Interview with Lazy Project Manager

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Recently, Dave Garett, the founder of the well-known project management community, GanttHead.com invited me to take part in a collaborative project of creating a book. The book is called "Project Pain Reliever" and it is a collection of chapters by experts in various fields of project management aimed at helping those, who just start their project management journey. Each chapter represents a real life problem that you may be facing today and offers a solution, written in plain English. In my opinion, this book is what many project managers today are looking for when they have questions that PMBOK cannot really answer. The book is going through the editorial and publishing process and I will definitely tell you more about it, as soon as it comes out.

Working on this collaborative project was a very valuable experience for me, as I met lots of interesting people, who have profound expertise in project management. Today I want to introduce you to one of them, Peter Taylor, also known as "the Lazy Project Manager". Peter is a dynamic and commercially astute professional who has achieved notable success in Project Management; currently as head of a PMO at Siemens Industry Software Limited, a supplier of global product lifecycle management solutions. He is also very interested in maintaining a good work/life balance. Peter has very impressive project management background, which also allowed him to come up with his own methodology that helps project managers become more productive. Read our conversation below and find out how lazy project managers can be efficient. Peter, could you please tell us a few words about your pm experience and background?

My background is in project management across three major business areas over the last 25 years; MRP/ERP systems with various software houses and culminating in a role with KPMG, and then Business Intelligence with Cognos, and now as Head of a PMO within product lifecycle management (PLM) with Siemens Industry Software. I have spent the last 7 years leading PMOs and developing project managers.

Why do you call yourself a lazy project manager?

It all began with an insult from my manager. At the time I had been working on a training program for our project managers and one of the common questions people asked me was ‘how do you manage to seem so relaxed and yet run a large business operation with hundreds of projects?

I was on my way back from Milan, Italy, and travelled with my manager. Now we have worked together for the last 15 years across three companies and he does know me very well. As we chatted about what would we like to do in life I mentioned that I enjoyed writing and speaking/presentations and that sort of thing could be fun to do. He agreed saying that I would probably be very good at this but that I was too ‘lazy’.

And there you have it – an insult? Perhaps but more an insight really, he had identified the key to describing my approach to work and life. From this came ‘The Lazy Project Manager’ and the world of productive laziness.

Now have I always been ‘lazy’ – no I don’t believe so. Certainly in my early days of project management I worked long and hard and definitely was a ‘busy, busy bee’ but after completing a major three year project I looked back and reflected on the effort I had put in to make the project successful. I realised that that much of what I had done was unnecessary and that I often created work for myself that was either not really essential or that others could have done (probably better that my efforts if truth be told).

The Lazy Project Manager was first a website in November 2008 and then a book in September 2009. Now I would love to share the world of productive laziness with the world through speaking engagements.

What is Productive Laziness?

'Progress isn't made by early risers. It's made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.' Robert Heinlein (1907 - 1988)

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 a good book and engaging in idle gossip 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 short 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.

The Lazy Project Manager explores the science behind ‘productive laziness’ (yes there is some) and the intelligence behind ‘productive laziness’ (and yes there is some of that as well). It attempts to share with the reader some of my own experiences that have led to my style of project management where, it is often observed, that I appear to be less stressed, less busy and yet more productive.

‘Productive Laziness’ is the term that I use to express this approach and it is a style of working that is beneficial to an individual, through a better work/life balance, and to the project(s) that they are leading.

How did you arrive at these ideas and came up with a whole methodology?

As I explained the origins of the term were as a result of an insult but having created the Lazy Project Manager title I just worked through the typical lifecycle of the project and considered Productive Laziness at each step.

I am not sure that I would describe it as a methodology but more of a way for project managers to better manage themselves when they are managing projects.
The book does describe The Lazy Project Manager's Theory of Projects, from a Productive Laziness aspect: 'All projects are thick at one end, much, much thinner in the middle and then thick again at the far end. ' The point here is that, working with the productive lazy rule, a smart project manager should apply time and effort at the critical stages of a project, i.e. the start and the finish, and less time in the middle or the less critical stage. At this point it should be the project team that are productive and mostly self-sufficient.

Does a project manager’s productivity depend on a project size? The size of his team? On the fact that the team is distributed across several locations?

I don’t believe that it does. All of these factors complicate the process of project delivery but the principals of Productive Laziness remain the same. One of the biggest challenges to projects these days is the virtual project team. We all know about the Tuckman defined team phases, ‘forming - storming - norming - performing – (and these days mourning; the experience of leaving a good team at the close)’ – if you don’t there is plenty of information on the topic out there in ‘Google-land’.

