Project Management

Using work disruptions to clear away the chaff

Read one project manager's admission of what he does to reorganize his priorities and cut though the activity he cloaks himself in while at the office.

After several weeks of playing nice, I'm going to go back to my regularly scheduled ranting about the profession of project management. I've just touched down after a long week of travel and my dander's up.

Or it would be, but I'm really feeling pretty mellow. My team got though the experience without too much trouble. We accomplished a lot of work, with very little preparation time, and with luck the amount of time I spent out of the office didn't create too much chaos or confusion. Of course I know it did – like all project management professionals I keep way too many plates in balance for their not to be chaos when I drop everything to head out into the field.

The question is how much that chaos really matters. Most of it will get sorted out in the first few days back. The rest of it will probably vanish down the drain, never to be seen or heard from again. Chaos is like that – people stir up tempests to get their particular problems addressed while position, power, and providence arrange things for everyone else. Work will continue, lunches will be eaten, and emails sent to me about how evil I am for doing (or not) various things which I probably didn't have anything to do with.

A lot of people who write management textbooks would probably keel over and die if I admitted that I like it this way. I find that periodic travel, especially travel where I'm somewhat out of touch and very busy, helps me to reorganize my priorities and cut though the nearly infinite layers of activity I cloak myself in while at the office. What's left, what rises to the surface, is the actual work to be done and I'd rather spend three hectic days working than eight spinning my wheels any time.

Now, there are certainly better ways to get on track than dropping everything and heading for the hills on a regular basis. I'm blessed with managers and directors who are reasonably clear about their priorities. My customers generally tell me what they want and sometimes even what they need. I even have a relatively concise mission statement which defines my role relative to the roles of others in the organization.

But all of those advantages don't let me cut though the ritualism of project management as easily as just going out and getting some work done. In fact, they actually reinforce the rituals rather than breaking though them. It's only by stepping out of the context in which the rituals evolved that I can get a good grip on what's empty gestures and what really means something. That could be a failure on my part as a human being. Alternately, I could just be like everyone else – bound by my context and sometimes blinded by routine into thinking that what I do is the right way, the only way, to look at the world.

Some people can jolt themselves out of their rituals by reading a good book, taking a long smoke break, or spending an hour jawing with the coworkers. I suspect their techniques cause less disruption than my occasional need to get out, but not always. I use some of those tricks myself, not to mention others intended to help me see the difference between a hawk and a handsaw.

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