The Gorilla Robot- All work and no play is bad for the PM


It was dark… very dark.

The darkness would have been complete, save for the blue-tinged glow coming from my monitor. With an annoyed sigh, I reached over and flicked on my desk lamp, restoring a moderate pool of light to my desk. I really hated it when the janitors turned off all the lights when they left. Didn’t they know people were trying to work?

“I’m pretty sure that’s singular not plural.”

Suppressing a groan I peered into the darkness beyond my desk. “What now, Hogarth?”

His black fur made him all but invisible until he ambled into small pool of light given off by my lamp . “I was just saying I think it’s singular. There isn’t anyone else in the building.”

“So?”

Hogarth gave a shrug. “Well it is 11:00 pm.”

“And?”

“Most humans might consider that a reasonable time for no one to still be working.”

I rubbed the bridge of my nose and desperately wished for my personal gorilla to make like a banana and split. “Why are you here, Hogarth? I’ve got another three hundred emails to process through and then I have the quarterly status report to work on.”

“The quarterly that’s due in two weeks?” He asked.

“Yes, I want to get an early start.”

“At 11:00 pm?”

I looked up in annoyance. “Was there something you wanted?”

Hogarth nodded. “Oh, yeah. A new code of conduct was just put out by the HR monkeys. ” He laid a vellum scroll down on my desk and carefully unrolled it to reveal three lines in elegant calligraphy (Leave it to the HR monkeys to go overboard on communications). I leaned over to read the new code of conduct.

 1.    You may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2.    You must obey the orders given to you by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3.    You must protect your own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

I stared up at my gorilla in confusion. “Hogarth, these are Azimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

He nodded ever so sagely. “Yes, yes they are.”

“But I’m not a robot, I’m a human.”

He cocked his head to the side “Really?”

 

Meet Peet.

Peet’s my horse. Or as I often think of him, my four legged stress relief valve. When Peet and I are cantering up a hill, at close to twenty miles an hour, the last thing on my mind is anything to do with work. In fact I learned early on that you don’t even try to think about work when on horseback. If you let your mind wander, your horse can and will obligingly steer you into a tree (because you told him to when you weren’t paying attention to your hands and legs).

I remember when I first got Peet. I’d never owned a horse before and could count on two hands the number of times I’d ridden one. (Now you might wonder why on earth I was buying a horse, but I learned a long time ago to listen to my incredible wife and this was another of those times I did.) About three months after I’d bought him, one of my co-workers commented to me how much calmer I seemed. Only three months as a horse owner and it had already had a profound effect on me. Now, years later, I find it hard to imagine not having a horse and being able to escape everything by saddling up and heading out on the trail for an hour or more.

If Hogarth and Peet have not explained my point well enough, let me quote James Howell’s famous proverb.

 “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Let’s take a moment to examine Parkinson’s Law, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”  As knowledge workers we live in the depths of this law day in and day out. I can come to the office at 5:00 am, work straight through to 8:00 pm and still be guaranteed that there will be more work for me to do tomorrow. I will never catch up. There will always be one more email, one more report, one more meeting.  Parkinson’s Law will always fill any time you give it with more work.

So don’t give it more time.

It’s up to you to set the boundaries. It’s up to you to realize that you can often be more effective, by doing less. Peter Taylor wrote two books on this entire concept, the Lazy Project Manager and the Lazy Winner, both of which I can recommend as worth the read.

Don’t believe Peter? How about your eye doctor? Anyone who’s worked with computers for any length of time has probably seen the recommendations to look away from your computer every few minutes. If you keep them fixed on the screen all day, you are exposing yourself to huge headaches and possibly wearing out your poor eyes so that they need glasses (or stronger prescriptions for those of us already spectacled).

At the end of the day I can’t offer you any pithy words of wisdom or sure fire management techniques (learned from people far smarter than I). At the end of the day all I can do is say one thing.

“Go home!”

