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.”
“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?”
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

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