The two thirds slump

Every project I have ever worked on big, small, simple or complex has had one of these

Amazingly, the project management books don’t mention it, most websites ignore it and I’ve never seen it on any project management course syllabus but for all that it’s a real phenomenon that can be upsetting and destructive.

So what is the slump?

It’s a general listlessness, frustration, depression or general sense of negativity that settles on a project. It results in arguments, lacklustre performance and extended deadlines. It’s destructive and annoying and at its worst it threatens the very viability of your project.

People tend to get angry and there will be spats and full blown arguments. If you’re really unlucky a fist fight will ensue but that’s a rarity thank goodness!

But overall the project will tend to suffer because people who are happy work better. People who are unhappy don’t.

What causes it?

When you start off a project everything is new. People are all enthused and every day is a discovery. Sure there are challenges but there’s loads of low hanging fruit to grab.

The problem of course is that team members get addicted to achieving. They expect everything to be easy and when something isn’t then it gets put on a back burner until later. Unfortunately later turns up, usually at about the two thirds mark. The team isn’t having as many successes as it once had and every task is a slog. It gets old really quickly.

The project sponsor is probably a high achiever. They are in demand and when the project launches it is the most important thing in their to do list. After a while though other things come along. These things distract their attention and they drift away, if not physically then certainly mentally. The team then isn’t getting the attention it needs or deserves.

Finally people start to forget where they have come from. It’s a natural human trait but we tend to forget what things used to be like. It often manifests itself as rose tinted spectacles, but on a project it typically turns up as people forgetting all the great work their team has done and focusing on the remaining issues.

What can you do about it?

Well for a start employ an experienced project manager. A good PM will have seen this before so it won’t come as a surprise and just like a good football manager he’ll realise that some people will need a kick, some an arm round the shoulder but all the team will need attention and re-energising.

Next – get the project sponsor involved. They don’t have to do a lot but one thing they do need to do is to provide energy and enthusiasm for a vital company project. Get them to reaffirm how important this is to the company and what a great job the team have done.

Keep a success log. Make sure it’s visible and review it regularly. It will help your team to remember what they have already achieved in the project so far and how well they have done.

Make sure that everyone keeps their eyes on the prize. Especially in smaller companies there will be pressure on peoples time and priorities. Ensure that the whole company understands why this is so important to the firm.

Have a non project day. Ban everyone from working on the project, close it down for just a day and if the budget will stretch have an event. Only one rule – no project talk.

Lastly don’t give up. The project was a good idea at the start, a good idea last month and just because there have been a few bumps along the way it doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea now. Push on through and before long you’ll find that actually you’re nearer the end than you thought!

If you’re not the customer…

…then you’re the product

I took the title for my latest post from this blog by Seth Godin here Seth’s blog

He makes a very good point that if you are getting something for free then you are probably the product.

We hear a lot in the business world about ‘monetization’. In other words how to take something and turn it into cash.

You can monetize a box of widgets by selling them to a customer. You can monetize your addressbook by selling the email addresses and facebook, linkedin, Google+ and all these other lovely free services monetize you by selling access to you.

In this lovely connected world one of the problems we face is actually only being connected when we want to be. I fully expect to see companies sprouting up offering to disconnect you so that you aren’t marketed at 24/7.

Of course I’m not sure how they’ll monetize that service.

Sometimes things go right

Sometimes things go right.

In my job there are often times when it gets very tedious. You spend a lot of time crossing Ts and dotting Is.

That’s because it’s all about detail and preparation. If you put the groundwork in then nine times out of ten things will go well. If you don’t then you’re in the lap of the gods.

Today things went well. We spent time getting detail right, practicing, testing and finally doing.

It was a boring job – migrating a clients chart of accounts from an old state of affairs to a new, shiny, tidy version.

The best compliment was when the users looked at me as though I was mad when I spent time walking the floor asking if everything was OK. 

 After all – why wouldn’t it be?

Numbers and levers

In the second of this series I’m looking at why you should always present a number with a lever attached.

When you present numbers to a director or a manager what do they want?

Generally if you ask they’ll say words like ‘clarity’ or ‘understanding’ but in fact what they are really after is the information to make a decision.

The question they are really asking is ‘should I pull this lever’.

Levers can be all sorts of things – ‘do I increase my adwords spend?’, ‘Should we buy more stock?’, ‘Where should we invest our surplus cash?’

What’s important is what drives your business. There’s actually very few drivers for most businesses. British Airways for example found that the one Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for their business was the gate turnaround time. If they turned their very expensive aircraft round quickly they were able to run more routes thus increasing their profit.

The question you need to ask is ‘what thing drives my business?’ There may be more than one of course but it’s unlikely there’d be more than say half a dozen.

Some examples of drivers

If you run a shop then a key performance indicator could be the sales per square foot. If  you change your stock mix, increase your prices or bring in new lines then it’s likely that your sales per square foot will be affected. Make a change and watch how your KPI changes. You then know whether you should pull the lever that says ‘buy different stock’.

A bakery might monitor waste. If you throw a lot of bread away then it suggests you’re either not baking what people want to buy or simply baking too much. It tells you to pull the lever marked ‘change your bake plan’.

A transport company may monitor MPG. When the vehicles start using more fuel then they are either worn and in need of replacement or a service.

Of course there are things that really aren’t KPIs with levers attached. Monitoring your rent is usually not productive. Most firms rent doesn’t change month on month and because they are tied to a lease there’s little they can actually do about it. No lever. Reporting the rent is simply confusing the picture.

In summary then the figures you report need to be something you can affect by your behaviour. A lever is something that is not only variable but can be affected by management action and all figures reported must have a lever attached.


6 Golden rules of presenting numbers

If you’re put in charge of presenting a lot of numerical data to a group then what can you do to make sure people see what you need them to see?

The first in this series is a list of golden rules to abide by to make your presentations stand out.

There will be more editions giving you further specific advice to help you with presentation coming soon.

1 Never present a number that doesn’t have a lever attached-

Seriously what’s the point? It may give you or your audience a sense of comfort to know there are loads of numbers floating around the organisation but if you can’t do anything with them then they are just so much noise.

2 Less is more – 

Don’t confuse quantity with quality. Focus on presenting just a few key metrics. The things that really drive the business instead of putting a number to every aspect of the firm and then printing them on a tree.

3 Space on the page should stay just that –

Lots of blank white space focuses the eye on the number you want people to see. Don’t use a lot of interesting and funky graphics, lines, colours or shading. Leave it clean and crisp and to the point.

4 Just because you can doesn’t mean you should –

No seriously, we know you’re good at excel, that’s why you’re where you are but just because excel 2013 can do sparklines doesn’t mean every sheet should have them. Steer away from the fancy stuff and go for understanding rather than pretty graphics. Whilst we’re about it backgrounds are an absolute no-no.

5 Always add context-

Numbers without context are just so much hamster bedding. The skill of a high level manager is not to produce accurate numbers (we kind of assume you’ll do that anyway) but it’s the richness of interpretation that adds real value to an organisation. Add (short) commentaries of why readers should care that Gross Profit is down and you’re getting there.

6 Always ask ‘Why?’-

Whenever you’re adding a feature, a metric or a format to a page ask yourself why. Does it add anything? If someone asks you to add in another figure to an already full sheet then ask them why. What specific insight is it that they hope to gain?

Now it may be that you’re in a regulated industry and you have to report in a specific way with specific information. In which case you should ignore all of the above because you’re not allowed to rewrite the governing body’s report structure. but for other internal reports you should use the above rules and go for clean, insightful pages that cut to the chase and you’ll be surprised how much more fruitful the discussions will be.


The more I practice

I heard a story once…


Arnold Palmer* was playing in a major when he hit a drive into a bunker on the edge of the green. He strolled up, selected a sand wedge, chipped the ball out of the bunker onto the green and it rolled neatly into the hole. Behind him a spectator muttered something about him being lucky. Palmer turned to the unfortunate chap and said ‘you know what, the more I practice, the luckier I get’.

It’s interesting because recently I’ve been getting that feeling. Not about golf (I’m a lousy player) but about work.

The more effort I put in, the more background reading I do, the more I talk to people and the more training, testing and modelling I do, the better things go.

Sometimes I can see people giving me the old ‘why is he asking that question? Of course we’ve thought of it.’ But the truth is that you can never assume that people have thought the same way you do and checked what you would have.

In the future I’ll be writing some of my findings from the world of project management. It’d be cool to think that maybe somewhere in the world, someone’s project went a little bit smoother because of a lesson I learnt on a tiny project in a little company somewhere in Dorset.


* Of course I’ve heard this story recounted many times since. Often it’s a different golfer involved and the wording is slightly different. Maybe it’s true, maybe not. Funnily enough this doesn’t seem to matter because the point is the same. Practice, preparation and effort all make a difference.