Silicon Valley State of Mind, a blog by John Weathington, "The Science of Success"
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Silicon Valley State of Mind

Tips, thoughts, and advice based on the consulting work of John Weathington, "The Science of Success."

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Program Management

Successful program execution is critical for innovation, improvement, and growth. Unfortunately, it's easier said than done. As a Six Sigma Black Belt, PMP, and former program manager for Visa's enterprise data strategy, I know a few things about getting things done. Here are some of my tips, tricks, and advice for getting results where the rubber meets the road.

Posted by on in Program Management

Blackouts remind me why I’m not a devout agilist anymore. My block in San Ramon had another one if its infamous blackouts a few days back. And just like the last major blackout we had, my productivity only decreased a tiny bit; I was certainly able to accomplish all the critical things on my plate, including an important client deliverable that was due that day. At worst, blackouts are a nuisance for me; they don’t really slow me down because I’m prepared. However, that wasn’t the case in the early part of this century when I was a born-again agilist. When it comes to execution, Aristotle had it right with his golden mean—you must find a good balance between the two extremes of classical waterfall and agile.

The ideology of agile management proscribes advanced planning, even when it comes to risk management. The way agilists handle risk—like everything else—is very empirically. In agile execution, there’s the concept of yesterday’s weather wherein the belief is that today—for all intents and purposes—will be like yesterday. So, instead of formally analyzing risk, agilists just assume they’ll crank out as many widgets in this cycle as they did in the last cycle. Axioms like this allow them to forego much of the upfront planning that classic (i.e. waterfall) managers would necessarily undertake. That’s all fine and good—until it’s not fine and good.

The reality is this: Murphy is far too mischievous to be that consistent. Tuesday I had power all day long, just like Monday, Sunday, and Saturday. However, on Wednesday I had no power from about 6:00pm until about 3:00am the next morning. That’s nine long, dark hours if you’re not prepared. This is one big area where agile execution simply falls short—I don’t care how passionate you are about the ideas.

Fortunately for me—long before Wednesday—I stocked up on candles, lanterns, tap-lights, flashlights, portable light-bulbs, and most importantly batteries of all shapes and sizes. Kim and I actually had a pretty nice time that night after I finished up my work. The house was well lit, we ordered some food from a local restaurant, and we watched TV together on the iPad by candlelight (and battery-powered lanterns).

Don’t get me wrong; I’m still very much in the agile camp for most scenarios. However, like Aristotle would probably say today, you cannot be a die-hard fanatic on one style or methodology. That’s why the consultant’s standard answer to any question is, “it depends.”

Don’t let your zeal for agile put you in a blackout without batteries.

Tagged in: agile execution risk
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Posted by on in Program Management

Being prepared for the obvious is not only a good practice, it’s just common sense. As I’m typing this, San Ramon is in another brown-out. That’s a delicate way of saying the power’s out, but we hope it will come back soon: unlike the devastation of the real black-out. Sometimes brown-outs last for only a few seconds, sometimes they last for hours.

Having lived in San Ramon for over a decade now, one thing I know for sure—I don’t care what you call it, the power goes out sometimes. I’ve been dealing with the effects of brown-outs from as long as I’ve lived here. Now, it’s not the end of the world if I’m not able to get this post to you this morning; however, it’s nice to know I can. I bigger brown-out irritant that surfaced when I first moved here involved my servers.

Since I do a lot of data crunching and analysis for clients, I have a a heavy-duty server sitting right next to me. Best practices learned long ago as a good, young Silicon Valley lad prevent me from loosing unsaved work because of a crash—that’s not the issue. The issue is that large servers really need to shutdown gracefully. You can’t just pull the plug out, which is basically what the electric company just did to me. If you do, it has a horrible time trying to recover, and there’s extra time spent making sure it recovered the way you want—it’s a big mess.

Fortunately, in addition to my server, I have a Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) sitting right next to me. It periodically issues a few loud caws to let me know the power’s still out. Even though I could easily figure that out myself, it’s a nice alert when a brown-out happens and I’m not next to my server. About a half hour ago when this happened, I was in the kitchen thinking about breakfast. When I heard the alert, I ambled into my office (there’s no rush, I had plenty of time), and brought the server down—gracefully. No muss, no fuss.

Preparing for times like this may be considered risk management by some, but not me. Looking forward to anticipate anything this obvious is actually part of execution planning. In fact, anything that has a better than 80% chance of happening shouldn’t be classified as a risk anymore, treat it like a certainty. For example, I didn’t decide whether or not I should buy a UPS on the chance that a brown-out may happen. I bought a UPS because I knew a brown-out would happen eventually—and here we are.

Uninterruptible power for me means uninterruptible productivity. So, instead of reading a good book right now, with nothing else to do, I’m sharing this wise advice with you. Plan for the obvious—that’s obvious, right?

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Posted by on in Program Management

Happy Friday, everyone!

As we’re wrapping up another week, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on—wrapping up. There are lots of things you could wrap up: a conversation, meeting, client engagement, project, program, or even a large-scale strategic implementation. In all cases, it pays to intentionally spend some time in review of what happened. In Deming’s classic Plan, Do, Check, Act management method, this would be the Check phase. Six Sigma, in true form, has formalized this process and it’s called a Plus Delta.

