Voices on Project Management

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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with--or even disagree with--leave a comment.

About this Blog


View Posts By:

Cameron McGaughy
Marian Haus
Lynda Bourne
Lung-Hung Chou
Bernadine Douglas
Kevin Korterud
Conrado Morlan
Peter Tarhanidis
Mario Trentim
Jen Skrabak
David Wakeman
Vivek Prakash
Christian Bisson
Rebecca Braglio
Cyndee Miller
Shobhna Raghupathy
Rex Holmlin
Roberto Toledo
Wanda Curlee

Recent Posts

Don’t Shout the Loudest—Think Ahead

Can We Use the Principles of Newspeak for Good?

The Customer Is Always Digital—So Make the Experience Right

Reality Check: Stop Being So Optimistic

PMO of the Year Winner Calls Out Executive Support

The Best Way to Ensure Project Success? Understand and Control the Scope

By Marian Haus, PMP

There are dozens of studies about project failure. (To name just three: Standish Group’s Chaos reports, PMI’s 2013 Pulse of the Profession®: The High Cost of Low Performance and Gartner’s 2012 survey on why projects fail). There are at least as many reasons why projects fail.

Although in some cases forces external to a project can imperil its success, I am convinced that properly managing internal factors, particularly scope, is a key enabler for project success. This is because internal factors can be controlled, while external factors can merely be influenced.

Let’s take some classic reasons projects fail and tackle their root causes from a project scope management perspective.

Vague or unclear requirements and no change control—aka the never-ending scope. These are typical problems related to poor project scope management. The remedy is straightforward. Complete and clear requirements should make it to the scope; anything else poses a risk. In addition, at least a basic change management process is required to keep scope creep under control.

Lack of clear roles and responsibilities (R&R). You tailor your project team around the scope work that needs to be carried out. Because of this, you have to be clear about what your project needs to deliver. This includes product specifications, product design, implementation, integration with other related product parts, validation, delivery, etc.

If the lack of R&R clarity lies within your client organization or with an organization external to your project, then break down your project scope into specific deliverables and lay out the assumption and prerequisites for delivering them. For example, a product specification will have to be reviewed and signed off by the client, the client is expected to provide you with the validation benchmarks, etc.

A lack of R&R often results in lack of ownership and accountability of deliverables.

Underestimated timelines. This can happen especially if estimations are done based on insufficient information or when the scope is not well understood. Estimates are consequently rough, based on previous experience, approximations and assumptions. If conditions are changing during the project lifecycle, this can lead to time or budget overruns.

Unclear and/or unrealistic expectations. This is often related to the project scope. Your project team might be unclear about what it is supposed to deliver or what level of quality and maturity your deliverable will have to pass to meet the acceptance criteria. In other cases, the team might be unclear on how the delivery of your project scope will impact the receiving organization.

Project complexity. This relates mainly to the failure to break down a large scope into more manageable pieces and deliverables. If the list of deliverables is not clear, the sequence in which these are to be produced will not be determined. If the deliverables’ relation to each other isn’t clear, then team members will just be busy delivering something, sometime, for some level of effort. This leads to missing the project goal or ending up with time or budget overruns.

A well-understood and executed scope brings you a huge step closer to finishing your project successfully.

What is your experience with managing project scopes? What key factors, other than scope, do you see as enablers for project success?

Posted by Marian Haus on: October 19, 2015 02:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (15)

5 Things Unsuccessful Portfolio Managers Do

By Jen Skrabak, PMP, PfMP

I am amazed that so many projects and programs (and by extension, portfolios) are still so challenged. Forty-four percent of projects are unsuccessful, and we waste $109 million for each $1 billion in project expenditures, according to the 2015 edition of PMI’s Pulse of the Profession.

One solution that the report identifies is mature portfolio management processes. With that in mind, I’ve come up with a list of five things that unsuccessful portfolio managers do—and what they should focus on doing instead.

1.  Worry about things they can’t change.

Unsuccessful portfolio managers worry about the past or dwell on problems outside their immediate influence. Successful portfolio managers learn from the past and move on. Sometimes, failures turn into lessons that create the foundation for future growth and opportunity.

Portfolio managers should stay focused on what can we influence, negotiate and communicate, as well as what we can start, stop and sustain. Every month or quarter, assess the processes, programs and projects in your span of control. Decide which to start, stop and sustain, and develop action plans around those decisions (including dates, resources required and collaborators).

2.  Give up when things get too hard.

It may be easy to throw in the towel when conditions become challenging. But the hallmark of a good portfolio manager is the ability to find solutions.

Sometimes, our immediate reaction to a proposal is to think the timeframes or goals are not possible. However, when we get the team together to focus on what can be done, we come up with creative solutions. It’s necessary to gather the facts and do the analysis instead of jumping to conclusions.

