Gorillas use the 5 Whats not the 5 Whys

“Can someone tell me why I just spent two hours on the phone with a screaming client?”

“They dropped a server rack on their toe and it really hurt?” asked Greg.

I glared at Greg until he went back to studying the dirt under his finger nails. The I turned to Jake, our development manager. “Jake, why can the client only load half their user base into the DB?”

Jake gave a shrug. “No clue, why didn’t QA test that?”

Vinnie jumped forward in his seat, “That’s not even in our test cases, why on earth would we test that.”

The room seemed to pause for a moment and then all eyes slowly turned towards to Tully, our junior product manager. With Bob visiting a potential customer, Tully the product management representative.

An hour later I walked into my office, tossing my coat on the conference table chair. “Poor Tully” I muttered.


I jumped. Turning to look where my coat landed I saw instead Hogarth holding my coat in one hand and looking at me with a questioning gaze.

“Why? Because Tully got torn to pieces in that meeting.” I said.


I blinked at my Gorilla. It wasn’t like him to not know everything. After all wasn’t he just a figment of my imagination? “Because Bob wasn’t there. And Bob is the one who made the requirements that didn’t address the customer’s number one need.”


Now I glared at my gorilla, was there a point to all of this? “So do you have a point with the annoying string of ‘why’?”

Hogarth nodded, “I do. What do you think would be a better way?”

“What?” My brain started spinning, how was this an answer? What did he mean? What was the right answer? Wait, wait, What?

And Hogarth nodded, “Exactly.”


Why the 5 Whys should be the 5 Whats.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve almost certainly heard of Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota. He calls it Five Whys. Unless the rock was really heavy, you’ve also no doubt heard Simon Senek’s “Start with Why” TED Talk.

The Five Whys:

5 Whys is an iterative question-asking technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships of a problem. The goal is to get to the root cause of a problem, because all too often the first cause is not the true cause. Doctor’s call this “treating the symptoms, not the disease.”

An example the 5 Whys :

Why did our service go down?

  1. Why? – The servers lost power. (first why)
  2. Why? – The backup power supply didn’t work. (second why)
  3. Why? – It couldn’t handle the load. (third why)
  4. Why? – A replacement hasn’t been bought that can meet the power needs. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – The DataCenter budget was frozen last quarter and we haven’t had the money to perform upgrades. (fifth why, a root cause)

Starting with Why 

Simon’s talk is an incredible exploration of how companies can be inspirational and change the world. His Golden Circle places the question “Why” directly in the middle of the circle and What is placed at the edge. As Sinek pounds home, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy how you do it”

The danger of “Why”

“Start with why” is an excellent for a company exploring how they can better market their products. It can help them to better connect with their end customers and provide greater value.

And “why” is completely the wrong word to use when trying to get to the root of a problem.

What makes me say that? Professional coaching has a key concept of using powerful questions. These questions are deigned to help the coach guide the coachee to the answers they need. The coach doesn’t give the answers, the coach doesn’t even guide the answer. The coaches job is to ask the powerful questions that will allow their client to get to the solution. Examples of powerful questions are:

  • What is important about that?
  • What is stopping you?
  • What is the lesson from that?

What you won’t find in powerful questions is “Why”. What is the reason for this?

“Why” questions rests on the popular belief that « to succeed, one should understand how one has failed ». In other words, to learn how to swim, one must carefully analyze how one has almost drowned. In effect, why questions only let clients meander within their same-old limited past frame of reference. A good coaching process needs to gently lead the client out of their box.” (quoted from www.metasysteme-coaching.eu)

The question “why” carries a lot more emotional content than it’s cousin “what”. When you ask someone “Why didn’t you take out the trash” you are essentially putting them on the defensive and laying blame. Even saying “why is the trash still here?” creates an adversarial space.

This is “Why” is not used in coaching. You don’t want the client to get defensive, or wrapped up in the “why” of the problem you want to ask them “what” they need to do to get out of the problem.

Why 5 What’s is better

You see, Toyoda’s 5 Whys could get to the root cause, but all too often I find they side tracked by the personal agendas, defensiveness and the tragic corporate blame game circle. The 5 Whys can so easily go wrong, let’s look at the example above again, this time with real people involved.

Why did our service go down?

  1. Why? – Because we lost power. (umm duh)
  2. Why? – Bob hasn’t replaced the damn UPS yet, I’ve been on him for weeks. (the buck is passed)
  3. Why? – Don’t look at me, I’ve been trying to get the UPS replaced for weeks, finance won’t approve the PO. (the buck passes again)
  4. Why? – Unless sales starts signing up more customers, we won’t be approving a lot more POs. We’re broke.

We didn’t even get to the 5th why at this point and totally missed that the UPS isn’t broken, just can’t handle the load, so you can’t even explore how to make what you have now work for you.

Let’s try with What.

What caused the service to go down?

  1. What? – We lost power to the core servers and the UPS didn’t work
  2. What happened to our UPS- It can’t handle the load we have.
  3. What are we doing about it?- Well we’re trying to get a new one, only budgets are frozen right now.
  4. What else could we do? We could try putting just half the servers on the UPS. If we lost power we wouldn’t be able to handle a full login load, but we’d be partially up at least.
  5. What do we need to start doing that? – Give us the okay and we’ll have it done tonight.

Asking “What” is about creates an environment of clearer answers. If you ask “What is the speed of light” you get a very specific answer of 299 792 458 m / s. If you ask “why do people fight?” you could fill a Google datacenter with the results. Not a fair comparison? You’re right, it’s not. “Why” is used when the answer isn’t as clear or there are more than one answer.

So let’s try and experiment. What would happen if we used the 5 Whats instead of the 5 Whys?

The phone’s for you, it’s the Gorilla

Bob, if you will read my response six emails down, you will see we are already
aware of that solution. It is not working…”


I leaned back and rested my head against the wall. I needed to take a mental break from this email before I started imitating a wildfire and flaming Bob for his idiocy. Why did they have to make it so difficult? Trying to get my bearings I started to scroll back through the email chain. I gave up after the tenth page down.


This was hopeless, no one was listening to anyone and Bob was sitting at the middle of this like some big land mine that was keeping anything from moving for fear it would all blow up. I’d exhausted myself trying to sort this all out. I didn’t have a clue how to finish this email and I didn’t think any email would solve this anyway..


The worst part of this all is I knew it was a simple understanding. I just couldn’t get through to Bob. He didn’t seem to be even reading the emails anymore, just kept responding with the same dogmatic hash over and over.


What was I going to do?


Hogarth dangled my Android in front of my face, “Have you tried this?”


I should know better to ask rhetorical questions to the myself. The problem with having an imaginary gorilla is they can eavesdrop on your thoughts. Turning to take in the lumbering form of my gorilla I shook my head. “Hogarth, don’t be ridiculous, I can’t send a text, I need way more than a couple hundred characters to get my point across.”