For virtual teams the forming part works pretty much as any team. Resources are identified and there you have a team. Some members will be happy and others less so.

It starts getting tricky just after that. The ‘storming’ phase is important in preparing the team for working together, resolving character imbalances, sorting out territorial issues and generally getting everyone to know everyone else. Now without a face to face session (or two... or three) this will be very challenging and so you have to compensate somehow. At this time decisions don't come easily within the group and team members will no doubt vie for position as they attempt to establish themselves in relation to other team members. Clarity of purpose increases but plenty of uncertainties will persist. Typically cliques and factions form and there may be power struggles. The team needs to be focused on its goals to avoid becoming distracted by relationships and emotional issues. Compromises may well be required to enable real progress.

Now in a virtual situation a lot of these issues can be hidden so, as the leader, you almost have to force the matter. It is also very easy to jump to a wrong conclusion about a fellow team member, apply stereotypical attributes and miss tensions hidden by a reduced communication process and lack of physical visibility at how people are behaving.

If at all possible make the investment in a ‘hothouse’ face to face. By this I mean an intensive, almost 24/7 5 day team experience. Use an external facilitator to drive the storming process harder and faster to a conclusion. Make the business case that this is an investment, no matter how significant, that will pay off. If this is financially impossible then you may just have to accept that the ‘storming’ phase will be longer than usual.

Can a team (not only the project manager) also be made more productive in a lazy way?

Absolutely! In fact being a lazy project manager demands that you share the knowledge with your project team and teach them how to work in this way.

For example in communications I talk about the importance of allowing yourself time to focus and concentrate at times. That the ‘open door’ policy is good but that there are times you, as the project manager, and your team should feel it acceptable to take time out and not get distracted by other matters.

What would be the first 3 steps to becoming more productive, according to your methodology?

Well where better to start than to focus the art of ‘productive laziness’ in the area of communication within the project.

The would be ‘lazy’ project manager will think very, very carefully about what they need to communicate and how they need to communicate it and why they are communicating what they are communicating.

The general guidance is that some 70-80% of a project manager’s time will be spent in communicating. That is 70-80% of your time!

So, if you play the productive lazy game at all, and you only apply it in one area of project management it makes blinding sense to do it here, in communication. This is by far the biggest activity and offers the greatest opportunity of time in the comfy chair.
Imagine if you would able to save some of that 70-80% of your time, how much more relaxed would you be?

Beyond this then consider how you are using your project team. Are they being truly utilised in the sense of applying their combined knowledge and skills? Could you use them more, delegate more, trust them more, and benefit from their experience more? I bet you could. Try it.

Finally, something I have always advocated if having fun.  Whilst this does not necessarily allow you to be more ’productively lazy’ it does bring a very positive feeling to any project and thus should encourage the wider team to more ‘lazy’ (in a good way of course).

‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by’ Douglas Adams (Author of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’)

You have to laugh; well I think you have to laugh. Without a little bit of fun in every project then the project world can be a dark and depressing place. Setting a professional but fun structure for your project can really be beneficial for when the problems start to rise up to challenge your plan of perfectness. And problems will inevitably arise.

I'd love to finish my statement with a funny story:

A man in a hot air balloon was lost.  He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below.  He descended a little bit more and shouted:

'Excuse me madam, can you help?  I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don't know where I am.'

The woman replied: ‘You are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above alkali desert scrub habitat, 2.7 miles west of the Colorado River near one of the remnant populations and spawning grounds of the razorback sucker’.

‘You must be a biologist’ said the balloonist.

‘I am’ replied the woman. ‘How did you know?’

‘Well’ answered the balloonist ‘everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost. Frankly, you've not been much help so far’.

The woman below responded ‘You must be a project manager’.

‘I am’ replied the balloonist ‘but how did you know?’

‘Well, said the woman ‘you don't know where you are or where you're going. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air.  You made a promise to someone that you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem.  The fact is, you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but somehow it's now my fault!’

Thank you, Peter! It was a pleasure. For our readers I’d like to note that, if you liked Peter’s ideas and want to find out more, you are welcome to visit his site at www.thelazyprojectmanager.net and hear his free podcasts on iTunes. Also make sure to check out his book: "The Lazy Project Manager: How to be twice as productive and still leave the office early". 
 

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