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The six hats of project management

Software project managers face many different kinds of challenges and should have different perspectives for handling them. PM expert Bas de Baar explains how to switch mindsets to tackle a problem.

Bas de Baar
Bas de Baar
As a project manager you get all kinds of problems to handle. Assessing the situation is, in my personal experience, the most difficult part. It is the old saying that knowing the problem is already half the solution. In this dynamic world full of changes no two situations are alike. To be able to handle project situations you need to have a flexible mind; you have to be able to switch your ways of looking at reality in order to get to the true problem.

Edward DeBono came up with his famous idea of Six Thinking Hats. Each hat has a color which stands for a certain state of mind. By changing hats (virtually, that is) you should use a different mindset when looking at a problem. Inspired by this techniques I came up with the following "Six Hats of Project Management."

The White Hat is cold, neutral, and objective.
Don't you just hate numbers and metrics? Stuff that is so unambiguous you cannot spin yourself out of a bad indicator, no matter how good a spin doctor you are? Just because of this fact it is beneficial to look at budgets, schedules and the numbers in general. Problem number one within projects is communication -- the unclear exchange of information. And this measuring thing is exactly a tool that can contribute to solving at least part of the problems. The godfather of this mantra must be Tom Gilb. He has been screaming to measure things within management for decades. The eye opener for me, personally, was his emphasis on the use of metrics not only for budgets and timescales, but also for expressing -- e.g., requirements using a scale with a range associated to it. You are not going to use it just to measure and if the subject has the wrong value, hit the guy who created it on the head. Instead, the use of metrics can be used to manage expectations, to help formulated key users their requirements, and to facilitate decision making.

The Red Hat represents anger (seeing red).
A project manager has to be able to live with uncertainties. Behind every project corner lies potential danger. A PM should have a good way to structure his approach to handle them. The first is a personal aspect, which you have to do all by yourself. The second is where project risk management comes in. This is a set of actions which helps the project manager structure his approach on dealing with the unknown or the uncertain. By putting on your red hat you are looking at a project from a classical risk management point of view. Use checklists and other risk assessment techniques.

The Black Hat is gloomy and negative.
I have called projects "Baboon Hill." I have watched perfectly good projects turn into classical tragedies with more disastrous outcomes than the voyage of the Titanic. It is funny when you see what people can do when they are trying to achieve something just for themselves. There are project situations you have to analyze as though they are political games. Managers on power trips, employees covering up their incompetence, people creating empires or just those with a permanent bad hair day. A technique to attach scenarios like this is the use of stakeholder analysis (PDF).

The Yellow Hat is sunny and positive.
Our profession has seen it all. We have experienced all traps and have a profound body of knowledge to predict what will happen tomorrow. We know our best practices. Just make sure you have those in place and it will be smooth sailing towards the sun. Although the sarcasm is pouring through, although not everything they teach you while getting your PM certification is useful in the real world, it all holds some truth in it. Somewhere. So take out those checklists, procedures, methods, manuals and templates and check if they are in place. And if they are in place, do they work properly?

The Green Hat is grass, fertile and growing.
If you have a passion for the potential power of people, why not put on your green eco-sustainable hat. People should prosper and everything that doesn't contribute directly to the end result should be eliminated as waste. Approach the problem from an agile perspective. Focus on the behavior of people, their motivation and how processes emerge naturally. Have especially a close look at the lean movement to get a grasp on how you can eliminate nonessential tasks.

Project management resources
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The Blue Hat is the color of the sky, high above us all.
Being stuck in the mud doesn't make your perspective more clear. It makes it normally even more difficult the get things into perspective. Go to a higher ground. See how the project works in its environment. Go back to defined goals and scope. Analyze the project using Systems Thinking (PDF). Systems Thinking, as a discipline, requires a shift of mind: From focusing on cause-effect chains to focusing on interrelationships between the components; and from looking at snapshots and arriving at conclusions, to looking at processes of change and then forming conclusions. The key factor that matters in Systems Thinking is that not only is the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but it is also different from the parts themselves.

About the author: Bas de Baar knows all about the wacky world of project management. He is a project manager in the publishing industry and is editor of a popular Web site devoted to project management, His venerated instructional book on sudden project management, Surprise! Now You're a Software Project Manager was published in September 2006 and is based on real-life experience.

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