Hogarth nodded in that annoying manner that usually meant he was about to zing me hard. “You’re right. It will take a lot more character to solve this problem.” He waggled the device at me again, “You know this thing here has an incredible power? One that can cut through all the emails and all the miscommunication and get you to a solution in just a few short minutes.”


I sat up, “Seriously? What’s this App called?”


“A phone call…”


Huh? A phone… oh, ouch.





I’m half afraid the next generation of iPhone will have the revolutionary new feature of doing away with that pesky telephone. I mean why does it need to be there anyway? You can send email, send texts, post to Facebook and Twitter, and even log into your companies portal to post to the internal sites. Why on earth would you need to make a phone call?


Maybe because they work so very well? Of course face to face is even better. The phone is a good substitute, email should be the last resort of the desperate.


Now the exact numbers of course vary on this. Still, if you Google “percentage of communication is nonverbal” you will get a mess of hits that put non-verbal communication at a minimum of 60% and up to 93%. And then whatever percentage is left over gets cut down significantly by your tone of voice. By the time you get to only the words you say, it can be as little as 7% of your total communication.


So when you are in an email conversation, up to 93% of your communication is lost? Makes me think of that old kid’s game called telephone. You know the one, the kids all sit in a circle, the first one whispers to the kid on his left and then the message gets passed around until it comes back to the start. “My cat has fleas” could easily turn into “Hapsburgs flee from the Martians.”


Now I’m not saying we should toss out our Exchange servers and go back to the 1970’s. If we did nothing else, we’d only be replacing electronic emails with the old fashioned memo.  That’s not the problem. The problem is what we are using the email for.


Email is great for things like status reports, assigning tasks to directs or team members, communicating already decided changes or policy on a one to many basis.


Emails are horrible for solving problems, carrying on a conversation, dealing with anything that requires more than the cold hard facts that can be properly communicated in email. If there is one iota of emotion involved in the communication, then email is not the ideal medium.


Sure, there are times when email is the only option. These times are however vanishingly small. Even leaving a voicemail can often be more effective than an email.


Now diligent readers will point out that this is counter to how some DISC profiles work, as I discussed in “Talk to the Gorilla, Not At It.” True, there are DISC profiles that cringe at the thought of talking on the phone or face to face. That doesn’t mean it’s not the best solution. It just means you have to be careful about it. You don’t just call a High C unannounced, you use email to schedule a time to talk instead.


Let’s go back to the math for a minute. If non-verbal is truly 93% of communication, does that mean if we only ever do email we can take a 93% pay cut?


The phone won’t bite you and it may very well help you tame those monster email threads so you have something approaching a sane mailbox.


Ring… It’s for you.

Ask not what your Gorilla can do for you

“Go away Hogarth…”

I knew it was him. I mean who else would loom in my doorway at 8:30 at night? Every sane person in the company had gone home hours ago.

“So what does that make you?”

Sigh… I really hate when he does that. Pushing back from my keyboard I looked across the dark office to where my gorilla stood. The few lights illuminating the hallway lit him in an eerie haze that made him almost ghost like in appearance. Given how he haunted my every move, it wasn’t that far from the truth.

“I’m not dead yet,” he said before he swung his arms forward to propel his body into the darkness of my office. I lost sight of him for a moment, as he moved out of the faint light cast through the door. And then there he was, his leathery muzzle poking into the light given off by my monitor and his teeth flashing as he offered up a toothy smile. “Though you’re not looking so great. When was the last time you saw the sun?”

“Very funny, Hogarth, I don’t have time for funny. I’m three chapters behind on our book. You do want to see this book published someday, right?” Looking at him, I gave a triumphant grin. I had him on this one. It’s not like I was toiling away on office work. I ‘d learned my lesson on that long ago. I was just taking advantage of the quiet of after hours office to get in some quality writing time (using my own laptop of course).

I could feel Hogarth’s eyes boring through me from the darkness beyond the monitor glow. As he spoke, his white canines sparkled in the light. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can and are good, do both.”

I blinked, “What? Seriously?” Okay, he’d gone to far this time. “I’ve done everything you’ve told me. I’ve gotten better at being a person, a project manager, a manager, a coach, you name it. I’m applying your lessons and things are going great here.”

He nodded, “Yep, you are. So why aren’t you at the agile coaching circle tonight?”

What the heck? “Are you smoking banana peels again? I’m not there because I’m here, writing. You’d think with you hanging around me, you wouldn’t have to ask. What on earth can anyone there teach me that you can’t?”

Hogarth leaned back into the darkness, his entire form become just a faint outline in the greater darkness of my office. “Who said anything about learning?”

Now I was really confused. And that usually meant he was about to hit me upside the head with some painful lesson. I’d gotten a lot better about seeing these coming. Only I didn’t know what it was, I only knew it was coming. “What?”

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Yep, he did it again… Oh, my head.


The Kennedy Approach to Being a Professional

Until recently I never really understood why I have become so passionate about helping others. I spent a long period of my career trying to stay below the radar. Don’t rock the boat, don’t stick out your head, don’t go the extra mile.

After Hogarth entered my life (See Wake up and Smell the Gorilla) , I found myself coming out of the bunkers and reaching out to help others. Even during the dark times, when I too was unemployed, I found myself reaching out to help others. I didn’t even think about it or when I did I was just thinking about my own karmic bank account. I was still early in my path and had much still to learn from Hogarth.

For the last year I’ve been regularly attending the Silicon Valley PMI Job Search breakfast. Why? I can hear many of you ask. After all I’m gainfully employed and am very happy with the job. Why would I be going to a breakfast for out of work project managers? For a long while, I thought I was just building my own network for a rainy day. I had a job, surely I can help others. The roles might be reversed someday and I’d need that persons help. Ultimately I thought I was doing it just to build up job karma for myself. It was all about me, right?

Then came the day I finally heard and understood what the facilitator had said many times before. Skip Le Fetrawas also employed and yet was devoting many hours a month to running the breakfast. Skip regularly said “I keep doing this because I get as much out of it as I do giving to it.” This took a while to sink into my head and it took another conversation for it to really gel.

We’d had a particularly intense meeting. One of the attendees had been facing some very specific challenges and the meeting had entered what I call “Group Coach” mode to help this one person. Now being a regular, and employed, I tend to be someone people turn to a lot, especially if Skip has to run off to a meeting. So on this day I had one of the attendees come to me. The attendee (We’ll call this attendee Pat) had something on their mind and needed to get it off. I was there to help. They said (I’ll paraphrase heavily), “This was a great session, X really needed it. I’m just curious, we did something like this for Y two weeks ago and while it really helped X and Y, I don’t feel like it is addressing everyone’s needs.”

