Book Review: Project Think
A Russian spy, Ivan Petroff, infiltrated the white House disguised as a rat exterminator and stole a top-secret document. Three people witnessed Ivan Petroff inside the White House. Whose description of the spy is most probable?
a) White House bartended Mick Mousy described the exterminator as a big guy in a black suite.
b) White House taxi driver Mohamed Toscanini described the exterminator as a big guy in a black suit and sunglasses.
c) White House secret service agent Bert Bigneck described the exterminator as a big guy in a black suit and sunglasses, who spoke with a Russian accent.
This is how Project Think: Why Good Managers Make Poor Project Choices begins. A series of questions designed to test your decision making and uncover biases. I’ll tell you what the right answer is at the end.
Project Think, by Lev Virine and Michael Trumper, is a thought-provoking book. They include lots of examples of failed projects and poor judgement on projects and unpick why that might have happened. They talk about three types of mental error that lead to mistakes on projects:
All of these result in a lack of analysis of the facts – basically jumping to conclusions and failure to see the real situation on a project.
Sometimes, the authors say, intuition is enough. But often, you need to take that out of the equation and go with analysis.
It’s a well-researched book that I found fascinating, but it’s a shame that there a number of typographical errors in it: a missing full stop here, a misspelling of an author’s name there. The editor could have done a better job at making sure those little points were sorted out, although I’m going through the same stages for my new book at the moment and I know that it’s not easy.
The book aims to take a different view of project risk by talking about the risks that we, as project managers, sponsors and team members, introduce into a project through poor judgment and lack of analysis. Are those on your risk register? Thought not.
So what do they recommend instead? The authors talk about a number of ways that you can try to reduce your personal biases and make better decisions. While ultimately their aim is to make you more aware that those biases are there, so you can more critically analyse your own thought processes when it comes to making decisions, they also offer a number of suggestions.
They talk about ‘choice engineering’ which means not mandating one process for everything. For example, on a small project you might choose to follow a particular path or use a particular template. By allowing people to apply their judgement (or use a set of criteria to identify the suitability of their project) you can help them use the right tools for the job.
They also talk about ‘adaptive management’. This is basically using iterative processes and continuous process improvement combined with a number of other ways of working such as:
Back To The Spy…
As for the Russian spy, the most probably description is (a). The authors point out that the more general the description, the more likely it is to be accurate. They also explain that the representativeness heuristic can lead to a number of mistakes in decision making, not least because it clouds your judgement. What this means is that people “make judgements about probabilities and risks based on the category that this object, person, or process represents.” In other words, you are programmed to believe the secret service agent, despite the fact that the chances of the suit, sunglasses and accent coming together at the same time is less probable than the other two descriptions.
The book is a challenge for open-mindedness and well worth a read. It will make you question how you come to conclusions on your project and the biases inherent in your decision making. While alone that won’t promise you better project results, it should go some way to making sure that your projects have a better chance of success because you are taking away the risk of poorly-formed decisions.
7 Key Concepts For Controlling Quality
You can’t control quality without understanding some of the concepts behind statistical quality control. Here are 7 concepts that are important for managing quality on projects.
Whether it’s widgets, people or processes, population refers to the lot of them. It’s the whole of what you want the information about.
It’s easiest to think of this in terms of physical deliverables. If your project is to make 1000 steering wheels for cars, the population is 1000.
When your population is big, you won’t want to test quality on all of them. That would take too long and cost too much. Take a sample when that’s more practical: a smaller group or subset that represents the whole.
Probability is the likelihood that something will happen. You can express it as a fraction (between 0 and 1) but it’s more commonly seen as a percentage (“There’s an 80% chance that we’ll hit the deadline”).
This is the average of whatever it is that you are calculating. If you had to say what the expected value was for a variable, then you’d say you expected it to be this.
5. Normal Distribution (The Bell Curve)
Every process has variation. That means some of your quality control values will be high, others low, and most fall somewhere around the mean. When you plot those values on a graph you get a line that looks like a bell. This is normal distribution: the most common distribution of values that you should expect from a process.
