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Friday, April 4, 2014

All I want is a little change to the Project Scope...

The Cost of Change

We have all heard about how the cost of change increases exponentially the further you are along the path of project delivery. If the unit of effort is, say, (1) at requirements stage to accommodate a feature change, in design it increases to (10x), in development it increases to (100x) and once delivered it may increase again to (1000x) or more. Or perhaps a different scale applies to your project, but you get the idea.

The same rules apply when you are doing construction, when scope becomes set in stone - or at least in concrete. Changes are easiest when you are still talking with the architect and drawing up the first set of plans on a napkin, but after they have been formally submitted for review and approved by Council, it gets more complicated and costly. Any changes to the approved plans require rework by the architect, then a review by another dozen or so eyes, and when that is done, it needs to get re-approved by the city planning department. Oh, and to top it all off, yet another cheque written out to the builder to pay for the change in scope.

Can We Build It? Yes, We Can!

In 2005, we had the pleasure (and pain) to build a house, our very first one. Not the first house we ever bought, just the first one that was not "used" by previous iterations of owners. Nothing wrong with recycled houses, of course - they provide excellent opportunities for honing up handyman skills as you maintain the house, fix things that wear out, or replace some horrid feature a previous owner had just loved to bits. This was going to be our house, we would be the first to move in - and it was exciting, but also quite nerve-wracking. After all, we put down a lot of money for an idea and some dirt.

We paid the deposit on the house before the build started. We had looked at a few different plans and lots with the builder, but had decided on this particular combination as it looked great on paper, and the layout looked ideal for our family. At this stage, the plan had already been approved, but the dirt was still in the normal location (in the to-be-hole they were going to be digging for the basement).

It started out fairly smoothly, after catching the small detail that the real estate agent had attached the blueprints for lot 17 in the other subdivision they were building to the contract , instead of this particular lot. It would have been quite interesting, as the lot shapes were totally different and the other lot 17 house plan would have put our living room in our neighbour's front lawn... However, that was sorted out with only minor embarrassment from the developer. Hey, it happens; they had a lot of construction on the go - about a hundred houses at once.

We sat down with the developer and made a number of "small" changes here and there, and the developer was very proactive in working with us. He told us well in advance about the deadlines for when we had to make particular design decisions.Prior to breaking ground, we requested a number of changes that the builder had no problems accommodating.

You know, reasonable things like:
  • Add Garage side door into the yard ($850) - Impact: Small, build wall around hole
  • Add Garage window ($500) - Impact: Small, build wall around hole
  • Widen garage by 10 inches/22cm ($1000) - Impact: Medium, change of foundation and garage roof-line. Within maximum tolerance for building footprint percentage vs lot size.
"Wait, a thousand dollars for only 10 inches? Why bother?"

Well, you might laugh, but it made a big difference to storage. It allowed for a long set of shelves on one side.
  • Add Skylight ($4,400) - Impact: Redesign roof truss configuration, limit to 4x4 foot unit.
  • And so on.
All in all, an extra $13,000 in scope changes before the first shovel was lifted by the builder, and a hefty increase in the deposit. Ka-ching!

Every day or so we would drive by the site to see what changes had transpired on the site. For a week or so, not very much at all happened - and then they started digging. A week later and they were pouring the foundations. We walked carefully around afterward, eager to get a look at everything as the concrete cured.

I kept copies of the plans handy, as I was trying to visualize what the finished product would look like. Walking carefully around the site, I made quiet observations like "hmmm, isn't that hole quite close to the neighbour? Isn't the digging for the foundation going to collapse their sidewalk?" The properties were all zero-lot-line, or in other words, the minimum clearance from the house to the property line, which was 4 feet. Their sidewalk ended on the property line, and was currently attached to their house but not much else.

I was assured all would be well, once they filled in the dirt around the foundation. Eying the large-ish section of the neighbour's concrete sidewalk suspended several feet in the air, I was not so sure - but you have to trust your builder, right?

Is there such a thing as a Dumb Question?

I was starting to felt pretty good about working with the builder, and I was beginning to have what I felt were reasonably technical conversations with him as I learned a whole range of new construction terminology. Hey, I was a Project Manager right? Sure it was in IT and not construction, but projects are projects, there has to be some common ground. He also seemed to be pretty open to changes too, as long as you were happy to pull out your cheque book while you talked.

After the foundations had cured enough, they started framing in the basement and the joists for the ground floor. It was a big moment - to be able to stand in the middle of your new house, before the walls went up. It was one big, flat expanse of plywood, with just the one hole. The hole, of course, was the stairwell, which spiraled down into the dark basement.

I walked around the floor, building plans in hand. I could finally start to see where things would go - the living room, dining area, kitchen and so on. I paced out the dimensions of each future room. Big living room, big kitchen - excellent! Decent sized family room and dining room - all right! Then I went over to where my future office would be - off the living room, behind the stairs.

Hmmm, I thought. I re-measured the distance between the stairwell and the outer edge of the house. Hmmm. Kind of small, I thought.

The next day when we came around to check the house, the builder was there. He smiled a lot as I walked with him around the site, discussing the construction progress and next steps. We were approaching the stairwell, preparing to go down into the basement when I asked the question.

"Um, do you think you could move the stairwell?"

He turned to look at me. "What?"

"The room behind the stairwell looks pretty small, can you move the stairwell just a bit?"

He stared at me like I had sprouted a horn and an extra set of eyes. His smile was long gone. "No, definitely not."

