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What I’m reading: January 2015

What I'm reading January 2015This post contains affiliate links.                

I’ve complained before about not having much time to read but things are getting better now I have shifted my commute so I actually get a seat on the train in the mornings. I cannot adequately explain how much better this makes my day, even though it means leaving the house at 6.15am.

At that time in the morning I’m not sharp (especially as I haven’t had breakfast or any coffee) but depending on how often I had to get up in the night with the boys I now have a choice of dozing, reading, doing emails or almost any other train-bound activity of my choice. It’s great.

This month I celebrated my new-found seated status with Jeffrey Archer’s book, Be Careful What You Wish For. I read it in two days and I can’t tell you anything about it as practically any comment I make will be a spoiler. Sorry. But it’s good.

I have also read Susanne Madsen’s The Power of Project Leadership. There will be an interview with Susanne next month, and a full book review at some point too. It’s a really practical guide to leading projects with plenty of exercises and examples, so if you have ever wondered how to ‘do’ leadership then this will help. The publisher has offered me an exclusive discount: Get 25% off her book using the discount code PM4G25 when you order it from their website before 6 April 2015 (and it’s on Amazon too).

I’ve been re-reading bits of Making Things Happen by Scott Berkun after a reader got in touch and asked me for a recommendation. He wondered if he should buy that one or Richard Newton’s The Project Management Book. Scott’s is better if you don’t have that much experience in project management as it is life cycle based. Richard’s will give you more advanced tips and tricks for dealing with everyday project scenarios, so it depends on where you are in your career.

Get Fit With The Lazy Project Manager turned up on my desk and it’s for next week’s giveaway, but – shocker – I’m reading it before I give it away. So, person who wins, you better hope I’m done before the deadline or there will be in delay in dispatching it to you. Don’t worry, I’m looking after it – it’s not a commuting read.

Jack can help with the daily reading of Stick Man: “Stick Man, oh Stick Man, beware of the…” “Dog!” he shouts. It’s still good even after all the reads, but it’s long enough to limit to just one read per day. Oh, and I’ve also read Percy’s Chocolate Crunch about 97 times. Who could ever tire of a train that crashes into a chocolate factory?

That actually looks like quite a lot of books. I’m impressed with myself! The challenge for next month? Read Susan Greenfield’s Mind Change. I’ve got the hardback version which is going to add some weight to my laptop bag. Let’s catch up next month and I’ll tell you how I’ve done.

Read anything good recently? Let us know in the comments.


Book review: Trust in Virtual Teams

trust in virtual teams2

Trust matters because it helps build a resilient project team. It helps get things done. Trusted team members not only do only what is asked, but what the project needs them to do, because they know that the project manager will trust their decisions and actions.  Trust is a shortcut to better working relationships and better project outcomes.

That’s the premise behind Thomas P. Wise’s book, Trust in Virtual Teams. It’s a (pretty academic) guide to explaining trust and building trust in virtual teams. But first, you have to understand what a virtual team is.

A new definition of virtuality

Wise says that virtual teams are traditionally defined by distance. However, he suggests that a definition based on geography is an old-fashioned way of explaining virtuality in a team environment.

You probably have worked in an office where project team members sit practically next to each other emailing each other, and that use of electronic communication means they could be based thousands of miles apart – their working environment and style makes them part of a virtual team, regardless of where they actually sit. For me, this was the big revelation from the book. Up until now I had always thought of virtual teams as being spread across multiple locations, but the modern way if working really means that most of us are part of virtual teams, even if we are office-based.

Building trust

Trust in Virtual TeamsIn the past trust was built through sharing small confidences and water cooler chat. It comes from knowing that your colleague will make your cup of tea just how you like it. But on virtual teams you don’t have the interaction that you have in colocated teams. So how do you build trust when you never get to meet or talk to your colleagues and there are days of silence between email exchanges?

“Team members learn to trust one another as they come together to work,” says Wise. He talks about them having a connectedness through a common vision that helps them work effectively.