I mentally rocked back on my heals on this one. Not so much by what Pat said. What got me was how everything was dropping into place as I formed my reply. I suddenly realized it wasn’t about building karma for myself. I suddenly realized why I help people and why it makes me feel so good.

Because it’s the right thing to do.

On that day I was Hogarth to Pat. President Kennedy’s speech came to my mind and the whole picture became clear. When I explained to Pat that what they should be getting out of the meeting is “what can I give to others.” As Skip had said for the last year, he learns and gets so much just from giving to the meeting.

Do it because it’s right, the rest will follow.

What can you do for your team?

The Abilene Gorilla: Going with the flow isn’t always

I flung my door open only just catching it before it slammed into the wall and left a hole I wouldn’t want to explain later. Resisting the urge to throw my notebook across the room I stomped towards my desk, registering the presence of Hogarth decimating my newest fichus tree.

For once I was almost happy to see Hogarth. Almost happy. At least I had someone I could complain to. “We are so doomed,” I said as I tossed myself into my chair. It gave a whimpered protest, at the abuse,  though held together in the end.

Hogarth raised one eyebrow, which for a being with a monobrow that was no small achievement. “The Mayan’s were right?”

I leaned back in my chair, throwing an arm over my eyes to blot out the light. “We should be so lucky. At least if the world ended I wouldn’t have to watch our profits tank faster than skydiver who forgot his parachute.” The deafening silence that greeted my answer  eventually caused me to peak out from under my arm and make sure Hogarth was still there. He was, just staring at me with those impassive brown eyes.

Sigh, here we go again. “The president just decided we should do a radical pivot of our business model. It’s absolutely insane and it’s going to kill our business. All you have to do is look at the recent customer feedback to know it was a bad idea.”

Hogarth carefully set the denuded fichus branch down before speaking. “Well did he?”

“Did he what?”

“Did he look at the customer feedback?” Hogarth asked.

I tossed my hands up in the air, “I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”

Hogarth cocked his head to the side, “Why not? Wasn’t this a strategic brainstorming meeting? You all meet to throw out ideas and see what sticks.”

I shook my head, “Hogarth, Hogarth, you don’t understand. The president asked ‘What about doing X?’ No one is going to argue with his idea, he’s the president.” Pointing at my chest I said , “It’s not my job to rock the boat .” 

“Isn’t it?”

“Stop playing twenty questions with me!” I snapped. “He’s the boss, we do what he says. He knows what he’s doing.”

“That doesn’t mean he thinks it’s a good idea. He’s the president, he has to look like he knows what he’s doing.”

I glared at Hogarth, “What’s the difference?”

Hogarth looked at me. “Ever been to Abilene?”


“The Abilene paradox is a paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of any of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, does not raise objections. A common phrase relating to the Abilene paradox is a desire to not “rock the boat”.” – Wikipedia

The paradox reminds me of the lemming poster I used in “All the other Gorillas are Doing it” blog. The Abilene paradox is a solid reminder that no matter where the idea comes from, as a people or project manager, we can’t blindly assume that it is a “good” idea. If you have concerns it is your duty and responsibility  to raise those concerns. You can’t assume someone else will. Even in the most CEO dominated companies (can you say Apple?) it takes a team to design and build an idea.

But the nail that sticks out gets hammered down

Ah yes, the old Japanese proverb that espouses conformity and not making waves. Sure, no one wants to be the little kid who yells out that the Emperor has no clothes. Only ask yourself this, do you really want to be the Emperor’s servant when he finds out he’s been parading around in public without any clothes on? The problem with this approach, is what if there really is a squeaky wheel? If everyone chooses to ignore the squeak it doesn’t go away. Eventually the wheel seizes up and flies off. Then where are you?

Let’s instead look at another Japanese proverb, this one from Toyota. 

“Stop production so that production never has to stop.”   or, as the Toyota Production System sums is up,


This is what empowers every worker on a Toyota production line to be able to stop production if they see a problem. Not only do they have the ability, they are empowered and encouraged to use that ability. Every step of the way, assumptions are challenged and reality is tested. While Toyota has had some recent setbacks in quality, no one can deny their decades of stellar quality nor is their little doubt they will be returning to those quality roots. It is what has made them the brand and success they are and Jidoka is no small part of that.
So the next time something seems so obvious that everyone knows it, open your mouth and make sure everyone does know. Don’t end up going to Abilene when the restaurant down the street is what everyone really wanted.

Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Talker
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email, jbancroftconnors@gmail.com
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

