Posts Tagged ‘Project Manager’

PostHeaderIcon The Power of Rapid Planning Workshops

Accelerating Capability...Beyond Training

For all the millions spent on project management education, significant improvement in the way projects are actually planned and managed remains an elusive goal for many firms. While formal training is (or should be) an excellent foundation for improvement, it is not the greatest means of turning knowledge into sustainable, collective action – which ultimately, is what most organizations actually need.

Beyond Training

Rapid planning workshops, in contrast, do just that. They offer one of the single most powerful methods, (especially post-training), of embedding effective project management methods and tools.

Conducted in a live intense planning environment with the project manager and his/her core team, they are explicitly dedicated to evolving a high quality mission-critical project to execution-readiness as fast as possible. Properly designed, skilfully-facilitated workshops can compress planning time from weeks to days, by fully focusing the team on their project without productivity-sapping distractions, and by elaborating overall goals into detailed, tactically-viable, fully-resourced integrated schedules, all under the guidance of an expert facilitator, (ideally from the PMO).

Project planning is an everyday occurrence but the quality of the output is too often suspect – and the stealthy precursor of unnecessary strife, poor productivity or a troubled project. Repeatedly exposing project teams to high impact, structured planning, results in profound acceleration of both their projects and the organization’s project management capability.

Follow the Process

A typical planning workshop agenda should be tailored to the project’s needs and the organization’s own methodology (if it’s adequate) and might include activities such as:

  • Define objectives (tactical targets)
  • Define scope (deliverables, exclusions, completion criteria)
  • Create WBS (tasks, ownership, completion criteria)
  • Assign resources (staffing)
  • Develop schedule (dependencies, estimates, constraints, critical path analysis)
  • Optimize plan (schedule/scope/resource constraints and tradeoffs)
  • Manage risks (identification, assessment, responses)

These are really just standard planning steps but the trick is in how they are actioned in the workshop using a mix of large/small group collaboration, flipcharts/Post-Its, templates/software and real-time analysis/quality control/adaptation for maximum impact. Any project can benefit from these structured sessions; larger projects can typically get to the lowest level of appropriate detail (potentially thousands of tasks) within just a few days. Team alignment, a credible plan and knowledge transfer – for maybe less than 2% of the total effort to execute the project. Its a great return. And done right, by institutionalizing rapid structured planning as an operational norm, the biggest winner is the organization.

The global state of project management would be infinitely improved if just a fraction of organizational training budgets were allocated to properly standardizing high impact planning practices.

PostHeaderIcon Making Team Meetings Productive

Avoid a Disappointing Outcome

Much time can go to waste in project review meetings. Mostly this is due to: (a) poor agendas, (b) poor control and (c) poor preparation. The project manager has responsibility for each of these and should recognize each meeting as an opportunity to improve project performance, enhance personal credibility and motivate the team – all as timely and efficiently as possible.

A fine balancing act is typically needed in maintaining meeting focus on project status while ensuring an appropriate environment to re-align the team and foster a positive outlook. Here are some guidelines to keep meetings productive, on-point and on-track.

Agenda

Set a clear agenda and stick to it-
e.g. Review the:

  • Schedule
  • Changes
  • Issues
  • Risks

Preparation

Ready the data before the meeting-

  • Don’t waste valuable meeting time getting status updates from team members. Collect this information one day beforehand to allow time for updating the schedule, analyzing variances and identifying specific items needing team review, all in advance of the meeting. Provide team members with any pre-reading that could reduce meeting duration.

Attendance

Make attendance mandatory-

  • Allowing members to skip meetings without a really good reason will hamper decision-making, dilute communication and weaken the team. Ask the Sponsor to send out a message reinforcing expectations on attendance – and let him/her know how well they’re being met.

Focus

Keep meetings relevant and concise-

  • Keep control of discussions, stick to the agenda, ensure cell-phones stay off and stop any side-conversations promptly. Actively solicit inputs from the team on their perspectives of likelihood of success – and probe any concerns thoroughly. Secure clear commitments on actions and due dates.

Approach

Rigid or relaxed to suit the culture–

  • It’s a subtle thing but get it wrong and your perceived credibility as an effective leader will be impacted…as will the team’s motivation and commitment. Some cultures respond better to informal meetings, lots of humor and a relaxed environment than others. Know your team members and your organization’s culture.

Virtual Teams

Additional considerations-

  • If the team includes foreigners, speak slowly and avoid using idioms. (Obvious perhaps, but rampantly ignored). If time zone differences are severe, consider rotating weekly meeting times to spread the pain of early morning or late night calls. Consider asking virtual participants to connect into the meeting individually and separately to avoid the risk of co-located groups getting into their own side-conversations while ‘on mute’.

Gratitude

Give thanks-

  • Be sure to take time to express appreciation for any and all noteworthy efforts honestly, openly and consistently. Whether for the efforts of a single individual or a group, conveying words of thanks and using simple positive reinforcement rewards are powerful motivators.

