Archive for the ‘Principles’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Passion, Creativity, Excellence

What gives meaning to accomplishment? In the end, it is the journey that often matters more than the destination. How we get there and most especially, how we are led there, is what instills color in our memories – and most notably in our project and organization experiences. Superlative leadership inspires, motivates and brings meaning to what we do. As individuals, we also find our own way of facilitating a meaningful journey.

I live my working life by three themes, whether leading or contributing. Steve Jobs illustrates how these mattered at Apple:

Passion

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary.

Creativity

Our job is to figure out what they’re (the customers) going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

Excellence

I figured it was always my job to make sure that the team was excellent, and if I didn’t do it, nobody was going to do it.

I believe each of these themes are vital to every project and to every organization.

PostHeaderIcon Seven Habits of Effective Project Sponsors

Is Your Sponsor Qualified?

Much of the dialog and content of project management improvement is focused on increased knowledge, better processes and the right tools for the project manager. Project by project however, there is another, oft-overlooked element – the project sponsor. This leadership role can, quite simply, make or break a project. If you have ever had experience of working with a great sponsor and separately with a poor sponsor, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Good Behavior for Smoother Projects

The reality is that, much like many project managers, sponsors are frequently unprepared for their role. Yet the quality of sponsorship can make all the difference to a project and its outcomes. Adhering to the principles below can help to steer a smooth course:

1 – Align the Team

Describe the purpose of the project and its context. Articulate the rationale and summarize the business case. Express the vision of what will be different after the project, what the benefits are and how any stakeholder concerns have been addressed. Unify the team around a common goal and avoid being fluffy on what you want (and don’t want). Focus the team on the tactical objectives and be clear about the boundaries – what will and will not be covered. Not getting sufficiently involved and specific up front almost guarantees excessive involvement later on in resolving issues and fixing problems.

2 – Validate the Plan

It’s the responsibility of the sponsor to approve the plan for execution. This means knowing what a good plan looks like versus a bad plan (i.e. don’t sign anything unless you know what you’re signing). Have you reviewed the WBS with the project manager? Is it sufficiently detailed? Does it cover all required aspects of scope? How confident are the team in satisfying the objectives? How were estimates derived? Have all resources and their managers agreed to the schedule? If in doubt on how to validate, seek input from an experienced and trusted project manager or from the PMO.

3 – Demonstrate Commitment

An effective sponsor is THE champion for the project. This means being accessible and available, sticking to scheduled meetings, touching base with the team regularly – even if it’s a working lunch, keeping the project visible with senior stakeholders and advocating the interests of the project in management forums. Clearly explain the rationale for tough decisions that might be misinterpreted or risk alienating the team – (business considerations sometimes outweigh pure project interests). Showing real commitment and a passion for executing the project well, in person, week in, week out – this can be a real energizing force for the team.

4 – Inspect what you Expect

The sponsor should be an advocate for effective project management. Insist that the project team adheres to processes and provides the data that you ask for. This is especially important where the organization’s maturity in project management is still low and new processes are being introduced. Review process issues, for example in planning, technical lifecycles, tracking and reporting. Determine if anything is not working and take action to resolve it. Ensure information is timely and accurate. Poor decisions are a common consequence of bad data resulting from inadequate (or, sometimes, too much) process.

5 – Ask the Right Questions

Ultimately the project needs to deliver results – it’s the job of the sponsor to ensure the project is not only on track to deliver those results but also to verify those results are still relevant and worthwhile. This requires courage to ask tough questions and take adaptive action – possibly changing course, re-planning or even terminating the project. It also means proactively exploring options and alternatives with the project manager and understanding both the business and tactical impact of changes.

6 – Define Success and Measure It

Lay out what ‘success’ will mean for the project right from the outset. What are the ways in which the project can be judged a triumph rather than a failure? Consider who will benefit and how. What does success mean from a people standpoint? A deliverable standpoint? A process perspective? What about for the team? The organization? Use each review meeting as an opportunity to gauge how well the project is tracking to these measures – not just at the end.

7 – Acknowledge Accomplishment

As the overall project leader, the sponsor must be in touch the team’s achievements, especially when the going gets tough – which is no time to be remote. Be interested in progress, recognize both individual and team contributions and express thanks for extraordinary commitment and significant accomplishments, openly and publically. Putting in extra hours is common enough on projects but if your sponsor is an inspirational leader, genuinely empathetic and rewards high performance, it’s a whole lot less painful for the team to go the extra mile.

How effective is your sponsor?

PostHeaderIcon Principles of Alignment

Team Alignment, not Team Building

One of my favorite blogs is Glen Alleman’s “Herding Cats”. Solid project management commentary, a wealth of experience and expert guidance with no fluff. Glen recently posted on Team Building and like me he doesn’t have too much time for ropes in the forest and artificial partying as a means of ‘building’ teams.

Effective project teams are built on purposeful activities centered on the project in question. Confident facilitation of a clear agenda that engages the team in understanding and elaborating the project mission is a good starting point.

Five Principles for Aligning the Team

If project startup and planning activities are well conceived and facilitated then team alignment should be a natural outcome. Maintaining alignment is subsequently a function of proper control, engagement and communication. Five principles guide the project manager in developing a unified, cohesive and productive team:

1 – Know the Objective

Shared vision and common purpose are the starting points for building an aligned team. Review the project business case, then craft the project mission statement together with the core team. Ask yourselves what’s missing? Is it specific enough? Is it realistic? Does it properly reflect the tactical objectives that should in turn yield the anticipated benefits?

2 – No Moving Targets

Establish clear boundaries. What will be included? What will not be included? What deliverables will be produced? How will we know when those deliverables are complete? If key stakeholders keep moving the goal posts, we’ll never complete the plan. So force agreement on a phased or iterative approach if necessary.  What is needed now? What can be done later?

3 – Lay Out the Detail

Creating alignment means setting expectations – at a deep level. Far too many projects are underplanned and insufficient detail promotes ambiguity, conceals the realities of time, effort and cost, and leads to unvalidated assumptions. Secure ownership and trust among team members by ensuring they are involved in defining the work, agreeing the details of hand-offs and validating completion criteria.

4 – Use a Trustworthy Process

A solid process for defining, organizing, planning, tracking and controlling the project is at the core of good project management. Talking the team through the process builds credibility. Implementing that process (walking the talk) generates motivation and commitment. Recognizing the difference between PMBOK and a practical, step-by-step, end-to-end project management process is a pre-requisite here.

5 – Feedback Smart and Often

Insist on efficient and frequent review cycles. Avoid wasting people’s time in meetings by getting status updates beforehand. Use the meetings to review overall progress, solve problems and decide on adaptive action. Check in with team members regularly and reward good performance swiftly. Keep key stakeholders appraised of progress and ensure bad news is acted on, not hidden.

PostHeaderIcon Four Steps to Saving Troubled Projects

The right people, process and tools to the rescue

When projects get seriously off-track, normal project management techniques will not be enough to turn things around. Instead, a carefully executed four-phase process offers the best chance of recovery.

1 – Launch

The first step is to officially launch a rescue mission and that involves stakeholder recognition of the trouble the project is actually in – and a commitment to do something about it. Evaluating the project against a set of performance metrics can help determine whether a recovery process should be initiated; earned value is a natural choice but others should be considered too, such as issue backlog, change volume, defect rates and customer feedback. If the metrics exceed normal tolerances and/or stakeholder sentiment is a demand for action, then the Sponsor should appoint an individual to lead the assessment and recovery effort.

Outcome

  • An Assessment Team Lead appointed with clearly defined authority and mission scope.

2 – Assessment

The Assessment Team Lead plans and conducts a structured investigation to segregate fact from fiction, and reality from hearsay, i.e. to determine exactly what the status of the project really is. This will involve deep scrutiny of project artifacts, interviewing project team members and analyzing the data gathered. The assessment needs to be fast, accurate and as non-invasive as possible (typically work on the project will continue uninterrupted during this phase).

Outcome

  • A rigorously prioritized list of findings and a firm recommendation on recovery options and strategy.

3 – Stabilization

Unless the project is terminated after the assessment (occasionally the wisest choice), a Recovery Project Manager is appointed to prevent the situation from deteriorating further and to get control of the project. The focus is on resolving the highest priority issues, problems and defects, containing risks and re-planning. Specialized tools and micro-management techniques are deployed here to track progress with extreme intensity, optimize estimating reliability, run schedule simulations and establish a solid basis for the recovery plan.

Now is therefore the time for making tough decisions on necessary changes in order to salvage an outcome of some desirable value. Consider re-negotiating deadlines, making personnel changes and adjusting budgets, resources, scope boundaries and quality parameters.

Outcome

4 – Recovery

Led by the Recovery Project Manager, the re-baselined plan is now implemented, accompanied by appropriate changes to communications practices and to all processes for tracking and reporting progress and managing issues, risks and changes. Much attention must be given to restoring confidence in the project and its stakeholders and building morale of the team.

