Straight Talk on Project Management

Harvest time

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At harvest time what can IT project managers learn from farmers?

I was fascinated this week by a farmer in a combine harvester going up and down in a field adjacent to the road I was driving along. I pulled over to watch … it’s a man and machines thing!

The farmer pulled over too and we briefly talked about the vehicle he was driving. I was amazed how much technology was in the cab. From “satnav” type GPS technology to make working in the fields through the night easier to in cab computers that mean the combines harvest as much data as they do wheat and corn!

It seems farmers had learned a lot from technology and as we talked it dawned on me that IT Project Managers could learn a lot from them too.

1 – Collaboration

A combine harvester is a large investment and it’s sat idle for much of the year. Some farmers bite this bullet and buy one, many others access shared machines from neighbouring farms, perhaps even paying another farmer to harvest their crops or they hire a machine in from specialist suppliers.

Similarly, a fully staffed IT Project Management team can seem like an expensive luxury if they are not busy all the time. Just like combine harvesters, Project Management teams can buy in resources as and when they need them, reducing expensive headcount sitting idle waiting for the next project. Also in the same way that the farmer can choose the level of resource he buys in, from a self-operated machine to a full harvest service, the Project Management as a Service market has evolved to allow you to buy in everything from a specific service or person to complete end to end project management delivery.  

2 – Patience – You Can’t Rush It

Knowing when it’s right to harvest is vital. Cutting too soon or too late could have dramatic effects on a farmer’s yield and profitability. There is a natural process to the whole thing and although technology can provide data to assist with this and chemicals and plant feeds can help produce strong crops in a timely manner, farming is still about “things taking as long as things take.” There is no point during a crop life cycle where you could parachute in and start ‘closer to the harvest’.

In our world, a regular cause of IT Project failure is unrealistic time scales. Often these occur because of pressure from sponsors or key stakeholders, many times project teams are forced into bringing a deadline forward knowing that this could have a detrimental impact. Imagine if the breakfast cereal manufacturers or supermarkets insisted that instead of an August harvest next year they wanted one in June. Sure, the farmers could acquiesce but the crops wouldn’t be fully formed – it would be a disaster!

Sometimes I think we need to have an attitude of “things taking as long as things take.”

3 – You Never Stop Learning

The farmer said something really interesting. “You may have been farming for forty years but you’ll only ever have done this forty times during that period. Imagine if you were a tennis player and you’d only practised your serve forty times or a cricketer who’d only practised bowling forty times. Your chances of being world class would be small. Plus every year is different, different weather, different threats, different economic landscapes …”

Thinking about this I realised that we are all only as good as our experiences. Of course, like in farming we have data and past case studies to draw upon, we can ask others for advice but ultimately if you are managing your twentieth IT project, you won’t be as good as the day you manage your fiftieth.

And that’s OK! It’s alright to have gaps in your knowledge and in your capability because the Project Management as a Service market is poised and ready to complement those gaps.

4 – Work Ethic

The farmer told me that he and his farm hands were currently working late into the night to get the crops in ahead of inclement weather that was incoming. He also told me that they were regularly in the fields just after six every morning. He even seemed cheery at the prospect.

Often wayward IT Projects are saved by simply rolling up your sleeves and cracking on.

Are you familiar with Brian Tracy’s book “Eat That Frog” or other business psych up concepts that encourage you to tackle the most challenging task of your day first? The one you are most likely to procrastinate on but also the task that, if completed, might have the greatest positive outcomes on your current project. Farmers are out there eating the frog on a daily basis.  

5 – You Reap What You Sow

Literally and metaphorically! Actions being executed by farmers now are often planned years, maybe a decade ago! Every decision is taken mindfully with thoughtful regard for the broader eco-system.

For instance, a farmer might increase short term yields by aggressively fertilizing a field or using super strength chemical pesticides but what impact could that have on long term health of the soil? Farmers have to weigh up every possible consequence of an action in the short, mid and long term future. How many of us in IT Project Management can hold our hand up and say we do the same? I’ve seen spaghetti nests of heritage software and infrastructure derail fairly simple IT Projects because no one had considered the potential banana skins!

OK, with technology moving as fast as it does, the chances are that your IT Project today may not even be relevant in ten years but mindfully considering the impact of everything you do today on your IT infrastructure moving forward can pay huge dividends.

It’s no mystery why farms stay in families and seem to have been there forever – they are passed down through the generations and sons often carry out the plans of their fathers. It’s intended that way! Admittedly our world moves a little faster but all the key tech players, the giants in Silicon Valley have been around for years and they too have robust plans for the future.

6 – Know What You Can Control – And Work In These Areas

You may be familiar with the serenity prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”

Farmers have this instinct in abundance. They can’t change the weather but they can change when they plan to harvest to a sunnier day, they can’t change the existence of rabbits and birds and other pests but they can introduce measures to deter them – we have similar scenarios.

When you mindfully differentiate between what’s under your control and what isn’t and you apply all your efforts on things in the first column, you maximise your chances of success infinitely. Yet, time and again I am called into projects which are fighting battles that they cannot win or moaning about something that they can put right instead of acting to make it so. For example, if you have a resource gap, don’t waste time complaining about it at the water cooler hit up the Project Management as a Service sector and find a plug!

Sometimes, in IT Project Management it’s enough to change your attitude to the things that are out of your control … one PM I know has a CIO who delights in changing the goalposts. Instead of getting stressed when they have everything lined up and the CIO comes in with completely different messages, the PM shrugs her shoulders, thinks “They’ll still put money in my bank account at the end of the month” and rolls with it! In this, she is like a farmer contemplating a stormy day. Nothing you can do but smile and get on with it!

7 – Habitually Reduce Risk

Farmers are ‘A gamers’ at reducing risk. Think about the unlikeliness of fields of corn, wheat, barley, rapeseed, etc. Imagine all those fields, all the potential variables in the quality of the seed you sow, all the pests that could attack your crops, the unpredictability of the weather, mechanical issues, possible health problems, etc.

From the crop rotation in the 17th century that you learned about in school to the big data being collected by the combine harvester I opened this with, farmers have been systematically reducing risks for centuries.

The sooner you can identify and eliminate manageable project risks, the quicker your project yield increases. Habitualise the mitigation of risk!

The farmer I talked with is currently battling a new threat, black grass, already one of the most prolific weeds in this country and more recently, herbicide resistance has added to the blackgrass challenge. I confidently predict that they’ll have back grass under their control.

In conclusion, there is an old saying that you should never bet against a farmer. Let’s take steps now so that a similar saying emerges … “Never bet against a project manager!”

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