Gorillas can be Agile with any project

Some days I was so thankful for the fact I worked in a three story building. It made the urge to toss myself off it, to end the misery, so much less. Unless If I  was really lucky I’d just end up hurting myself and that would just add to the miserable condition I was in.
Hogarth was right… Oh how I hated to think those three words. It was becoming such a common occurrence that I was considering adding to the law’s of nature. The sun comes up in the east, politicians are lying when their lips are moving and Hogarth is always right. This time it had to do with my implementation of Agile. Agile may be the silver bullet of development but I hadn’t had the first idea how to properly implement it.
So I’d swallowed the pill and went out and figured out just what Agile was. Leaning back in my chair I took in the remains of that discovery. Highsmith was leaning on Adkins and the two were threatening to push Cockburn off the desk. Larsen and Cohn were glaring at me from under the coffee cup perched on them. The books stared back at me mutely, mocking my pain and despair. Tilting my head back to stare at the ceiling I moaned. “Kill me now…”
“What and miss all the fun?”
I kept my eyes closed and used every ounce of my will to imagine away the voice that had spoken.
“Not gonna work,” Hogarth replied. “Your subconscious really likes me, so you’re stuck with me.”
Pulling my gaze from the acoustical tile I fixed Hogarth with a baleful gaze. “Remind me to schedule myself for a lobotomy.”
Hogarth was perched on the large window ledge. His black fur shimmering in the afternoon sunlight and his face was split with a contended grin. “Now why on earth would you want to give up all this?” His huge paw swept in an all encompassing arc that took in my cube and then the rest of the office beyond.
“Because there is no way on earth I’m going to get the company to adopt Scrum for real!” I poked at the stack of books. “It’s a far cry between some structural artifacts and the real meaning of Agile and the company is about as unagile as you can get.”
Hogarth nodded, “Well yeah, I think we covered the whole artifacts part already” He snaked an arm out the open window and broke off a branch from the tree outside. Snacking on the branch he said, “You’ve recognized the real problem so what’s the issue?”
“There is no way on earth I’ll ever get this company to go agile.”
“Agile or Scrum?” Hogarth asked.
“What’s the difference?” I shot back.
“A single sapling a forest does not make…”
Scrum is an Agile Framework – Scrum is not the only way to practice Agile.
When these kind of comments are thrown out, the typical response is something like “Well of course, there’s Kanban, Lean, or XP.”  And those folks are right, these are other frameworks or methodologies  of Agile. And at the same time I think we end up missing the bigger picture. To understand this, we need to look into the roots of Agile.
Agile has two foundational roots. The most obvious is the gathering of software luminaries that created the Agile Manifesto. Agile wasn’t some earth shaking new concept. What it was, was the joint thinking of seventeen software developers who had been practicing various lightweight development methods and how what was the common, foundational values of these methods.  At its heart Agile was a new language to explain long standing best practices, values and principles. If you think about it, in a light weight Agile way, it is the Agile PMBoK. (Remember that the PMBoK is also not a methodology, but a set of standard terminology and guidelines for project management.)
The other foundational root goes back to the precursors of Lean manufacturing, to the Toyota Way. Like the Agile Manifesto, it was not until 2001 that Toyota published the “Way.” But in Toyota’s case it was not for lack of use. Toyota revolutionized automotive manufacturing with their unique style and for decades US companies tried to match it. It’s not as if Toyota was a walled garden. They cheerfully gave tours of their plants to any and all comers. Why? Because they knew the artifacts of their process were not the key. The key was their six underlying principles, such as “Respect for People,” and “Add value to your organization by developing your people and partners.”
So what’s your point?
Ah yes, this is not a history lesson and I am trying  to make a point.
Today I read a great blog that sums up my point nicely. Ben Horowitz wrote about Lead Bullets, on TechCrunch. The kernel of this is to not go looking for the silver bullet solution, instead use the bullets you have and shoot better.
I’ve heard stunning success stories in the use of Agile Methodologies (Scrum, XP, Lean, etc.) In nearly all of these instances, the support and engagement was across the board high. It was the right time, the right people, the right need and so on. The Perfect Project Storm. In these cases the silver bullet was the only bullet and it was a dead shot.
And I’ve seen people try and use the Agile silver bullet and have the organization smother them alive. I like to remind people that silver bullets only work against werewolves. If you are facing a ghost, you’re kind of out of luck. When faced with an organization that is highly resistant, highly process driven, highly dysfunctional, etc. trying to dive into the deep end of the Agile pool tends to only end up in the Agile project and team being drowned.
I’m even more depressed now, wasn’t there a point?
Yes! The point is Agile isn’t just an umbrella over methodologies,  like Scrum and Lean. Agile is a set of guiding principles that can be used ANYWHERE. Where is it wrong to have good teamwork? When is it wrong to make sure the customer is getting what they want? If the process plan says to roll the parts cart around the outside of the building twice, before entering, is it wrong to ask “Why?”
Enter the Agile Manager. You don’t have to be using Scrum to be Agile. You can use the principles of Agile anywhere . You can make any team better, if you try.
In short, don’t let bad methodology get in the way of good management.
Focus on the team and the project will improve. That’s Agile.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

No one expects the Gorilla Retrospective

Jake was pinned to his seat by the spotlight’s intense beam. “Where were you when the code check-in introduced four P1 bugs?”

“I, uh, what?” Jake stammered.
I spun the spotlight and speared Bob with its white light. “The requirements document failed to take into account the Fergusson account. Why?”
Bob shifted in his seat. “It was Jane’s fault, she didn’t file a sales report for Fergusson!”
Jane’s mouth dropped open and she reached for her cellphone. Somehow I didn’t think she planned to text Bob with it. Not from the way she was holding it over her head.
Now I was getting somewhere. This post-mortem was finally getting to the bottom of things.
But before I could turn the spotlight towards Jane, a figure leaped onto the table and blocked my view. Jumping back, I looked up at the strange visage before me. Yards of red satin swirled about, all but obscuring the figure beneath it. A red galero covered the figure’s head, its deep crimson so dark it nearly blended with the black hair that lay beneath it. The darkness of satin and hair offset the brilliant white teeth of my interloper, making him suddenly recognizable.
Hogarth struck a preposterous pose and declared, “No one expects the Gorilla Retrospective!”

The Post-Mortem:
If you have ever sat through a grueling multi-hour project post-mortem, you probably wished for the inquisition to sweep in and put you out of your misery. The very term means “after death.” What a delightfully pleasant term for this meeting. Let us examine the corpse of the project and see what killed it. Let’s not trouble ourselves with the fact that the project actually shipped and is a success. No, that would be pointless.
The purpose of the meeting is to tear apart the project and find everything that went wrong. As the project manager, you will assemble a mammoth document that goes into sickening detail. Even if you tell people “we aren’t here to blame anyone”, blame will be assigned and buses will be thrown on top of people (or something like that).
And when it’s all over, the report is dutifully filed in some file cabinet (real or virtual) and promptly forgotten. No one goes back and reviews it. No one wants to remember the painful experience of exhuming a successful project for failures.
A rose by any other name:
Okay so we won’t call it a post mortem. How about lessons learned or a retrospective? Yeah, that’s the ticket. Now who’s fault was it that we shipped with no user documentation?
You can slap lipstick on the pig and it will still be a pig. Changing the name of something, but not how you go about doing it, is just going to make folks dislike the new name as much as the old.
So many companies look back on their projects to find what went wrong and fail to try and do better the next time.
Break off that rear view mirror:
I’ve met no small amount of people who think the George Santanya quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” means we have to live in that history. Relive every mistake and wrong to determine exactly why it happened.
Not so. The horses are already out of the barn. Grilling the ranch hand on why he left the door open isn’t going to do much. It doesn’t get the horses back and it doesn’t really do anything about the future. Manager Tools recently did a podcast called “There is no why in feedback.” The Feedback Model is a manager tool for communicating about both the good and not so good things your directs do. The big key to it is that it doesn’t focus at all on the past behavior. It just focus on the future.
 An example:
“Don, can I give you some feedback? <wait for answer> “When you are late to the meeting, we start late and can’t finish the agenda. This means not everyone gets a chance to be heard. Do you think you could change that next time?
Read the last sentence again. “Next time.” The manager doesn’t dwell on the previous issue, instead he dwells on it not happening again.
And that’s the secret to a great retrospective. Focus on the future. Don’t assign blame. Don’t dissect every problem. Don’t get lost in the spilt milk. Focus on doing better the next time.
Forward looking:
When I do a retrospective I pull out another tool from my Manager Tools bag. On the left side of the white board I write “What Went Well.” On the right side I write “Things to Look At.”
The latter is important and I always stress it. TLA isn’t about blame, it isn’t about why, it isn’t even about negative. It is simply things we want to look at for the future. This can mean you end up with things people would generally refer to a “positive” on the Things to Look At side. After a good retrospective, I often have lines drawn from items on the WWW side to the TLA side. Things that were not part of the normal process, that had a good impact and the team wants to do it again.
The next step is to lay down the brain storming rules. When using the brain storming rules there is no “No”, “But”, or “I don’t agree.” Brain storming is a safe zone where anyone can throw out anything and there will be no discussion, no argument and anything goes. If someone yells out “Pepperoni Pizza,” my only response is “Is that a ‘Went Well’ or a ‘Things to Look At’?”
When you’re done collecting your WWW-TLA you then give everyone something to vote with. Small teams can use markers, larger teams work well with stickers or even post its. Let everyone vote two or three times on the TLA side. Then you tally up the votes and you’ve got your top things to look at changing for the next time. Short, sweet, to the point and very effective.
Don’t make your retrospectives a full court trial. Don’t dwell on the past. Do make it safe for people to reflect. Do focus on the future.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

