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The game is filled with subtle clues to encourage street safety.  … [C]rossing a road [one] must look in both direction to check for monsters with outlines that resemble those of some autos ….  The monsters’ speed and frequency are derived from traffic data recorded at … intersections The idea is to “mimic the natural rhythms of traffic” … “and train the brain to adopt the same look-and-wait behavior in real life.”  Bloomberg Businessweek, Nov1 – Nov 7, 2010: page 44.

The idea of “training the brain” matches my oft stated notion of “training our gut.”  This means to expose ourselves to the patterns and data of the project and the organization so that they are ingrained in us.  Like the notion of teaching kids to look both ways at an intersection, it is one thing to talk about it, it is another to actually “get it” at a gut level and to do it naturally without thinking.

Living With Our Project Management Tool DataThe same applies to looking at data and performance of our project or team.  If our only experience is seeing the data in a chart or PowerPoint slide, or even a sophisticated on-line data mining dashboard, the less chance we’ll really know what the data means and hence take appropriate actions (which includes, more often than we realize, not to act at all).

I’ve seen Six Sigma black belt projects show some awesome looking trends and correlations, but when they tried to map it into some notion of reality, it often came across from unintelligible to humorous.  This happens when data, divorced from the actual activity, is analyzed by people who are not directly familiar with the activities that generate the data.  What they often come up with sounds reasonable but the acid test is that the results of implementing their recommendations has often no discernible impact, at least not to anything that translates to the bottom line.

I recommend periodically doing the following:

  1. Track your data manually.  Write it down. Sum it up. Combine it with past data we already wrote down.  Watch how it changes each day (or period being looked at).  This provides the “gut” feel for what is “normal” and what is out of the ordinary.
  2. Manage the activity yourself.  Even though I was the project manager, for a little while I ended up running the meeting for defect repairs for one of the development teams.  I got to know the issues with the defect tools, the personalities of the programmers when fixing defects, how defects in one part of the code were unique to other parts of the code, etc.  When I did then look at defect data, my sense of what it meant was superior to even the development managers, as they had not run those processes directly for some time.
  3. Manage by walking around.  Get out and talk with the folks doing the work.  I once sat in for a day with a specialized team trying to get a prototype board up and running.  I helped by getting them coffee and snacks when needed!  I went away with a sense of how a prototype is initially brought up that served me well for years.

I had often wondered how some folks were so much more insightful than others.  I originally figured it was due to “intelligence” or “education.” Over time I concluded it usually came down to raw experience: direct experience with the type of activities one was managing.  It helps a lot if I am truly interested in the activity — I learn and understand a lot more — but even if it is not my burning interest, I’ve never failed to learn something that helped me make better and faster decisions in the future.  I have seen people, involved in an activity for years, who never learned more than what they knew after the first few months. We often need to work at continuing to learn more, especially when working with what has become familiar.

Knowing our project and organization at a gut level allows us to judge and react both rapidly and with accuracy. Living with data, by being immersed in it — at least upon occasion, can only help us continue to get better at managing our projects and organizations.

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