Pulling weeds

Irecently had a conversation with my boss in which he said that the people promoted in our company, particularly those promoted to vice president, were those who could "make things happen." I suspect he was referring to people who are proactive, committed, able to overcome obstacles, able to think on their feet, and who can look and act like players. But it was the "make things happen" portion of his statement that kept haunting me. There is no mistaking the value of someone who can make something happen. Most organizations could use a few more of these go-getters at every level. However, I believe that there is also a critical need for people who can keep things from happening.

I don't mean someone who paralyzes the organization due to indecision or inaction, or who is afraid of challenge or change. I'm also not talking about someone who lacks vision or safeguards the status quo. Rather, I'm describing someone who knows the difference between a worthwhile, well-managed initiative and one that should never have been undertaken. In other words, someone who wants to mitigate waste.

On any given day, there are a host of unproductive and unnecessary activities that occur within every organization. Usually they go unnoticed, but occasionally they gain prominence and become visible to the organization as a whole. Because unproductive activities do not "make things happen," they become an insidious drain on organizational expertise, morale and money. Ironically, it is easy to overlook these activities simply because they do not make things happen.

Watch your garden grow

Most of us would like to make a difference by "making things happen." But sometimes it involves a greater contribution to stop wasteful activities. It has been said that this kind of work is akin to pulling weeds in a garden because it gets rid of useless items and lets new growth flourish.

But how do you keep an eye on waste? Every organization has a surplus of missions, contracts, committees, projects and pilots each begging for time, personnel and funding. And each one must be properly conceived, managed and monitored in order to yield meaningful results.

Most of an organization's activities fall into one of three categories: operations, development or discovery. While there are many events that happen within these three
areas, it is the aggregate effectiveness of all of these activities that makes the company productive, profitable and successful. For example, operational initiatives require routine evaluation to determine if the work is proceeding as planned. Still other initiatives, particularly those involving discovery and investigation, need a certain amount of nurturing in order to survive.

If people are not aware of what is going on in the organization, there is no way to effectively deploy resources as new problems and
opportunities arise. Rather than suspend the activity of a committee or project that is ineffectual or no longer required, more responsibilities are heaped upon others in the company. The result is a leveling effect in which all activities
suffer from insufficient attention and resources. Therefore, there has to be a systematic way in which
to identify and stop unnecessary works in progress.

Gather your tools

The key is knowing what needs to be done. This
requires vision and some measure of experience or preparation. The vision, however, must be a valid one that furthers the goals of the organization. Too often activity
is mistaken for productivity. Conversely, funding is usually viewed as support, while administration is misconstrued as management.

What many organizations need is an oversight committee that will put some of the company's on-
going initiatives, projects or departments out of their misery as early as possible. While most companies have standing committees with some sort of oversight function, this is usually not their primary agenda. Quite often, the goal of these committees is to merely
exist. Because of this, long-standing committees can languish, lose focus and attendance, and become a drain on the company's limited resources. The same can also be said of entire organizations whose missions are not regularly revisited.

The creation of a nonpartisan oversight committee would allow companies to determine if projects are actually in the works, if goals are being met and if projects still need to be completed. Such a committee would:

  • Provide timely, accurate information on important projects and initiatives for the purposes of resource redeployment and any necessary cost-cutting
  • Alert the organization to any problems with a project or initiative
  • Reinforce the software life-cycle methodology
  • Yield good project management practices

Ironically, the people needed to staff an oversight committee are very similar in nature to those people who can "make things happen." They have the ability to refocus some initiatives, to adjust priorities and to redeploy company resources. Yet their main job is to keep the company focused by getting answers to the following questions:

1. What is the project?

2. Can the project's goal be stated clearly and unambiguously?

3. What things must be done in order to achieve the goal?

4. How many people are involved?

5. How much does the project cost?

6. What resources are required?

7. What obstacles will the project team face?

8. Does the project still need to be done?

9. What is the timeframe for the project's completion?

10.What will happen if the project is not completed?

Prune the excess

A typical oversight committee would
review, for example, no more than a half-a-dozen projects during its weekly session. Each review would take approximately 15 to 20 minutes and would involve at least two people from each project under scrutiny. Some amount of follow-up work might also be required of the project attendees.

The following scenario has a fictitious oversight committee questioning Larry and his boss, Fred, about their remote
reporting project. The systematic question and answer session allows the committee to determine if the project is in trouble or if it is proceeding with reasonable due diligence.

OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE (OC): What is the purpose of your remote reporting

LARRY: It's a remote reporting system. An outreach program for our flagship product.

OC: Could you be more specific? Could you state the purpose of remote reporting in 50 words or less?

Larry states his understanding of remote reporting as does his boss, Fred.

OC: Do we need this product?

FRED: Sure we do. We sold it to one of our clients.

OC: Then we need it to satisfy a contractual agreement with a specific client.

FRED: That's my understanding.

OC: Who is the client?

FRED: Humongous Healthcare.

OC: Have you spoken with them?

LARRY: We took a trip up there about a month ago.

The oversight committee then requests a copy of Larry and Fred's trip report by the end of the day. However, they have been too busy building the system to write one. The committee requests that one be written and submitted no later than Thursday.

OC: Which came first, the requirement or the client?

FRED: I'm not sure what you mean.

OC: Well, did we sell something that did not exist or did the client request the product to be built to their specification?

FRED: That's up to the sales and marketing department.

OC: What is your current staffing level for this project?

LARRY: We have about five or six people working on it now.

OC: Is it five or six?

LARRY: I believe it's six, but a couple of them are not full-time employees.

OC: How long have you been working on this project and when will you be finished?

LARRY: It's been about eight months. We'll probably be done in another six months, but it's hard to tell. We've run into a lot of problems. We have to be done by May of next year because that's when the client goes live with the system.

OC: Please send us a copy of your most recent project plan and the functional
specification of the remote reporting system that the plan addresses. And please
review the terms of the contract and let this committee know, a week from now, the consequences of not delivering a working system to the client in the timeframe outlined in the contract. It's probably something you need to plan for Larry.

LARRY: But that's Contracts' responsibility, not mine.

OC: If the terms of the contract affect your development plan, then it is your
business. Make sure they are clear to you before our next meeting. We expect you to explain how they affect your project and what contingencies you will be preparing in the event that you cannot honor the terms of the contract.

OC: Oh, by the way, Larry, have you ever run a project of this size and complexity?

LARRY: No, but software development
is software development. It's all pretty much the same stuff.

If the existence of an oversight committee smacks too much of Big Brother for the purposes of your company, then a simple, weekly questionnaire might be a good start. Better yet, make it a secure, online, Web-based questionnaire or an addendum to the weekly status report. Honest answers to the above questions can go a long way in pinpointing poor organization, bad staffing decisions and ineffectual management. It also stops waste before it ever gets started and allows essential projects to flourish.