Pay attention to the small details to resolve larger problems

So, today I started a new position. It

was a bit of an anticlimax compared to finding out I'm going to have

a daughter in February, but still a lot of fun. Both experiences,

though, reminded me of the absolute importance of taking care of the

little details. After all, starting a new job or having a new child

enter your life both look far, far to overwhelming to honestly take

on as a whole.

Both, though, really break down into

hundreds of interlocking small steps. Take the starting the new job

as an example. It's a big step. I'm walking into a new situation,

filled with new people, new products, and unknown challenges. For

someone without a car (like me), I have to work out new bus routes,

not to mention prepare as well as I can based on the information I

have, polish my shoes since my son decided they needed a long bath,

and talk my white cats out of using my coats as a sleeping mat after

my son unhooks the hangers. That's all before I arrive at the

work-site. Add to that all the standard logistical challenges

associated with starting up, the social challenges of a new

environment, and the intellectual challenges of understanding how

others put together a complex system and it could seem overwhelming.

Standard wisdom would suggest breaking

it all apart into a task list and then doing each item in order of

dependency. This is not a bad approach when you have something you

can wrap your arms around and do though your own effort in reasonably

short order. Starting a new job, for example, fits neatly into this

model. You start at point A, work out the simple critical path to

point B, then execute until you complete. Like magic, taking each of

the small steps ends up with you reporting on time (or in my

preferred scenario a little early) to your first day of employment.

The same approach doesn't always work

in project management or in life, though. Both generally involve

more than a limited set of actions over a short time horizon.

Instead they involve dozens of interested parties, each one with

their own needs, over a long period of time. Sometimes the goals

change. Other times, the circumstances around what you want to

accomplish change so completely the goal becomes meaningless.

Rarely, things stay stable enough for you to know where you will end


So, do we just give up on task lists

and critical paths? Do we take to the streets in wild (well, wild

for project managers) revelry? Do we just accept our fate as cogs in

the vast machine, awaiting our next opportunity to writhe under the

crushing wheels of fate?

Nah. You see, all good project

managers I've ever worked with or trained have a gift. They can see,

or feel, or otherwise break apart complex outcomes into multiple

branching critical paths. More importantly, they can discern which

paths carry high priority, which ones need attending to, and which

ones they can safely ignore with minimal repercussions. Sometimes

that later comes back to haunt us, when we estimate wrong, but that's

the price we pay for prioritizing.

The trick is to not lose focus on the

little things as you move forward. To take a mundane example, its

all well and good to know you need to polish your shoes, but knowing

and doing are two different things. And if your son hides the shoe

polish, you've just added a new task to your ever growing list.

I'll talk more about new people and new things on Friday.

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