Gorilla Spam- Not appetizing, Not good practice

Or- How not to be a Twitter Sinner

Matthew W. Jackson

Photo by Matthew W. Jackson

My computer finished resuming with a happy chirp. In seconds it was pulling down data from the internet and my applications were all madly updating. Taking a slug of coffee I popped open Tweetdeck and looked to see what gems the night’s rest had produced. Two minutes later I’d already pushed out at least a dozen retweets, it was a banner day for tweets.  

“Whoa there, Tex, slow down with that keyboard. Do you know how fast you’re tweeting there?” 

I didn’t bother to look at Hogarth. He was no doubt looming behind me with a disapproving scowl on his face, that’s what a gorilla in the room does. I shrugged, “about a dozen in the last two minutes.” 

My gorilla stepped close enough for me to see his reflection in my monitor. He was counting on his fingers. “About a dozen? So you’re saying that you are pushing out a tweet every 10 seconds? You do know that it takes on average five to eight seconds just to read a tweet? You actually want people to pay attention?” 

“Hogarth,” I said. “I’ve got just a few minutes to retweet here, before I have to get to work. I have to go fast.” 

Hogarth grunted. “You remember Tommy, the engineer?” 

I shuddered, “Oh god, he used to write emails in the middle of the night. By the time I got in the office, I’d have twenty emails from him.” 

Hogarth nodded. “And how many of them did you read?” 

Ouch…  Okay, Hogarth had a point. I threw up my hands, “Okay, fine! So I I’ll cut back to one tweet a minute.” 

I turned back to my computer. Giving a sigh I watched my clock tick down a full sixty seconds. As the second hand swept past the 12 I clicked on a tweet and selected the retweet option. With a satisfied grunt I hit enter. “There!” 

“Don’t you even read them?” 

Shaking my head, I said “These are pure gold, I only follow the best, I don’t need to actually read them.” I pointed at my screen, “Look at this one. It’s from @PMUberGuru. This guy pulls down high five figures for a one hour speaking engagement. I don’t need to read his stuff, it’s guaranteed to be good stuff!” 

Hogarth gave a grunt of surprise. “Well that’s interesting.” 


“This email I just got,” Hogarth said.  

I spun about in my chair, “what email?” I began only to stop before I finished the thought. 

Hogarth had a banana shaped device in his hands. It was lying flat in his palm and split open down the middle. He pointed at the device.”iBanana,” 

Giving me enough time to roll my eyes he continued. “It’s an email from @PMUberGuru. Seems his Twitter account was hacked and the hacker sent out tweets pointing to some really nasty malware web sites. You know the kind, soon as you hit the page its trying to convince you your computer crashed or something, just click this button to reboot your computer.” 

The sheer insanity of Hogarth using a banana shaped phone was quickly shoved to the side as the full impact of his words sunk in. 

“Oh…. Crap…” 



Are you a Twitter spammer sinner? 

TSSS- Twitter Spammer Sinner Syndrome. So like any good, social media using, project manager I follow the #PMOT hash tag. It has been a source of some truly great project management insights. Unfortunately, I often wonder if it is worth the effort. Much like a needle in a haystack, you have to really hunt for those gems. And when I have to hunt for useful information in a Twitter feed, then it’s not really worth it. 

One evening I was working late. I could tell that this one project manager had just fired up his computer (maybe in meetings all day, maybe he’s in AsiaPac). In the course of five minutes he’d retweeted close to thirty tweets.  With the settings on my Tweetdeck that meant that just about when one tweet was fading from my screen, it was replaced by another (I’ve since change Tweetdeck to only show new tweets every ten seconds and am considering disabling notifications all together). At that point I’d had enough and I closed my Tweetdeck. When I fired it up the next morning and scrolled back through #PMOT there was an hour’s time period where this PM was the only tweets on the hash tag and there were a lot of them. 

You know what happened? I don’t even give his tweets a second glance and I certainly have no plans to ever follow him directly.  When I see his picture, I just look to the next tweet. He may be a truly brilliant project manager, but he spammed me and that’s just not okay. 

Spamming is the first sin of Twitter. 

I think there are at least two other cardinal sins and I’m not alone: 

Sin #2: Multi Blasting

Irene Koehler first put words to this sin for me. In her blog, “Connecting Twitter to LinkedIn: Just Say No,” she gives an impassioned argument on why you shouldn’t have your tweets automatically post to LinkedIn.  I can’t agree with her enough on this and it also goes for doing the same with linking tweets to Facebook. It is not uncommon that if you are following someone in one Social Media, you follow them other places. They are all different communication methods and the last thing I really want to do is see the exact same post in LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. 

More importantly, LinkedIn is about professional status and networking. I do not need to know where you just had dinner. I’ve removed people from my LinkedIn network for this. 

Related to this is Foursquare. I’m not on Foursquare. I don’t want to be on Foursquare and I absolutely don’t care if you just became mayor of Costco. If I want to follow your Foursquare progress, I can add a Foursquare thread to my Tweetdeck. I’ve unfollowed people who tweet their Foursquare. 

Sin #3: Twitter is not a bulletin board

I hadn’t even realized this was bothering me until I read Tim Tyrell-Smith’s (Tim’s Strategy web site for career tips and advice) recent blog; “Don’t Follow Me on Twitter – Talk To Me 

Tim points out this sin wonderfully well, but I’d like to offer up an analogy of what is going on here. 

I walk into a coffee shop. Ignoring all the patrons in the shop I wander over to the bulletin board and tack up my lost dog poster. Then I walk out of the coffee shop and go repeat the process at a half dozen other shops. Meanwhile, back in the coffee shop, a lady finishes paying for her coffees and heads out to her car where her husband waits. I helpfully hold open the door for her, before heading off to my next place to post flyers.  When she gets into the car, she asks her husband “so should we make flyers for this found dog?” The dog in the back seat just wags his tail.  

