Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Herding Cats Project Management and Productivity

“Herding Cats” is an expression used often in Project Management. It refers to a task that is extremely difficult, or impossible, to do because of people, or variables, constantly in flux and uncontrollable. There is a popular EDS commercial on YouTube with modern “cat herders”.


Project Managers often have to deal with things that should be straightforward, but they become unbelievably difficult due to the people-factor.

Here is an example: you need to get someone to sign a piece of paper to get something done. Everything has been approved by those on high and all that is needed is one single signature by a finance dweeb. But he refuses. Fear of making a mistake? An uncontrollable desire to prove that he can control time and space? It could be anything.

It's like trying to stand cooked spaghetti on end.

Controlling Email

In personal productivity a great example is email. There are hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands… well… there is at least more than one book that will teach you how to get control of your work email. Not those jokes that get forwarded, not the links to great YouTube videos, like the one above, and not pictures of the family. Real work email.

The Four D’s

I use the Delete, Delegate, Defer, or Do empty-email-inbox-process. I keep my inbox empty except for those emails that still need an action. Everything else has been deleted, or at least most of them, delegated to the right person, deferred or moved into a to-do file or to the appropriate project file or it falls into the “do” category.

“Do” means that you either reply to the email or take the action required by the email. This is best if the action required takes only a moment or two, or if it is actually urgent and important.

When you go through your email and do one of these four actions quickly and properly, you will never spend more than one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. And you will have an empty email box no matter how much work you have.

Cat Herding Emails

How is this like cat herding, I hear you ask. Well, if you are like me, you have more than one urgent and important email that comes in. And it seems as if urgent emails bounce back and forth just after you finish repling to one.

Urgent, urgent, urgent – in an infinite loop.

If you want to avoid this trap, program your email to be sent an hour after you begin. All of them.

Begin working on you email at 9am, send them all at 10am and then log off. When something actually important comes up, let people know that they can call you – but only if it is really important (and don't be afraid to use your voicemail).

Managing Unstable Environments

“Cat herding” is managing extremely unstable environments through practice and persistence. You have to put it in place and stick with it.

How do you handle your “cat herder” situations? What kind of “cat herder” are you?

by Richard McLaughlin, a guest blogger helping Martin make it through summer.