PostHeaderIcon Six First Steps for the Project Manager

How you start determines how you finish

Time is sometimes lost at project startup with lots of talk but not much action (the “fuzzy front end”). Contrast this with the intensity of effort expended by the team near the end of the project – rushing to meet a looming deadline – and the need for some up-front structure and focus becomes clear.

Each project manager may have their own take on this, (and the actual first steps will be somewhat dependent on the particular situation) but these six should be at the front end of any list:

1 – Read the Business Case

If it doesn’t exist, get one done. There’s no point embarking on a project if the rationale for WHY we’re doing the project and WHO it’s for hasn’t been clearly laid out and signed off. If it does exist, identify who developed it, who was consulted and who approved it. Lastly, is it still current? Has anything changed in the environment that might affect realization of the anticipated benefits?

2 – Identify the Key Stakeholders

Who benefits from the project? Who can influence the outcomes and who might be impacted by them? The business case should be a guide but performing a thorough stakeholder analysis is essential before the next step is finished. Identify the project sponsor and set up an early “mind-meld” meeting to establish Sponsor-PM rapport (see Eight Questions to Ask Your Sponsor).

3 – Determine the Requirements

What does the customer actually need? What do other key stakeholders want? What has to be delivered in order to achieve the target benefits? Detailed requirements gathering and analysis may need to occur later as part of the project scope but the high-level needs at least should be established here. Determine what constraints will influence how the requirements might be met – these will impact project scope, quality, schedule, costs and resources.

4 – Identify Similar Projects

Has anything similar been done before? If so, what lessons were learned from that project (see Three Agenda Items for a Lessons Learned Review). Is there anything similar, or somehow related, going on currently? If yes, might there be potential overlap or dependencies? Can any artifacts from similar projects (e.g. plans, actuals, risk data) be re-used?

5 – Identify the Core Team Members

Which functions need to be involved to define and generate the project deliverables? Who specifically should represent those functions in the project? Who do you need on board to help generate a complete, reliable plan? Who should oversee the various workstreams? Limit the core team to no more than 8 people to promote efficient meetings and decision making.

6 – Create a Project Objective Statement

WHAT will be done, by WHEN and for HOW MUCH? The project should have a concise, over-arching declaration of intent (see The Project Objective Statement). Doing this (ideally as the first activity involving the core team) quickly shifts the focus away from the strategic (business case) and onto the tactical aspects of the project; it also helps to highlight potential issues early on, and ensures high level clarity and alignment as a precursor to elaborating the details of the project plan. Validate the POS with the Sponsor.

Begin with the End in Mind

The step numbering here indicates only the general flow – it is not a prescriptive project startup sequence as oftentimes a degree of iteration will occur among the six before they can all be checked off as ‘done’. These first steps neatly embody the adage “Begin with the end in mind” and initiate a response to the Five Laws (see The Five Laws of Effective Project Management).

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 The Art of Giving Thanks

It doesn't have to be complicated

It doesn't have to be complicated

It shouldn’t be hard but giving thanks to team members doesn’t always come easy to project managers. Yet those two small words “thank you” can sustain an individual’s drive and enthusiasm long after the project is completed.

Whether for overcoming adversity, going the extra mile for the customer, infusing the team with drive and energy or just plain hard work, thanking contributors for all forms of outstanding performance should be high on the daily watch-list of any project manager.

Acknowledgement should be expressed in the following ways:

Honestly

  • If it doesn’t come from the heart it won’t be valued. And mixed messages, such as conflicting verbal and non-verbal communication, imply insincerity – thanks that will be quickly discounted by its recipient.

Consistently

  • Recognizing one person’s achievement but overlooking another’s is the swiftest way to divide a team. Staying in touch with the challenges on the ground and paying attention to what’s really going on in the team is crucial.

Openly

  • There’s no point in keeping gratitude behind closed doors. Proclaim it, proudly. Thanking someone publicly, in front of the team, demonstrates how important it really is and sends a meaningful message that inspires and motivates.

A little thanks goes a long way.

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)

PostHeaderIcon No Truth, No Trust (the 3rd Law)

The interdependence of truth and trust is a powerful force in projects. When both are prominent, we have a strong basis for effective team dynamics – a key ingredient of project success. Overlooking, ignoring or concealing certain realities inhibits team cohesion and severs trust – as sure as the sun rises. I call this force the Third Law of project management.

Creating an environment of truth helps build trust. This means straight talk, smart leadership and attention to good process. It also means reinforcing positives and not holding back on bad news. (Pop quiz: What’s worse than giving your sponsor bad news? Answer: Giving bad news late).

