally refuse to acknowledge that he/she knows.
  4. Unknown Unknown – circumstances or outcomes that were not conceived of by an observer at a given point in time. This is known as an uncertainty.

In short, those things we know we don’t know are risks and those things we don’t know what we don’t know are uncertainties. In the magic quadrant, both are below the line.

RiskTreeStill with me? The uncertainties, the unknown unknowns, are the hardest pieces to deal with. With decision theory, assigning values of probabilities helps determine which choice is best. As an example, consider the following image. Getting the data to assign the options and organizing into a concise arrangement is where the math comes in.

Not all risks require this level of math and analysis to determine the best mitigation choice. The level of math should be appropriate to the complexity of the project and the potential risks involved. It is worth noting that the difference between an issue and a risk is :

– an issue is something that has occurred which impacts* the project.

– a risk is something that may or may not occur that can impact the project.

* impact can be positive or negative.

I prefer to stay above the line and deal with knowns and those risks that are relatively small on my projects. It makes for simple math and for projects where my preferences matter, I find those are the best projects to manage.

Glad I did not lose you and you got this far. How do you manage risks? What is the level of math required for risks? Simple? Complex? Hybrid? Comments invited.

 

 

Cloud Life in 2015 February 27, 2015

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Cloud Computing.
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Are we there, yet? Seems everyone is talking about cloud services these days but not everyone has migrated. Once you and your team have configured the repositories, gotten used to the tools and established new or revised processes, life is good. The migration can vary of course from easy to arduous. One thing that seems to get glossed over is moving things from here to there. Things like project assets (images, videos, content – you know, stuff), documentation, spreadsheets. I know, I know – it’s very easy. Drag and drop. It is easy, to a point.

LifeinTheCloudsWhile there is a lot of talk about cloud services, it seems to me we are in the early stages of life in the clouds. We are still using desktop based tools, not cloud based widgets. I imagine a day when setting up repositories will be done for groups of files and directories using objects. Content management via metadata and aligned with a specific taxonomy. What’s that? It exists already?  Yes, it does in certain places but it is not ubiquitous and not homogenous (yet). Too often, we are dealing with unique files, not a larger data set.

In the interim, it’s about the journey not the destination and keeping the business running while you migrate. Tools change all the time and there will be a day when migrating/updating/changing repositories will be done at a higher level than it is today.

And, hey, you – get off of my cloud.

Virtual Work January 30, 2015

Posted by Edwin Ritter in career, Cloud Computing.
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While in the office, how many times have you heard someone ask the old saw ‘Are you Working hard or hardly working?’ Funny when used at the right moment and a proven gambit to spark friendly banter among co-workers. In the digital age that is reflective of current work practices, a variation to the phrase could be ‘Are you working virtual or virtually working?’

Virtual WorkThe difference is more subtle than you might think. Working virtual can mean working remotely. That is,  you may not be in the office for a short time but will be back physically. The expectation of management is that while remotely working (wherever that may be), you will be working on the same tasks as when in the office. Virtual work is conceptually similar but different in that you are never physically in an office with co-workers. No office cubicle, no ad hoc hallway or water cooler conversations, no in person meetings or face time.

There are definite advantages to virtual jobs. Top of mind advantages include:

  1. life-work  balance,
  2. minimal commute time and
  3. flexible work hours.

Having a virtual job is not for everyone and certainly not possible with all jobs. It does take different habits with virtual work. Making the transition to working in a virtual office also requires a change in mind set. Being comfortable with having lots of alone time is part of the transition. The interactions with co-workers is reduced and takes a bit more effort (and, time) to pose a question, have ad hoc conversations via chat or email.

In response to the question, I am virtually working and enjoy what I am doing.

 

2014 Ruminations in review December 29, 2014

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Trends.
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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for Ritter’s Ruminations and Ramblings blog. Here is the year in review.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,600 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 43 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Ruminations of the 2014 Season December 24, 2014

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Grab Bag.
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It’s the holiday season and I, like everyone, am busy with year end events. I want to wish everyone a happy and joyous holiday season. We have much to be thankful for and the future looks bright with the promise of both things known and unknown.