However, in virtual teams you may find that trust is initially based on stereotypes. Wise warns that not conforming to stereotypes can actually undermine the development of trust. I’m not sure if I agree with this as a long term strategy for getting your team to trust you, but it would be interesting to investigate this further.

Other things that you can do more easily to build trust, he says, include acting predictably and working from facts. In other words, if you say your project report will come out every Friday at 3pm, make sure it does. And make sure that it reports facts, not opinion.

Dealing with problems

“A problem can occur, however, when we establish a set of rules on how work gets done, and then have a tendency to bend and stretch, and adjust the rules based on unpublished pecking orders and hierarchies,” Wise writes. This is what happens when you don’t act predictably and from the basis of facts. An example of this happening in a project environment would be when it’s ok not to do documentation because it helps hit the overall project deadlines.

Virtual teams are traditionally defined by distance, but today they are defined by working environment and style.

In order to get round this, Wise says: “We must align our goals, our rules, and our actions in order to establish an environment that can build and nourish institutional based trust.”

He recommends doing this through Quality Assurance on projects (which is discussed in detail) and transparent project reporting. He also says that it is possible to improve success in virtual teams by using techniques like human resource policy, social events, information sharing through social media tools, training and leadership support.

Team members tend to avoid difficult situations in the early days of working on a new team, so you might think everything is working fine until you get a bit further into the project. The difficult situations are pushed aside and dealt with later, when trust has been built up. “Establishing both a trust relationship and an effective virtual work environment, based on that trust, is critical to reducing project risk.”

The book includes stories from his own experience but no external case studies. I thought it jumped around a bit, which made following the flow difficult. I also thought it ended abruptly, as if he had forgotten to write the conclusion.

If poor trust really does increase project risk, and I have no reason to believe that it doesn’t, then it will help you to review the levels of trust in your project team to see where things could be improved. It doesn’t take a book to do that, but if you want to go deeper into the theories of trust and how these can be applied in the workplace, then this book will help.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com


Book Review: From Projects to Programs

From Projects to ProgramsFrom Projects to Programs by Samir Penkar is a business book in story form. I’m not a big fan of business novels, although I did enjoy Critical Chain.

One of the problems I find is that the stories just aren’t that gripping, and that is the case here. Reading about someone else’s day job on an IT programme is pretty dull. It isn’t a true novel format, either. Each chapter ends with ‘reflection questions’ for you to consider and see how the concepts apply to your own work. It also pulls you out of the story by referring to figures.

In pure ‘story’ terms I didn’t think it was as well-written as Critical Chain. The reported speech doesn’t tend to use contractions, so unless the characters are all very particular in their choice of words it doesn’t read naturally.

There is also an awkward mix of past and present tense, sometimes in the same paragraph and even in the same sentence! For example: “Sure,” said Bill and heads down to his desk.” Many of the paragraphs are long and I found there was a lot of exposition.

Penkar adds in a side-story about the main character’s running group. He uses the running metaphor to explain ideas outside of the work setting, which is a good addition to the story. However, they only seem to talk about work!

Outside the story

The story is only half the book. The rest of it is made up of a glossary, two transcripts of interviews with programme managers, an agile primer, a long chapter on benefits management reprinted from another book and another chapter reprint on PMOs.

I can’t criticise the content. Penkar knows his stuff and this is about programme management. You could argue that he has made the topic accessible and not scary for new programme managers. He includes useful, constructive advice and clearly defines the role of the programme manager. The book is strong on integration management, the use of meetings, team dynamics and communication. There is good advice in here and if learning through stories is your thing, then you’ll no doubt get something from it. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.


Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com

1 comment

Book review: Supercommunicator

Summer of books 2014“Too often, potentially great projects are dismissed by management, investors, and regulators simply because those decision makers can’t understand their value”, writes Frank J. Pietrucha in his book, Supercommunicator. “Opportunities can be missed and bad things can happen when content originators don’t explain their subjects in easy-to-understand language.”
If you have recently put together a business case or project initiation documentation, then you’ll know how important it is to set out the benefits of what you are doing. Getting the information across to those who need to know in a way they can understand it is the main challenge of project communications.

Pietrucha writes: “The digital age is about information. Finding new ways to obtain, analyse, and share data is essential. Providing information to audiences clearly is the essence if what we do as communicators, but shouldn’t we aim higher? Our mandate should be to strive not just to deliver information but also to bring meaning to our audiences through thoughtful explanation.”

Data alone isn’t enough

supercommunicatorProject reports often focus on numbers, statistics and the graphical representation of results. Pietrucha says that we often worry so much about data that we forget to explain why those facts and figures are important. Setting data in context and making it accessible is important if you want people to get the message.

He talks about different types of multimedia and digital communication tools like infographics and video as options for displaying data in meaningful ways. He doesn’t recommend a particular approach, instead saying that you should choose what works for your audience. Of course, you need to know how to work with data before you can present it to others.

Communication guidelines

Part 5 of the book focuses on guidelines for effective communication. One of those is to be culturally aware. For example, there’s no point in me telling you that the title of this book makes me think of the Supercomputer running segment in Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. Unless you happen to watch the show, which pretty much limits it to UK audiences, it won’t mean anything to you. So, Pietrucha says, don’t use references that your audience won’t understand or you risk alienating them.

The other guideline I found good was about keeping it simple. However, as Pietrucha says, there is such a thing as too simple. “Don’t oversimplify when your audience needs substantial content,” he says. Don’t assume they can’t learn.

In summary, his guidelines are:

  • Simplicity
  • Clarity
  • Relevance to audience
  • Build: start with one idea then add others to allow the audience time to take on new concepts
  • Make it real: use analogies, stories, testimonials and case studies. The book uses a lot of these to illustrate various points (including this one). In fact, this is covered in a lot of detail. He suggests you test your analogies on friends first to make sure you are not introducing ideas that have too many interpretations as this leads to misunderstandings.

“If you can see data, instead of just hear or read about it, naturally you’re going to understand a topic faster and more effectively.”

Getting the message across

“People pay attention when they comprehend there’s something in it for them,” Pietrucha writes. “Do your job and help them get to the ‘aha’ point of realisation.” There’s a lot in the book about communicating effectively including the advice that you should lead with the conclusion.

Pietrucha writes about making difficult subjects accessible by presenting them in a practical, visual way including using:

  • Illustrations
  • Zooms
  • Diagrams
  • Simulations and games
  • Physical models

“If you can see data, instead of just hear or read about it, naturally you’re going to understand a topic faster and more effectively,” he says.

He takes it further than your typical presentation advice. People don’t only learn visually and through hearing information but through experiencing it, he says. As a result, participatory learning is gaining traction. How could you do this on your project? Think about where you could introduce ways of involving users in training and learning.

I thought that the book ended abruptly. I also thought it could be shorter as it does seem to cover the same points several times in different chapters. But overall it has some good advice that can be applied to project communications.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com


Book Review: What Happens in Vegas Stays On YouTube


“The explosion of mobile and social technologies means that we have to live as if our mother, boss, coach and enemies are watching us…because they are,” writes Erik Qualman in his book, What Happens in Vegas Stays On YouTube.

Summer of books 2014The book is basically 36 rules for better social interaction and for making the right choices about your digital legacy. It’s a two-pronged approach: first, don’t post anything stupid on social media sites. Second, the book recommends that we all live better lives, as if our mothers are watching (Rule 2). The point of that is that if don’t do anything cringe-worthy, nobody can post embarrassing photos of you. Qualman argues that if you don’t post images of what you did at that drunken party, someone else will. (Or you could just get yourself a better class of trusted friend.) So don’t do anything stupid, online or offline.