15 Truth Checks

Here are a few checks to test whether important project realities are being detected, acknowledged and acted on:

  • Has a trustworthy process been used to plan and manage the project?
  • Is project progress being tracked and reported accurately?
  • Are team member status updates consistently submitted in a timely fashion?
  • Are issues being aggressively managed?
  • Are risks being reviewed at each progress review meeting?
  • Are new risks being proactively identified and managed?
  • Is outstanding performance being acknowledged, directly and publically?
  • Is under-performance being dealt with effectively?
  • Are people rewarded for behaviors that promote effective teamwork?
  • Have gaps in expertise or credibility been identified and resolved?
  • Is the team aligned with a common sense of purpose?
  • Are morale and commitment being nurtured proactively?
  • Have conflicts been acknowledged and addressed effectively?
  • Are team members executing, communicating and reporting as required?
  • Is a flexible leadership style in evidence, building trust across individuals and cultural differences?

Promoting open communication and instilling a sense of shared purpose are the starting points for any effective collaborative effort. But they need to be backed up by solid process and savvy leadership. Managing the project includes monitoring both the project and the project environment. It involves responsiveness to the unexpected in both project and human performance. Acknowledge the truth or face the consequences.

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

PostHeaderIcon Eight Questions to ask your Project Sponsor

This might have been alternatively titled “Questions we are Occasionally Afraid to Ask”. Here’s the situation:

You’ve been appointed to project manage a new initiative. You know that effective project sponsorship is a critical success factor and so you set up a meeting with the project sponsor.  You want to be sure you’re starting out with the right kind of backing. The sponsor wants to discuss the budget (or maybe golf) but first, you have some big questions you need answers to…

1 – Do you understand your role?
Its a fact – many project managers I meet complain that their sponsor has little idea about their role and responsibilities. You may need to help them out here.

2 – Do you know what you want?
There’s not much more frustrating than a sponsor who isn’t sure about what should or should not be included in the project. A fuzzy sponsor means you could be in for a long road trip of about-turns – do, undo, redo, …

3 – Can I count on your support?
Or more specifically – will you truly champion our project? This means advocating the project at higher levels, helping maintain visibility and interest in the project with key stakeholders, providing adequate funding and obtaining resources.

4 – Will you be available?
No doubt about it, sponsors are typically busy executives. This means their time is limited and they may be hierarchically or geographically remote. You DO need those face-to-face meetings. Lock them into their calendar.

5 – Can you give me clear priorities?
What are the primary project objectives? Which is least flexible – schedule, scope or resources? (Hint to sponsor- you can choose only one). Which is most flexible? Why?

6 – Do you understand that project management is a discipline?
In pushing to ‘just get it done’, countless projects ignore the importance of proper planning and systematic tracking… and pay a high price. A sponsor who doesn’t appreciate this means we’re already in trouble.

7 – Do you know what a solid project plan looks like?
The sponsor has to approve the plan that lays out what will actually be done- so it might make sense to ensure they actually have an understanding of what a good plan looks like. If necessary, give them a Plan Review checklist and an ‘Executive Briefing on Tactical Planning’ (so they know a WBS from a critical path).

8 – Will you inspect what you expect?
Not much point in a sponsor’s list of expectations if the relevant questions are never going to be asked. Generating information, reports and updates that don’t get reviewed is a fast track to morale hits and trust breakdown.

If the sponsor answered these questions correctly, you’re likely to be in good shape. (Hint for sponsors- the correct answer is “Yes” to all questions). If not, then you just identified some additional risks to the project…

PostHeaderIcon Credibility requires Detail (the 2nd Law)

Most projects are underplanned. They’re already late before they start. For a host of reasons – the usual suspects include a lack of project management discipline, inadequate tools and training, unclear objectives, top-down influence, overworked and under pressure team members – projects get planned with insufficient detail.

The reality is that detail is the basis for accuracy in all projects. Plans that lack appropriate detail can’t be believed. This is what I call the Second Law of project management.

The consequence of a lack of detail is a project suicide spiral:

Understate what’s needed… Misunderstand what ‘done’ looks like… Miss stuff out… Underestimate time and effort requirements to do the work… Overcommit resources to unrealistic schedules…
Present bad news to customer.

Breakdown Checks

Without a credible plan, a project manager lacks credibility with the team and stakeholders. Only when we get to the detail is the full extent of work revealed, which means developing a great Work Breakdown Structure. Here are a few WBS must-do’s:

  • Ensure tasks are small enough so that-
    • Estimates of effort and duration are as accurate and credible as possible
    • Task durations are typically no greater than the time between progress updates
  • Define explicitly what ‘done’ means-
    • Especially for any task that is unfamiliar, complex or difficult to break down
  • Assign a single owner to each task-
    • Have them verify that the expected workflow minimizes likelihood of any missing tasks
  • Use a checklist of often forgotten tasks-
    • e.g. meetings, defect resolutions, reviews and approval cycles.

They say the devil is in the details – and just looking for a chance to cause trouble. Good process and a little extra planning time will build protection.

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