by Carl Pritchard
There's now less than a year to go until we hit 2012, the year that the Mayan calendar runs out; the year of endless calamity; the year that the world is supposed to cave in on us. Pretty dramatic stuff. If you were one of the few who saw the movie (2012), you may be thinking that the corporate five-year plan is just a paper exercise, since we'll be back to stone knives and bearskins in no time.
I'm actually a believer. I don't believe that 2012 will be a pivotal, cataclysmic year, but I do believe that from a project management perspective, we should act as if it will be. With a fatalistic view of reality comes a perspective of urgency, legacy, and innovation. It's time to start thinking like there's no tomorrow.
At some point, most of us have played the game "What would you do if this were your last day on Earth?" If we knew it was coming, many of us would try to squeeze as much life into that day as possible. We would try to accomplish more and make our efforts more meaningful than they might otherwise be. Procrastination would come to an abrupt halt as we realized there is no tomorrow.
Some managers are very effective at creating that aura of urgency around their projects, and leverage it with the "there's-no-tomorrow" attitude. They are able to generate higher levels of both excitement and energy in their teams as they push team members with a sense of immediacy. As long as time itself is not essential for success, this sense of urgency can be created with little or no harm to the project, and the benefits can be legion. Team members commit to shorter-term goals. Management gets a sense of short-term progress and visible headway. The accomplishments build one on the next, leading to longer-term progress.
I should stress that this is an "all-things-in-moderation" consideration. Push the urgency button too frequently, and it begins to sound like needless alarmism. But properly executed, it can be powerful and effective. In developing a software program in the mid-1990s, I took over after two false starts by my predecessors that had cost the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars. Creating near-term, urgent milestones shortly after taking over generated both the sense of progress and the sense of accomplishment that both management and the team required to believe in the project anew.
Progress is a beautiful thing only if it's meaningful progress. If 2011 is to be our last year, many of us will be focused on making it count, and leaving behind something for future generations (or travelers from other worlds) to find. As we take a "no-tomorrow" attitude toward the year ahead, we should be thinking about the artifacts that will represent our legacy. The deliverables that we produce this year become the artifacts that others will unearth and review time and again. It's up to us to make them meaningful.
I had to completely rebuild a laptop over the Christmas holiday. In going through some of the support documentation, I was genuinely thinking about the team that created it. There were moments when I could only think of words of praise for the legacy of insight they left behind. There were also times I wished I could have beaten them with their own PDF files. I'm sure that when they created that document half a decade ago they weren't thinking about me. But throughout the process, I wished they had been. It was clear when their efforts had been exercises in linguistic legerdemain and when they truly achieved expository clarity.
We should commit in the year ahead to remind our teams of the value of long-term foresight. If this is the only piece of work that you ever do that anyone of importance sees, will it represent you well? That's a powerful and important question we should encourage those we work with to ask themselves.
Calamity (or the impending sense thereof) drives innovation. For better or worse, the catastrophes of world wars and 9/11 compelled some of the most significant and dramatic technical leaps forward of our time. From harnessing the atom to finding new and clever ways to image the human form, innovation is born of necessity. As we forge into the year ahead, we should encourage those around us to take a "no-tomorrow" attitude, rather than assuming that same-old, same-old is going to be satisfactory.
There's a classic Far Side cartoon that depicts two fishers dangling their lines from the boat while they watch a trio of nuclear blasts mushroom on the horizon. One man turns to the other and says, "I'll tell you what this means, Norm ... no size restrictions and screw the limit." The classic risks are out the window. It's a completely new paradigm. If we can get team members to adopt that paradigm, even in short blasts, we can spur innovation. It's innovation borne not just of immediacy, but of a lack of conventional rules and restrictions.
The next time a meeting topic feels frustrating or futile, consider asking your team members what they would do if they were on Norm's boat. At a recent client meeting, team members were wasting an enormous amount of time complaining about the lack of simple equipment and certain office supplies. The dam broke when one team member finally chimed in with "The heck with it. I'm going to go to the office supply store and buy the stuff myself." For a $45 investment in office supplies, he became a rule-breaker, renegade and hero to his team.
As we peer one year into the future, we can look into a world where everything looks pretty much the same as it did last year, or we can see the apocalyptic nightmare that some say the Mayans predicted. In either case, we have a one-year window to innovate and generate a powerful legacy. In the words of Gary Larson, I'll tell you what this means, Norm ... no size restrictions and screw the limit.
Carl Pritchard is trying new things this year, with a 30-PDU PMI-RMP® exam prep podcast package available from www.carlpritchard.com. He also welcomes your comments and thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.