3.  Set unattainable goals.

There’s a difference between a stretch goal and an impossible one. Sometimes, projects or programs don’t start off as unattainable (see #2 above) or undoable, but they become so.

Although we may be good at starting projects or programs, there’s not enough emphasis on stopping them. The environment (internal or external) may have changed, key resources may no longer be available, organizational priorities may have shifted, or the business buy-in might take too long. Rather than calling attention to the situation and recommending a “no go,” unsuccessful portfolio managers tend to press on with blinders. This wastes time and resources.

Once I was managing a $500 million portfolio of international expansion programs and projects. The portfolio sponsor told me, “I want to know if we’re falling off the cliff.” Although we hope our programs or projects never get to that point, his words did clearly specify the role I was supposed to play.

4.  Stay in your comfort zone.

It’s easy to create a portfolio in which the potential for risk and failure is low. But that means we may be missing out on opportunities for innovation or great returns. Advocating change in your portfolio requires taking calculated risks that you can learn from or will pay off in the longer term. The successful portfolio manager will advocate taking good risks (aka opportunities) instead of blindly going forward with bad risks.

Taking advantage of opportunities is the key to transformation and reinvention. It’s essential to any organization that wants to survive long-term. For example, who could’ve predicted just a few years ago that Amazon, Netflix and even YouTube would become rivals to TV and movie studios in providing original entertainment? This required calculated risk taking.

5.  Forget about balance.

Balance is important, whether it’s balancing your portfolio or balancing your work and your life. If you’re not performing your best because you’re not taking care of yourself, it’s going to affect your portfolio. Especially with technology blending our work and personal time, it’s sometimes hard to think about balance. One survey showed that we’re checking our phones up to 150 times per day. But remember the basics: eat well, exercise, take time to de-stress, and set aside time for yourself, family and friends. 

What do you notice unsuccessful portfolio managers do, and what would you recommend instead? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: October 10, 2015 11:12 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)

The 3 Things That Transcend All Project Approaches

by Dave Wakeman

Recently I had the chance to engage with Microsoft’s social media team about some of the issues I have been covering here. Their team brought up a question you may have asked as well: How do you differentiate between “digital” project management and project management?

It’s an interesting question, because I firmly believe all projects should be delivered within a very similar framework. The framework enables you to make wise decisions and understand the project’s goals and objectives.

I understand that there are many types of project management philosophies: waterfall, agile, etc. Each of these methods has pros and cons. Of course, you should use the method you are most comfortable with and that gives you the greatest likelihood of success.

But regardless of which project management approach you employ, there are three things all practitioners should remember at the outset of every project to move forward with confidence.

Every project needs a clear objective. Even if you aren’t 100-percent certain what the “completed” project is going to look like, you can still have an idea of what you want the project’s initial iteration to achieve. This allows you to begin work with a direction and not just a group of tasks.

So, even if you only have one potential outcome you want to achieve, starting there is better than just saying, “Let’s do these activities and hope something comes out of it.”

Frameworks enable valuable conversations. I love talking about decision-making frameworks for both organizations and teams. They’re valuable not because they limit thought processes, but because they enable you to make decisions based on what you’re attempting to achieve.

Instead of looking at the framework as a checklist, think of it as a conversation you’re having with your project and your team. This conversation enables you to keep moving your project toward its goal.

During the execution phase, it can give you the chance to check the deliverable against your original goals and the current state of the project within the organization. Just never allow the framework to put you in a position where you feel like you absolutely have to do something that doesn’t make sense.

Strong communication is the bedrock. To go back to the question from Microsoft’s social media team about digital vs. regular project management: the key concept isn’t the field or areas that a project takes place in.

No matter what kind of project you’re working on and in which sector you’re in, the critical skill for project success is your ability to communicate effectively with all the project stakeholders.

This skill transcends any specific industry. As many of us have learned, it may constitute about 90 percent of a project manager’s job. You can put this into practice in any project by taking a moment to write down your key stakeholders and the information you need to get across to them. Then put time in your calendar to help make sure you are effective in delivering your communications.

In the end, I don’t think there should be much differentiation between “digital” projects or any other kind of projects. All projects benefit from having a set of goals and ideas that guide them. By trying to distinguish between different project classifications, we lose sight of the real key to success in project management: teamwork and communication.

What do you think? 

By the way, I've started a brand new weekly newsletter that focuses on strategy, value, and performance. Make sure you never miss it! Sign up here or send me an email at dave@davewakeman.com! 

