Project juggling (and trying to stay sane)

No one trusts me with staff because I am a maniac – a professional, focused, ethical maniac – but still not the sort one promotes to management positions. This is also partly because I went and formed my own company where I don’t have employees, only subcontractors.

But now, in the midst of being the project manager for Y2K-spawned PC desktop rollouts, I find myself managing five people who report directly to me, plus dozens of people who my client has loaned to me on either a full or part time basis.

Now I know why the managers I used to work for at the beginning of my career were insane.

Like many people, when I find myself in a bind I go looking for advice. My sister was called in because she has successfully run IT projects with 120 people on them and still forms complete sentences when I talk to her on the phone. Until recently, I thought what she did was magic (older sisters are like that) but since my current project of about 20 people was starting to send me over the edge, I decided to ask what her secret was.

It turns out to be a fairly simple three-step process:

be a tyrant about status reports;

have a person or two you trust to tell you the real story keep an eye out for you; and,

develop clairvoyance.

Honestly, I’m not much on status reports because I haven’t read one yet that has made sense or, by the time I got to it, was so out of date to be misleading. Fortunately, being project manager allows you to specify the format of the status reports. What I prefer is a central database or project plan into which people input the results of their work. This approach only works if you can easily tell if someone has skipped updating and the project plan itself is comprised of tasks sufficiently discrete to have meaning.

Even if you can’t get decent status reports from your staff, why not try simply noting what the hell you yourself are working on? This is a great act of self discipline. I track my hours based on notes made in my journal. At the end of a week when I can’t figure out what the hell my notebook says, I know that I’m working in a confused and deranged manner. Unfortunately my staff thinks this is normal.

Trusting no one, or at least trusting people within the limits of their ethical nature (i.e. don’t let the company drunk organize the Christmas party) is a common business philosophy. However, at some point or some level, you have to trust someone. Logic agrees with my sister: put those you do trust in locations of importance. This sounds like hiring a spy, which it pretty much is. However, as the workers are all on the same team, only the truly stunned ones haven’t figured out who the not-so-undercover operative is.

This arrangement has allowed me to hear weird stories about activities in Toronto – while I’m in Vancouver – and have the ability to instantly call someone up and say, “What’s all this, then?”

Clairvoyance actually is easy to develop. When you have a nagging feeling you can’t quite pinpoint, drop what you are doing and listen to your inner voices (excluding those going on about food and sex). For example, a group responsible for providing data to my project is not calling me or e-mailing me for more information. I know the specs I gave them were fundamentally lame. What could they be doing? Not much, I figure. They aren’t even far enough along to blow smoke. Basically if you sense that something is amiss, it likely is.

If juggling a project is so simple – via clairvoyance, tracking results and hiring spies – why am I finishing this article at 12:46 a.m. after a twelve-hour day? I think I’ll put myself into a trance and let the answer come to me.

Ford is a Vancouver-based systems consultant. He can be reached at