Sometimes a Gorilla is just a Gorilla


“You’ll thank me for this. It’s going to make you so much more productive.”

Jake eyed the spreadsheet dubiously. I suppose I could understand his reticence. At first glance the Systematic Total Universal Program Iteration Document was a bit of an eye chart. I hadn’t understood it really until I’d taken the five day intensive training. But hey, now that I was trained I knew this was the absolute best thing I’ve ever seen. Ever!

“And I have to update this every week?” he asked.

I shodded my head. (You know, when you start to nod your head and then shake it no?) “Well that tab yes, click this other tab for the daily report.”

Jake complied, his eyebrow crawling into his hairline when he did. “This… This is a daily report.”

I nodded enthusiastically. “Uh huh, we’ll always know where the project is now.”

Jake closed his laptop and gathered up his stuff. I could see he was in a daze. Probably thinking about just how productive this was going to make him, once he finished the training. As he walked past me I heard him whisper ,”Yeah, this is definitely stupid.”

I held up a finger, “It’s pronounced ESS-tup-Id .”

Jake stopped for a moment. Then shaking his head, he kept going.

I tugged at my beard. “Well that was weird.”

“Weird in that he didn’t feed you his computer, or weird in that you thought that actually went well?”

Why did he always have to come and ruin my mood? “Hogarth, I don’t need your help. Things are going just fine. The new process is going to be a wonder.”

Hogarth’s looming form pushed off the wall and made its way over to the conference table. “I was more thinking blunder, but hey they do rhyme. “

“Blunder? Have you been smoking banana peals again. What are you going on about?”

Hogarth settled into a chair, easing back slowly as it desperately protested. “I’ll have you know I was drying those peals for a science experiment.” He waggled a leathery hand at me. “You’re playing with your shiny new toys again.”


Hogarth leveled his deep brown eyes at me. “If it works, don’t fix it.”



Way back in 2009 I introduced folks to PIG, the Process Inflexibility Gorilla. In that blog I gave folks the screwdriver argument , which is a useful analogy for why you want to be able to support more than one process, tool or way of thinking.

In a nutshell, the screwdriver argument is:

“If you have the world’s best screwdriver and you’re locked in a room with lug bolts, all you have is a pointy stick.”

And flexibility is a good thing. It’s a key tenet of agile and many leading management techniques. I’m all for flexibility. I’m all for trying something new and innovative. And I’m also aware that I suffer from the all to common failing of…

Red Ferrari Sports Car

“Oooooh, shiny…”

Sorry, where were we? Oh, right, shiny. Back in the 90’s there was a US SitCom called “Home Improvement.” In the show, the lead character (Tim Allen) was a bumbling suburban dad with a TV Show where he was a tools “expert.” Without fail, if he got a hold of a new tool, he had to use it and he had to use it right then. Even if it meant he ended up dropping a crane load on his wife’s classic car.

New toy syndrome can be the death knell of many a good project. The latest fad comes along (we talk about fads in “Agile- A Gorilla Four letter word?”) and off the company goes. Who moved my cheese, Trust Courses, Yell Thereby, African Expeditions, Survivor Board Room, you name it, we’ll try it. All in the blind attempt to find a better way. Only do we need a better way?

If the orders are shipping on time, order placement productivity is high, the customer is happy and the company is doing well, do you really need to shake everything up and put an entirely new ERP system in? Probably not. And yet I’ve seen it done. A complete replacement of a tools system because the new tool would be cheaper, so what if it doesn’t have all the features we need right now, their professional services said they can build us what we need.

New toy syndrome can strike our projects as well, though sometimes it can be old toy. I worked at one company in a division that had been acquired from the outside. The division was acquired because they understood a specific target market and knew how to build and sell to that market. The buying company then proceeded to try and impose its monolith process on the new division. A process designed to build technology that took from 2-3 years to develop was laid on top of an organization that regularly went from concept to ship in less than six months. And then the big company was confused by why the new division was doing so poorly.

You know, I could go on. But in the end, I think Hogarth summed it up perfectly.

“If it works, don’t fix it.”

Talking to gorillas, I’m Joel BC

The Angry Gorilla: Emotion is your choice.

Photo from Wikipedia

“I CAN’T BELIEVE THE NERVE!” I stormed into my office, barely catching the door before I slammed it for all it was worth. I compensated for the averted door slam by tossing my notebook across the room. Stalking after it, I noticed Hogarth reclining in the corner of the room. I didn’t even look at him, I was in no mood to have my head shrunk by a pseudo- imaginary gorilla who’d watched one too many Dr. Phil episodes. “Don’t even start, I am NOT in the mood.”
I threw myself into my chair, threatening to topple it over in the process. I glared sightlessly at my computer monitor. I was too agitated to even scan my recent emails. It was all I could do to not grab the monitor and throttle it like I wanted to throttle Bob’s snake-like next. Finally I calmed down enough to scoop my battered notebook up off the floor.

Photo by astrogrl –

Sitting back up I noticed Hogarth again. He was sitting in the corner of the room, not speaking or moving. He just sat there calmly looking in my direction. I snorted and tossed my book on the desk. “Not gonna work, hairball. You can’t fix this with a few pithy sayings and making me twist my mind around to look at itself from behind.”
Hogarth just sat there, unblinking. His placid face betrayed no hint of emotion.
I grunted and turned to my computer. I might as well get some work done.
Five minutes later I threw up my hands in surrender. Turing to the still silent Hogarth I said, “Fine, you win!”
Hogarth didn’t respond. He just laid his hands in thighs and cocked his head to the side.
“The team just demoed the product to the CEO. He was really impressed with how the workflow was improved. He said ‘Best damn idea I’ve seen in a long time.”
Hogarth just blinked. Still I could hear the question. “So? So Bob took credit for it. Complete and total credit for it. The lily livered slime bag had the nerve to take credit for the work!”
Hogarth just looked at me.
I sighed. “Bob’s idea for the workflow was a miserable failure. The team tossed it out and came up with something from complete scratch. Sure it fit Bob’s stated user requirements, but it had nothing to do with Bob’s actual ideas.” I smacked the table in frustration. “And there wasn’t anything I could do about it. If I’d told the real truth, it would have looked like I was tossing Bob under the bus. He may be a spineless product manager, but I’m not going to lower myself to that level.”
I clenched my fists, fighting back the desire to pound on the desk. “Oh he makes me so MAD!”
And then Hogarth finally spoke. “No, he did not make you mad.”
“What?” I stared at my gorilla with blatant incredulity. “I’m furious. I damn near took the door off its hinges and I think I dented my desk. How the hell can you say that Bob didn’t make me angry?”
Hogarth spoke, his voice calm and Yoda-like. “Anger you, Bob did not. Chose to be angry yourself, did you.”
I shook my head, not sure I’d heard Hogarth clearly. “Hogarth, he just took credit for the entire project and you want to tell me he didn’t make me mad?”
My gorilla nodded his head. “Yes.”
“Have you been sniffing the white out? That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve heard you say all month. How on earth is it he didn’t make me mad?”
Hogarth folded his hands in his lap and leaned back against the wall. Speaking from under half-lidded eyes he said, “between stimulus and response, lies the ability to choose.”
“Really, Hogarth, you need to stop buying self-help books at Kmart. What quack shrink said that?”
Hogarth opened one eye and looked my way. “Stephen Covey.”
Anyone who’s ever said Project Management isn’t a stressful job probably defines fun as “poking hot needles in their eyes.” Project Management can be high stress, high conflict and highly political. Mark Horstman,, points out “What junior employees call politics, executives call doing business.”
So the stress and conflict are part and parcel to the job we do. What we do about it though, is completely in our control.
Stephen Covey says in 7 habits of a Highly Effective Person “Between stimulus and response, lies the ability to choose.” It is the kind of phrase you might expect from a Zen master or Yoda and in his own ways, Covey is the Jedi teacher of business. It’s an incredibly simple concept and as powerful as it is simple.
We project managers are bombarded from a hundred different angles every single day. We face reluctant teams, self centered sales reps, political managers, oblivious executives and more. At least that’s what we tend to describe them as when in reality we are dealing with teams that are unsure of next steps or feeling insecure with their positions, sales reps that are paid to make sales and if they don’t they don’t get paid, managers who recognize business is a series of give and takes and executives that must make a hundred decisions a day to keep the company moving and you probably are only aware of three of those.
Human nature is pretty quick to assign emotional content to everything. Being an effective project manager means focusing not on the emotions but on the behaviors. Behaviors are the words one says, how one says them (tone and inflection), facial expressions, body language, and work product (timeliness, quality, documents, delivery, etc.).
  • Bob’s slouching in the meeting, that must mean he doesn’t care about the project. No, what it means is Bob got two hours of sleep last night because his son fell off the porch and broke his arm. Bob was in the ER until two in the morning.
  • Mary just wrinkled her nose. She thinks your idea is horrible. No, Bob smells like a sweat sock and Mary has a really sensitive nose.
  • Alexi just called the project “bad and bloated,” he’s being insulting and condescending. No, Alexi is a native Russian speaker and he watched an urban comedy last night. He meant to say “phat” not “bloated” and was trying to say he thought the project was “cool.”
Once we recognize that we should be looking at people’s behaviors, without assigning emotional bias, then we have to start working on our own response. Maybe Bob did intend to completely undercut you and hog all the glory. Is slamming your door and breaking your desk going to make things better? Will your boss blame Bob for having to shell out money for a new computer monitor? More importantly, will anyone want to work with you? Bob may have been underhanded and greedy, but you are the one and only person responsible for your response to his actions.
Being a great project manager means taking the high road, a lot.
Just remember “The man poking you in the chest does not make you angry. You make yourself angry.”
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