"That room will be my office, are you sure you can't make it a little bigger by moving the stairs a little? You don't have the walls up yet, and just this bit of the stairs so far..."

He turned to face me square on, hands on his hips. "No, no, it's far too late for that."

He then went on to give me a lecture about architecture and the fact that THE most important design component of a multi-story building is not the walls or the roof, but the stairwell. You design that in first and everything else works around it. So no, there was no way they could move the stairwell. They would have to change everything. So no, definitely not. No.


In that crushing moment I realized two things:
  1. I had just lot a big chunk of credibility with the builder. (i.e. I am pretty sure he had just decided that I was an idiot), and
  2. No matter what all those leadership and communication books say, yes, there ARE some stupid questions.

Window of Opportunity

On your projects, there will be windows of opportunity where change will be easy. As time goes on, introducing the same change becomes harder and more costly, and you will soon reach a point where trying to introduce that change is no longer feasible at all. Not impossible, but just so impractically costly and disruptive, that you simply have to concede and let it go.

Unless it is so important, perhaps, that you are prepared to dig up the foundations and start all over again - but those cases would be extremely rare.

You should also balance the importance of the changes vs your project finances - whether you are paying for it yourself, or you are managing the project for someone else. You need to ask yourself (and the stakeholders) - how important is that change, really? Does the stakeholder simply want it, or is there a strong, compelling reason that it should be made? Is it worth the cost?

I have written previously on the importance of developing exceptional requirements - as early as possible, with the customer/vendor working together. This will go a long way towards getting things right the first time, but it is never perfect. You won't get all of the requirements identified completely up front - you will learn things you did not previously know as you go, you wil refine the plan, and new opportunities may also present themselves unexpectedly. The key is to be vigilant and look out for those opportunities as they arise, and try to request changes before it is too late. You need the decision makers primed to be able to approve changes quickly.

Sometimes the window of opportunity may be extremely small - days, or even hours. It might even literally be a window.

You might, for example, be standing on the second floor while they are beginning the framing of the walls and say, "You know, if we moved the window half it's width to the left, we would get a really great view of the mountain every morning, with the sun behind it." A change like that may not be a big deal to the builder at all, if your timing is right. It may also make your stay in that house that much nicer for many years to come - rather than have a permanent view half-obstructed by a chimney you did not know would be there when you started, but had recently sprouted up.

If you are really lucky, a minor change like that may not even cost you at all, and it may deliver long-lasting value. Those opportunities do happen all the time, but you have to be prepared to notice them and act on them.


Whether you are building a house, or managing a project that is in no way related to construction, change is inevitable. Projects are vehicles for change, after all - why would we not expect to have changes to the scope during our project?

They trick is to manage scope change carefully - keep track of all changes (no matter how minor), look for opportunities and try to make any changes as early as possible - or at least at the earliest opportunity.

From a Project Control perspective, you also need to keep a close eye on the builder - or the vendor delivering your product/solution/outcome. "You Get What You Inspect," or so the saying goes - and that is particularly true with construction.

We were at the house site almost every day - we tried not to be in the way, or to be annoying to the workers. Usually we dropped by around dinner time when they had left for the day. Through our regular visits, we were able to point out a number of things where the carpenter did not seem to be following the plan, or something did not look right. Sometimes we misinterpreted things, but we also found some real problems that would have been more difficult to resolve if they had been left unnoticed. The cracked plastic shower/bath unit, for example - an over-tight screw had damaged the tub, they tried to repair it, but in the end (as we had wanted) it had to be replaced with a new unit. A couple week delay in getting a new one, but far better than future leaks.

I would like to think that I regained some respect from the builder after the "stairwell incident", but I can never be sure - he was respectful, but maybe just a little patronizing.

When they put the plywood on the roof, we were quite excited to see the exterior coming to a close. They already had the vinyl siding on, and the wood fascia which they had started to paint in some sections. We were looking forward to seeing the completion of the colour scheme we had chosen from the builder's options - designed by his own wife, in fact. The asphalt shingles on the roof were to be a dark browny-black, with a hint of copper sparkle to catch the sun.

The next day, I came by in the afternoon and saw the roof layers finishing off the last section. Rain was expected in a day or so, and they wanted to get it sealed up.

The builder was there, and came out to greet me. We stood on the street, watching them work.

"It looks kind of black," I said.

"What?" he asked.

"The colour scheme shows the shingles are browny with shiny copper flecks. Those are solid, and look more black than brown. No flecks."

He turned to look at me. "I'm sure they are the right shingles."

I paused and looked carefully up at the roof. The sun was shining, and there was a definite absence of glint or colour.

"Um, they look black. They are not the shingles from the colour scheme," I turned back to face the builder. I firmed up my resolve, determined to put the stairwell incident behind me. Besides, this was different. I knew I was right.

"Can you please take those black ones off and put on the correct shingles from the colour scheme? They did not put on the right shingles."

The builder stared at me for a long time, then took a slow, deep breath before replying. "No, definitely not. It's too late for that. Besides, it's almost the same colour anyway. You won't notice after a while."

I sighed.

Some changes just cannot - or will not - be made, even to correct a mistake by the builder.

But you know, after a while the black looked OK - every other house on the block had colour and flecks, so ours was unique. We decided we could live with that "imperfection".

As for my "small" office? Once it was all painted and carpeted, the furniture was in place and I was sitting in my new office for the first time - I found the room was bigger than I thought it would be. In fact, it was perfect.