Twitter is becoming the bulletin board of the internet. People don’t post to have conversations, they post to convey information. They use it as a sign post to their blogs (I have been guilty of this). Instead of being a destination, Twitter are the signs on the side of the freeway. Gas, Food, Lodging, Blog posts… 

I maintain two Twitter accounts, one is for my professional project management and the other is a cross between personal and for my freelance fiction writing. As I examined my two accounts I found my professional account was filled with sign posts. Whether it was myself or the people I follow, the tweet feed was filled almost completely with posts to other places. There are no conversations. In contrast, my private feed is filled with dialogue, interaction and “community.” 

Twitter has the potential to be a powerful communication medium. Unfortunately we are in danger of it turning into a mind numbing information pipe. Ever heard the expression, drinking from the fire hose?   

Make Twitter, “cocktails with friends”, not, “drinking from the fire hose”. 

Leave the Spam to the professionals:

Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

Wake up and smell the gorilla

Or: Finding my own business philosophy and what matters

The training room was packed. Nearly everyone from the department was there and we were all interested to know what the all hands meeting was about. Things were going really good. The company was doing great. We’d gotten past the uber release of the year and were all breathing a sigh of relief. My job might not have been exciting or “filled with growth opportunity” but it was nice and safe.

Then boss of all the bosses in the room stepped up to speak and we all settled into quiet. Our eyes open and ears listening.

I know he said other things, but somehow everything he said was lost in an unrelenting roar of six words as they repeated in my head, over and over again. “Your services are no longer required.”

My jaw dropped. That’s okay though, the floor had fallen out from under me and my jaw was just trying to keep up with the rest of my body. What happened? This was a safe job! How did I miss the writing on the wall, I mean there’s always writing on the wall. Isn’t there?

“Of course there is.” I turned to look for the source of the voice. I didn’t recognize it, but the voice was somehow familiar. It was almost like I should know and was just having amnesia.

“Selective amnesia, sure I’ll give you that.” The voice was attached to two rather large, extremely hairy feet. Said feet were propped up on the table next to me. Following the feet back up the equally hairy legs I was eventually greeted by the visage of an 800 pound gorilla.

“What the hell are you?” Not exactly the most sane response to meeting a talking gorilla but I can’t imagine Elwood P. Dowd handled meeting Harvey much better.

“I’m your fairy career gorilla.” He grinned, showing a mouthful of blindingly white teeth. “Well technically I’m your ‘So blindingly obvious you can’t avoid it’ combined with ‘That problem you know is there but would rather ignore, gorilla.’ Course you could just call me Hogarth, that’s my name.”

“I must be hallucinating. Or maybe this is just a bad dream. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately, this is just stress giving me bad dreams. Yeah, that’s the ticke…”


I think I’ve mentioned before how unnerving it is to be smacked by a figment of your imagination. The first time was no less so. And it’s damn  hard to ignore a figment of your imagination that makes you see double. Blinking, I looked at the fuzzy image of two gorillas. “How long have you been sitting there?”

Hogarth folded his ample hands over his chest and spoke serenely, “I have always been here, you just were not prepared to see me.”

“How the hell can you miss a 800 pound gorilla in the room?” I asked in complete disbelief.

Hogarth’s reply was to wave about the room. All about me were faces in shock, disbelief and sadness. HR Minions, the dislike of their current job evident on their faces, moved about the recently dispossessed like clerics ministering to their flock. But no one paid any attention to Hogarth. “People see what they want to see, they understand what they want to understand.To truly understand the source of a problem, one must be prepared to look for it in ever increasing circles about oneself”*

*This quote is paraphrased from Mark Horstman



And so was my “aha moment”, my “game changer”, my “Waterloo”. Or in normal speak, it was getting laid off from this “safe” job that finally made me stick my head up over the cube wall and look around.  

In the days right after the event I went through the normal five cycles of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. It was with acceptance that I found out something fundamental. Something that changed how I looked at everything. With acceptance I gained the realization that getting laid off was the best thing that could have happened to my career. I felt like that guy in the romance comedy movie. You know, the one who’s in love with the super perfect, if not a little boring, woman and is devastated when she leaves him, only to realize his best friend has been the girl of his dreams all along? Being shaken from the safety of my job made me realize how much I was to blame for where I was. 

For some of us, it takes a two by four to the head to see the blindingly obvious. My two by four was being laid off and what I ended up seeing was Hogarth. Okay, I didn’t really see a 800 pound gorilla, but what I did see were things that had been right in front of my face all along and I was too focused, blind or in denial to notice. 

And so I began to make the changes to take control of my career. At first it was the absorption of knowledge I’d ignored for so long. Reading books I’d long owned, long had looking impressive on my office shelf and had never read. Checking in with the real world and what was going on. And discovering new voices that spoke words of common sense, words I’d been deaf to before. 

And then I began to realize I had everything I needed to take charge of my career. I learned enough to see that I already knew how to be more than what I was. I started to understand I already had a set of principles, a personal business philosophy. I just needed to start following my own inner gorilla. 

Over the last two years I’ve put to writing my own guiding business philosophy. Covey might call it a mission statement, Agile calls them values and Manager Tools just calls it being Effective. They are still a work in progress, but they color my daily work and the blogs I write here.  

The one caveat I should give is that this isn’t anything new or profound. This isn’t rocket science, or as the fine gentlemen at Manager Tools like to say “Management is boring, but it is effective.” I’m not the guru of a new world order, I’ve just put some common sense into a coherent form and am doing my best to follow my own guidance. 

The Gorilla Philosophy:

1- People, not projects

2- Communication is 100% your job

3- Process is a tool, not a roadblock

4- There  is no, one, right way

4- Everything leads back to the Customer (Stakeholder, End User, etc.)


Stick your head up and look around, is there a gorilla waiting to talk to you?




The gorilla in the forest, through the trees

“Man! Did you see that pass, it was sweet!”
“Apparently the team’s chopper had a malfunction, the explosion was the scuttling charges.”
I wound my way through the incomprehensible hallway conversations, making for my desk and the incredibly long to do list waiting for me.
“Hey!” Bob called out to me. “Some speech, wasn’t it?”
I gave a half nod and walked faster.  “Speech?” What the heck was he talking about?
I settled into my desk chair, just in time for Molly to wander into my cube. “So you thinking about applying for that Agile certification?” Molly was a project manager over in the IT organization and she loved to talk project management shop. I just wish I knew what she was talking about half the time.
“Uh, not sure. What do you think?” I asked.
She gave a shrug. “Dunno, Tobias Mayer certainly has panned it. Not surprising though, he’s not big on traditional PM. Rory Corkle wrote a good blog on why he’s behind it, but I think he’s going to make money training so not sure if he’s unbiased.”
“Tobias, Corkle? What the heck is she talking about?” I asked myself. Thoroughly lost I shrugged and gave what I hoped was an interested answer. “Tough call.”
She cocked her head to the side, giving me that same look she always seemed to give me. She said something pleasant and wandered off. Supposedly Molly is a big information junkie, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation that lasted more than a couple minutes. Guess she doesn’t know as much as folks think.
I turned back to my computer, way to much to do on this proje…
“Ow!” I yelped. Grabbing the back of my head, I spun around. “Hogarth! What the heck was that fore?”
Hogarth grunted and glared at me. “For someone so smart, you sure are thick.”
“Do you have any clue what’s going on around you?”
I sat up straight, offended at his question. “Of course I do. Quality just finished sanity on build 42. Bob’s working on a change order for support of the new MacroFirm browser. And the prewire for the design review went off without a hitch. This project is going great!”
Hogarth waved a freshly peeled banana at me. “There is more to the world than the project, you know that?”
“No, there’s not. If I don’t get this project out on time, I lose my bonus. Heck, the way things are going I might get a pink slip. If its not the project, then I don’t care..”
Spwap, spwap…. The sound of a banana peel smacking across my cheeks was strange to my ears. Fortunately the peel didn’t hurt that much.
“You need to care,” said Hogarth. “For example, Jake is a rabid Sharks fan. Did you know they were in the playoffs and if the Sharks win he’ll probably take a couple days off?” He pointed the direction Molly had gone, “Molly just got a cold recruitment call from someone she met at the last PM Chapter meeting. Seems he was impressed with her grasp of how the recent changes in Agile are impacting the business bottom line. Oh and the most notorious terrorist in the world was killed, Bob was talking about the President’s speech on that.”
“Why would the CEO being talking about a dead terrorist?”
“You are hopeless!” Hogarth growled. “It doesn’t matter if you are the best damn Gantt chart master in the world, if you don’t know what’s going on in the world you won’t stay relevant and won’t be able to communicate with your co-workers!”
Right then one of my co-workers poked my head into my cube. “Hey, some of us are headed to In and Out Burger* for lunch. Want to come?”
“Is that a new burger place?” I asked.
*- In and Out burger is a popular fast food restaurant in the southwestern portion of the United States. It has been around for several decades.
We work forty or more hours a week. During the work day if we don’t look insanely busy, people wonder why we’re not working hard enough. When we get home, most of us are dog tired and just want to collapse on the couch.
And now we’re supposed to take time to pay attention to world? Okay, so I’ll catch the evening news headlines. I can do that from the couch. What more do I need to do?
I have a friend and fellow project manager. He had worked for eighteen straight years, most of that at one company. He’d not had to look for a job in all that time. When he did change jobs, the new job found him. In that time he never thought about looking for work, never factored that into something he needed to stay current.
So when he found himself out of work, in 2009, he suddenly discovered he was completely out of touch with how job hunting worked now. The last time he’d updated his resume, it was expected that you put your mailing address on it. When was the last time you put your mailing address on your resume?
I don’t follow sports that much. Never been much of an interest to me. Sure, if the local team makes it to the playoffs, I’ll turn into a loyal fan (Go Giants). But once the World Series is over I’m back to my normal indifference. At one of my prior companies, the guy down the hall from me was a rabid Giants fan (US Baseball). If I wanted to relate to him, I had to at least understand the basic language of baseball. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have understood half his explanations. “Oh that project is a base hit.” (Translation- “That’s easy to do, won’t take much effort”).
Ever come into the office, only to discover the company you work for is now owned by some holding company in India? Stealth acquisitions are not unheard of, but most of the time you can see change in the wind, if you just pay attention to your company in the news.
Did you hear about the new PMI test standards? Yeah, you have to stand on your head when you take the test. (Okay, not really. But if you don’t keep up on the PM community how would you know?)
It comes back to effectiveness. When communication is about what the listener does, you need to communicate in their language. To do that, you have to make an effort. If you come to work everyday, go to your cube, do you job and then go home, nothing more, well you’re not going to be effective. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best project manager in the world, master of the Gantt chart, queen of risk analysis. If you can’t communicate effectively then you fail.
I learned this lesson the hard way. The best thing that ever happened to me, was getting laid off when I least expected to be. It challenged my assumptions. It woke me up and it caused me to take a second look at things. If something as obvious as that layoff could catch me by surprise, then what else was I missing? It was this moment, when I realized the huge forest of my career was made up of thousands of individual trees. Being laid off set me on the path I am on now. As I looked back on my career I started to realize just how many mistakes I’d made.
And not staying current has been one of the biggest. I used to not grasp that at least knowing if the local sports teams were winning more than they were losing would be useful to my career. Who cares if there are layoffs on Wall Street? That doesn’t impact me in Silicon Valley, right?
So what do I do?:
I don’t work any less hours, but I do make my non-work my time more effective.
Stay up on Current Events: Manager Tools hands down recommends reading the Wall Street Journal. Excellent advice but not something I could take myself. With a two hour commute I can’t read. Fortunately we now live in an age of information overload. You can stay current very easily.
Podcasts are you friends: There is a podcast for darn near anything you need. Below I give an example of what I follow. The important point here is you would be surprised how much “down time” you have when you can listen to something.
 Walking the dog, Using the Stairmaster, driving to work, walking at lunch, etc. You may not have the time to sit down with the WSJ (or other print publication), but few of us don’t have time in the day when we can listen.
I’ve recently started using the Stitcher Radio iPhone app (also available for the Android). This has made podcasts even easier. I don’t have to worry if I synced my phone, I just stream the podcasts I follow. For most of my daily or short podcasts I use Stitcher. For weekly or longer podcasts I still use iTunes.
My Podcasts:
Some of these keep me up on current news. Some of these keep me up on interesting trends.  Some (like Dinner Party Download), give me conversation starters.
APM Marketplace (daily)
APM Marketplace Morning Report(daily)
NPR Hourly News Summary (daily)
APM Marketplace Tech Report (daily)
Wall Street Journal What’s News (daily)
APM: The Dinner Party Download (weekly)
Freakonomics Radio (weekly)
BBC Click Radio (weekly)
Quick and Dirty Tips Podcasts: Grammar Girl, Get it Done Guy, Legal Lad, Money Girl and The Public Speaker (weekly)
Manager Tools (weekly)
Career Tools (weekly)
NPR Wait, Wait, Don’t tell me (weekly)
60 Minutes (weekly)
The Project Management Podcast (Bi-Monthly)
The Cranky Middle Manager (weekly)
Stay up current on your industry: Things change, even in the most stagnant industry things will change. People change, as well, a lot more often. You need to know what is going on, who is saying what and why. You don’t have to be an expert, but you should at least have an idea.
RSS Feeds- I use Google Reader to follow several PM and Management blogs. I try and read it twice a week. If I fall behind, I don’t kick myself and I don’t let it keep me from reading. If I’m really behind, I mark it all read and try better next week.
Forums/Discussion Groups- There are a wealth of forums on every industry. LinkedIn alone is a great resource. Read and participate! Same rules as the RSS feeds. Don’t feel you have to read it all. On a bad week, I’ll not even touch them, but I always come back to them. In addition to the many project management related LinkedIn groups, I highly recommend the project management board on stack exchange.
Stay current with your network and peers: If you never leave your cube, you’ll never meet your next boss. Staying current with your peers and professional network is vital. If I get a request for help from two people, one I haven’t spoken to in ten years and one I just saw at a breakfast meeting last week, who am I more likely to help? You don’t have to even leave your cube! My two tips:
Networking Events: Here in Silicon Valley, the PMI chapter hosts several morning and evening events each month. Beyond that there are dozens of relevant groups on Meetup.com. Even if your PMI chapter doesn’t do this, or you don’t have Meetup events around you, there are people meeting and talking. Find them and meet with them. I attend PMI events as well as local Agile related events. Oh and I’m part of my local PTA. Yes, the PTA. A good chunk of my fellow parents are also professionals in the valley and we have a lot to talk about.
Send an emai!: The easiest way to stay current. Go through your address book (or LinkedIn contacts) and set yourself a reminder. One person a day, send an email. Just drop a line, ask how they are doing, share something you learned, etc. At a loss for words? Check their LinkedIn profile. Nine times out of ten, they’ll be something there to talk about.
So the next time you walk down the hall and hear “What a pass,” know if they are talking about the latest hockey game or the latest football game. When someone asks about the latest PMI certification respond with, “yeah I read a great blog about that, made me type up one in response.”
Stay current, stay effective.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