The recovery team may remain in place through to the end of the project or until suitable exit criteria have been satisfied, such that another project manager and core team are deemed ready, willing and able to take over.

Outcome

  • A recovered project.

PostHeaderIcon PMO Design Constraints

PMOs need enduring architecture too

The function and practices of a Project Management Office (PMO) lie on a continuum spanning a wide variety of designs. For example, a PMO can exist solely as a passive ‘library’ of some set of project information that it occasionally presents to management; a PMO might also be a highly active enforcer of project management methodology, play a lead role in facilitating planning of all significant projects and make recommendations to management on the optimization of resources across the project portfolio.

The success of any PMO is ultimately governed by how well it is designed and how well it fulfils its mission. The importance of the design part is often underestimated. There are plenty of failing PMOs around, staffed by well-intentioned people, but offering processes and resources poorly matched to the needs of the organization.

Four Major Constraints

Whatever the intent, the form of the PMO needs to be designed with careful consideration of four major constraints:

1—The Perceived Need

Minor issues or big problems? No PMO can succeed without the buy-in and support of the project community it serves. If that community believes project issues are mostly small, isolated occurrences and/or solvable without the overhead of a PMO, then a full analysis of the facts – hard data – will be required before the PMO mission and vision can be defined. If resistance persists, then the PMO will likely have to be designed to start small and earn its credibility progressively, in a step-by-step evolution.

2—The Project Environment

Small projects or large, complex projects? A few projects or hundreds? All local resources or often global? A cultivation or control culture? These are fundamental variables that should determine the shape the PMO. It’s surprising how often this is misunderstood. Deep knowledge of the environmental characteristics and behaviors is a vital design pre-requisite.

3—The Level of Maturity

Does the organization currently exhibit high or low levels of project management capability? Some form of maturity assessment can determine this – but choose the model carefully (see Project Management Maturity Models). An effective assessment helps define the type and form of PMO resources, products and services, and provides a key indicator of the PMO’s performance over time.

4—The Level of Executive Support

Strong, unified commitment or general disinterest? Funding and resources available or hard to get? The broader the PMO’s scope, the bigger the backing it will need. The better the design is aligned to the constraints above, the greater the chance of securing the top-down support it will need. The design itself must also appropriately address the interests of the senior stakeholders, such as the level and type of project portfolio information, and consistency of project planning and reporting.

Important Questions

PMO design needs to answer important questions, such as:

  • What are the responsibilities and reporting lines of the PMO?
  • What is the scope of PMO operations and authority?
  • How many PMO resources and with what skillsets are needed?

Getting the PMO design right should ensure that the answers are properly aligned to the project community’s needs, thereby building a sustainable and valued component of the organization.

PostHeaderIcon Project Management Maturity Models

Stages of Maturity... depending on how you measure it

Looking for a means of assessing your organization’s project management capability? Maturity models can provide a useful frame of reference and there are plenty of models out there – home-grown in-house models, proprietary models devised by consultancies and training firms, and models developed by project management standards and certification bodies.

Look before you Leap

Unsurprisingly perhaps, not all models are created equal – some are far more useful than others – so here are a few important questions to help ensure real value is delivered:

1 – Does the model provide direct input to a capability development roadmap?

There’s no point doing a maturity assessment if it does not result in an actionable plan for improvement; a well-defined, specific, accurate development roadmap should be derived directly from the assessment model and constitute the final deliverable from an effective maturity evaluation.

2 – Are elements of project, program and portfolio management appropriately represented in the model?

For most organizations, project management capability is dependent on practices in all three of these disciplines, not just the first. Few models give adequate coverage to portfolio and program management; most lack proper process frameworks in these domains and some consider portfolio applies only at higher levels of maturity – both of which result in incomplete and misleading assessments.

3 – Are people skills and toolsets properly evaluated as well as processes?

An assessment of maturity is only valid if it includes a fair evaluation of project management awareness and knowledge (such as through interviews and surveys), its application through tools and templates, and the artifacts that result. The breadth, depth, suitability and quality of know-how, supporting tools and project documentation should all be rated across each of the project, program and portfolio disciplines.

4 – Does the model provide for appropriate discounting of non-relevant areas?

Not all organizations have the same needs; for example, deeper aspects of project planning and control may be of little importance in some research or non-complex service environments; conversely, many components of portfolio management will be unnecessary to an organization that only performs 1 or 2 major construction projects per year.

5 – Does the model assess a reasonable number of maturity attributes and capability indicators?