We didn't need to move the stairs after all.

Good luck with your projects, keep a close eye on your project scope, and look out for those ideal windows of opportunity for change.

Email: Gary Nelson, PMP  
Project resources for kids:

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Is your Project Team like a Light Switch...or a Candle?

[Also available as a podcast]

A few years ago I went on a fly-fishing trip with a group of work colleagues. I was working on a project in New Zealand, and we were going to be staying in an old company-owned holiday "bach" just outside of Taupo. You could book these properties for a weekend and pay a small fee. A basic type of unit - furnished with several beds, kitchen, TV, tables, chairs and couple sofas - nothing too fancy.

We unpacked our gear, loaded up the fridge and headed back outside for fly-fishing lessons. My first ever lesson - and apparently you need to learn how to do it while on dry land (without a hook) just to get used to the back-and-forth action before you try it standing hip-deep in a river. Perhaps to make sure you didn't fall over while casting - or hook anyone around you.

After about an hour of practicing casting, it was getting dark and our arms were getting tired, so we headed back in to get dinner ready and settle in for the evening. One of the guys was frying up dinner while the rest of us chatted and watched the little black-and-white TV. I was just walking back into the living room with a fresh beer when the lights went out.

"Who turned off the lights?" I asked.

"There's some coins on top of the fridge," one of the locals called out from the sofa.


"Coins on top of the fridge. Put some in the slot."

"What slot?"

He sighed and got up. "In the meter."

He walked over to the fridge and picked up three coins. He popped them into a box on the wall, one by one. The lights suddenly came back on. "That should do for an hour. We pay for power when we use the bach - it's one reason it is so cheap to stay here."

I studied the pile of coins on top of the fridge. It was perhaps my first experience of "user pays" - in this case, quite literally with a pocket full of change.

I was experiencing a sudden and strange shift in expectation - electricity is just supposed to be "on", right?

Taking it for Granted

When you stop to think about it, there are many things we take for granted in our every day lives. Turn on a switch, the lights come on, turn a tap and clean water comes pouring out. We get in our cars and turn the key - we expect it to start, and take us where we want to go without breaking down. (Assuming we do some basic maintenance, and fill the tank regularly).

The fact is, there is a lot of investment into the systems, products and infrastructure to support all of these "easy-on" things we use in our every day lives. We seldom appreciate the effort that has gone into those systems - and are rarely thankful that we have them. We have got used to them just being there and working - that is simply the way it is supposed to be, right?

We complain when things stop functioning -  but when is the last time you thanked a light switch for working? Well, probably never as that is a bit strange, perhaps - talking to inanimate objects. But have you ever called the electric company to say "thanks for keeping the power on yesterday, I had a big family dinner last night, and I was able to cook the roast until it was finished"?

I am guessing also - never.

You may think I am being ridiculous - but consider this: We have become quite accustomed to these comforts in our society. Not so many decades ago, the hours you were awake (let alone working) were limited by daylight - or how much candle wax you had left to spare. Back then, you would make a conscious decision to stay up and use an extra candle - or save it for another day and hit the hay when it got dark. Today, you just switch on the light and watch TV until late in the night, night after night, without a second thought.

"All right, all right, you've made your point," you say. "But do I really have to call the power company in the morning to thank them?"

Well, that is up to you - but it's not a bad idea. The problem is, they will probably treat you like a crank caller. Why? The answer is simple - nobody expects that level of courtesy any more. Besides, they wouldn't call the plumber to thank them that the toilet didn't back up yesterday, would they? They, like you - simply expect things to work.

It is just another symptom of what you might call the "Light Switch" Society.

How do you switch this thing on?

How do you treat your team members? I am guessing for many, that on any given day they are being treated exactly like a light switch. They show up for work in the morning, and -click- they are expected to be fully productive and on the job. Work a full day, then -click- at around 5pm or so, they pack up, and trudge off home through traffic to screaming kids and a nagging partner. And tomorrow, the same routine: -click- on, full work day, -click- off home.

And although there are a lot of problems with that whole approach, which I will touch on next, a sometimes bigger problem is that the switch stays on - or is forced on - until much later in the day, past normal working hours. Email, laptop, smartphone, deadline pressures from work - all of these can easily steal our "home" time and deny us time to rest and recoup for the day ahead.

There are many books and discussions on that particular topic (work/life balance) - but what I would like to focus on here is the "Light Switch" perspective of working with your project team.

Of course, we are professionals, and should be committed to doing our best, do a good job, work a full day and be able to leave work "at the office" if we are lucky. The "Light Switch" problem is more about attitude - how we approach each other, and set expectations on one another. In a very real sense, we are imposing a new technological symbolism onto the workplace, with all of its implied behaviors - and adverse side-effects.

Up through the 1800's, people had a physical appreciation of resource consumption and limitations - if you were up late, you "burned the midnight oil" (literally), and people who worked late and rose early needed light - so they "burned the candle at both ends" [of the day]. In fact, the phrase "burned out" likely grew from that time period and earlier - when physical and mental exhaustion had direct parallels in their environment - i.e. the simple candle. You could only burn it for so long until it ran out of wax. A similar thing happens with people - they run out of energy and need to rest.

Light switches, however, behave quite differently.

Make the Switch

Q: When is your Project Team like a Light Switch?
A: When you treat them like one.

"Ha ha," you say - "but what does this mean for my projects?"

Answer: Plenty!