 

Merry Christmas

May we continue to stay connected and enjoy each others’ company, whether in real time or virtual. Cheers and happy holidays. See you in 2015!

Keep getting Smarter November 28, 2014

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Grab Bag.
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A fundamental challenge in every job is communications. Getting your audience in sync with your message is fundamental to communicating effectively.  In previous posts, I have talked about using a closed loop approach, the value in feedback and how numbers improve decision making.

BayesSegue to how the concept of feedback or closed loop is used with mathematics. Specifically with probability and ratios. There is a method to better understand probability outcomes that includes current and prior knowledge. Formally known as Bayes’ Rule (aka, Bayes’ Theorem or Bayes’ Law), it provides a way to numerically express how a degree of belief should rationally change to account for evidence of that belief. It gets complicated but basically, it involves prior and posterior probability.

The posterior probability is the Bayesian inference.  The value in using Bayes’ Rule is starting with a prediction, getting results and then improving the prediction based on those results. What I find interesting is it provides a way to get smarter about something in the future and uses a ‘closed loop’ to do it. The intent is to keep getting smarter based on what you know and what you learn.

Improved insight or knowledge may not require using Bayes’s Rule, and whatever form is used for communications, it is important to accurately state what you know and reserve the right to be smarter in the future.

Ruminations on Change Control October 22, 2014

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Project Management.
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It seems that no matter how much project experience you have, how talented your team is and how simple or complex a project is, there is one thing that will always be constant and that is change.

Previous posts of mine have dealt with setting up projects, closed loop feedback and the value of PMOs. Another basic process to define and get agreement on while setting up a project is how to handle change. The concept again applies to ITIL, Project Management and Lean Six Sigma areas. The level of process to use in review and accept/deny changes can be proportional to the complexity of the project. Simple projects don’t have many changes while complex projects can have multiple changes. This relates to the fact that we make decisions and plans at a point in time. As the project goes forward and we get smarter in the future, we may need to revise our plans and that can lead to change.

programming-change-management-processIn fact, during the planning phase, the process details should be documented to submit a change, review and assess the impact to the project. There are as many ways to deal with change as there are organizations. Having a consistent way to deal with and manage change(s) to a project is essential when change occurs. This chart illustrates the basic concepts as just one example of the process.  Using a common repository, change log or application to create the change record is a good practice also.

The PM works with the project team to provide an impact assessment and a recommendation on the change.  That decision should be reviewed with the sponsors. Each change should be assessed for impact to the schedule, resources and budget. Here are six steps to control change:

  1. Record / Classify – capture the request and indicate what area(s) of the project are affected
  2. Assess – review the impact to the cost, schedule and resources to implement
  3. Plan – update project documents as appropriate based on the assessment
  4. Build / Test – execute the change and determine effect to the rest of the project deliverables
  5. Implement – include as part of the project deliverables and release at go-live
  6. Close / Gain Acceptance – complete the documentation on the request and communicate with the team and stakeholders.

Using the process framework provides a way to control changes for a project and the rate at which changes are generated.  Here is where the process helps in that it provides a way to accept or deny changes. Completing an assessment of the change and updating plans result in data to support the resolution to the change request. Not all changes are created equally. Some can be rejected outright and from other requests, it is clear to see the benefits.

Last, during project wrap-up and lessons learned, the number of changes submitted and their resolution can provide some interesting insights. How many were submitted? Accepted? Did the changes requested indicate a gap with requirements? Was the project not planned properly? Was the design not fully thought out? Those questions and others can lead to animated discussions. The key is which ones to action and improve on going forward.

Of course, that could be a change request also. How do you manage  and control change? Does the process impact your project in a big way? What happens if you reject a change? Comments invited.

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