Although more structured than an ad-hoc review, the Plus Delta is really a loosely defined construct. The Plus part attempts to discover what went right, and the Delta part attempts to discover what could be improved. Notice that there’s no Minus, this is intentional.

Concerning yourself with what went wrong has three problems. First, it’s negative. Call me a typical, California bliss-head if you must, but negative talk is just not empowering. Second, it encourages ratholes. For some reason people love to complain about what went wrong. It’s easy to have the discussion devolve into a huge moan and groan session if you start going down this path. Third and most importantly, there’s very little value in what went wrong. It’s like telling a restaurant server who’s taking your order, “Well, I don’t like lima beans or liver.” Okay, but it doesn’t say much about what you would like to eat now.

Exploring a Delta, or what could be improved, is a much more constructive conversation. However, don’t let you or your collaborators spin this into a Minus conversation. After the Plus, it’s easy for people to assume it’s time to talk about the Minus, even if you call it a Delta. This is not clever management-speak, Deltas and Minuses are two different topics.

Finally, if this session has a title, please don’t call it a post-mortem. As you probably know, this is latin for after death. What kind of cynic came up with this crazy term? I’d rather call the session a post-victoria!

So, the next time you hold a post-victoria, try the Plus Delta format. You’ll find it sets you up nicely for the next time around.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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Posted by on in Program Management

The subscription functionality on the blog works now, so please subscribe to my blog—really!

If you click “subscribe to blog” at the Silicon Valley State of Mind blog, a small window will appear asking for your name and email. As you may expect, when you subscribe in this way, you’ll get an email delivered every time a new post is made. When I rolled out the website a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t realize this wasn’t working. I guess I should have tested it, but it slipped my mind. So yesterday, my colleague Dave Gardner who runs the popular Business Execution Insights blog sent me a note to tell me my new blog had a bug.


Although it wasn’t the best news, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, so I was working with the techies in Malaysia last night to figure out what was going on. Of course we resolved it, and it’s fixed now. Not only is this fixed, but since we were already under the hood, we tweaked a few more things that should make the site work better.

Although I’m not thrilled to fix this in production (i.e. after it has already been released to the world), I don’t have any regrets. It’s important to move when you think you’re ready—forget about set, and just go. Don’t get me wrong, there’s value in the set phase, but it’s usually not enough to justify the cost in time. Most people and organization undervalue time: as if it’s free. Time is not free at all! Time is probably the most precious resource you have because its not at your discretion to spend and it cannot be replenished.

By the way, you still need ready, don’t try to skip over that step! Planning is important, but over-planning is foolish. When you approach a project—large or small—think about your objectives and reasons first. Then, think about priorities to help you gauge your time. Finally, come up with at least one alternative or path that seems to make sense.

Then just go.

You’ll need to make adjustments, but that’s okay. Learn to anticipate these “realtime opportunities for improvement”, and build competence in adjusting quickly in the moment. Valuing time like this will pay dividends many times over. It took me less than an hour to fix the subscribe problem—if that’s the worst of my problems, I’m in good shape.

And, don’t forget to subscribe to my blog!

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Posted by on in Program Management

The Unites States Federal Bureau of Information (FBI) announced today that it spent $600 million to share files electronically. That seems silly doesn’t it?

To add insult to injury, this was the initiative that was spurred by the September 11th attacks back in 2001. That’s right, it took $600 million and 12 years to build a system that shares files electronically.

I know you may not be as experienced as I am in these matters, but in case there’s any doubt, no it does not take $600 million and 12 years to build a system to share files. At Sun Microsystems, it took me only $2 million and 1 year to build an entire compliance data system from scratch, that hooked into four disparate transactional systems including a massively customized Oracle ERP installation. This is at Sun Microsystems, the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a government operation in the private sector.

The obvious problems are bureaucracy and politics, but it’s worth mentioning to highlight just how insane costs can get when you don’t get this straight. Bureaucracy and politics go hand in hand to destroy a program. Bureaucracy happens when objectives don’t matter anymore and everyone’s just worried about following steps. This is what I call the project management trap. Politics happen when leaders protect their fiefdoms by any means possible, sustaining their position and the status-quo. In both cases, objectives are demoted in favor of artificial gods.

To prevent this in your organization, do three simple things:

  • Establish an Executive Sponsor who is clearly accountable for objectives. Give him/her the chair on a steering committee if you must, but there should be one, very high-level person accountable for nothing but results.
  • Establish a program/project charter, and assign full authority and responsibility to a competent program manager. Hire a good consultant of you don’t have the competence or availability in house, but avoid huge management agencies; it’s like hiring another bureaucracy. The FBI fired Lockheed Martin midstream on this project due to delays. I wonder why. The same thing will happen with any of the big consulting firms.
  • Setup tight-cycle (i.e. weeks, not months), functional deployments (i.e. something that can actually be used by the business), and reward everyone based on accomplishing small objectives to attain larger objectives.

Just like bureaucracy and politics work together to bloat program costs and timelines; these three practices work together as the Pepto-Bismol. By keeping the focus on objectives and actively fighting politics and bureaucracy, you can bring your project in far under $600 million and 12 years.

I mean, really? Give me a break!

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