Let's look at the characteristics of a Light Switch:
  • Settings: On/Off (or Dim, if you want to spend a bit more)
  • Power source: invisible - no input or energy required from you, after flipping the switch. The light switch does not change.
  • Controls local and/or remote lights, not very personal
  • Light remains On or Off until changed, without visible energy requirements to remain so.
  • Output is constant 
  • Is resistant to other forces (you can't blow out an electric light)

Now, the characteristics of a Candle:
  • Settings: On/Off (or Dim, depending how you trim the candle)
  • Power source: visible - and literally shrinks before your eyes
  • It is the source of light, very personal and in-your-face
  • Goes out when the candle burns down
  • Output depends on length of wick, type of wax, size of candle
  • Depends on energy and skill from you to ignite the flame 
  • Subject to other forces (You can blow it out)

Now, think about that - and your team for a moment.

If you treat your team like a light switch, this means you are taking them for granted. They should simply work hard, without thanks or praise, and do it consistently day-in and day-out. No encouragement required, no mentoring, no guidance - and certainly no development training. Switch them on, work - off, go home. No consideration of what drives or motivates them, just work.

In effect, they are viewed as just a machine.

Not very nice, is it? And yet there are many bosses out there (I would not call a person like that a Manager) who do behave like that.

I would not expect to see a top-performing team in this situation. More likely a group of people looking for the nearest exit, as soon as they can scramble to it.

If you want to have a top-performing team, you need to start with treating your team the old-fashioned way. Yes - OK, like a CANDLE:

Care about your team. Great leaders actually care about their teams - as people.

Ask their opinions about project matters - because they probably know more than you do. You have a skilled team precisely because you can't do it alone.

Nurture your team - get to know them personally. Put some time and effort in and invest in those relationships. Get to know them! Encourage them, praise in public - deliver constructive criticism in private.

Develop their skills.
Projects are a great way to try something new that they may not get in a normal 9-to-5 job. Make the most of the opportunity. See what their needs are to help them grow and develop, and help them get any additional training they may need/want.

Lead, Mentor and Coach them, not just direct or dictate task assignments to them.

Engage with the team, one-on-one. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. Pitch in and help when it is needed, rather than supervising from on high.

Remember, teams are made up of people - not switches, not numbers, and not role assignments. A company is nothing without its people - and the same applies to your projects.


Looking back at that old pay meter in the holiday bach, I think it is a good symbol for bridging the old and the new; you get the advantages of steady, stable electric light - and no burned fingers working with candles. However, it also reminds us that you need to put some effort in on a regular basis - you need to engage in the process.  

Translated to teams, we need to step back from the modern-day perspective of looking at everything as if it were a machine (or cog in a machine). What makes the difference between a good and a bad workplace, or a good and a bad project, is how people interact, or fail to interact - with each other. Light switches are convenient - but you also need the personal interaction you get with a candle.

Why not try it one weekend - while camping, or even at home? Tuck away and ignore those electric devices, and live up close and personal by candlelight. Heck, it might even make for a romantic evening.


But what about the rest of the fishing trip, you ask? Well, it was a fun weekend, but the water was muddy from recent rains and nobody caught any fish. Although I did see direct evidence that I was, in fact, on the far side of the world, far away from home. While I was standing hip-deep in the river, casting back and forth, I noticed some small, odd objects floating down past me. 

They didn't look like wood. When one came within arm's reach, I plucked it out of the water to have a closer look. I turned it over in my hand, inspecting it closely. I was holding a rock - a floating rock. It was then I knew that I was truly on the bottom of the world, and up-side down - because how else could rocks float?

Pumice, anyone? ;-)

Good luck with your projects, and keep an eye on those candles.

Gary Nelson, PMP

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Guest Post: Micromanaging is Destroying Your Team

By Ken Myers

Becoming a leader can be a scary process. In the early stages of a leader's career, they rely on their independence and entrepreneurship to cultivate a strong following and respect in their field. Once a leader is assigned a team, those qualities no longer work to their advantage. A leader that acts like a lone wolf jeopardizes the satisfaction of their team and their job. Learning to let go of all the responsibilities they once held to focus on the bigger picture of a project or business is difficult. Don't fall into the trap of becoming a micromanager, alienating team members and eschewing larger responsibilities. Instead, focus on cultivating a strong team through managed assignments and team unity.

Micromanagers Obliterate Job Satisfaction

A good leader knows that employee satisfaction is key to a thriving business. A job where employees feel disconnected or lack ownership may seem great at first but after reading the final page of the Internet will seem pointless. As a leader, your responsibility is to enhance worker satisfaction to produce higher profits and better customer satisfaction. Understanding that micromanaging completely undermines the primary focus of your job is tantamount to resolving the micromanaging issues.

Explore Why You Micromanage

There are thousands of legitimate reasons a leader becomes a micromanager. No one hopes to spend their career carefully poring over other's work while neglecting their other duties. Getting to the bottom of why you micromanage is needed to resolve the issue. Have you been burned by previous employees? Do you trust your current team? Is micromanaging a way to distract yourself from other duties? Does your micromanaging occur daily, weekly, or before specific events?

Understanding the underlying issues that cause the micromanaging can help you develop a plan to discontinue it. If you notice that you tend to take over a team's responsibilities right before a high-level executive visits the team or prior to budgeting, you can stave off that instinct or develop a reporting system that will allow you to continue focusing on the big picture while being assured team members are following through with their responsibilities.

