The gorilla in the forest, through the trees

“Man! Did you see that pass, it was sweet!”
“Apparently the team’s chopper had a malfunction, the explosion was the scuttling charges.”
I wound my way through the incomprehensible hallway conversations, making for my desk and the incredibly long to do list waiting for me.
“Hey!” Bob called out to me. “Some speech, wasn’t it?”
I gave a half nod and walked faster.  “Speech?” What the heck was he talking about?
I settled into my desk chair, just in time for Molly to wander into my cube. “So you thinking about applying for that Agile certification?” Molly was a project manager over in the IT organization and she loved to talk project management shop. I just wish I knew what she was talking about half the time.
“Uh, not sure. What do you think?” I asked.
She gave a shrug. “Dunno, Tobias Mayer certainly has panned it. Not surprising though, he’s not big on traditional PM. Rory Corkle wrote a good blog on why he’s behind it, but I think he’s going to make money training so not sure if he’s unbiased.”
“Tobias, Corkle? What the heck is she talking about?” I asked myself. Thoroughly lost I shrugged and gave what I hoped was an interested answer. “Tough call.”
She cocked her head to the side, giving me that same look she always seemed to give me. She said something pleasant and wandered off. Supposedly Molly is a big information junkie, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation that lasted more than a couple minutes. Guess she doesn’t know as much as folks think.
I turned back to my computer, way to much to do on this proje…
“Ow!” I yelped. Grabbing the back of my head, I spun around. “Hogarth! What the heck was that fore?”
Hogarth grunted and glared at me. “For someone so smart, you sure are thick.”
“Do you have any clue what’s going on around you?”
I sat up straight, offended at his question. “Of course I do. Quality just finished sanity on build 42. Bob’s working on a change order for support of the new MacroFirm browser. And the prewire for the design review went off without a hitch. This project is going great!”
Hogarth waved a freshly peeled banana at me. “There is more to the world than the project, you know that?”
“No, there’s not. If I don’t get this project out on time, I lose my bonus. Heck, the way things are going I might get a pink slip. If its not the project, then I don’t care..”
Spwap, spwap…. The sound of a banana peel smacking across my cheeks was strange to my ears. Fortunately the peel didn’t hurt that much.
“You need to care,” said Hogarth. “For example, Jake is a rabid Sharks fan. Did you know they were in the playoffs and if the Sharks win he’ll probably take a couple days off?” He pointed the direction Molly had gone, “Molly just got a cold recruitment call from someone she met at the last PM Chapter meeting. Seems he was impressed with her grasp of how the recent changes in Agile are impacting the business bottom line. Oh and the most notorious terrorist in the world was killed, Bob was talking about the President’s speech on that.”
“Why would the CEO being talking about a dead terrorist?”
“You are hopeless!” Hogarth growled. “It doesn’t matter if you are the best damn Gantt chart master in the world, if you don’t know what’s going on in the world you won’t stay relevant and won’t be able to communicate with your co-workers!”
Right then one of my co-workers poked my head into my cube. “Hey, some of us are headed to In and Out Burger* for lunch. Want to come?”
“Is that a new burger place?” I asked.
*- In and Out burger is a popular fast food restaurant in the southwestern portion of the United States. It has been around for several decades.
We work forty or more hours a week. During the work day if we don’t look insanely busy, people wonder why we’re not working hard enough. When we get home, most of us are dog tired and just want to collapse on the couch.
And now we’re supposed to take time to pay attention to world? Okay, so I’ll catch the evening news headlines. I can do that from the couch. What more do I need to do?
I have a friend and fellow project manager. He had worked for eighteen straight years, most of that at one company. He’d not had to look for a job in all that time. When he did change jobs, the new job found him. In that time he never thought about looking for work, never factored that into something he needed to stay current.
So when he found himself out of work, in 2009, he suddenly discovered he was completely out of touch with how job hunting worked now. The last time he’d updated his resume, it was expected that you put your mailing address on it. When was the last time you put your mailing address on your resume?
I don’t follow sports that much. Never been much of an interest to me. Sure, if the local team makes it to the playoffs, I’ll turn into a loyal fan (Go Giants). But once the World Series is over I’m back to my normal indifference. At one of my prior companies, the guy down the hall from me was a rabid Giants fan (US Baseball). If I wanted to relate to him, I had to at least understand the basic language of baseball. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have understood half his explanations. “Oh that project is a base hit.” (Translation- “That’s easy to do, won’t take much effort”).
Ever come into the office, only to discover the company you work for is now owned by some holding company in India? Stealth acquisitions are not unheard of, but most of the time you can see change in the wind, if you just pay attention to your company in the news.
Did you hear about the new PMI test standards? Yeah, you have to stand on your head when you take the test. (Okay, not really. But if you don’t keep up on the PM community how would you know?)
