Episode 4: Plotting a course

At the beginning of my second month, I had clarity on my immediate expectations from my manager.  Additionally, all of the team’s emergent work was being managed through a Service Level Agreement with assigned deadlines for all incoming requests.  With clarity provided, my focus turned to our tri-annual project planning process.
To begin my preparations for the tri-annual project planning, I started by organizing all the team projects into a central location in OneNote.  Active projects where pulled from other places in OneNote, TFS, and people’s heads.  When everything was collected there were a total of 51 active projects.  Fifty-one active efforts for seven team members, that’s more than seven per employee!  How on earth could anyone function with seven active projects?  As I dug deeper, I began to discover that there was some serious house cleaning that needed to happen.  Many of the projects were in fact completed, some years ago.  Some projects were so small that they really were not worth the effort it would take to plan them out, so we started working on them through the Service Level Agreement.  Finally some of these projects were still only ideas and in a planning phase.  After cleaning up everything, I was left with about 30 projects to plan out for a team of 6 for 2016.   With all the active and anticipated projects defined in a central location, my next effort was to standardize the way that  our project work was tracked and documented.  This was not a difficult as you may thing because many people were already using OneNote and the tool for documenting their project work.  Each project had a documentation hub created (a section in OneNote,) and each project was given a project work item in TFS (for work tracking.)  With this base established I could now have an intelligent conversation with my business partners about what projects we should be undertaking for them in 2016.
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The Tri-Annual update has its roots with our former CIO.  This originally started as a quarterly update the Information Services gave to each of the other 6 divisions at Associated Electric to update them on the various projects that IS was undertaking on their behalf.  This started as a communication tool that our CEO implemented to improve communication and collaboration between IS and the other divisions.  Today, under the leadership of our current CIO, it is an open forum to present Information Services’ KPI and gain alignment on our project plan.  To create an initial project plan for the different divisions we estimate the size of each project using “Project Points.”  There’s a complicated formula that determined the definition of a Project Point but the simple explanation is that one point is about 100 man hours of effort.  Each business division is assigned a budget of project points based on their needs and the amount of time that the team was able to on projects in the last 4 months.  With size estimates and budgets, we simply let our business partners elect how to spend their points, see below.  The output of this exercise is the proposed project plan for the next 12 months.
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At the end of the planning session a project plan document is produced and that is then distributed to the managers of the business unit for their review.  Immediately before the start of the new trimester (December 1st) the CIO and the IS management team meet with the director and managers of the business unit in the “Tri-Annual Update Meeting.”  Two of the business units that I support are fairly small and they do not have many projects to discuss so the updates to those two groups focused on the IT group and my team and how well we were resolving their support requests.  The Accounting and Finance division is the largest business unit that I support and, as such, they have the most needs from my development staff.  In addition, I had just lost a member of the development staff that historically supported accounting to Michael’s team as back fill for me leaving.  This meeting was fairly tense.  I was leading the conversation on the project plan and there was two points of contention, first a single project on the plan was taking over half of their available project points for 2016 and second, they didn’t feel they were given enough project capacity.  I directed the latter part of the conversation around the fact that capacity was governed by team members and now the aggregate team was down two team members (one for the back fill and one vacancy that was dedicated to SharePoint.)  The conversation lasted over an hour and a half and led to some very good discussions about how accounting should best spend their project points.  At the end, my liaison and I left needing to do a little of revision to our project plan but all the managers were agreeable to that plan.
I have two lessons to share from this part of my experience, first the importance of preparation.  I spend many days reviewing, pruning and cleaning up the documentation related to all of the team’s projects.  This was time well spent and it made the planning sessions and the actual updates fairly easy and empowered me to speak knowledgeably on all areas of my new team.  Second, in difficult conversations, stay focused on the facts.  The accounting team was, understandably, unhappy with the loss of capacity from my team, but keeping them focused on the facts and the why helped smooth that conversation over and kept us focused on the important parts of the conversation.