Hire Right

A great team starts during the hiring process. Everyone has a story about an employee who started day one disengaged. Don't let those employees through the front door. Many employers rush through the hiring process, hoping to get a seat filled rather than filling out a vital part of a cohesive team.

Ensure that your interview process is intensive enough to find out whether the candidate is a good fit for your team. Don't relegate interviews to 30 minutes on the phone or a one-on-one between meetings. Let team members meet candidates. A lunch can be a great interview setting because the candidate can relax and your team members can interact with them unencumbered by formal questioning. Make a concerted effort to find new members that complement your current employees.

Exploit Your Worker's Strengths

The Gallup Survey measuring the state of the workforce found that employees who stated that they did what they did best every day were six times more engaged than other employees. Rather than focusing on developing team member's weaknesses, assessing and assigning responsibility based on strengths leads to higher engagement and more productivity within a team. Assignments based on employee strength help employees feel empowered and vital to the everyday responsibilities of the team.

Create an Accountability System

Do you suffer from managerial anxiety? If you constantly worry about whether specific tasks are being accomplished or whether the day-to-day responsibilities carried out, creating a system that delivers you the information you're concerned about can ease your anxiety without causing undue stress to your team. Ask team members to send weekly or biweekly emails with their accomplishments. Or set up a meeting time to ask questions about upcoming deadlines.

A good leader becomes a great leader by having a solid team. Entrusting your team to deliver the results you need is an essential part of growing your business and finding success in your field. Rather than succumbing to your instincts to micromanage, fill your team with motivated employees, exploit their strengths, and create accountability to ensure you never have a need to micromanage.

Ken Myers is a father, husband, and entrepreneur. He has combined his passion for helping families find in-home care with his experience to build a business. Learn more about him by visiting @KenneyMyers on Twitter.

Monday, December 2, 2013

May I have your Attention, Please?

[Also available as a podcast]

You know the drill - anyone who has ever flown on a commercial airline has heard this announcement from the flight attendant, usually followed by a safety briefing video and a demonstration by the crew. 

Most of us briefly look up, see the flight attendant standing there, snug our seat-belt, glance up above our heads, and resume reading - or listening to music, whatever. Most of us ignore the actual briefing if we have flown more than a few times. Even the comment "you may have flown before, but this aircraft may be different than what you are used to, so please follow along with this safety briefing" is unlikely to gain more than a few curious glances. If the safety message is only a video, there may be even fewer people paying attention.

We have become so used to distractions and the constant babble of noise around us in our daily lives, we learn to tune it out - and that can sometimes be a good thing. But how do you get - and hold - someone's attention, particularly if the message you have to share is really important?

On aircraft, different techniques have been used over the years to try to gain - and hold - your attention when announcements are made, with varying degrees of success. Humorous flight attendants are popular, but what about the safety videos?

Some of the most effective have been produced by Air New Zealand, who developed a series of safety videos that actually get you watching - and engaged. They also change the videos regularly, so you are also less likely to be "ho-hum" when you get settled in for your flight. Passengers now look forward to the safety videos - imagine that! Nude flight attendants with paint-on uniforms, anyone? You can be sure everybody paid attention to that safety video!

"That's nice for the airlines", you say. "But
how can we get - and keep - someone's attention?"

One tactic is to hook them with the unexpected - and then engage them in the message, and keep them interested until you are finished.

The Unexpected


Well, perhaps it is not a great idea to literally start with a bang (especially on an airplane), but you need to do something to begin to hook their attention away from their smartphones at the beginning of your message or presentation. Something out of the ordinary can work quite well, if you don't overdo it.

Many years ago,well before the clever Air NZ videos, I was on an aircraft that most definitely held my undivided - and disconcerted - attention.

I was leaving New Delhi, en route to Singapore. My first time flying on Aeroflot - the Russian airline. I was on an Illyushian II-86, a large single-level wide-body aircraft with the same capacity as a Boeing 747-400. It held close to 350 people, but that day it had less than 100 passengers. Plenty of room for everyone to stretch out, which was nice for a long flight.

Illyushian II-86. Attribution: Jean-Pierre Tabone Adami (2002)

They closed the cabin doors, and a flight attendant rattled off a long spiel in Russian. They then switched to English, and I casually began to half-listen.

"We have now turned on the fasten seat belt signs. Please make sure to have your seat belt fastened at all times when you are in your seat. Your life vest is located in a pouch under your seat. In the event of an emergency..." the attendant droned on with the rest of the standard safety briefing. 

There was just one problem.

There was no seat belt sign. In fact, there were was a clear absence of "no smoking" signs as well as seat-belt signs. There were no signs at all - in any language - except the glowing "Exit" sign in the aisle beside me.

Get them Engaged

Once you have their attention, give them something to think about. If you lapse into the mundane and familiar, you will begin to lose your audience. Keep it interesting - and keep a few surprises up your sleeve in case you need to re-hook them.

I looked all around the cabin, trying to see if there were any signs, any at all - aside from "Exit". I looked back to my left. Ahhh, there was one more "Exit" sign, at the bottom of the wide stairs. So, the first one wasn't a fluke.

...Hold on, stairs? You said this was a single level plane.

Yes, stairs. Exit sign, wide carpeted steps, railings on both sides, the whole bit. They went down to a lower level, and I could see a few suitcases piled up against one wall. ...Wait a minute, suitcases visible from my seat? 

I learned later this was part of the "Luggage at Hand" option offered by the aircraft - you could buy your ticket and check-in on-board, but not on the International flights.You could walk your own bags into the baggage deck.

