I’ve spent a lot of time going through the PwC Global PPM Survey recently and there are lots of things in there that project managers can take away. The most important message – and this won’t come as a surprise – is that “the PM community needs to brush up on the basics.”
They give some statistics to support that:
That last statistic troubles me, because risk management is not a one-off activity. You can’t set up a risk log (on my other blog I have a free risk register template) and expect it to manage itself or expect the project’s environment to remain static to the point that no other risks manifest themselves during the life cycle. Risk management has to be a regular, ongoing activity.
Getting the project management basics right
The survey says:
“PMs can improve their performance in getting the basics right and help Executive Teams deliver programmes of change. Many of the improvements that can be made are basic PPM processes and should be part and parcel of every programme but are frequently not done well or are not done consistently.”
This is what I consider the basics.
First, set your objectives. Have a clear goal and a line of sight to that goal. Everything is easier when you have total clarity about what you are trying to achieve because every decision you make supports the journey to get there. (It also makes it easier to do point 3 below.)
Second, regularly measure progress. Apparently this is not always done in all programmes, although why you would invest in a programme of work and then not bother to check anyone is actually working on it is beyond me.
Third, have a process to manage changes. According to PwC’s maturity assessments, almost half of programmes don’t have established processes for managing change.
Fourth, build in time to reflect. You can’t do a good job when you and the team are stressed and under pressure. You need a moment to catch your breath, consider alternative solutions, work out what’s round the corner (be it positive or negative) and review lessons learned so you don’t make the same mistakes over and over again.
Fifth, manage your risks. Risks that aren’t managed cost you money. Risks that aren’t exploited miss you opportunities. Everyone needs a Plan B because you can never be too prepared, especially when you have a lot of time and money tied up in delivering transformational change.
All of these are basics, but they don’t need to be unwieldy or fully documented to be done well. The most important thing is talking about them. As the survey authors write:
“Whilst reviewing a risk register or ensuring a benefits tracker is up to date need to happen, what is most important is that the conversation around a particular risk is had with the right people to drive mitigating action.”
What other project management practices do you consider to be ‘the basics?’ Let me know in the comments below.
In his book, Project Management for Musicians Jonathan Feist talks about several ways to mitigate risk, and they aren’t the ‘avoid, mitigate, reduce, transfer’ approaches that you are used to. Those are good, but they are approaches, they aren’t actual measures that you can take to mitigate a risk. Here are the 7 ways that Feist suggests you can reduce the likelihood that something will become a project issue.
1. Good project management
Yep, following good project management principles is top of the list. Of course, having a lovely Gantt chart and an up-to-date risk register won’t guarantee project success but it does give you the best chance of putting in place plans to mitigate that risk.
Make sure your risk management processes are up to scratch and that you are able to easily follow through on mitigation actions. Good project management also helps manage against risks of going over budget or missing milestones, because you’ll naturally be doing the things to stop these becoming a massive problem.
2. Written agreements
While you always have to factor in how someone else will interpret your written communications, putting things in writing can limit misunderstandings. It also gives you a sense of formality when it comes to contracts and agreements. Getting it all down on paper increases the chance that nothing is being missed.
I love checklists and I use them all the time. As Feist says, “Checklists help you remember important details: procedures, gear items, points for conversations, people who need certain information, and more. Checklists are among the most effective tools used to reduce risk.” I have recently written a peer review checklist for my team – one of the many ways you can use checklists on a project to look at potential areas of concern and do something about them.
This means calculating data in several directions to confirm that it’s correct. You add rows as well as columns on your spreadsheet, or check the data in a dashboard as well as a tabular report. Find different ways to double-check your maths or working, even if this is as simple as having someone else check for you.
5. Empowering competent people
If something does go wrong, you want your project team to be able to act appropriately and make decisions quickly, not sit around wringing their hands until you come in to the office to sort it all out. If you have competent people on your project team (and I hope you do) instil a culture where they can make their own decisions. Set levels to their decision-making power as appropriate so that they aren’t deciding to spending another million dollars on the project without anyone else approving it, but give them the freedom they need to do the right thing.
