Ouch! Paper Cut! Part I

Paper CutSometimes it feels like when you’ve been elevated to the Project Manager position, all they did was change your title and hand you a stack of paperwork. So, why does the paperwork suck and what to do about it? I’m going to start right off with someone else’s opinion.

Expert’s Input: In an article from Kelly Holland about tax returns titled: Here’s the paperwork we hate doing the most  she writes: “Tax returns top the list, with 46 percent of respondents saying they would like them to be finished instantly, followed by motor vehicle registration.”

WOW! That’s really telling and while it’s not directly related to project management paperwork, it is sure establishes a view on the subject. There is actually a website called www.ihatepeprwork.com. It’s a software development company but the name definitely caught my attention. And continually on many other websites the phrase “…bane of their existence” is used in reference to paperwork. In truth, I think a lot of project managers would love to be in the field, or at the project site, or down the hall with the team, but then who would do the paperwork?

The problem is established so lets move quickly to solutions:

In a relatively short search I didn’t find a lot about how to handle a project’s paperwork. So, maybe all the project managers out there are just so dazzling at it that there’s no need to write about it. But, in this PM’s world, paperwork sucks and is viewed as a task I would love to avoid.

Expert’s Input: Scott Young in How to Find Motivation for the Things You Hate Doing, outlines a few strategies you can use to make paperwork a little more pleasant. Here is one that I’ve used and found effective.

“… simply to focus on it. You might have noticed that you chew a lot more when you don’t like the food in your mouth. This is probably an instinctive reaction to force you to carefully examine what you’re going to eat before you swallow. You can do the same thing with the work you don’t like. By focusing on boring or awful work, it is easier to overcome your reflex to spit it out and work on something else.”

His use of the word “probably” leads me to believe it’s not a scientific answer but I love the analogy. Regardless, it’s true. When I really focus on an unpleasant task at hand, I can really slam it out and usually I learn quite a bit in the process. Ultimately paperwork is no different than any other unpleasant activity, like dusting.

Expert’s Input: In 6 Small Things You Can Do When You Lack Discipline, Leo Babauta says something interesting about unpleasant activities. They are much more “life-lesson’d” oriented but relevant none-the-less. He says we “… have goals or habits we want to achieve, but lack that discipline needed to stick with it.” I’ve cropped his list a little but here are the 6 Small Things when faced with unpleasant activities:

  1. Forgive yourself … And move on.Paper Work
  2. Realize that discipline is an illusion. While discipline is a common concept, it doesn’t actually exist. It’s not a thing you can actually do. Think about it: people say discipline is pushing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. But how do you do that? What skill is required? There isn’t a skill — it’s just forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. And that requires …some kind of motivation.
  3. Focus on motivation. It’ll pull you along — that’s more powerful than trying to focus on the push of discipline. — This is something that’s real, that you can actually learn how to do.
  4. Make it easy. Discipline is tough because whatever the task or habit you’re trying to do is tough. Instead, make it easy. Remove barriers.
  5. Focus on enjoyment. Hate doing your paperwork? Find a peaceful sanctuary where you can do the paperwork and enjoy yourself. Maybe have a nice cup of tea or coffee, play some nice music. And focus on the enjoyment.
  6. Repeat. When you inevitably slip up, don’t take this to mean you don’t have discipline, and then just beat yourself up and give up. It’s just a bump in the road. Get up, dust yourself off, and get going again. Start from Step 1 and start all over.

I really like #2. And to emphasize, listen to the difference in these two statements:

  • “This project has required a lot of discipline to get unpleasant activities like paperwork done” … or
  • “The project has provided me with a lot of motivation to get unpleasant activities like paperwork done.”

It changes it from something that is forced to something that is desired. I love it and is something that’s going to stick with this author. Like I said, this list is about life’s uneven road but in the scheme of Project Management, these principles are relevant.

Expert’s Input: Shannon Kalvar lists Three tips about project management paperwork, she says: “Sometimes, even a practiced project manager gets tired of all the paperwork. Here are three tips for sorting out what’s important to keep up on and maintaining an audit trail without going completely insane.” I might be off base but her use of the words “sometimes gets tired of” might be understated; at least for this project manager. I also chopped up her list a little for the sake of the audience but its content is the same, and she makes some great recommendations.

  1. “Ask you project coordinator to help keep a project diary. Sit down at a fixed time each day and rehash the day’s events. It will help to put everything into perspective. It will also force you to organize your thoughts into a coherent narrative. It will retouch on the day’s events, so that you both know what’s going on. It will also create a historical record of what transpired, so if a question comes up later you can go hunting for it rather than trying to remember.” If you don’t have a coordinator, select someone close to the project to help you with it. It will be a good exercise for you both.
  2. “Make sure each milestone has at least one useful supporting artifact. Not every phase, which seems to be the auditing trend, but every milestone. Every important achievement, every real gain, in project management comes as the result of painstaking negotiations. Failing to record those agreements in addition to acknowledging their success means the milestone itself becomes open to renegotiation.” That there is a solid recommendation
  3. “Go over the final agreements with you project sponsors and business users at the end of the project. These final agreements include both what you did do and what you will try to do next time. In many cases, the second is more important than the first. It’s easy for people to see what they did do. But promises tend to get inflated as the months pass and people start to think about how great the “next thing” will become.” This is difficult and takes time but when applied it can have large dividends.

It doesn’t matter where you reside in the hierarchy of the project, there’s always paperwork to be done. And when you do your part, you keep things flowing; no bottlenecks. It also puts you in a position of authority, where you can speak from a place of effective knowledge and understand. Paperwork is not just filling in the blank spaces, it is a trail of the success of the project. So, go “have a nice cup of tea or coffee” and check out tomorrow’s post and your next Ouch! Paper Cut! Part II.

Image Credits: Sketches by Author

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