Pat Egen’s Weblog

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Black holes and Boomerangs

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Today I’m writing a blog entry that’s a departure from topics I normally write about.  A while ago I wrote an article for a newsletter and I called it “Black holes and Boomerangs.”  The article was about managing projects.

All of us at some point have either managed people or projects or have been the recipients of project assignments. And, we’ve all witnessed projects that fail or are delayed for a variety of reasons.  What I’m going to talk about today are two types that can really be time drains or hurt a company.

Let me first explain what I mean by the title.  We’ll start with Boomerangs.  These are the projects that start out fine.  For example, you give someone a project, you give them what you feel is enough information to manage the project, and two weeks later, the project ends up back on your desk, unfinished.  Reasons for this are often “I couldn’t figure out what you wanted” or “I couldn’t make this work” or “I can’t do this project.”   Two weeks have passed and you are no further along and you end up having to do the work or spend time figuring out what you need to do in order for the other person to handle the project.  I’ll talk more about this a bit later.

On to Black holes.  These are my least favorite of the two – if favorite is a proper word for this.  Black hole projects are just what they sound like.  These are projects or tasks that go out into a blackhole and are never heard from again.  Ever.  They are not completed.  You hear no status reports.  Nothing.  Nada.  Typically, a weekly status report or a staff meeting can handle this but in a busy office, there may not be time for those.  So, these projects fall off the radar scope until you get irate phone calls from clients.  Sigh.

So, how do you handle these black holes and boomerangs.  Carefully.  In some cases, depending on the person, I’ve discovered there is no solution. Well, there is one – you don’t assign projects to those people.  But, to me, that’s giving in.  My mission is to get the work done.  And, I want that person to succeed as well.  If that happens, it’s a win for everyone, and it’s especially gratifying to me to see this happen.

Here’s some tips I’ve uncovered over the course of trying to solve these project pitfalls.

Does the person who has been given the task have all the details they need.  Do they have the authority to do what they need to do without coming back to you to ask questions. In particular, if something else comes up, can that person judge which project to work on first.  Balancing workloads can be easy for some, but not for others.  Some people simply cannot multi-task.  When they discover they are behind one solution is to return the project saying they can’t work on it. If you know you have someone who falls into this category, then the right thing to do is only assign projects to them when you know they can devote time to the project.  This may be tough in a small office, but it beats having the project languish and then reappear in two weeks no further along then when you started.  This same person can often be guilty of the blackhole syndrome.  It’s easier to just let it sit on the pile then say something.  Hopefully, nobody will notice it’s not done and it will go away all by itself.

Another reason tasks go astray is because of not setting expectations.  Does everyone understand the project and is everyone aware of the deadline?  Did you actually say “this needs to be done by this date?”  Projects with no deadline or priority end up being just that – low priority.  If they have no deadline, it means “oh, I can work on this later” and no priority means “oh, this is not that important and I can wait a bit.”  However, if a project is assigned, there has to be some kind of deadline or it didn’t need to be done at all.  The message here is don’t assume anything.  Make sure everyone involved is aware of the due dates and assign some level of priority to the project so you can then do load balancing of the work.  I have a saying here – if it makes us money it comes first.  That’s an over-generalization but it’s a start.  We all get sucked into time draining wormholes like email, newsgroups, research, internet sites, and the list goes on.  Now add Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin to the equation and you can see where it gets tough to balance your workschedule.

If you don’t have time for staff meetings, then put a reminder in your tickler file, calendar application or CRM system like ACT to ask about a project task.   If you have a deadline set for 2 weeks, then have the reminder show up two or three days before the deadline.  Send a quick email or IM and ask “how’s it going.”  The trick here is to do what makes sense for you.  If you are always in email, send yourself and the project owner an email asking for an update.  Warning – this may become another black hole but at least you’re keeping on top of things.  If you prefer instant messaging, send an IM.  Do whatever you need to so that something pops up in your face saying “check on me.”

Bottom line – there will always be reasons projects and tasks don’t get completed.  Do what you can to provide as much detail as possible to ensure you get the results you want.  And make sure you ask – don’t get caught up in day to day minutia.  Take the time to followup so things don’t go bump in the night or get so far gone as to be unrecoverable.

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Written by pregen

February 26, 2009 at 3:50 pm

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