Feist says that the higher the risk, the more you want to make sure that if you are delegating tasks they go to someone who is a safe pair of hands. This isn’t the time to be delegating work to a junior colleague as a ‘learning opportunity’!
6. Developing emergency plans
Having a Plan B is important, and a traditional risk management technique that you are probably familiar with. Sometimes just having a back up plan is enough to make sure that the risk doesn’t happen. However, in case you do need another approach to dealing with a problem, it is useful to have already thought through what you will need to do in the emergency. Get everyone involved so that they can swing into action if and when they are required.
7. Written instructions
Like checklists, these are a great help if you need to distribute detailed instructions or have tasks that need to be done over and over again. Written instructions can also help clarify expectations. For example, on an IT project with a testing element, written instructions for the testers will help get standardised results and ensure consistency across several testers.
Have you used any of these methods on your projects? Let us know in the comments.
Social communication tools are about using web-enabled technology to get things done more effectively. You may already have web-based project management tools that enable you to collaborate and communicate with your project stakeholders. This is the way that much of project management technology is going, but it isn’t without risk.
Managing the security risk
The security of project information is probably the largest concern for many executives, especially if you choose to adopt cloud-based technologies that store project data outside the organization and enable it to be accessed from anywhere. Whatever solution you adopt, ensure that it has adequate security and authentication protocols for your needs. You will also want to carry out some awareness training so that users know what is and is not appropriate to share on the forum.
This is particularly relevant if you are sharing information with third parties. You may choose a tool that allows you to successfully ring-fence content that your partners can see, reducing the implications for privacy. Social communication tools with few or no privacy settings can be perfectly adequate, but ensure that you know who is using the tool so that sensitive project data is kept secure.
The risk of social communications tools is that they move everything to an online space, whether your company hosts a product or you use a cloud-based provider to store your project data. Ensure that whatever solution you adopt has adequate back up and recovery options in case the worst happens. This is the reason why it is essential to involve your corporate IT department.
Corporate IT teams can also help you establish whether your chosen social communications tool has an audit trail and how you can best access this within the legal boundaries of monitoring an employee’s work. Audit trails are useful for finding out who was the last person to log in, use a document, comment in a discussion, amend the wiki and so on. In a straightforward project environment you shouldn’t need to use the audit trail information but in certain circumstances, such as dealing with a disgruntled employee, it may become necessary to track who has used the tool.
Managing the information overload risk
Social communications do not replace ‘offline’ communications. The connected project manager will still have to prepare written board reports, use emails, produce presentations and everything else he or she did before. Today, social communications rarely replace the need for project managers to communicate through other mechanisms. As a result, it is possible to feel overloaded by the volume of discussion happening in social communication tools. This additional channel requires constant attention, and it can feel like you are losing control.
There are a number of solutions to dealing with this including using aggregation tools (where they exist) to consolidate feeds from multiple channels into one location for you to review at your leisure. However, the easiest way to deal with overload is to ignore it. Switch off the feeds and stop following the discussions. It may feel as if you are losing your grip on the detail of the project but unless you were a particularly command-and-control style project manager you never had this grip anyway. Social communication tools make visible discussions that would have previously happened over email between team members or on the phone. You would not monitor your team members’ phone conversations, so don’t expect to need to monitor everything on the tool. You can train your team to flag important items to you, or implement a categorization system so that you only have to read items tagged with particular words.
Managing personal risk
Managing personal risk is less of an issue at work, and more of a potential problem if you choose to use social communication tools outside the workplace, for example, for career progression and networking. Many social project managers choose to display their personal profiles on professional networking sites, or to extend the personal social networks to work colleagues. This can be a straightforward and positive way of keeping in touch with colleagues, and is now so commonplace that project managers without a presence online can be at a disadvantage when it comes to finding out about job or training opportunities.
