Saturday, 16 August 2014

Chains, Chiefs, Checks and Chokepoints

Recent events in both my personal and my work life have led me to some realisations and determination to do things differently in the future.

First the personal. Some of you will be aware that we are attempting to move house. In April, we found a new-build and paid our holding deposit, then took some time to confirm a new, smaller mortgage - ironically, with our existing provider - but were then further frustrated by our chain behind us collapsing when our buyers lost their buyer and had to go back onto the market. With a new, longer, chain in place just awaiting their mortgage offers, our developers have now pulled the plug on us and have put our intended purchase back onto the market, despite several attempts by our solicitor to get a stay of execution whilst our chain catches up.  All to no avail, and on Friday we lost our new house. So back onto the house hunt, starting this afternoon!

So what have I learned from this experience? In a complex legal environment, I made the mistake of assuming that the various players in our drama actually cared about us and were working for our personal best interests. Having made that assumption, I sat back and let them get on with it, assuming that all was progressing as it should. It wasn't until we were advised two weeks ago that the developers were intending to 'pull our papers' and put our purchase back on the market, that I was finally in the picture (e.g: we didn't even know that our chain behind us now had four players as opposed to the original three!). So, as we head off into the unknown house-hunting again, and our chain now has to wait for us, I am determined to keep on everyone's back and demand information and service from all; just as I will make sure that I keep everyone else informed of our progress. In other words, I have to actively manage the players and the process just as much as I have to manage things at work.

Which brings me to recent work realisations. I have recently been involved in some activities which required working in the middle of a mixed bag of internal and external stakeholders - line management, external consultant, external design teams, IT, peers, hotels and professional bodies - a dynamic and fluid grouping of co-dependency, tasks, deadlines, checks and outputs. Communication between those parties and critically, as an output to other stakeholders via assorted media, was/is the key here.

The need for clear, concise, well-written and accurate copy, supported by a robust underpinning infrastructure and delivery process, is critical. But how many people are needed to create, check, amend, finalise and publish this information - and how many iterations should it go through before the 'go' button gets pushed? Everyone involved is busy with their day job and/or other commitments. Attention is not always available when required. Things get forgotten. Proof-reading gets sloppy. A critical piece of information is not available because one individual in the chain is unexpectedly sidelined to other priorities, etc... Too many chiefs, checks and chokepoints for my liking...

A project plan might have been a good idea here, but as this work is emerging organically, it's been difficult to a) agree the tasks and outputs, and b) the milestones and delivery dates. It may well be the way forward, but for now, it's up to me to make sure I am fully integrated with the action, with all the stakeholders and can add value to the outcomes by assuming nothing, staying connected and demanding the same of others.

And as I await the feedback from my recent 360 degree assessment (line manager, four direct reports and nine peers across the organisation), I will be looking to apply the above personal and professional learnings to my development plan.

As always, I'd appreciate any thoughts, challenges or suggestions. Thanks.


  1. Niall, I can really relate to the issues you discuss in this post. I can think of similar complex projects that I have worked on in terms of the mix of stakeholders and have also found it difficult to apply traditional project management approaches to managing work that is only emerging. As you suggest it makes sense to apply equally organic approaches to the management of something that is organic - mirroring.

    1. Thanks for that Rachel. My challenge is in being comfortable operating in that space, which I guess is what the blog explores. It all boils down to communication and clarity. If we all know who's doing what and when and what (if anything) may be preventing it, then a lot of the (my) issues go away. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

  2. Niall - sorry for your house pain. I'm currently selling and get suspicious when it's gone quiet.
    Agree that some projects are hard to work with rigid project management processes. For some smaller projects I've used a social project function (available in SocialCast - enterprise social network). This allows you to work simply with Objectives (or headings as I sometimes think of them) and then tasks within these. Anyone in the project group can access at any time of day and add a status against that task (a bit like a twitter, FB or yammer update). They can also include files with their status updates. This works for me with a fluid, fast moving project. I use the tasks/status updates in any project meetings via webex.

  3. Sorry to hear about your housing woes Niall; I used to work in retail banking and remember contract races, chains and immediate exchange and completions when circumstances had put things up against it.

    These were mitigations, solutions, ways to fix it when things went awry. It seems as if your project group didn't have these mitigations nor considered the risks extensively enough beforehand. No-one wants to be a killjoy, but someone needs to manage the balance between people taking responsibility and people being accountable. That's the leadership trait that people need to see which, rarely, happens in a house sale chain.

    Hoping you find the right place for you as soon as is possible.

  4. I wonder if there is any way you can use the strategy of selling and then renting before buying again? This works brilliantly for me in the house purchase scenario. Is there any equivalent in the work project scenario?