If you are one step ahead of things, life is so much easier. Its like in chess, where you have the next move already sorted out. If a problem occur, you already have a solution, or at least a strategy on how to solve it. One step ahead means that you are in the driver seat of the car, and not pinned down in the back.
One step ahead
”One step ahead” – Slightly better prepared or more successful than someone else (taken from TheFreeDictionary)
Being alert and looking forward is also more fun than looking backward. Therefore one step ahead is the philosophy that I vouch for! It’s also very easy to remember and visualise in your head, three simple words:
Ok, maybe this is enough of ”selling my theory”, let’s get a little more concrete.
You can visualise my philosophy like traveling along a road. Your road can be straight or with a lot of curves. But on that road there will be a number of obstacles, impediments that needs to be dealt with. If your sight is narrow (close to blindfolded), you will bump into EVERY obstacle and need to deal with them reactively. But if you are one step ahead of everything, your sight is longer (aiming for the horizon) and you can see the obstacles ahead, and can be able to turn for them (i.e., do something actively about them). It is always easier to deal with problems you can see coming (when they are ”small” and further away), than when they have happened (and have become ”large”).
Figure 1 – One step ahead philosophy. The project is like a truck with cargo (tasks) traveling along a road with obstacles.
The truck in previous picture symbolises your project or other larger work at hand. The truck is loaded with a lot of stuff, that is your tasks or work items.
To be one step ahead you need to keep your eyes open (talk to your project team members, find out what they are worried about), and to have your view on the horizon (with that I mean a time perspective of weeks or months ahead, rather than days or hours).
If you sense a problem or challenge (picking it up when you discussed the project with Ed, the lead programmer, in front of the coffee machine in the morning) you should not give up before you can sort the it into one of the following categories:
- Immediate action needed – You need to understand the problem in detail (in so much detail that you understand it, and can make a decision about it). If you don’t understand the problem, you simply need to keep digging until you do (book meetings with key persons, read the specification once more, etc.). When you understand and can see the impact, you need to take the proper actions to solve the problem.
- Needs to be dealt with later – You have done your homework and understand the problem and its impact, but it doesn’t need your immediate action. You still need to ”own” the problem and follow-up on it, i.e., by adding it to the AP-list and the time plan (if it is affected), more about that later.
- Harmless / no action required – Your investigation shows that the problem is harmless to you (i.e., it will not affect your project or task at hand, you can pass it on in the organisation) or ”it will solve itself” (i.e., the problem can be fixed without your involvement, or even simpler, there was no problem).
Next section will tell you a little more about how to face problems or challenges.
In reactive management (a.k.a. ”fire fighting”) you act on things that HAS happened. Your data storage has run out of free space, your largest customer has found a fatal bug in your software that is already in production, or your best programmer has left you for your competitor. That’s why it is also called ”fire fighting”, your are dealing with the symptoms, and can do nothing about the cause of the problem (at this point of time).
Figure 2 – Reactive management. You are running behind the truck to pick up the stuff that has fallen out, i.e., fixing problems that have already happened.
You as a leader are running after the truck to pick up the stuff that has fallen off because hitting the bumps in the road. Most of the things that falls out is possible to fix (like adding more disk to the data storage), but it slows you down. Some things are broke and lost forever (like the lost of your best programmer). The truck must stop while you fix things, i.e., your project moves slower or is even stopped from time to time. This will lead to delays, that in turn makes frustration among all the projects’ stakeholders.
In reactive management you are one step behind, lying in the backseat of the car. Interested to hear how you can grab the steering wheel?
In active management you have a preparation for things that can happen.
Figure 3 – Active management. You are running in front of the truck to remove impediments as they come along.
Visualise this by you running ahead of the truck to push the stone away or to fill the hole in the road, or to tell the driver to steer away from the hurdle. The more problems or challenges you can fix, the faster you truck (project) can move. In theory you can clear the road all the way to the finish line (the project goal), but in practice its about ”clearing” a reasonable distance in front of the truck (after all, it can be very hard to look into the future). It’s all about removing of impediments before the truck (project) hits them.
You must also have an awareness of the problems you can’t see, they might be too far away for the moment or they are hidden. Like when it’s around Zero degrees Celsius and a spot of ice appear in a steep curve (that can make your truck run off the road). To have that humble insight that it can be even more problems is a good start.
”Why do you need to spend time on problems thats has not happened?”, someone might ask. Because you then have a chance to call for meetings, find the proper solution or minimise the impact. You don’t want to end up under time pressure, because that will force you into bad decisions. With bad decisions you will end up in reactive management and you are stuck in a catch-22 (i.e., going round in circles).
- Management is like traveling along a road with a number of obstacles.
- Active management – You try to do something about your problems before they occur, or if not possible to solve, to minimise the impact.
- Reactive management – You bump into problems and act on them after they have happened.
- Active management is to prefer over reactive, to be ”one step ahead”.
- Go from reactive to active management A.S.A.P!