Most of the short sections include one or more ‘learning moments’. These are little stories of how social media has caught out people and companies, causing problems. For example, after the Toronto riots police used social sites to share photos of rioters to help catch them. Although it isn’t mentioned in the book, after the London riots police did the same here to identify looters. Then there’s a short takeaway lesson.

Lessons in common sense

Some of the lessons are obvious, like think before you tweet and don’t criticise others online. “If you have to think for more than 3 seconds about whether something is appropriate – it’s not,” Qualman writes. “Our tone in digital messages is misinterpreted 50% of the time.”
What happens in Vegas
Some of the lessons are more thought-provoking, for example, it’s not a question of whether we will make a reputation-damaging mistake but how we handle it. “Often it’s not the crime, but the cover up that gets us in to trouble,” he says.

Other advice he offers includes don’t multi-task as you are more likely to post something you’ll regret when you are distracted. The book includes several examples of people who posted stuff on their corporate Twitter account when they meant to do so on their personal accounts. Unsurprisingly, their companies weren’t that impressed when their personal opinions were presented as company views.

This also goes for comments that are published under personal accounts, but where the individual concerned is so linked to a company, team or other group that they can’t get away with expressing that as an opinion without it reflecting on their colleagues. “Know your professional position and understand that while your friends may post something on a particular topic, you may not have this same luxury based on your job, position, team or company,” he advises.

Be Flawsome

“Admit and own your flaws either as an organization or as an individual and the world will think you are awesome,” Qualman writes. “Flawsome is described as owning your mistakes and taking the necessary steps to correct them.” This, he says, it mainly around being authentic, but he also shows through the stories that you can gain customer loyalty by putting things right.

Section 2 of the book is focused on lessons learned and is basically more stories. It includes one about Chrysler which also appears earlier in the book, so that might be an error. The book is so short that you wouldn’t need to dip and out of it, although as it is not organised to present a structured narrative, you could do that if you wanted.

Section 3 is a list of resources and tips, like digital reputation management tools (Klout, Google Alerts etc), tips for protecting yourself against identity theft and tips for looking good on video (not sure how this ties in with the rest of the book). Finally, the book ends with lots of people’s Twitter ‘digital stamp’ (i.e. motto for what they see themselves as doing online and how they want to be remembered). I found this whole section a bit pointless, especially the pages of mottos from people I don’t know.

Do you need this book?

You don’t have to read a book to find out the stupid things people do online. A quick Google search for people who have lost their jobs because of what they shared on social sites is very enlightening. Then there are sites that catalogue the stupid things people share, like Failbook. The book is mainly a collection of social media stories, so if you are worried about your children or junior colleagues and the way they use social sites without regard for potential consequences, it could be something to buy for them. If you feel that you have no knowledge of what could go wrong from having your own Twitter account and have never considered how your use of social networks could affect your career prospects, then by all means read it. But my view is that if you have a mature, professional approach to what you post online, then the stories will make you realise there are plenty of people in the world who don’t think before they act, and that’s about it.

I think it’s a shame, as Qualman’s other books sound excellent and would be well worth a read. This one doesn’t have much substance and although it is a quick read, it didn’t give me any new insights to managing my digital reputation.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com


Book review: How To Be A Productivity Ninja

Summer of books 2014“Time management is dead,” writes Graham Allcott in his book, How To Be A Productivity Ninja. The old time management concepts don’t work anymore, he says, because we don’t have the same working environment. The number of information sources has gone up, and we’re expected to juggle more and manage more complex jobs while our jobs are less defined. “All of this means you have to come to terms with one important thing: you will never get everything finished.”

How To Be A Productivity Ninja is apparently the answer to your time management problems. It is a wide-ranging book looking at loads of different ways to squeeze more out of the day without having to work longer hours. One of the techniques he majors on is attention management.

