Friday, April 07, 2006

Love is like oxygen...

Andrew, Chelsea and my wife Susan at Sequoia National Park.

Good morning Andrew. Let's talk about what we learned on vacation last week about building and managing a camp fire. There are some great lessons in life that can be learned from that experience (like staying upwind of the smoke).

Do you recall what I spent most of my time doing as I was managing that fire? Was I busy managing the matches? No, we effectively used 1 match to get the fire start and then I safely put them away. Did I spend a lot of time putting wood on the fire? Not really. Once we set up the kindling and started feeding larger branches and logs onto the fire, I didn't really spend too much time with the wood. As you may recall, I spent most of my time managing the oxygen around the fire pit by blowing on the hot coals under the fire.

Oxygen is vital in a fire. It is one of the three elements required for a fire along with heat and fuel. Not enough oxygen available to a fire will cause the fire to never get to that raging stage that we were all expecting. Here's why our expectation for a raging fire to toast our smores was extinguished. Do you recall how the fire pit we used was actually below ground level? This made it difficult for oxygen to get to the fire so I had to occasionally blow onto the hot coals under the fire to provide enough oxygen to keep the fire going. A better situation would have been to have a ring of rocks on top of the ground to build the fire in. This allows for cooler air (more oxygen in cooler air) to be pulled in through the sides of the fire ring, between the rocks, rather than having heated air (heated from the fire itself) pulled down into the fire pit.

As people stand back and admired a good fire, what is it that they are most impressed with - what do they notice and comment on? It's either the intense heat generated, the height of the flames or the amount of wood being consumed by the fire. Nobody is saying 'Wow, look at all the oxygen that is being consumed by the fire!'

So you may be asking, how does this relate to being a Project Manager? Well Andrew, I like to think of an effective development team as a well oiled machine or, to continue with the theme of this posting, a raging fire. The fire (developers) consumes the fuel (requirements) to generate heat (value to the customer). And just like nobody noticing the oxygen in a fire, you probably won't notice the Project Manager on a highly effective development team.

Let me give you a couple of real world examples of effective project managers to help bring home this point:

Marjorie is one of my two favorite ThoughtWorks project managers. She is insightful, articulate and fun to talk with. Marjorie refers to herself not as a project manager but a Utility Infielder. By this she means that she is willing to fill any roll in order to get a project completed. She can step into any position and perform effectively to keep the team moving forward. And if all positions on the field are filled she won't be just sitting idle on the bench, she will be keenly watching everything that is going on at all positions as she may be called upon to fill one of those positions at moment. She is also constantly cheering on her teammates and providing insights of the game to her teammates.

Mark is the best project manager from any client that I have ever worked with. He is tenacious at removing roadblocks that keeps his developers from working optimally. As a result, developer love working for him. Mark is so good at optimizing his team's efforts that two of his developers have been recognized and rewarded within the company for their tremendous contributions. All the while Mark is getting average ratings on his reviews from his manager.

Many project managers don't really understand what I am teaching you here because they get into project management for power or recognition. Empowering others is not on their agenda. But these concepts do resonate with some. These are the project managers who either consciously or intuitively know how to be Servant Leaders.

So Andrew, why do you think there are so few Servant Leaders in project manager roles? It would seem like project management would be a great place for Servant Leaders to migrate into. The reason is that Servants Leaders must have a 'credible, just cause' (Great Boss Dead Boss by Ray Immelman) we are working for. We must be 'running to great purpose' (The Serving Leader by Ken Jennings). Servant Leaders love project management but we also love the reasons for doing the projects in the first place. A 'great purpose' is the oxygen for the fire within a Servant Leader.