Thursday, July 03, 2014

Does project escalation help?

You've been there, seen the issues, suffered the consequences and lived through the remedial plans. Does escalating the issues on a risky project really benefit the project? Does engaging the executive team help or hinder? Controversial maybe, but the whole point of different roles in a successful business is to ensure the
best people are involved in the most relevant positions. Where they add the most value.

Getting a CXO involved on what is likely to be a day-to-day issue is highly unlikely to benefit anyone. The decisions they make are important but not necessary on anything more than high level direction and possibly business focus. Lower level resource decisions and tactical selections need to reflect the overall business vision set at the highest level and organisations need to trust the abilities of the team selected to make these decisions.

Does the senior management team really help fix broken projects? How do we decide what breaks a project? Is a RED project in need of senior executive attention? If the project manager needs something, why don't we just let them have it? The only CXO decision here is where there are conflicting priorities. How does 'sitting' on the progress and getting a daily update really help?

My CEO is great at generating excitement in a growing start-up business, he demonstrates great vision and leadership. He is not employed for his ability to manage, or  fix, challenging projects. Escalating to his level does not add much value to any part of a project. Making important decisions is helpful, especially if impacting other business priorities, but where does he get his key input? Others that are probably better placed to make the decision in the first place.

So what help do executive stakeholders offer? Are they simply consumers of the results of their leadership?

It is ironic that once a project reaches a RED status, the main focus of the PM is to report on a more frequent basis to the senior team. When their efforts are far more useful and beneficial focused on the team that is actually doing the work (and hopefully fixing the problems). The senior executives are often keen to offer helpful advice during the many status update meetings, but this is often based on the canned case-studies from their MBA rather than real experience. What the books tell you is often irrelevant when face-to-face with the actual problems, in most cases a solid dose of reality is necessary to help achieve the goals.

Well prepared and documented procedures are designed to prevent projects failing, they rarely offer benefit once a project has failed and is in need of attention. Here you need hands-on, focused support to overcome specific problems not covered in the 'business-as-usual' rules. This is where the experienced 'hands-on' project manager differentiates from the qualified 'professional' project manager with a portfolio of successful deliveries. There is a need to do what will work, not necessarily what the procedure says. Rules are indeed often broken.

I wonder if most successful projects are those that avoid executive support and help entirely (high-level vision and direction excepted). Certainly those that stay below the radar attract less stress and concern for all involved. Then again, in my experience I have rarely been complimented or rewarded for successfully delivering a project that went by-the-book and no-one noticed. The plaudits and rewards have been for rescuing the projects everyone thought were unrecoverable. Not a great example for following good project management practice in the first place.

My usual goal is to prevent and avoid escalation at all costs, even on a challenging project that has already gone wrong. The chance of failure once the CXOs get involved probably increases 10-fold. If the executives could manage the project better than a good project manager then the organisation probably needs to seriously review its recruitment and resourcing policies. All I generally need is the resource or time necessary to turn things around.

I wonder if I'll remember this advice if  I ever get to be one of these executives?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

My experience as a ‘breastfeeding’ Dad

Adding to my eclectic mix. This subject is potentially one of the more controversial...

I’m not sure anything properly prepares you for becoming a father. You can attend all the pre-natal classes, sign-up for NCT training and read all the books available but it still doesn’t come close to providing you with experience of watching childbirth and worse still looking after this tiny bundle of life sudden thrust upon you.

Many fathers have talked about the sheer terror of having the responsibility for looking after your baby. I had the advantage of being a relatively mature father. I’m not that old, but have plenty of life experience relative to many young fathers – to put that in to perspective I was off to university when my own father was my age. Whilst this may have given more confidence it didn’t provide me with any more knowledge or helpful answers.

Feeding your most precious possession is probably the single most important thing to worry about. In fact during the first six weeks this is probably the most demanding task parents face (and you have to do it with no sleep). The effort required to stick with breastfeeding is massive and will be continually challenged by other sources suggesting easier options. Not least in our situation from almost all the NHS midwives we encountered (though not all as you will read).