Managing your attention

Ninja book coverAllcott talks about using attention management instead of time management. In other words, focusing your attention on the right things, because your attention span is far more limited than the time available in a day. You can’t focus at a high level all day as your attention wanders. My own personal productivity killer at the moment is the mumsnet ‘Am I being Unreasonable?’ forum. Attention management, says Allcott, is the key to productivity, which means not spending hours looking up what other people’s children do at nursery and how many people are complaining about their in-laws. So what do you do in periods of low attention when you don’t have the mental focus to tackle the important stuff if you don’t surf the internet?

He suggests:

  • Filing
  • Ordering stationery and other stuff online
  • Printing stuff
  • Deleting emails
  • Throwing away paperwork that’s no longer required
  • Attending meetings that you can’t get out of but know you can add no value to
  • Making coffee!

Some productivity tips

“What’s the one activity that, if you did it consistently for an hour a day every day this year, makes a person in your job successful?” Graham Allcott

One of the things I enjoyed about this book was the tips. It seems as if every page has something useful on it. Here are a couple of my favourites.

Trust your systems. You need to have confidence that your processes will work and not let you down.

Be organised so that when you are in a good frame of mind and in the flow, you aren’t slowed down by not finding the critical information you need to keep going.

Lower your expectations. You can’t get it all done so don’t try.  Trust that you are making the right decisions about what to work on.

However, I didn’t agree with all his advice. “One of the worst things you can do is always make yourself available,” Allcott writes. This lets distractions and interruptions in, so he advises you stay out of the way until you have something to share or some kind of collaboration to do. Shut yourself in the office or find a quiet space away from the rest of your team. I can see this would work from time to time when you have something critical to focus on, but personally I wouldn’t want to make it a regular thing.

He also has lots to say about ‘Inbox Zero’, which is how to filter your incoming mail into folders for reading, action and monitoring. Allcott says that your inbox is not your to do list. But mine is and it works for me. I only have 22 things in there at moment and I can see at a glance what need to be done.

The second brain

Allcott is big on having systems and putting them in place before you need them. He gives the example of the Victorians building sewers and the tube network to have 10 times the capacity required at time. And thank goodness they did, or we’d have some major civil engineering to do right now.

The idea of the second brain is to get stuff out of your head to encourage clear thinking and also to ensure that nothing is forgotten. It’s a system that revolves around lists, checklists and basically having a notebook or app available to store your ideas. Essentially, it’s for when your own brain fails you: you have systems in place to help.

One second brain tool is the ‘waiting for’ list. It’s not a to do list but a list of things that others are doing, for example, getting back to you about the project requirements document by Tuesday. This stops you having to hold the information in your head and means you can chase up project team members as appropriate. “A Ninja achieves Zen-like calm and is relaxed and confident about what they can’t do right now because their second brain is up to date and reassures them that what they are not doing is under control,” he says.

The Power Hour

“What’s the one activity that, if you did it consistently for an hour a day every day this year, makes a person in your job successful?” Allcott writes. Whatever that activity is, do it, and this becomes your Power Hour. It’s quite a good idea, although I’d be hard pressed to think of one thing a project manager does – communication, probably.

Little Ninja illustrations in the book are made from office supplies

Little Ninja illustrations in the book are made from office supplies

“You feel more present in your work, more engaged, calmer and more at ease with the world around you,” he writes. “That world might feel like it’s burning with urgency, noise, panic and stress but you’re locked in a kind of cocoon. You’re quietly doing what a Ninja does best: you’re shipping and clarifying, completing and organising, one thing at a time.”

Allcott spends some time writing about which apps you can use to help store your checklists and notes. I think this might date the book, whereas the rest of the advice has a pretty long shelf life. Overall, if you are struggling to get everything done, then this is a good read, illustrated with cute Ninja characters made from office supplies and with exercises at the end of each chapter so you can put into practice what you have learned. If nothing else, it will reassure you that no one else is managing to get everything done and that picking and choosing your key priorities is the only way to stay sane on your busy project.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com

1 comment

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