I can see you, Gorilla: Note Taking – not Notebook Use

Writing_ID-10062381_ nattavut

Photo By Nattavut

The program team meeting was progressing. Progressing might be a strong word, maybe it was crawling along like a drunk slug in an ice storm. I looked down at my screen, scrolling through several pages of data in silence before half looking up again. “According to the reports, we have four P1 blockers on the release, Jake what’s the status?”

Bob’s eyes half flicked up from his computer screen before registering that “Jake” sounded nothing like “Bob”. The two Tech Writers were splitting their attention between a marked up manual and their open Macbooks, while James, the intern, was sitting up in his seat hand poised over a notepad ready to capture something important.
Jake, on the other hand, was at the far end of the table head down at this open laptop and fingers screaming away. It seems in the time it took me to find the data I was looking for Jake had decided to recode the entire database architecture.
“You know,” Hogarth drawled leaning over my shoulder to look down the table.
I waved off Hogarth without looking up. “Hang on, Hogarth.” I tapped furiously at my computer, hitting enter to the satisfying sound of <ping>.
At the far end of the room, my computers little voice was answered by a corresponding <ping> emanating from Jake’s computer. Jake’s fingers paused.
Hogarth looked at me, “You did not just Facebook chat that engineer!?”
I looked up at Hogarth, trying to give him the stare that said ‘Do you have two heads, cause you make no sense?’.
“Yes, I did. I wanted to make sure I got his attention.”
At this point, Hogarth made sure he had my attention. <SMACK>
“Ow! What was that for?” I demanded of my gorilla.
“For gross idiocy in the running of your meeting.”
“Me?” I exclaimed. “I am not the one rewriting the codebase to the Library of Congress in the middle of the meeting!”
Hogarth gave me ‘the look’. The one that told me he thought I’d just said about the stupidest thing in the world.
And he was right…
Notepads, not Notebooks (Or close the computer and write)
As the project manager, the way the meeting runs is your responsibility and yours alone. And how you conduct yourself is the first and most important thing you need to focus on.  I don’t know if it is a Mark Horstman original or a re-quote, but he has often been heard to say “When looking for the source of a problem, start by looking in ever increasing circles about yourself.”  In other words, the examples you set will be the examples your team follows.
Computers in meetings is a major area of contention. The Manager Tools team make no bones about it, if they are coaching you and you insist on taking a computer to meetings, they’ll drop you as a client. Hear that sound? That’s the keening wail of protest coming from Silicon Valley. “But I take notes, I have data, I, I, I…” I could go on. Heck, I’ve said most of the excuses myself, and as much as I hate the concept of taking my hands from my precious keyboard, Horstman is right in so many ways. No matter how professional you are, the minute that screen flips up, a small part of everyone’s brain assumes you are doing something else. And come on folks, we all have been guilty of doing just that. “Oh well, I’ll just check that one email,” “Hey look, there’s that error in the code,” “Ooh, Diane updated her Facebook with photos from last weeks beer bash,” and so on.
Now Manager Tools makes a lot of good points and I admit to not being as good as I could be. When I am attending a meeting that someone else is running, I try very hard to leave the laptop at my desk. Taking notes on paper is really much more efficient. Yes, it requires you to copy it into the computer later (Edit 2017- These days I use the Evernote photo feature and take pictures of all my notes), but you have more flexibility with the Mark I pen and you are being more professional and more focused on the meeting, not your technology. Heck, the act of transposing to the computer will lock the meeting in your mind all the more.
The biggest argument I hear to this is “I have information on my computer that I might need”. I can’t argue with that, but I can argue that you don’t need to have your computer open the whole meeting. Need to give an exact answer on the sell through rate of the NewCo Gizmo? Then open your computer, look it up and then close it again.”What about when I’m running the meeting? I am the project manager.” Right you are, but there are rules here as well.
  • If you are not presenting, then close the computer! The reason to have a computer in the meeting is to share data with the whole team. If you are not sharing, then you are shutting out your team with the lid of your laptop.
  • If you’re not typing, close the lid. Many times the information on the projection screen is just for reference and the main talking happens in the room. Close the lid and engage in the meeting.
  • Take notes on paper. Keep your notebook open and ready, jot your notes in the notebook, not on the computer. Update the power point slides after the meeting, not in the meeting. If you’re not in presentation mode, something is wrong.  There are some exceptions to this, but very rare and focused mostly on real time updating. Using a MindMap to create a Work Break Down structure? Then type on the computer. Need to note a reminder to schedule a meeting next week to follow up? Put that on your notepad.

A final note on taking notes.  This isn’t college, this is work. You are not trying to document everything that was said in the meeting, you are capturing action items, follow ups and critical points. Manager Tools recommends the Cornell Model note taking (Yes, they even have a podcast dedicated to it). I have been using it to good effect for more than a year now (Edit 2017- seven years and going strong).

Edit 2017- Since I first wrote this, in Jan, 2011, there has been scientific studies to support just how much more effective the written note is over the typed note. The 30,000 foot summary is when you type, you’re transcribing and when you write, you are summarizing. You end up with more context and remember more when you write. Dan Pink released this short video in Aug, 2017 and in April, 2016 NPR ran an article on the research paper by Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles that definitively dove into this controversial topic (Hint, the laptop loses).
Joel BC
Veteran, the Project Manager wars
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP