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.