Too few indicators are likely to omit key areas; too many will result in data overload and an implausible development roadmap; OPM3 from the PMI is a case in point with a ridiculously impractical base model of 488 best practices.  Accurate results and effective improvement plans have more to do with striking a balance between model detail and experienced application rather than analysis-paralysis.

Shaping the Future

Maturity models, combined with their associated assessment techniques and action-oriented outcomes, can offer the best basis for shaping project environments – but only if properly designed and entrusted to experienced hands.

PostHeaderIcon Project Management Checklists

Much more than a Memory Jogger

Much more than a Memory Jogger

Among all the tools at our disposal for managing projects, programs and portfolios, checklists are perhaps the simplest and most productive means of building consistency in work practices. Checklists are useful in almost every field of human endeavor, and in particular where repeatability and systematic action drive performance. Yet they are still much under-used in the planning and managing of projects.

As a good friend of mine, Nick Gogerty, recently posted in Checklists, hedge funds and human behaviour, checklists provide for better outcomes – both individual and team. And the more collective experience that goes into the creation of a checklist, the more value it will have. Well thought-out checklists are indispensable wherever there is a need for control, risk reduction, rapid response or safety – as doctors, flight crew, investors and others the world over can testify, the checklist provides efficient guidance, increased confidence and focus under stress (see The Checklist Manifesto – How to Get things Right – a great-sounding read that Nick highly recommends).

Twelve Checks for Planning

Likewise for project managers – checklists can be used for all manner of things. Where training builds knowledge, checklists facilitate application.  Here is a high level twelve-point checklist for use during project planning:

  1. Have the needs and concerns of all key stakeholders been considered and resolved?
  2. Does the project have an overall approved mission statement defining the scope, schedule and resources/budget?
  3. Has the relative flexibility among scope, schedule, resources and budget been determined?
  4. Have all project deliverables been identified and described in detail with unambiguous completion criteria?
  5. Are roles and responsibilities defined and agreed upon for all project team members?
  6. Has an appropriately detailed work breakdown structure been created with input from key team members?
  7. Has a credible schedule with identifiable critical path and late schedule been developed from the WBS and optimized within the project constraints?
  8. Have milestones been included in the schedule to track major events, completed phases and/or deliverables and external dependencies?
  9. Have workload commitments been identified for each week of the project and agreed to by team members and their managers?
  10. Have response plans been developed for the most significant threats to project success?
  11. Has a change management process been defined and agreed to by all key stakeholders?
  12. Has the governance structure for the project been established with an agreed sponsorship role and expectations set for review frequency and format?

One of the features of checklists is that they can be designed to extend hierarchically, such that a sub-checklist could be developed to facilitate any or all of the checks above (e.g. a stakeholder analysis checklist or a risk management checklist). The PMI, training firms and PMOs would do well to promote checklists more strongly – project managers like to use checklists; not many want to read through an overweight methodology. And managers like checklists because they improve quality and instill consistency. For the converted, I’ll have more checklists in future posts.

PostHeaderIcon Process, People, Tools – In That Order

Project management is a blend of processes and procedures, the skills and knowledge of the project community, and tools for assisting with the application of process and knowledge. Good project management is when these three are properly tailored to the needs of the organization, its projects and their teams.

How It Goes Wrong

Corporate initiatives to improve project management sometimes fall short of their goals when these three elements are (a) incomplete, (b) not customized, and (c) treated in the wrong order. For example:

(a)    Training is conducted in process but no tools are provided for follow-up application
– a sure way to minimize training ROI

(b)   Training is conducted in processes that are too generic, too lightweight or too onerous
– very common, leaves PMs to figure it out for themselves

(c)   Project managers are given project management tools without prior training in process
– the “seduction of software”, usually results in poor quality information and plans that are plain wrong

It’s a repetitive scenario and goes some way to explaining the plethora of statistics on failed projects and generally poor project performance.

Right Focus, Right Sequence

The swiftest and most effective way to raise the bar of project management capability and performance is to ensure process, people and tools are treated in an integrated way with appropriate focus on each at the right time. Here’s how:

  1. Define a process that fits the organization’s projects and culture
    (proper tailoring is critical to ensure buy-in and long term success)
  2. Provide training in this process
    (we’re talking lifecycle here, not PMBOK knowledge areas)
  3. Follow-up immediately (even simultaneously) with hands-on tools training
    (custom templates and project management software)
  4. Then finally, ensure that support structures are in place
    e.g. a PMO and coaching, to embed the disciplines and practices for the long term.

Done right, it’s a recipe for sustained success.

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.

Competence

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).

Commitment

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.

Communication

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 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)