Christopher’s birth wasn’t simple, though nor were there any significant complications. The biggest challenge we faced in the early days was jaundice (not uncommon in breastfed babies). Shortly after his birthday Christopher and his Mum were re-admitted to hospital for phototherapy over a couple of days.

During this time the pressure to switch to formula-feeding was significant. We continually had to push-back on the midwives to force them to accept Christopher was to be breastfed exclusively. Overnight feeding was raised and the potential for Mum to express milk as solution was ruled out due to a lack of available pumps in the hospital (one of the biggest maternity units in the UK). We fixed this issue by returning home for our own equipment which was reluctantly accepted.

The knowledge we had both gained (predominately via Mum) from reading support literature proved by LLL was key in enabling us to challenge midwives and doctors when faced with difficulties. LLL gave us the confidence to stand behind our position and demand Christopher was fed the way we wanted, not how others felt was easier. Our personal circumstances helped, but the backing we both got from LLL was significant in supporting our own beliefs.

We did get a lot of very good support and help from one of the NHS midwives we came across. Not only did she reassure Mum about breastfeeding, she provided practical ‘hands-on’ support that involved explaining to Dad how he needed to help position Mum and baby so things worked. I have to say that this kind of help cannot be replicated by reading and viewing images in books. The midwife in question was instrumental in ensuring we continued in our quest to ensure Christopher stayed breastfed.

The hands-on approach from our one helpful midwife is also one of the major benefits of getting involved with LLL. The ability to ‘network’ with mums in a similar position takes a back-seat to the ability to experience other Mums feeding their babies in front of you. Whilst I personally never attended any meetings, Mum always returned with suggestions for different techniques, positions and ideas to ensure breastfeeding worked for everyone. The practical advice available from LLL meetings is invaluable.

Once the physical skills for breastfeeding have been mastered the physiological issues need to be overcome. Feeding at home in pyjamas is one think, satisfying a hungry baby in the middle of a crowded public restaurant is a completely different challenge. Again LLL stepped in to help by promoting the fact that breastfeeding couldn’t be more natural. Many places now appreciate the value of the ‘family-pound’ but many still direct feeding mums towards restrooms and changing tables. I think my role in this was to simply protect the idea that Mum was going to feed at the table as a-matter-of-fact. Most hosts were reluctant to challenge this ‘normal’ behaviour. Again the matter-of-fact approach from LLL helped promoted this feeling in our family.

From a father’s point of view the only consistently negative issue I have come across has been lack of intimacy with their newborn. Mum gets to spend all the quality time when feeding, Dad just changes nappies!

Firstly, when you child is breastfeed, nappy contents are often not unpleasant. In fact breastfeed baby poo is often quite sweet smelling. Changing time is a real opportunity to bond and is not nearly as bad as you may imagine. It may sound odd but changing time provides Dad with an opportunity for skin-to-skin contact and a chance to improve the comfort of your baby which benefits everyone.

If Mum is able to express milk then Dad does still get the opportunity to feed using a bottle. Christopher refused a bottle quite early in his development, though when he was very young there was a small window when I was able to feed him myself, especially at night.

We fixed the intimacy issue by introducing Daddy exclusive bath time before bedtime. Whenever possible I bathe Christopher and get him ready for bed. This generally involves a lot of skin-to-skin contact, mutual trust and shared sensual experiences through water play. In theory this time could provide Mum a break from childcare and a chance to do something refreshingly different. In our case Mum does household chores so we both finish our evenings earlier. It definitely gives me a chance to bond exclusively with Christopher and is to be honest a highlight of my day.

The majority of this advice in this article is aimed at fathers and how they may want to best help Mum and baby. I’ll end with one final point aimed at Mums. Dad’s may not have the same experience or knowledge when it comes to looking after your little one, this doesn’t mean they don’t know what they are doing nor do that they do things wrong. They may just do things differently. If what they do works, please let them do it. Criticising or commenting negatively when they try to help may dissuade them from helping in the future. One thing we have learnt as a family is that it is much easier to look after your baby when everyone is working together.