Episode 3: Getting Bearings

After the first week in my new role was completed I was ready to get down to business.  Based on my one-on-one conversations with my new employees, I had some direction on where to direction on where to start, but the todo list was daunting.  Hiring two employees (one part time and one full time,) learning about my new business partners, standardizing work practices, standardizing project planning, better defining job roles and descriptions, just to name a few.  Unfortunately, all of these items would have to wait until my third week on the job.  My second week on the new job was filled with a previously scheduled user conference that I had committed to speaking at.  This was very unfortunate timing. This timing was made worse by the fact that it was an intentional decision.  As I learned, it is critical to spend as much time as possible with you new team and you manager during the first few months in a new role.

As soon as possible, you should meet with you new boss and clearly establish expectations during your ramp up period over the first 90 days.  My first week on the job, my boss, Robert was at a conference in Philadelphia and the second week on the job I was at a conference in Chicago.  As a result, my first real conversation with Robert in my new role didn’t happen until the third week on the job.  This was undesirable, not because I was moving in the wrong direction with my new team, but because I didn’t have clarity on what Robert’s top priorities were for me in my new role until my third week on the job.  During this conversation, Robert identified his top priority as having the upcoming Tri-Annual updates go well.

The Tri-Annual update has its roots with our former CIO.  This originally started as a quarterly update the Information Services gave to each of the other 6 divisions at Associated Electric to update them on the various projects that IS was undertaking on their behalf.  This started as a communication tool that our CEO implemented to improve communication and collaboration between IS and the other divisions.  Today, under the leadership of our current CIO, it is an open forum to present Information Services’ KPI and gain alignment on our project plan.  The team that I had inherited had a very wide variety of was to track and manage their work, so getting KPI’s and putting together three formal project plans in four to six weeks was a fairly tall order.

In Information Services, we break our work apart into three categories: project, support and meta.  At this time, most of our KPI’s revolved around the “support” type work.  This is type of work (for my team) is typically your tier two help desk type work.  We don’t plan for this type of work; but rather, we budget a percentage of time for this type of work and strive to complete this work as quickly as possible.  Standardizing emergent (support) work became my primary focus for the team.  Without a standard was to track our support work, I would not be able to compile any support related KPI’s.  Many of our teams use Team Foundation Server for managing our work and that was the system of record that my team was going to start exclusively using.  Accomplishing this required everyone to get out of the habit of immediately resolving support requests and into a habit of documenting what they were being asked todo.  To make this easier, we kept it analog and a created a physical Kanban board on some of the exterior cube walls.  I clearly laid out the expectations for the team that, at a minimum, every support request that you receive needed to be documented on a 3×5 index card.  No entry into TFS if they didn’t want to, I would take care of that and allow them to focus on the work.  Some of my employees habitually recorded everything into TFS, but for those that didn’t, my gesture greatly improved their buy in.  After all, I was only asking for a few words to be written on an index card and pined to the cube wall.  The results were immediate, we went from about 5 recorded tasks a week, before I joined the team, to an average of twenty.  The second problem to solve was to ensure that team members that habitually used TFS properly categorized their work for future analysis.  This was easily accomplished by using a TFS query pinned to the home screen in TFS.  Below is a picture of the Kanban board and the TFS home screen that I use to keep all the work straight.

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At the end of my first month, the entire team was now managing emergent work in a consistent manner and we were beginning to collect KPIs to measure and improve our performance.  Lessons I learned include avoid traveling during the early days of the transition.  During the first two weeks in my new roll, I did not have a chance to speak with my new manager because either he or I were out of town.  This cause delays in the two of us gaining alignment on immediate priorities, preparation for the triannual updates.  That said, the best thing you can do for yourself when entering into a new role is to have a direct conversation with your new manager to negotiate and align expectations.  Once we had that conversation my focused immediately turned to the triannual updates.  That preperation would continue into the second month with a focus on the team’s projects.