6. Standard Deviation
This took me a while to get my head around. What it expresses is how close all the values are to the mean. Standard deviation is measured in terms of ‘sigma’. It’s just the name given to the unit, like ‘centimetre’ or ‘dollar’. It’s a statistical term that tells you the spread of the results. A high sigma means the values are spread out from the mean. A low sigma tells you that there is less variation and that the results are all bunched up together.
Without knowing your upper and lower quality specifications all you’ll find out from standard deviation is how bunched up your results are. You need to plot your quality control targets on there too in order to see if your results fall within the target. Otherwise you could be celebrating having a small standard deviation (which is good) only to find out that it is wildly outside your control limits (which is bad).
7. 6 Sigma
The final term it’s worth discussing is Six Sigma. Also the name of a process improvement method, it’s a way of describing what good looks like. First, you need to do your standard deviation work. Know what your quality specifications are. Take the standard deviation output that you’ve created and work out your sigma spread.
Six Sigma is where your results fall +/- 3 sigma from your mean specification limit. In other words, 99.73% of the values in your data set fall between the mean and +/- 3 sigma. There’s little variation in your process and your results consistently hit your quality targets.
You might also see six sigma expressed a +/- 6 sigma. That gives you a breadth of 12 sigma in total (6 each side of the mean of your distribution curve) and that equates to your results falling inside your target 99.99 and a bit% times. All but 3.4 times in every million your process, deliverable, widget or whatever will be on target.
Read next: 3 Levels of Quality
Rest assured that you personally don’t have to know the details of all this. You just need someone on the team who understands it and can apply it. If you are in the kind of company that measures quality in a statistical way, then you probably have a QA team or an analyst who lives and breathes this stuff.
Talk to them; set expectations and work out how you can collaborate to get the best quality control and reporting possible on your project.
You might not need your projects to deliver such as focused, quality result, but regardless of the type of work you are doing it helps to understand what quality means to you and the tools you can use to prove that it exists on your project.
Should You Let Your Team Work From Home?
I’ll come straight out and say it: I’m in the Yes camp.
I believe that you should let your team work from home. There are so many benefits for individuals, families and, by virtue of the fact that workers are happier, employers and managers too. Let me explain why I’m a believer in homeworking.
Homeworkers Save Money
When I first got interested in finding out about homeworking I went to an event: The Remote Workers Awards. The awards celebrated companies who let their employees work from home but had a very financial overtone. A presenter explained the financial benefits to his company of having homeworkers and they included:
And I’m sure there were some other things in there that he mentioned that I don’t recall.
As homeworkers don’t need a permanent desk in the office you can have a smaller office. They can hot desk if they come in. With fewer workers on site you don’t need as many resources and the office overheads are smaller. You’ll also find that homeworkers provide some of their own kit – I use my own chair and desk for example, although some companies will pay for this set up for remote workers if it is required.
Homeworkers Work More Hours
A common believe is that if you let your team work from home then they’ll slack off more because they can. A long lunchbreak watching Jeremy Kyle? That’s never happened to me.
No, genuinely, that’s never happened to me.
Work-from-home-rs are more likely to work longer hours because their office is just there. Without the commute you can start earlier and finish later. Overall the time you spend working is often longer because you aren’t leaving the office at 4pm to get home – you can work until 5.30pm and still get home earlier than commuters.
If you work from home I think the bigger problem is knowing when to stop. Still checking and responding to emails from the sofa at 10.30pm? Yes, that has happened to me.
Homeworkers Are More Loyal
The homeworkers I know fiercely protect their ability to work flexibly. It’s a perk so valued that I know people who won’t look for another job because they feel they wouldn’t get the same commitment to flexible working from another firm.
That loyalty and motivation is something that employers value. It’s expensive to onboard a new project manager, and having someone around who understands how things work and who has good working relationships with teams across the business is valuable.
You’ll notice that I haven’t included any links to research studies in here. Over the years I have researched this topic extensively and there is a lot of data out there to back up the benefits of flexible working and results-based workplaces.
There are new studies coming out all the time. If you want to find the data it won’t take you very long to find something up-to-date and probably specific to your industry.
However, there is one living breathing study that I’m part of that I think proves why you should let your project team work from home.
My own personal experiment.
I’m The Proof
I work from home a couple of days a week. I have an office in my garden. It’s far enough away from the house for me not to be disturbed or to be constantly thinking I have to put a load of washing on. But it’s close enough to pop back in for lunch or to take a delivery. And it means my commute is seconds.
The commute being only seconds is one of the hardest things to adjust to as a home worker. If you have had a difficult day, or challenging meetings, then a commute gives you time to unwind, refocus into ‘home’ mode and face the family without the burden of the office on your shoulders. I don’t get that, and I have to switch between ‘work’ and ‘home’ almost instantly, regardless of the time I need to mentally process the day. That has to come later – often much later such as when I am getting ready for bed, and l don’t recommend lying in bed trying to fall asleep while also trying to unpick the office politics of a particular meeting.
So, are you convinced? Or are you doing it already? Let me know what you think about letting your project team work from home in the comments below.
Keep the records on paper? Electronically? Or shred them? This video will tell you what project financial paperwork you need to keep (and how) and what you can destroy.
Because quality costs money…
In their book, Project-Driven Creation, Jo Bos, Ernst Harting and Marlet Hesslelink write about the 3 levels of quality. “When is the project result good enough?” they write. “Countless projects are deemed failures because when the result is finally delivered, it runs out that the sponsr had expected something completely different.”
Setting clear objectives and involving your stakeholders and end users at every step of the way is one approach to addressing this. But understanding what quality means to your stakeholder groouop and how they want you to service quality on your project is also really valuable.
The levels of quality that the authors talk about are:
Let’s look at what each of those means, and I’ve got some examples as well to share with you.
This is the minimum level of quality. You can even call it “minimum” if that’s what you think your end users would respond best to. This is the lowest level of quality that you can deliver and still get away with – it will ensure that you hit the bare minimum of expectation levels. If you don’t reach these targets your sponsor isn’t going to be pleased and your project would be considered a failure.
Note that your project sponsor will probably not tell you about this level of quality. You’ll have to surmise what you can get away with and then put a positive spin on it.
Example: Building a website for the company that delivers functionally but that does not have all the content expected at the point of go live. You believe that this can be added in later and – with the agreement of your sponsor – you feel that it’s more important to hit the published go live date for the new website than it is to have all the content there on go live day. It’s not the quality that you signed up to at the beginning of the project (as you thought you’d have everything in place, including all the copy) but it will do.
Acceptable quality will do. It’s not substandard. It’s just good enough given the circumstances.
This is what your sponsor has actually asked for. It’s what they want and what they have conditioned themselves to accept. It’s what you should strive to deliver (because you are good at your job and want your team to deliver something valuable, right?).
Example: Completing a project to the standards set out in your quality plan, or if you don’t write one (like me) then understanding your stakeholders well enough, and working with them consistently enough, to get a result that they consider “quality” and successful. Importantly, you know what this is before you set out, so that when the project finishes you can honestly say that you met their expectations with the product/service/etc that you delivered.
Appropriate quality is really the minimum that you should be aiming for. Delivering to this level should be costed into your project plans.
Ignore the first two levels and shoot for gold. This is where you deliver above and beyond the expectations of your project sponsor. You know what the objectives are and you aim to exceed them. This tends to happen when your team (and you) are fully committed to the project and are able to take responsibility for their areas. It also helps to have a hugely positive project sponsor who is behind you and supporting you all the way.
Example: Delivering a product that sells 30% over the original sales target because you know your market so well and are able to suggest changes along the way following your team’s customer focus groups that boost conversions and bring in more revenue.
Aspirational quality comes at a cost. It involves the team being self-managing instead of micro-managing. It relies on good communication and collaboration. It depends on a supportive working environment and a culture that is blame-free. It also helps to be out of the mindset that project management is just about ticking boxes and making sure that tasks are completed. Instead, think about how your job adds value if you do it right.
The flip side of aspirational quality is that it can cost you a lot of money if the changes that lead to overachieving aren’t adequately managed through change control. Even small changes at a late stage can add significantly to your budget.
What level of quality do you go for on your project? And how successful have you been? Let us know in the comments section below.