The safety spiel was long since finished, but I was suddenly fully engaged and very interested in this peculiar aircraft, and in particular how it related to my own safety. 

Steps to the baggage compartment? Only Exit signs?  What else was going to be different about this plane?

Keep them on the Edge of their Seat

OK, now you have their attention. Your message is different, and fresh - OK,  maybe just different, but they are listening to you, so don't complain. What do you do next? Right - weave in the important parts of your message into your story while they are interested. Wait - is my message a story? Why not? Stories and anecdotes can be a powerful medium for a message to be delivered in a fun and engaging way. So tell them what you want to tell them - but keep it interesting.

After takeoff, I continued to look around the aircraft. I noticed the person beside me had his feet up. Yes - he had his feet up, with the ultimate in legroom. He had flopped the seat-back in front of him down flat.

...Wait - seats are only supposed to recline backwards, right? They are not supposed to flip forward and sandwich you...?!

As the flight was quite empty, I had three seats to myself, as did the person in front of me. And behind me. And beside me. So I sat by the aisle...and in the middle...and then at the window, getting my maximum value from the three seats. I casually flopped the seat-back forward in front of me, and enjoyed the ample legroom with my feet up. Thus relaxing and thinking about perhaps having a nap, I looked out the window at the engines and the right wing. There was only a slight lulling chop for turbulence, more like a rhythmic bouncing sensation. The plane was gently bouncing in time with the flapping of the wings.

Hey, No Sleeping in the Back Row!

Keep things moving, don't let the message get stale. It might just be time for another zinger or small surprise.

...Flapping? Yes, this was a jet - and yes, the ends of the long, slender wings were bouncing up and down, making them flap about 6 feet (2m) up and down at the wing tips. Suddenly, I began to feel nervous, and uncomfortably alert. 

I then glanced at the twin jet engines on the right side, positioned forward of the wing on long booms. Both engines were bouncing up and down.

Yes, bouncing!

The engines were not bouncing the same way, though - they counter-bounced. One went up while the other went down, about once a second.

Flap, flap, flap, bounce, bounce, bounce.

Suddenly I was very, very nervous.

Send the message home

Repetition in your message is fine, as long as you don't over do it. A common teaching practice is to "tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you have told them." Make sure to emphasize your key point - the stories and anecdotes are great, but make sure they remember the core of the message you are trying to deliver.  

I shuddered, and turned my attention back inside the aircraft. I was just in time to see the passenger in front of me rub his back against the seat. He was twisting to rub an itchy bit of his back against the side of the seat cushion, but as he did so, the entire frame of all three seats in his row visibly twisted with his movement.

At that point, I simply gave up worrying. 

If we ever crashed, nobody would ever survive. It was the longest 5 1/2 hour flight of my life.

One thing is for sure though - they had [accidentally] gained - and held - my complete and undivided attention for the entire trip.


Everybody seems to want a slice of your attention. It is no wonder people are complaining that attention spans are constantly decreasing - there is no shortage of interruptions and distractions that are all wanting a piece of you - and your time.

It used to be that the simple phrase "May I have your attention, please?" would have most of the people in the room politely turn and listen to the speaker for a decent period of time - to listen to an announcement, or perhaps a full hour-long presentation. Now, however, we seem to have grown immune to this polite request. Buzzing, chirping, ringing, tweeting, and just plain lack of social etiquette seems to be the order of the day. Even when we say we are paying attention, our fingers are itching to check email, Facebook, twitter or texts. For most of us it has become a habit - or even an addiction.

"Not me", you say - "I pay attention! Don't count me as one of those 'rude' people!"

Well, perhaps you are an exception. However, not many can resist the constant distractions surrounding us and in the palm of our hand or our pockets.

Oh, hey, but wait - I have one more interruption...

Did They Get the Message?

Hey, what about the airplane story above? How does it fit in with "getting your attention" and "communicating a message" - after all, the flight attendant spoke for barely a minute, reading off some card that apparently did not even relate to their aircraft. What 'message' were they trying to pass on? They didn't even care to get their facts straight, while *I* have an important presentation to give to a group of 500 people. I prepared for weeks - how could you even compare the two things? want the secret.

That's gonna cost you.

You gotta pay.....attention.

The important thing to remember about your message is not the actual message delivery itself. It is what the audience takes away from the experience that matters. What will they take away from their journey with you?

The anonymous flight attendant said little - but the experience spoke volumes. I learned to pay attention on aircraft - and not take my surroundings for granted. In doing so, I became very aware of how different things were - and how they could potentially affect my safety. It was, effectively, an interactive, 5 1/2 hour long self-directed "safety briefing" that started with the "hook" from the flight attendant. I learned a few more things too:

  • I learned that I may think twice about flying on that particular type of aircraft again. 
  • I came to appreciate the other aircraft I had become used to flying on, with their short-legroom, no-flip-forward seats, their non-flapping wings and engines firmly affixed to the wings in a most satisfactorily non-bouncy way.
  • I also learned that "this aircraft may be different" is not an idle threat!

When you prepare for and deliver your presentation, think as much about how you are presenting your message as what you are trying to say. You never know what the audience will actually take away from your presentation, but if you can engage them and keep up their interest in what you have to say, they may actually end up leaving with some of the message you were trying to convey.

Good luck with your projects, take care in crafting and delivering your messages - and next time you are on an airplane, pay attention to the safety briefing!