 

The Gorilla Dollar

Or- Are you making the most of your time
I was elbow deep in the case of a server. I’d almost gotten the broken fan free, if only it would just…
“Wha’cha doing?” Hogarth asked. Let me tell you, when an 800 pound gorilla starts sounding like a Fireside Girl, it certainly gets your attention.
Looking up from the computer I said “Oh, great, your just in time. Pass me that screwdriver, will you?” I pointed at the tool box on the table.
“Why?” my gorilla asked.
“Because I need it to get this fan out.”
“Why?”
“Because the fan is busted!” I was starting to get annoyed with the three-year old style question and answer.
Hogarth wandered by me and took a seat in my desk chair. “Why are you fixing a broken fan?”
Stomping over to the table, I snatched up the screwdriver. Speaking very slowly I said “because the fan is broken. If the fan is broken, the computer overheats. If it overheats, it shuts down. If it shuts down, then the server doesn’t work.”
Hogarth pulled out a banana. “Uh huh. How long you been at it?”
I glanced at my watch. “About ninety minutes. These new server chassis are a bugger to open.”
Waving his half-pealed banana in my direction Hogarth said, “Wouldn’t it take the IT guys about ten minutes to do that?”
I shrugged, “Yeah, but I can do it. I don’t want to bother them.”
He nodded, thoughtfully chewing on his banana. “Ever hear of the ‘Bill Gate’s Dollar?”
“The what?”
Hogarth moved over to the white board and started drawing a graph. “It was a big concept back in the 90’s. Folks were so obsessed with how rich Bill Gates was, they started figuring out things like how much money would have to be lying on the ground for it to be worth it to him to stoop over and pick it up.” Hogarth continued mapping out the graph. “Back in ’97 there had to be more than $600 dollars lying on the ground for it to be worth Bill’s time to pick it up. He’d actually lose money if he counted a stack of $100 bills.”
“Ouch!” I snatched my hand back from the innards of the server. Sticking my bloodied finger in my mouth I mumbled. “What’s the point?”
Hogarth gave me another of those “are you really that dense” looks. You’re paid <beeep> to be the program manager for this group. Should you be spending two hours fixing a server when someone else can do it in ten minutes? What are you not doing?”
Ouch…
Okay, so maybe I still do have some of my old tech support skills. Maybe I can still fondly remember when I could field strip a computer in about five minutes. And maybe my ego doesn’t want to admit I’ve forgotten more about tech support then I thought. But most importantly the question is, “Am I being effective?”
It took me a hard time to get this one right. As a project manager, part of our job is to do the work no one else wants to. We are the facilitator, the remover of roadblocks, the maker of status reports, heck we make coffee if it will make the team more effective. But effective is the key word here. Everything we do should make the team, and ourselves, more effective. If it doesn’t then do something about it.
Early on in my project management career I had one over riding rule. “Make sure it gets done, then find out who should own it.” This certainly made me popular. You knew that if something fell into the cracks, I’d be there to rescue it. But did it need rescuing? Was I the right person to rescue it? While I was saving the cat stuck in the tree, was the project burning to the ground?
Does it need rescuing?:  Manager Tools developed a Koan around this very concept. The essential nutshell to this is when you get assigned some new, big, responsibility you need to look at the small things your doing and decide what of these can ‘fall to the floor’ (alternatively, if you have directs, what duties can you delegate to someone below you).  It is entirely possible that this task doesn’t need to be done.
Mike Auzenne gives a great example of this. He took over a large division at his company. One of his jobs was to make the division more efficient. Sitting on a table in his office was this huge report that he had full time employees working to compile. Only he didn’t know of anyone that actually used the report. So he stopped generating the report and moved those employees to something more effective. No on ever complained about the report stopping.
Are you the right person to rescue it: If you’re really lucky, you have direct reports. If so then use a simple rule. “If there is a task that both I and one of my directs can do, then I should have my direct do it.” Your typical servant-leader project manager has a little tougher judgment call, but it still needs to be made. Go back to that effectiveness measure. If doing it yourself will make the team, or you, more effective then do it. If it won’t, find someone else to do it. This can even mean you end up putting it on your team. You’re not there to make all the hard stuff go away, you’re there to remove the roadblocks that they can’t do so effectively. Sure you coded back in the 90’s, but are you the right guy to debug the installer? Is there someone better suited?
Is the project burning down?: “Hey look! I just finished an end to end architectural diagram of the project. Took me a week, but man does it look good.” That’s great, and while you were doing that, the engineers missed three major status updates, failed to give a code drop to QA and the product manager didn’t even want the feature they just built.
I’ve personally run into this one thanks to the “Shiny” factory. Some activity that I really shouldn’t have been doing, but it was compelling in some way. While obsessing on this minor thing, I let major things slip between the cracks.
I firmly believe the project manager is there to make the team more effective. That often requires the project manager to step in and do things that need to be done. But before you do, ask yourself three simple questions:
“Does it really need doing?”
“Can someone else doing this better?”
“Is there anything else more important right now?”
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP