Archives for category: risk

“If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” – Henry Ford

Asking our customers, clients, stakeholders what they want in a new product, service, brand is what we do, right?  I don’t think Mr. Ford was indicating otherwise. His point was that sometimes (many times?) our customers don’t have the creativity, vision, inhibition to articulate how “what they want” actually looks, feels, tastes, smells.

Many times, our job is to take the essence of what our customers are asking for and put it in a whole new package. Something they wouldn’t have thought of — but that they love!

Listen, hear, and deliver something completely original.


I was introduced to the concept of “wicked problems” during a facilitation I did for an internal customer. They were grappling with the global issue of maintaining healthy weight in pets. Pet obesity is a big problem (no pun intended.) The group had previously approached this problem through exhaustive research and development.  Solutions ranged from label changes, nutritional guides, recipe changes, scoop size, and others.  The problem continues.

Their current approach (and the reason for the facilitated session) was to seek external and somewhat unrelated expertise to look at the problem through a set of different lenses.  It was during this session that one of the external experts introduced us to the concept of a “wicked problem.”  A wicked problem meets the following criteria (Conklin):

  • The problem is an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints. Indeed, there is no definitive statement of the problem. You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.
  • There are many stakeholders-people who care about or have something at stake in how the problem is resolved. This makes the problem solving process fundamentally social. Getting the right answer is not as important as having stakeholders accept whatever solution emerges.
  • The constraints on the solution, such as limited resources and political ramifications, change over time. The constraints change, ultimately, because we live in a rapidly changing world. Operationally, they change because many are generated by the stakeholders, who come and go, change their minds, fail to communicate, or otherwise change the rules by which the problem must be solved.
  • Since there is no definitive Problem, there is no definitive Solution.  The problem-solving process ends when you run out of time, money, energy, or some other resource, not when some perfect solution emerges.

Sound familiar? There are super-wicked problems like climate change, corrupt political systems, poverty and others.  You have probably dealt with some wicked problems yourself, including:

  • Organizational cultural changes
  • Knowledge management
  • Business Strategy
  • Education systems

It was nice to have a term to apply to these ever-changing, frustrating, energy-draining problems. So what can you do about it?  Remember, there are no definitive solutions, these problems don’t really go away.   Here’s a paper by Jeff Conklin, PhD that points us in the right direction.  Enjoy!

Put First Things First helps you identify and eliminate unimportant activities that rob you of your time. This allows you to focus on what matters most in your personal and professional lives. – 7 Habits Intro Workshop Workbook

What do you do all day? Think about it. Can you give an honest, accurate answer? Are there days where the work day ends and you feel you didn’t accomplish anything? You were at work, right? You did stuff, correct? Did you do the right stuff, is the question.

Habit 3 is all about doing the work that matters most. Putting on your to list and schedule what should be there and sticking with it. Having the discipline to avoid distractions and to politely say no. In this post I’ll summarize this very important habit and then tie it to project management at the end.

Covey presents us with a 4-block time matrix:

Revisiting the programmer metaphor, in Habit 1 we are the programmer. In Habit 2 we write the program. In Habit 3 we execute the program and put it into action. The goal here is to maximize our time in Quadrant II. Quad2 is where we can be proactive and most effective. We are not constantly reacting and putting out fires. We are planned and focused.

This doesn’t mean that fires don’t erupt and have to be put out. That is inevitable and the quicker you accept that the less frustrated you will be adhering to any disciplined planning system. The goal of focusing in Quad2 is that we get to do some fire prevention. We are building relationships, thinking ahead and then focusing our time on the right activities.

As part of Habit 3, Covey encourages us to plan on a weekly basis. Look at your personal mission statement and goals. Understand your different roles, Then, plan accordingly. Be sure to schedule in time for reflective thought and exercise. Don’t make it an “if I get time” appointment. Because, most likely, you won’t get time.

Intuitively, we all know that we can be more efficient with our time. We all want to get out of “catch up” mode. The work doesn’t stop coming, so we need to make decisions as to what tasks we will work. If you aren’t positive what you spend your time doing each day try this exercise. Take a sheet of lined paper. On the left side write the time you start your day at work (i.e. 8:00 a.m.). Then each time you change a task write down the time you changed and what task you become engaged with. For example, if you start your day at 8:00 a.m. reading email then that is your first line. 5 minutes later you answer the phone. Mark that on the sheet at 8:05 a.m. Phone call. Continue through the day. At the end of your day review the sheet and you will get some valuable insight as to truthfully where you are spending your time.

With respect to the practice of Project Management, I equate Habit 3 with the PMs responsibility to keep the project team focused on working within scope and addressing goals, objectives and requirements. Many projects operate primarily in Quadrant 1. Pressing deadlines and customer demands drive the project. My observations are that at least some of the conflict and stress in these projects can be reduced if the team as a whole were focused from the beginning on Quad2. Consider these factors:

  • Risk Management: This is a very proactive activity that is important, but not urgent.
  • Stakeholder communication: Informing and building relationships with the proper project stakeholders can prevent issues and changes late in the project.
  • Team building: Do what you can to orient the team to one another. Ensure that the mentality is that we are in this as a team and there will be a no-blame policy.
  • Consistent project review: Whether you do it yourself or their is someone assigned from the PMO to work with you, you should be reviewing your project on at least a weekly basis. Look at the issues log and risk log. Review open actions and ensure there is ownership and due dates. Talk to your project team to be sure they have what they need and no new roadblocks have appeared

Do you have other suggestions? Let other readers know by posting a comment!