Gary Nelson, PMP

Monday, November 18, 2013

Guest Post: A Recipe for Teams

By Peter de Jager

Groups of people are most effective at completing large complicated tasks, when they’re co-operating smoothly with very little interpersonal conflict.  This is nothing more than an observation. When this happens we recognize it is a somewhat unique occurrence. So… we give it a name – we call it a ‘Team’.

When we move onto our next large complicated task, and there’s no shortage of these – we remember our last success and try to replicate the it. We remember the Teamwork and set out to re- create that same sense of co-operative team spirit. The problem is that we really don’t have an accurate understanding of why/how a group of people gel into this thing we call a ‘team’. We know it’s desirable, we know it seems to generate positive results, but we don’t really know why it happens.

Consider for a moment the inherent complexity of how people interact. If there are only six people in a group, there are 15 possible one-to-one interactions. Add one more person to the group, and the number of interactions jumps to 21 interactions. (Think of clinking wine glasses when you make a toast around the dinner table) For the sake of simplicity? I’m ignoring the many ways in which people can form cliques and how that adds to the number and types of interactions.
The simple truth is that a manager does not have the time to oversee each and every interaction within a group, anymore than a farmer can attend to each individual ear of corn in a cornfield. What a farmer does, and what we as managers must learn to do, is create an environment that is ‘friendly’ to teams and which supports their growth.

The other thing a farmer knows, and managers must embrace - Is that the ears of corn, the team members in this analogy, are going to do what comes naturally. We cannot ‘force’ people to work well together… The moment we start to use force, we almost guarantee the group will never blossom into a team.

So? Before we put on our boots and head to the fields, can we define what it is we’re going to try and re-create? What exactly is a team? A working definition is comprised of three parts. The first component is a well defined goal/objective. The second is group of people who believe that the goal is worthy of their efforts.  And the third part is a shared understanding of the roles of each individual as they work towards that goal.

That sounds simple enough – hopefully not so simple as to be useless – just simple enough to keep in mind as a starting point as we work towards our goal of creating a team.

The first part is easy enough. Defining the goal, and then communicating that definition doesn’t require any special powers. Just some good analytical skills, and the ability to communicate. Surely these are abilities well within the reach of most managers. One down, two to go.

The next piece is a little bit more difficult. Getting people to see that the goal is worthy of their efforts isn't achieved by snapping our fingers and expecting people to immediately accept our exhortations that the goal is worthy. It requires a touch of leadership ability, and an understanding of how people respond to Change. There’s nothing too difficult here, but this does require some effort on the part of the Team Leader, it doesn't just happen. Two down, one left.

Lastly we have to have everyone on the team understand two distinct things. First? How their role will contribute to the success of the team. And just as important? How the roles of everyone else will contribute to that success. How do we do this? Simple. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. All done. Well… not quite – something’s missing.
All of this is all very fine. These three components provide a good structure on which to build a team, but to be perfectly honest? There’s something missing here, and it has to do with the complexity mentioned earlier. People interact with each other, and the ‘spirit’ of a ‘team’ is encapsulated in those interactions. Given that these interactions outnumber the Manager’s ability to monitor and/or affect on an individual basis… how can a Manager affect this aspect of Team formation?

Part of the answer lies in the simple reality that people are social animals. Left to our own devices, we naturally choose to get to know each other. The more we know each other, the more we’re likely to trust each other – assuming of course that we’re trustworthy – and for the most part we are. Working together isn’t an unnatural act. We might not help a complete stranger – but most of us seem to choose to do so, but we will almost certainly help anyone with whom we have more than a passing relationship.

So? How can we capitalize on the almost hardwired aspects of human nature to create the teams required by our organizations? Just as the Farmer lets ears of corn do what ears of corn do… we should create environments/opportunities where people can do what people tend to naturally do.

If you want to see this happen… and reap some organizational benefit from human nature? Here’s a simple recipe for team building  Invite people together for an informal evening. Don’t provide food. Sooner or later – someone’s going to get hungry – that’s what humans do. Don’t order in… instead suggest that they cook a meal. Don’t have supplies on hand. A team will form that will head out for supplies (this used to be called ‘hunting’)… when they return, a team will form to cook the meal, another will form to set the table. Before your eyes a team is forming. It’s what people do.

© 2013, Peter de Jager. Peter is convinced we make things more difficult than they need to be. The answers are in front of us. He’s a Keynote Speaker, Writer and Consultant. Visit to listen some live presentations.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Guest Post: Five Essential Presentation Tips

By Peter Taylor, The Lazy Project Manager

You are already an expert on Presentation Skills – I mean, how many presentations have you suffered in your time at work? Clearly you can recognise a ‘good’ presentation and a ‘bad’ presentation. You have so much experience!

Here are my top 5 tips to improve your own Presenting Skills.

1. To Begin: Open on a high and finish on an equal high– start and finish your presentation with a story or example or key point, something that will both relax you and get the audience engaged, and leave them wanting to find out more at the end.

Getting the audience's attention right from the beginning is essential - remember the first 10 minutes window is the first point of opportunity to lose your audience, and having lost them they are very hard to get back.

2. The Content: If you talk about something you know well then rehearse to control your time and avoid getting ‘carried away’. If you don’t know the subject well then still rehearse and possibly invite people who know more than you do on the subject to be there to support you if needed.