It comes back to effectiveness. When communication is about what the listener does, you need to communicate in their language. To do that, you have to make an effort. If you come to work everyday, go to your cube, do you job and then go home, nothing more, well you’re not going to be effective. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best project manager in the world, master of the Gantt chart, queen of risk analysis. If you can’t communicate effectively then you fail.
I learned this lesson the hard way. The best thing that ever happened to me, was getting laid off when I least expected to be. It challenged my assumptions. It woke me up and it caused me to take a second look at things. If something as obvious as that layoff could catch me by surprise, then what else was I missing? It was this moment, when I realized the huge forest of my career was made up of thousands of individual trees. Being laid off set me on the path I am on now. As I looked back on my career I started to realize just how many mistakes I’d made.
And not staying current has been one of the biggest. I used to not grasp that at least knowing if the local sports teams were winning more than they were losing would be useful to my career. Who cares if there are layoffs on Wall Street? That doesn’t impact me in Silicon Valley, right?
So what do I do?:
I don’t work any less hours, but I do make my non-work my time more effective.
Stay up on Current Events: Manager Tools hands down recommends reading the Wall Street Journal. Excellent advice but not something I could take myself. With a two hour commute I can’t read. Fortunately we now live in an age of information overload. You can stay current very easily.
Podcasts are you friends: There is a podcast for darn near anything you need. Below I give an example of what I follow. The important point here is you would be surprised how much “down time” you have when you can listen to something.
 Walking the dog, Using the Stairmaster, driving to work, walking at lunch, etc. You may not have the time to sit down with the WSJ (or other print publication), but few of us don’t have time in the day when we can listen.
I’ve recently started using the Stitcher Radio iPhone app (also available for the Android). This has made podcasts even easier. I don’t have to worry if I synced my phone, I just stream the podcasts I follow. For most of my daily or short podcasts I use Stitcher. For weekly or longer podcasts I still use iTunes.
My Podcasts:
Some of these keep me up on current news. Some of these keep me up on interesting trends.  Some (like Dinner Party Download), give me conversation starters.
APM Marketplace (daily)
APM Marketplace Morning Report(daily)
NPR Hourly News Summary (daily)
APM Marketplace Tech Report (daily)
Wall Street Journal What’s News (daily)
APM: The Dinner Party Download (weekly)
Freakonomics Radio (weekly)
BBC Click Radio (weekly)
Quick and Dirty Tips Podcasts: Grammar Girl, Get it Done Guy, Legal Lad, Money Girl and The Public Speaker (weekly)
Manager Tools (weekly)
Career Tools (weekly)
NPR Wait, Wait, Don’t tell me (weekly)
60 Minutes (weekly)
The Project Management Podcast (Bi-Monthly)
The Cranky Middle Manager (weekly)
Stay up current on your industry: Things change, even in the most stagnant industry things will change. People change, as well, a lot more often. You need to know what is going on, who is saying what and why. You don’t have to be an expert, but you should at least have an idea.
RSS Feeds- I use Google Reader to follow several PM and Management blogs. I try and read it twice a week. If I fall behind, I don’t kick myself and I don’t let it keep me from reading. If I’m really behind, I mark it all read and try better next week.
Forums/Discussion Groups- There are a wealth of forums on every industry. LinkedIn alone is a great resource. Read and participate! Same rules as the RSS feeds. Don’t feel you have to read it all. On a bad week, I’ll not even touch them, but I always come back to them. In addition to the many project management related LinkedIn groups, I highly recommend the project management board on stack exchange.
Stay current with your network and peers: If you never leave your cube, you’ll never meet your next boss. Staying current with your peers and professional network is vital. If I get a request for help from two people, one I haven’t spoken to in ten years and one I just saw at a breakfast meeting last week, who am I more likely to help? You don’t have to even leave your cube! My two tips:
Networking Events: Here in Silicon Valley, the PMI chapter hosts several morning and evening events each month. Beyond that there are dozens of relevant groups on Even if your PMI chapter doesn’t do this, or you don’t have Meetup events around you, there are people meeting and talking. Find them and meet with them. I attend PMI events as well as local Agile related events. Oh and I’m part of my local PTA. Yes, the PTA. A good chunk of my fellow parents are also professionals in the valley and we have a lot to talk about.
Send an emai!: The easiest way to stay current. Go through your address book (or LinkedIn contacts) and set yourself a reminder. One person a day, send an email. Just drop a line, ask how they are doing, share something you learned, etc. At a loss for words? Check their LinkedIn profile. Nine times out of ten, they’ll be something there to talk about.
So the next time you walk down the hall and hear “What a pass,” know if they are talking about the latest hockey game or the latest football game. When someone asks about the latest PMI certification respond with, “yeah I read a great blog about that, made me type up one in response.”
Stay current, stay effective.
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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