Posted by David Wakeman on: August 30, 2015 09:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

The Three Levels of Success

Categories: Project Failure

By  Rex M. Holmlin


As project managers, we would like our projects to be successful. Successful projects are more fun and, as a general proposition, our bosses like it better when our projects are successful. But how can we set our projects up for success?

A helpful first step is to define what success is. For many of us, that means meeting scope, cost and schedule targets. However, I will argue that there are three levels of project success we should think about:

1. Project-level success

2. User-level project success

3. Enterprise-level project success

For a project to be truly successful, we must be successful on each level. 

Project-level success is the area most of us are most familiar with. Success at this level means we meet our scope, cost and schedule objectives. When we meet these objectives, many of us are looking for a ticker tape parade down the hallway. However, we are only looking at part of the success equation.

User-level success means delivering the benefits that the users desire from the project. While our users, and other stakeholders, may be interested in scope, cost and schedule objectives, the truth is we can meet project-level objectives and still have a project that does not deliver the benefits the users and stakeholders were looking for.

At the enterprise level, senior leaders in our organization are interested in having the projects that we execute make a positive contribution to key metrics at the enterprise level (profit targets are one example). We can meet project-level objectives, but not make a contribution to key enterprise-level metrics.

In a recent webinar, I asked the participants whether their organizations defined success at each of these levels. Approximately two-thirds of attendees felt their organizations had well-defined project-level objectives, but less than half of those felt their organizations set clear and well-defined user/stakeholder- and enterprise-level objectives

It is often quite challenging to meet scope, cost and schedule objectives. However, our projects will still fail if we do not deliver the benefits users and other stakeholders desire and make a contribution to key enterprise-level metrics. As project managers, we need to ask questions about the benefits users desire, and understand the key enterprise-level metrics we can contribute to. The more specific we are, the greater the chance we will have a successful project. When it comes to project success, ignorance about the other levels of project success is not bliss.

Please drop me a note and let me know if your organization defines all three levels of project success.

Posted by Rex Holmlin on: July 22, 2015 03:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (30)

Do Your Projects Have A Strategic Focus?

By Dave Wakeman 


Last month, I wrote about how you can become a more strategic project manager. This month, I want to continue exploring the topic by focusing on a few ways to make sure your projects have strategic focus.

1. Always Ask “Why?”

This is the essential question for any business professional. But I am aware that asking the question can be extremely difficult—especially in the organizations that need that question asked the most.

Asking why you are taking on a project is essential to the project’s success or failure. Using the question can help you frame the role that project plays in the organization’s goals. It can also allow you early on to find out if the project is poorly aligned with the long-term vision.

This can make you look like a champ because you can make course corrections or bring up challenges much earlier, saving you and your organization time and money.

When asking about a project’s strategic value, you may find it helpful to phrase it in less direct ways, such as: “How does this project fit into the work we were doing with our previous project?” or “This seems pretty consistent with the project we worked on several months back—are they connected?”

2. Bring Ideas

As the focal point of knowledge, project managers should know where a project is in meeting its goals and objectives. So if you know a project is losing its strategic focus (and therefore value), generate ideas on how to make course corrections or improve the project based on the information you have.

There is nothing worse than having a team member drop a heap of issues on us with no easy solutions and no ideas on how to move forward. As the leader of your projects, don’t be that person. To help you come up with ideas to move the project toward success and strategic alignment, think along the following lines:

·      If all the resources and effort expended on the project up to the current roadblock were removed from consideration, would it still make sense to move forward with the project?

·      What actions can we take that will help alleviate some of the short-term pain?

·      Knowing what I know now, would I suggest we start or stop this project? Why?

3. Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!

On almost any project I work on, more communication is a good idea. This is because the more the lines of communication are open, the more likely I’m to get information that will be helpful to me and my ability to achieve the end results that I’m looking for.

As with most things in project management, communication is a two-way street and loaded with possible pain points and missteps. As a project manager looking to deliver on the strategic promise of your projects, your communications should always be focused on information you can use to take action and move your project along.

To effectively communicate as a strategic project manager, ask questions like these:

·      What do I need to know about a project that will have a material impact on its success or failure?

·      What can I share with my team or stakeholders that might help them understand my decisions?

·      What information does my team need to take better actions?

As you can see, adjusting your vision to become more strategic isn’t too far removed from what it takes to be an effective project manager. The key difference is making sure you understand the “why” of the project. From there, you need to push forward your ideas and to communicate openly and honestly.

What do you think? How do you bring a strategic focus to your projects? 

By the way, I've started a brand new weekly newsletter that focuses on strategy, value, and performance. Make sure you never don't miss it, sign up here or send me an email at dave@davewakeman.com! 

Posted by David Wakeman on: June 18, 2015 11:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

I'm a great quitter. I come from a long line of quitters. I was raised to give up.

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