Don’t try and deliver 100% in the presentation – takeaways/hand-outs/follow-ups etc are all acceptable (after the event)

3. Time: It’s not the volume but the message that counts. Don’t waste people’s time.

The average presentation is 60 mins – say an average audience is 100 people so this may be just 1 hour of your time but it is 100 hours of your audiences’ time. Wasted if I you are not ‘good’ – and this is equal to 4.2 days!

Last year I presented to around 7,000 people which is a potential of 292 days of wasted time if I got it wrong.

Better to prepare and deliver a great 30 minutes rather than a mediocre 60 minutes.
Hands up anyone who has ever complained about a presentation finishing early?
And be prepared to adapt to time constraints – time of day – organisers demands etc – be flexible

4. The Practicalities: Or the three Ps: 

  • Prepare, a well-rehearsed presentation will keep your audiences’ attention
  • Present, the smallest part time wise
  • Profit, Your audience should gain something from the experience

5. Break the Rules: There are a number of ‘rules’ that you may have been taught over the years.

  • 6:6:1 rule (6 bullets /6 words/1 idea on one slide) – not a bad rule but try and avoid it – use pictures instead of words, the slides (if you have slides) are for your audience and not for you!
  • Agenda - tell what are you going to tell, then tell and then tell what you have told them … absolutely not, entertain them, educate them and leave them wanting more and open to talking after the presentation
  • Thank the audience – well yes but to close this way is a very flat ending to a presentation, better to close out with a call to action or simple ‘next step’.

Break the rules and have fun with your next presentation!

You can learn a whole lot more about Presentation Skills on my Webinar that runs on 28th November 2013 - CHECK IT OUT HERE


Peter Taylor is the author of two best-selling books on ‘Productive Laziness’ – ‘The Lazy Winner’ and ‘The Lazy Project Manager’.

In the last 3 years he has focused on writing and lecturing with over 200 presentations around the world in over 20 countries and with new books out including ‘The Lazy Project Manager and the Project from Hell’, ‘Strategies for Project Sponsorship’, ‘Leading Successful PMOs’, and ‘The Thirty-Six Stratagems: A Modern Interpretation of a Strategy Classic’ - with a number of other book projects currently underway.

He has been described as ‘perhaps the most entertaining and inspiring speaker in the project management world today’ and he also acts as an independent consultant working with some of the major organizations in the world coaching executive sponsors, PMO leaders and project managers.

His mission is to teach as many people as possible that it is achievable to ‘work smarter and not harder’ and to still gain success in the battle of the work/life balance.

More information can be found at and  – and through his free podcasts in iTunes.

•    Keynote Presentations and Lectures
•    Master of Ceremonies
•    Inspirational Workshops
•    Coaching
•    Authoring

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Guest Post: Is Your Voice Being Heard?

Our world is clogged with promiscuous noise offering everything from eternal youth to creating your own avatar on Facebook. We are bombarded  relentlessly with information through more channels than we could ever have imagined.

At work.  How many emails come into your inbox each day? How many unnecessary meetings do you attend?

Walking to get your lunch. Billboards, shopfronts, audio, people with flyers.

At play. Advertising on every website, on social media, in every game.

Well intentioned information that’s shared by others to help you with your work.

The point is, we are all so submerged in information that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be heard.

Ever been presenting an idea in a meeting to see people texting or checking emails? It’s ok, go ahead, I’m listening. Ever been giving a presentation to see glazed looks in eyes or worse, people nodding off.

To cut through the clutter we need 3 things.

  • To have a sense of purpose for each piece of communication.
  • To understand what information is relevant to your audience.
  • The ability to structure the information in a way that is easily followed.

You don’t set off on a holiday without a destination do you? Even our most carefree travellers who may say, I’m off to Europe, still have a destination in mind. Where do you want your audience to be at the end of your presentation? Having a clear purpose in your mind allows us to filter irrelevant information as well as keeping ourselves on track.

Let me show you what I mean. Say I am the headmaster of a school and my purpose is to motivate my audience of Year 11 & 12 boys to eat healthier food. 

So when I’m planning my presentation do I include:
a) information on how eating well can help you live longer
b) information on how eating well gives you guns
c) information on how eating well reduces pimples, makes you look better and helps you get girls

Get it?  Purpose acts as a filter when you plan your presentation or any other important conversation.

How do you know what is relevant to your audience? Do your research. And this can be as deep as you need. Who are they? Age? Gender? Salary? Interests? What do they know about your topic? What do they need to know? What motivates them? Where do they live? What do you imagine their lives are like? Walk in their shoes. Get in their heads. When you do, you will create content that nails your target every time. And that means you’re cutting through the clutter.

So thanks to your purpose you’ve got a whole heap of relevant information.

But if you throw it out randomly you will lose your audience.  The way you structure your information is critical. Your listeners need to be taken on a clear cut journey. There are several ways to create this structure but it will always need a logical flow. Let’s go back to our teenage boys.

Not so Great Structure

Better Structure



Simply by placing the benefit up front (in this case) you have the audience’s attention.

Do not confuse being an extrovert and being able to wing it casually in front of 10 or 1000 as being a great communicator. The fact that you’re the one asked to speak at weddings and funerals may just mean you are less scared of public speaking than anyone else.

To be a great communicator you need purpose, you need relevance and you need structure BEFORE anything else. But when you can rise above the noise and articulate well in a boardroom or a ballroom you are noticed and promoted. You are seen as confident and knowledgeable. You are heard and that means you can influence, getting more of what you want.

Lynne Schinella is a professional business speaker, corporate trainer and CEO of Ripe Learning. She can be contacted on 612 9929 8989 or emailed at