The patient Gorilla: When Risk Management means you wait

“Listen, Jake, I need something here.” I leaned in over his desk, doing my best convincing look..

The development manager shook his head. “We’re in the middle of a sprint. When the sprint is over I can pull Eric from the team for the next sprint and have him focus on this.”
I sighed. He was right. No matter how important this was, we were in the middle of a development sprint. We couldn’t pull someone from the team like that. I nodded, “Thanks, Jake. I’ll touch base with you next week, after the Sprint Demo.”
I sulked back to my office, chewing my lip. In a week things could change completely. In a week it might not matter or worse it might be a total disaster. I turned around twice, intent on demanding Jake do something right now. Each time I only made it two steps before turning back. There wasn’t anything that could be done right now, not without tossing the entire project into chaos. But… But…But… There was no way I’d be able to concentrate on anything else for the rest of the week.
With an ulcer slowly building I walked into my office. Hogarth was sitting in the corner, a branch from my nearly dead fichus held limply in one hand and a parchment gripped in the other. Making a mental note to buy a new fichus I dropped into my chair. “What’s with the royal decree? ” I waved towards the parchment in Hogarth’s hand.
He looked up. Pointing with the hand holding the branch, he nearly impaled the parchment. “It’s a notice of my reality review. It’s tomorrow.”
“Reality review?”
Hogarth nodded. “Every year. It determines if I continue to exist. Or, if like Descatres when he was asked if he wanted another drink and said “I think not,” I disappear in a puff of unreality.”
I blinked trying to wrap my head around the absolute ludicrous idea that Hogarth could just vanish in a puff of smoke. It was as absolutely incomprehensible as… I looked at my personal gorilla again and shook my head. Right, as unreal as a manifestation of my own conscience as a physical gorilla.  With my brief bout with reality past I returned my attention to Hogarth.
“But, that means you might not be?”
Hogarth nodded. “Ayup.”
“What can you do?”
Hogarth shook his head. “Nothing, the review is based on my past years existence. This is just the findings, they’ve already made their decision.”
Neatly avoiding the whole “who are they?” issue, I said. “Nothing?” Oh, that was brilliant! Way to state the obvious.
Hogarth nodded. “Yep.” And then he calmly rolled up the paper, put it away (don’t ask, I know he doesn’t have pockets and I try not to think about that) and began pealing the bark from the fichus branch. “Oh well, I’ll find out tomorrow.”
I blinked again. ‘Oh well?..’ “How can you not be stressed about this? What are you going to do?”
Hogarth shrugged, “Right now? Nothing.”
“Nothing?” I yelled. “How can you sit there and do nothing? Your very existence is on the line.”
Hogarth nodded. “Yep.”
“And you’re going to do nothing?”
Hogarth rubbed his chin with a leathery hand. “You know, you’re right. There’s this new vegetarian Vietnamese  place down on 5th. Maybe I’ll give that a try.”
My first response was almost over powered by the desire to ask how a gorilla intended to be served in a public restaurant, but the first response won out. “Dinner? How can you be thinking about eating right now? We need a plan, we need to do something!”
Hogarth gazed at me with his deep-brown eyes. “Do what?”
“Well, umm… Ahh.” 
Hogarth said, “Can I do anything about it right now?”
I struggled to find a different answer, but in the end I shook my head. “No. The review is tomorrow and they already made their decision.”
Hogarth nodded, “Yep. So I’m going to go have a nice dinner. Tomorrow will come, when it comes and I’ll find out then.”
Just like the sprint would end at the end of the week…
Managing risk can be a study in Pepto-Bismol. So many factors can impact a project that one can go quite literally risk blind with all the potential impacts to your project. Even if you avoid the “acts of nature” like earth quakes, terrorist attacks, total global meltdown, you can quickly spiral a risk register into the dozens of entries, all of them a major potential impact.
This post isn’t about risk management. While I have a lot to say on the subject, this post deals with risk management gone wrong. Once you’ve done your risk management, you have to have a certain amount of trust in your work. Okay, you’ve identified a major potential risk. If it happens, it will happen in three months. You’ve put in place a mitigation plan, you’ve put in avoidance plans. Now what?
It’s three months away, stop worrying about it. Review it during normal risk reviews, but don’t let it consume you.
This extends beyond just traditional risk management. It goes to every aspect of a project that you have no control over.
If we had four new headcount, that would solve our schedule issue. But you know that there is no way on earth the company will hire four new heads right now. So stop lamenting and move on.
You won’t know if the build works until the compile is done. It’s going to take six hours and finish at 2:00 AM. Go home, have dinner, go to bed and find out if it compiled when you get to the office at 8:00 AM.
You put an offer down on a house. The bank is considering the offer, but it’s Friday and Monday is a holiday so it will be Tuesday before you have an answer. Don’t sit by the phone all weekend and worry. Go out and have a normal weekend.
It’s by no means a new concept. Reinhold Niebuhr came up with the Serenity Prayer in 1937 and it has become an oft quoted and parodied prayer. No matter your religion (or lack of) the core concept remains the same.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
If you can’t change it, don’t sweat it. Go have dinner and focus on something you can change.
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

Pothole Project Management, a Gorilla PM philosophy

Or- How to solve a problem you lack the authority/resources to solve.
Ever have a day where you feel utterly powerless? Where your every act carries as much power as a waterlogged facial tissue holding back a runaway train? Okay, okay, I know, that that’s the normal state of being for a project manager. But I mean really and truly feeling like you have no more influence then a viagra spam email. Ever had one of those days?
I was.
Jake, the development manager,  had just declared his team had no plans to fix the fatal crash& corruption bug in the database load scripts. “It’s a fringe case, no one is ever going to hit it.”
Carlos was less than inclined to accept the answer. “Fringe case? A good twenty percent of our user base uses the Whippoorwill chip. What are my customer support reps supposed to say, ‘Oh sorry, sir, but that’s a fringe case. Can you please reinstall your system from a backup? You don’t have a backup, oh well.”
I sat in the middle, doing my best to stay the unbiased facilitator. Carlos could be a very reactionary customer service person and had a tendency to exaggeration, but I’d seen his data on this, and it was accurate. Over in the other corner, Jake’s team had been working for six months solid and had juggled a mountain of scope creep, introduced by the product manager. He was under a lot of pressure to deliver the product and just plain worn out by it.
So I looked to the product manager. “Bob, it’s your product, what do you want to do.”
Bob looked up from his Blackberry prayer. He glanced at the fiery tempered CS manager and then at the stoic development manager. “We’re a month late already, we can’t afford any more delays.”
Carlos nearly jumped across the table, “Delays? We wouldn’t be a month behind schedule if you hadn’t added a dozen features at the last minute and we wouldn’t have this bug if you hadn’t insisted on changing the DB schema!”
Two size-twenty, hairy feet levered themselves up onto the table next to me. Leaning back in his chair Hogarth folded his arms behind his head and turned to me. “You know this isn’t going to be any different from the last time customer support went toe to toe with the product manager?”
I glared at Hogarth, willing him to disappear in a puff of smoke. He didn’t and I was faced with the lopsided grin of my personal gorilla. I wanted to snap at him, that this would be different, but I couldn’t because I knew very well it wouldn’t be. Just like weather in LA, if yesterday was sunny, then odds were damn good tomorrow would be as well. The needs of the schedule would outweigh the needs of the product quality and customer support would be stuck supporting the bug. It would also impact our company. We were already starting to get a poor reputation for having great ideas, but horrible implementations.
Hogarth yawned, exposing a mouth full of pointed teeth, each gleaming like a reminder of things gone wrong. He said, “if you don’t do something, then it will be the same thing all over again.”
Now I was angry. It was one thing for Hogarth to state the blindingly obvious. But to imply I could change fate was quite the other. “Hogarth, I don’t have that kind of authority. My job is to move the project, not decide what it is!”
“We’re not going to have the responsibility argument again, are we?” he said. Before I could tell him this was different he waved towards the conference room’s big, picture window. “Remember that pot hole in the north parking lot, the one you used to hit every day?”
I nodded, “Yes, and I tried to get it fixed for six months. Facilities only finally got around to doing it last week. So?”
Hogarth shook his head, “Yeah facilities fixed it, but it wasn’t anything you did. The construction project on the south wing meant they had to drop a bunch of equipment at the head of the south lot, including in the CEO’s parking spot.” Flipping his feat down, Hogarth turned to point out at the north parking lot. “So they gave him a temp spot right next to the north entrance. See there’s his Mascarpone right there.”
“Maserati” I corrected.
He waved a massive paw-hand, “Whatever. The point is last Monday he drove into the north lot and took out his muffler on that pothole. Want to guess how fast it was fixed?”
I shook my head, “No, I want to know what your point is.”
“My point,” he said, “is sometimes the solution to the problem is to steer the right person into the pothole. Who do you think is really going to care is there is a crash bug on  the Whippoorwill chip?”
And the light dawned on me. “Massive Computing, probably our largest client. And Walter, their account rep is in town. I make sure Walter knows about the problem and he’ll get Bob to change Jake’s mind!”
My gorilla smiled. “You are learning, young Jedi.”
I call it “Pothole Project Management” and it’s one of the core tenants of Gorilla Project Management. It is something of the flip side to what I discussed in Blog 21, The Responsible Authority Gorilla. In Responsible I talked about how I, as the Project Manager, worked process and standardization into the team using Gorilla PM rule #1 “First thing is to get it done, then find out who should do it.” Pothole PM is the tool I bring out when my own authority (real or relationship) is insufficient to solve a problem. By steering someone with the authority into the issue, you can get the needed result.
Important point: This is not “I’m going to go tell dad!” This isn’t the school of tattle-tale project management. Relationships and subtlety are still very important. A project manager who gets a reputation for always going over people’s heads is a project manager who will soon have his team working to get rid of him.
Let’s take the example from above. I wouldn’t pick up the phone and tell Walter “Oh my god, do you know what they are doing?” My first approach would be to talk to Carlos, the Customer Service Manager. Carlos is the one who is most invested in the problem and he and Walter share a common interface point, that being the customer. Guiding Carl to go talk to Walter about “how we can ensure Massive Computer will be impacted minimally” will not only make Walter aware of the bug, but worst case will also start the risk mitigation planning if the bug does ship.
If I had to handle it directly, I’d do it in two ways, face-to-face and the power of status reports. Face-to-face is the trickiest, as it can all to easily come off as tattle-tale PM and that’s bad. You have to steer the conversation and get Walter to ask for the data. Power of the status report is the least risky, but you have to make sure people read your status reports (and that is a whole other blog, but there are tips for this). You make sure you have a history of factual reporting that includes issues and risks. If Walter is reading your reports, he’ll know about the issue gets involved that way.
Being an effective project manager is not about doing the work yourself, it is about making sure the right resource is applied to the right problem.
Joel BC
Veteran, the project management wars
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP