What’s the virtual candy jar?

Years ago my friend, mentor and boss introduced me to the simple wonders of the candy jar effect. If you have a jar, basket, drawer, etc always supplied with candy, people across the organization will come to you. This is a great and super easy way to find out what’s going on in other parts of the organization, and with people in general. It also helps you develop an idea of what they like, so you can come bearing gifts when you need some assistance.

That said, I haven’t worked in an office full-time since 2008. With that in mind, I try to make sure i’m extra communicative. But, what about everyone else? Flexible work schedules are becoming more and more the norm, so how do you keep pulse on the organization and obtain all that knowledge you would have gained had you been in the office with a candy jar?

I have two separate thoughts on this spanning both sides of the spectrum. On one hand, I would argue that the people who are most effective in working remotely are often times their own “candy jar.” In my case, I find that people come to me with questions because they believe I have something to contribute. This allows me to get some of that additional information and continue to foster those connections outside of the immediate people I work with day in and day out.

But not everyone does a great job working remotely. I have had team members who were extremely difficult to figure out. Even the basics of determining exactly what they were working on, or how a project was progressing was difficult to ascertain. In this situation, I tried the daily stand up call. That helped a bit, but that was all the communication I got in the 24 hour period, unless I initiated it. An additional problem with the daily stand up call is that it gives you insights into the very specific yesterday’s work, today’s work and any roadblocks but doesn’t necessarily allow you to get a pulse on how the person is feeling.

As a manager, I think it’s my job to know what’s going on with my team. As a project manager, you may not be responsible for the team members but it’s still important for you to know the general pulse of the team. But in lieu of a better option, I think I’m stuck with doing my part to check in and ask. I’d love to hear if you have better suggestions.

What’s your virtual candy jar?

What did #givingback teach me about team dynamics?

My younger daughter and I did some volunteer work yesterday at the Capital Area Food Bank warehouse in Washington, DC. We were part of a group of about 12 people, some parents with kids who needed community service hours and other adults. It was fascinating to watch us evolve from individual or small groups to a graceful machine that just did what needed to get done. I left thinking about how a group of strangers working for a good cause can naturally meld, while we have all been in professional situations where people seem to work against the natural evolution.


Our job was to unload several pallets of breakfast and lunch foods in the refrigerator, repacking it all into individual banana boxes. Our group of volunteers started working either individually, or with the people that came together. Fairly quickly, people started stepping into roles that just needed to get done. Instead of fighting for floor or pallet space to load boxes, started opening all the boxes and handing them off to packers. Stronger individuals started collecting the boxes as finished, and others stepped into to funnel empty boxes to those that were packing. As pallets were packaged and left empty, others stepped into to breakdown boxes. And we did all of this, with politeness and instinct. I’m not sure anyone even asked any other person their names. It was awesome to have a bunch of strangers work together so seamlessly, all pursuing the same goals (either the short term one of getting out of the fridge or the more altruistic one of helping a worthy cause.)

Why is it then that I have been in more than one professional situation where the team  doesn’t meld in any capacity, let alone as smoothly as yesterday? I’m not talking about the individual who marches to the beat of their own drum, as I’m pretty sure I fall into that position quite a bit. I’m talking about the person or team that seems to fight against almost every request or initiative to solve our customers problems. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up around small businesses as a child and for most of my professional career. Small businesses need be customer focused to survive in a way that larger companies some times forget. My professional roles have always been in bridging the gaps between customers and technology, so for me, every decision I make is with the customer in mind. It’s unfortunate then when I’ve been in situations where process or team goals have been misaligned. If I’m working to deliver customer value but all efforts are stymied, does it mean the unhelpful person or team isn’t aligned to delivering value to the customer?

I know that this is a harsh criticism. I also recognize that different people have different motivations, and are provided different team goals within organizations. While I don’t truly believe that these teams intentionally set out to hinder what I’m trying to accomplish, I do think it’s unfortunate that there’s that much misalignment across organizations. Too often, customers see the results of this disfunction and ultimately are the ones that get hurt.


Project Managers need agility regardless of methodology

My Sunday morning peruse of Twitter led me to a blog post ‘Agile Project Manager’, It’s a Contradiction. Despite being a little taken aback, I did click through and read it. And I whole-heartedly disagree!

I’m going to start my response by first looking at some definitions.

Methodology – Merriam-Webster defined it as “a particular procedure or set of procedures.”

Waterfall – Wikipedia defined it as “a sequential (non-iterative) design process, used in software development processes, in which progress is seen as flowing steadily downwards (like a waterfall) through the phases.”

Agile – Wikipedia defined it as “a set of principles for software development under which requirements and solutions evolve through the collaborative effort of self-organizing cross-functional teams.”

Process – Merriam-Webster defined it as “a series of actions or operations conducing to an end.”

Principles – Merriam-Webster defined it as “a rule or code of conduct.”

In project management, both Agile and Waterfall are considered project management “methodologies” used to deliver projects. They provide a set of guiding principles for getting results, and delivering business value. They both have pros and cons, and each is not right in every situation. Many times, a hybrid approach is needed.

Regardless of approach, a good project manager needs to be incredibly flexible. They need to understand the dynamics of all stakeholders, grasp the complexities of the value proposition and manage the situation throughout the process, adapting to the changing landscape. I would argue that even when using a waterfall methodology, a good project manager must be nimble.

It saddens me that the author of the aforementioned blog post feels that project managers “belong purely to highly planned deliveries where any change is a hinderance and fluidity is frowned upon.” Have they not ever worked with a good project manager that adapted to the movement of the project? Or have I just been incredibly lucky to work in organizations that allowed me to adapt and morph the project, and my role within in it as I see fit? It didn’t matter whether I was using a waterfall approach or were working towards agile.

The author further states that an agile project manager is a hybrid role, comprised of multiple responsibilities on projects not large enough to all the prescribed roles. I prefer to work within small to mid-size organizations, however usually work on projects for very large organizations. I’ve not had the luxury on any project to have a person to fill every role. Additionally, I think there is some level of getting your hands dirty in analysis, value recognition and other aspects of the project that enable me to delivery the projects I work on.



The one area where we did agree is “The ability to adapt, morph and practically deliver is…the true spirit of agile delivery.” I would also argue that it is the true spirit of a good project manager. If we are not constantly assessing where we are against our goals, and making decisions about how we manage the project (across stakeholders), and making adjustments to our plans, we can’t be successful.