However, social project managers need to remember that the internet has a long memory. If you choose to post personal information about yourself online, your employer could see it. That includes holiday photos, comments about your workplace and colleagues and the jokes you choose to share with your network. For the main, professional project managers should have nothing to fear from sharing a bit of their personality with their contacts online. But you need to know where to draw the line, and that line is usually at the point where you wouldn’t mind if your manager saw the information. If you would not share it with your boss, don’t share it online.
This issue is also a concern on corporate social networks where project team members can provide their own profile information. In your profile and in your communications with your team members, make sure that you act professionally and respectfully at all times, as you would with face-to-face communication.
Follow any social media or communications policies in use in your company and where they don’t exist, use your common sense!
This is an edited excerpt, reprinted by permission of the publishers from ‘Managing Social Communications’ in The Gower Handbook of People in Project Management, edited by Dennis Lock and Lindsay Scott (Farnham, Gower, 2013).
In this instalment of my occasional Ask the Experts column, I spoke to Kevin Baker (pictured), Head of Project & Programme Management Operations at Airbus, about the work he has been leading to improve project management standards and culture at the company, including the improvement of project financial controls.
Kevin, you've enhanced the project management culture at Airbus. Has any of this work been around standardising project financial control or risk management? If so, what?
At Airbus we have been working to standardise all aspects of project management, and of course this includes financial control and risk management. Together with schedule management and quality, these form the pillars of a robust project management approach.
What have we actually done? The principles of financial management and risk management have been known in Airbus for many years, there is nothing really new here. What is new is to have a standard set of methodology and tools, so that all actors in the company start to work in the same way, and to use the same language. Over a period of a few years, and with a strong push from the senior management, this starts to embed the new way of working into the company.
Yes, it is really important to have that senior management support. Have you implemented any common tools for project managers to use for managing project budgets or project risks?
In Airbus we have a number of very large projects, like our new aircraft – the A350XWB. Their size and complexity requires a special treatment and we have developed our own toolset – it is called Unified Planning. This takes the schedule status and the cost status at work package level and then aggregates this up to give the overall picture at total project level, that is the status for the complete aircraft development. We also compare cost to schedule achievements to produce an Earned Value indicator. This gives the managers at all levels the visibility of where they are, and how they are performing. And it makes sure that everyone is working to the same information.
Do smaller projects use the same tools?
We also have many hundreds of smaller projects, and we have adopted a simpler toolset for these. But it follows the same basic principles – monitor cost vs budget, and schedule progress vs plan, then calculate earned value.
We cannot say that these new tools will overcome all the difficulties on our projects, but they make sure that we know where we are so that the project managers can quickly start a corrective action if necessary. We are not steering ‘blind’.
Data is a key part to making the right decisions. In order to get there, you’ve had to change the culture at Airbus. What was the biggest challenge in trying to get the company to embrace project management as an intrinsic part of how everyone works?
Airbus is just over 40 years old, and its strength comes from a determination to build the best performing products to the very highest standard of safety. The challenge now is to promote a project management culture alongside these existing strengths. That is to make sure that we not only build fantastic products which perform well but also that we make sure that we do it on time, and within the budget.
We know that the culture change is a long process. It is about making sure that we all think ‘project’. We have made good progress, but the journey will never end. So what is next? – it is more of the same. We keep pushing for a common way of working, a common mindset, a common language. We are deploying some levers to help here. For example we have a project management career path, which is linked to an internal project management certification process. This will help to make project management into a real profession in Airbus – to make more people want to be project managers, to be more proud to be project managers. We are also expanding our range of PM training focussing more now on soft skills.
About my interviewee: Kevin Baker is Head of Project & Programme Management Operations at Airbus. He spoke at Project Zone Congress in Frankfurt last month about this programme of work to enhance project management culture at the company.