Archive for October, 2009

PostHeaderIcon Process Balance and A Favorite Quote

Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to step inside a wide variety of organizations and view first-hand how they ‘do projects’. While a few seem to have got it right, too many suffer from a mismatch of either too little or too much process. Its a fine balance.

The trick to implementing sustainable project management is to tune process to the needs of the organization (right fit – which depends on culture and maturity) and to the needs of all projects (right scalability – which depends on differences in project scale and complexity).

Keep it Practical

Too often, well-intentioned PMOs get carried away in their zeal for rolling out a new and comprehensive project management process, that they forget about the customer – the project managers. Since they have to actually use the process, the right balance is key to ensuring the well-being of the project community.

For all those wanting to embed best practices, (or alternatively, trying to circumvent process overload), remember that:

  • (a) The PMBOK is simply a guide to the body of knowledge – it is not a methodology
  • (b) Good project management is first and foremost practical

With this in mind, here’s one of my favorite quotes:

An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory

(Friedrich Engels)

Its the mantra of all good PMOs.

PostHeaderIcon Satisfaction is not Guaranteed (the 5th Law)

Projects exist in dynamic environments, where change and risk are the only constants and where the delivered outputs are dependent on a team of imperfect individuals. Which is why – whatever the customer may have been told – projects do not carry guarantees. This reality is what I call the Fifth Law of project management.

Success and stakeholder satisfaction depend on a trio of crucial enablers – competence, commitment, and communication. Respecting all the preceding laws will count for nothing if this threesome is lacking in some way, both at the project manager level and at the team level.


First among our three equals, competence is what gets the work done right. It is founded on knowledge of concepts and methodology, embedded through hands-on experience, and evidenced by the quality of a project manager’s actions (how they lead and manage), artifacts (such as plans) and, to a far lesser extent, accreditations (think PMP, PRINCE2).


Excellence in any field has to be worked at and earned. Natural talent helps of course but to be really good at something, to be recognized and respected, plenty of dedication and passion are essential. Commitment is not hard to detect – it does mean putting in those extra hours but its as much about right focus and attitude.


Great project managers are outstanding communicators. I think of outstanding to mean mastery of multiple modes of expression – spoken, written or visual – in combination with exactly the right mix of human skills and behaviors for interacting with both stakeholders and team. Done well, its reflected in a team that exudes its own buzz – look for healthy relationships, confidence and humour.

The Core of Success

The right combination of competence, commitment and communication is an energizing force for the project, its customers and its contributors. It is at the core of project success and drives stakeholder satisfaction.

Want to do a quick pulse-check of your project? Start with an honest appraisal of the 3Cs – competence, commitment and communication – and do it for both the PM and the team.

(See all 5 Laws summarized in The 5 Laws of Effective Project Management)

PostHeaderIcon Development Methods for the Work Breakdown

There is sometimes confusion in approaching creation of the work breakdown structure (WBS). In part this can arise from a misunderstanding of the definition for the WBS as a “deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition” of the project work. Use of the term deliverable-oriented is taken by some to mean that the WBS must be generated directly from the project deliverables. In fact there are several ways to develop the WBS, using direct or indirect decomposition, (and clearly acknowledged in the PMBOK actually) – here’s a quick overview:

Start with the Major Deliverables

The starting point for any WBS must be the identification and full description of the project’s Major Deliverables. These are the “Big Pieces” that result from the project work, and that when aggregated, reflect the final and complete scope of the project. Getting a full understanding of the Major Deliverables facilitates comprehensive identification of all the project work required, to ‘deliver the deliverables’. (This is the primary meaning of ‘deliverable-oriented’).

4 Common Methods

There are many approaches for breaking down the work to be performed; however here are four of the most common, along with simple examples, for defining the top level (level 1) WBS components-

By Deliverable

Just take each major deliverable, then subsequently break it down to list the tasks required to create it:

By Lifecycle Phase

Makes sense if you have a standard lifecycle (e.g. for product or software development):

By Geography

Relevant if work is performed in different locations:

By Function

An appropriate choice if you want to sub-plan and track separate functional contributions:

Choices, Choices

So how do we choose which method to use? A good guideline is to choose the method that makes the most sense for planning (organizing the tasks), tracking (collecting status) and progress reporting. Consider where you want the focus to be and verify the top level view is in line with what the sponsor wants to see as well.

PostHeaderIcon Uncertainty is Certain (the 4th Law)

Plans are not crystal balls. They are at best a logical and reasonable perspective of the future but no more. Every project involves uncertainty and uncertainty implies risk. And there is no such thing as a risk-free project. I call this the Fourth Law of project management.

All of which has a serious implication for project managers – the need to properly account for risk. The fact that plans are incomplete views of the future means they are always at least slightly wrong. Even if we correctly identify all the tasks and activities to be performed, errors will always exist in assumptions, duration and work estimates, task dependencies and so on.

Most project managers appear to ignore most risks (witness the lack of risk readiness as evidence) . Yet threats can and do suddenly materialize. But sudden does not necessarily mean unpredictable. Experience and a little structured thinking can expose potential threats that we can get ourselves prepared for:

5 Essential Steps to Managing Risk

1 – Get Prepared

  • Determine how complex your project is and how much unmanaged uncertainty you (and the project sponsor) can tolerate, i.e. how important is risk management for your project? Then decide on the process you will use and brief your core team accordingly (risk management is not a solo effort).

2 – Identify Risks

  • Review project documentation – business case, SOW, charter, plans (WBS especially) and assumptions to seek out sources of uncertainty, potential error and change. Wear the hat of Murphy – “If it can go wrong, it will go wrong.” Remember, this involves core team members, not just the PM.

3 – Assess Risks

  • Evaluate each risk for (a) the likelihood of the risk occurring and (b) the potential impact to the project if the risk does occur. Rate the severity of each risk on these two dimensions. High likelihood and high impact means for those risks at least, response plans will be a necessity.

4 – Develop Risk Response Plans

  • Evaluate alternative response strategies. Ask these questions: How could you avoid the risk? How could you reduce likelihood? How could you reduce impact? How could you transfer the risk to another party? Could you accept the risk with a just-in-case contingency or backup plan? If so, how would it work?

5 – Monitor Risks

  • As the project progresses, risk monitoring should be a regular item on the agenda, week after week. Have any risks occurred? Are the response plans working? What has changed that might cause new risks?

These are the essentials. Large complex programs will take these steps to a very deep and sophisticated level. But even the simplest of projects will benefit from the same basic steps. Scalability, as ever in project management, is the key.

Here’s a good way to think about all this-

Ignoring project risks is the first and biggest risk to the project.

(See all 5 Laws summarized in The 5 Laws of Effective Project Management)