The following summaries are from slides and discussions in my classes and sessions for Entrepreneurs at Silicon Valley accelerators. Please keep in mind that each section is like the foam on the top of a cup of coffee, and only suggests the depths of the topic rather than actually going there.
Time Boxing is the project management method where we take something that is hard to define as "done" and give it a deadline for completion in the project. In effect, we're saying, "Whatever version of this we have on May 1 is what we're going with."
An easy example to follow is setting the schedule for a film. The screenplay defines most of the rest of the project, and very little work can be done before the script is complete.
If you have four months to make your movie you might allow 1 month to write the script, because if it takes any longer there won't be time to execute the other parts of the project at a high quality level. It's hard to know when a script is "good enough to be called 'done'," but by time-boxing the script writing process we can actually plan the complete production.
The script may still change later, but the version at the end of the time allowed on the schedule is the version used for planning everything else.
The Components of Company Culture
I was fortunate enough to be a student in the master class of company culture that was the start-up phase of Electronic Arts, which is where I learned much of what is summarized on this list.
Culture is the greatest single factor in recruiting and retaining great people.
Here are the components as I see it:
1. Leaders acknowledge that there is a company culture and that consciously managing it is a big part of their job. If no one manages culture it will go in self-contradicting directions, robbing the company of energy (and thus time and money).
2. How the leader(s) act. You can give a three-page dissertation on culture to everyone on the team, but it will have little impact on company culture. The team sees how the leader or leaders conduct themselves, and that role model defines much of the real culture of the company. The same rule applies to how kids see their parents.
3. Values. They may not describe it in those terms, but all great companies are values driven.
- Apple is driven by a fanatical focus on design and usability.
- Zappos is built around trust: trusting its sales and support team members to do what it takes to make customers happy, trusting customers by offering free and easy returns.
- At a more detailed level, I build my teams on principles including a) we are out to do something great and meaningful (not just good); b) that everyone will show respect for every individual on the team and for their families; and c) that all team members' ideas matter and we can all debate issues prior to final decisions being made.
4. Great, not good. The best teams have a culture that is some flavor of a maniacal focus on quality in what they do.
5. Hiring is the key to culture. If the leaders are setting a strong example for a culture, the new people they add to the team have to share those same values. Even if we desperately need to fill a certain position, as CEO I will veto a hire if I feel they are a bad fit with the company culture, because they'll cost us more time and money than we'd gain by having them.
6. The little things matter. You'll notice I never refer to having employees, only team members. That's to avoid the subservient implication of "employer-employee" and to emphasize my respect for the judgment of each individual.
As my long-time board member and ally Tony La Russa likes to point out, athletes on the field do not constantly ask their coach or manager what to do. They make most decisions based on their experience and training, and check with a manager only in key situations where there are multiple options.
The Project Management Triangle
Image: Creative Commons
The scope (features, size, complexity) of a project, its schedule and its budget have to start out in a reasonable balance and stay there, and any imbalance affects product quality. Getting two of the three right is a lot easier than getting all three!
Teams and/or managers sometimes rationalize that scope can be increased "just by working harder" without changing the other two variables. In some cases this is true for small changes and short durations, but it is not sustainable if the team is already working with determination and efficiency.
The CLEARR Checklist for Project Management
Regardless of what project management system, tools or methods you use, I came up with this CLEARR acronym as a checkoff list for the key contributors to schedule, budget and quality problems. I use and recommend Agile Development as a production system (see book reference below) but the CLEARR checklist applies to any approach.
If all these questions are answered with "Yes, though there are issues in some of the details each week" you're probably in pretty good shape. If one or more of them jump out as a problem that's an area you need to address to avoid major delays, costs and/or quality issues.
The CLEARR List:
Clarity: Does every team member know a) what they are supposed to be doing today (this week, this month), b) by when, c) how they'll know that the work is complete (i.e. completion criteria), and d) how that ties in to the overall project?
Leadership: Is someone directing the team and filling in the gaps whenever any of the questions on this list are unanswered or inaccurately answered?
Efficiency: Is each team member always looking for the most efficient and productive way to do things on the project and making the best use of each day?
Accountability: Is it noted and recorded when anyone does not do what they said they were going to get done, including when the leader is the one who misses a task or target? Is there any consequence based on the circumstances of each individual event?
Everyone is going to have a small problem here or there and a task will run a little off schedule, and they can find ways to make up the time -- these are not issues for management action. If a major task is missed or someone habitually misses commitments then management needs to pay attention, acknowledge Reality and react.
Routine: Does the team have set processes and pipelines for getting things done, so the project "seems to run itself" because we have the routine parts all worked out and we just have to focus on special cases and exceptions? (As opposed to always having confusion about how work is to be done, when and by whom.)
Reality: Did the team start the project with a realistic schedule, budget and specification for the work being done? Is the current version of the plan also realistic?
Basic Level Product Planning Methodology
(Note: I prefer to use "Agile" project management (see book reference below), but for teams that do not do so this is a basic framework to start from).
1. List what needs to be done each month of the project in very broad terms without lots of details in order to hit the deadline. Include the name of the individual or team who will complete this item or task, and the definition by which we'll know it's done (e.g. the user interface is running in the app before it's considered to be done, not just mocked up on a screen or concept piece.) If some other key element must be completed first then list it (e.g. we cannot add the roof to the building until the walls have been completed.)
2. For the first month or two (depending on how clear the goals and obstacles may be) break that broad view down into what has to be completed each week, by whom and how we'll know it's done, along with any dependencies on other things being completed.
3. For the first week (and each successive week as you come to it) list what needs to be done each day, by whom, how you'll know it's done and any dependencies.
Meet briefly as a team at the start of each day and have each individual share what was completed yesterday, what they're going to complete (not just "work on") today, and any issues that need to be discussed after the meeting. Having the meeting participants stand up instead of sit makes this meeting go much faster and more efficiently.
15-minute Weekly Project Management System
1. Each team member answers the following question orally with their manager and peers as part of a short weekly meeting: "What are the two most important things I absolutely positively have to get done in the next seven days?"
The GM or CEO should also answer the same question for the company as a whole.
2. Have a place where each team member in a small team can see and comment on each others' answers. It could be an all-hands email, a printout posted on a bulletin board or an employee-only web page.
3. At the end of the week each person writes "yes" or "no" next to each of their two personal goals, and shares this in a meeting or public document. Then go to step 1 for the next week and repeat.
4. Alternate choice: Adopt agile project methodologies and use scrums to achieve the same goals.
Agile Product Management Methods Book Links
My favorite (probably because it's the one our team and I learned on): Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber
I also understand that this is a good book, maybe even better than the one I used: Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide to the Most Popular Agile Process by Kenneth S. Rubin