Project Management

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How to avoid a project risk

Pitfalls to avoid for lessons learned

Lessons learned: Tips from the learning

What’s your project’s bus factor?

What’s happening in Q3?


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How to avoid a project risk

Categories: risk, scope, Scope, Risk

Risk avoidance is an approach that you’ll see mentioned as one way to manage project risk. But how can you actually avoid a risk? Oftentimes, the risks are related to what the project is all about and you can’t simply palm them off on to someone else or change the project so that they don’t happen – because that would mean changing the scope of the project and that’s probably not going to be something your sponsor will go for.

In his book, Identifying and Managing Project Risk (4th edition), Tom Kendrick lays out some realistic options to consider if you want to avoid a risk completely.

how to avoid project risk

Here are some suggestions drawn from his work but with my own interpretation added in.

Avoid new technology

Anything new brings with it an element of risk. Untried technology might be the latest shiny thing, but if you want to avoid risks related to using unique, new, and unproven solutions, it’s better to stick to the tried-and-tested options.

Buy, don’t build

Make or buy decisions are common in tech projects and others. You have to decide if you’re going to buy in a solution or build it in-house. It might feel like the right thing to do is to build it in house, but if someone out there already has a proven solution that works and would work for you, you can reduce the risk if you go with that.

Building involves creating something new (for you) so it adds time and uncertainty and risk.

Do the minimum

Keep your scope small. The larger the scope, or the more additional change requests and new features that find their way into the brief, the more risk you are adding. MVP for the win.

Keep the plan simple

Along the same lines as having a simple product scope, have a simple plan. Avoid multiple strands of work that run in sequence. Avoid dependencies between tasks where you can. Break down tasks into smaller chunks of work and make sure there are enough people to manage them. Schedule ‘fire breaks’ where the team can catch up.

Manage resources

Look at where you can build in more time, or more slack, for example by not having someone due to work on two back-to-back tasks and making sure people are scheduled at a lower level of availability over resource-pressured times like holiday seasons. Even better, ring-fence the resource so they are solely dedicated to your project and aren’t trying to juggle their day job or other project commitments at the same time. Use resource levelling to spot where you might have problems and plan around those.

Make sure there are enough people available with the right skills so you can avoid the bus factor. Give people the tools they need to get their work done so they aren’t slowed down by not having access to the right kit or software and automate what you can so they don’t have to do those tasks at all.

If you want to avoid risks completely, you will have to think about how you plan and resource the work. Review how you prioritise requirements or look at the schedule. Think about how work can be rearranged between people or across the timeline to reduce the risk to nothing.

It might not be possible – in fact, I’d bet it isn’t possible – to avoid every risk, because that’s the nature of projects. But there could be some specific schedule, resource or scope risks that you could remove from your log because of the choices you and the team make.

What else would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments!

Posted on: July 15, 2024 08:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Pitfalls to avoid for lessons learned

Last time I looked at some tips for making lessons learned sessions run a bit more smoothly, and it made me think about some of the pitfalls we see when facilitating those sessions. My own experience is with using the model associated with predictive projects, but I imagine you could get stuck with these pitfalls if you were doing retrospectives with an agile team as well.

lessons learned meetingImage credit: ChatGPT

Here are some things to look out for once your lessons learned conversation is in the diary.

Focusing on only the negative things. Don’t let the session focus only on the negative. Yes, people like to have the opportunity to share the things that didn’t go well. If it helps the atmosphere to have a moan about the elephant in the room, then do so. But make sure there’s some time on the agenda left to discuss the working practices that were successful, otherwise you’ll all leave the meeting feeling like nothing went well, and I’m sure that wasn’t the case.

Making the sessions too long or too short. Who wants to give up an afternoon for a workshop? No one. And yet if your session is too short, you won’t have time to properly address any issues, come up with action plans or go through the agenda. The exact length of time is going to depend on what you’re wanting to cover and how much prep the team have done beforehand. Question why you need longer than an hour.

The same topics coming up regularly because they haven’t been handled. Regular lessons learned are part of the process, but too frequent and you won’t have had a chance to fix anything – and the same problems will come up again.

Listening to people say they suffered the same challenges because nothing has changed is annoying and frustrating and leaves people wondering what the point is of raising anything if nothing will be done.

People not feeling safe to speak up. Psychological safety is important if you want to get to the truth, but if no one is prepared to share what they thought didn’t go well, you won’t be able to improve. This is a hard one to address if the organisational culture is conspiring against you, but have a think about how you may be able to overcome it if it’s a risk for you. Having smaller sessions with targeted conversations, or anonymous surveys might be options.

Not doing anything with the output. Yep, this is all about leaving your lessons documented in a folder gathering electronic dust somewhere. Not good. Make sure they are turned into actions and have people responsible for doing something with them. At the very least, share them with the other project managers in your group.

Not being able to determine actions properly as you don’t have the detail to hand. So you’ve recognised you need to do something to change a process? If you don’t have the As Is process to hand, it might be hard to work out the action required to make the improvement. And that basically means the improvement won’t get done as what are the chances of someone doing the mapping and analysis afterwards? Unless the leadership team puts a lot of emphasis on follow up, you might miss that out.

These are some of the pitfalls of holding reflection sessions, but by all means I’m sure this list is not definitive. What are the other challenges you’ve found in your own meetings? Let me know in the comments!

Posted on: July 09, 2024 09:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Lessons learned: Tips from the learning

I taught a webinar on lessons learned recently and while I was researching it I found loads of good tips. I drew from my own experience, that of other people and published research, and I thought it might be worth sharing a few of the tips here.

Be considerate of hierarchical power in the room and split the sessions by delegates if necessary. In my experience, more junior colleagues don’t share the things that didn’t work so well, or point out successes that they were a part of if there are senior managers in the room.

This is going to depend on your organisational culture – maybe everyone is happy sharing. But I remember a workshop (not a lessons learned) where someone who did the job we were talking about shared a point about the detail and the project sponsor (who hadn’t done the job for many years, if he ever had done it at all) said, “No, it doesn’t work like that.” And consequently shut the conversation down. It’s hard to challenge leadership so split the sessions if you need to, if you think it will help you get more honest feedback.

Write up the output and share it promptly. Lessons are already ‘old’ by the time you are talking about them because they’ve happened and you’re reflecting on them. Write up what you need to write up and circulate the actions as soon as you can.

lessons learned tips

If there are too many actions, prioritize them and focus on the ones that will add most value. Lessons learned meetings can come up with loads of actions, and if you are doing the exercise mid-project, it’s likely you’ll have actual project work to focus on instead of setting up a whole new project just to fix the things you’ve identified.

Delegate actions to other people, or if you can’t do that, just pick a couple of the major points to work on during the next few months. Come back to the rest of the list later.

Avoid scheduling near holiday times. If you need key people to be in the room, make sure they are around. That might mean scheduling the lessons learned conversations now, even if you are mid-way through the project, or a few months in advance so they hold the time in their calendars.

Ask each individual/team to come with their top 3 lessons. Save time in the session itself by getting people to put in some up-front work. Invite them to come along with their top 3 lessons already prepared, either by sending out a survey or question prompts or letting them have free rein.

Be assured that some people won’t have done this pre-work by the time they arrive in your meeting, so you might want to allocate the first 5 minutes of the meeting to silent individual brainstorming. Then everyone can use the meeting time to come up with the things they feel are the most important.

Collate outcomes in groups/categories to better manage them. The suggestions and lessons are going to fall into various categories, especially if you have given the attendees prompts to think about.

If you’re meeting in person, have separate flip charts or when you are picking up sticky notes from attendees, group them together in common themes as you stick them up. It’s so much easier with an electronic whiteboard, where you can ask participants to drag and drop the stickies, or you can do it as they appear on the screen.

Hope these tips help! When’s your next lessons learned session? Let me know that you’ve got one booked in the comments!

Posted on: July 02, 2024 09:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

What’s your project’s bus factor?

There’s a resource risk that should be on your project risk register, regardless of the type of project you are doing. That’s your bus factor. In other words, what risks are you running if a key resource is hit by a bus.

Yes, it’s a bit morbid (use “won the lottery and quit without notice” if you want a discussion point with less dying) but it’s a crucial issue for projects.

The resource doesn’t literally have to be hit by a bus (and let’s hope that they are not). What we’re talking about it is the impact of them not being on the team for a length of time, often with hardly any notice. For example, going off sick, deciding to take another job and HR putting them on gardening leave, needing time to care for a relative or some other absence.

The trouble with project teams is that we don’t normally have a lot of spare resources lying around. People are subject matter experts and you get one of those skilled experts allocated to your team based on need. It’s unlikely that you have a pool of multiskilled people who can step in if someone else is off work for a length of time…sometimes that might be the case, but even if the skills are available, the person who has them might be fully allocated to another project or even – gasp! – doing their day job.

Building resilience into the team is important, but in my experience it’s not often as easy as it sounds. Yes, we cross-skill team members where it makes sense. Yes, I cover for other project managers when they are on holiday for a week. But some tasks need The Person With The Skills and you have to wait for them to come back.

So, now we understand the risk that the bus factor brings to projects, what can you do about it?

First, highlight it in the risk register if you haven’t already. This improves visibility and lets senior managers know it’s a risk you’re carrying.

Next, talk to the team. They can’t predict this kind of ‘bus’ absence but you can get caught out by other types of absence. I once worked on a project where the key functional owner told me that she was on holiday for a fortnight during the project call before she went away. She had tasks scheduled for her to be doing while she was off. Her line manager hadn’t let me know, and to be fair to her, I hadn’t asked her either.

From then on, we regularly asked project team members when their upcoming holidays were, because you can’t always rely on them or their managers to let you know. Especially if the holiday is booked after the project schedule has been put together.

Talking to the team serves another purpose: it can help you identify what you can proactively do to offset the bus risk. For example, workshadowing, setting up a delegate with an account so two people have access to crucial systems, sending two people on training courses instead of one and so on.

Sketchplanations highlights the challenge in the image below. It’s up to you to make sure you’ve put enough measures in place to make sure your project isn’t delayed by unforeseen lack of resource.

sketchplanations bus plan drawing

Posted on: June 17, 2024 09:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

What’s happening in Q3?

Quarter 3 of a calendar year is July, August and September. Your business year might not follow the same quarters, but wherever you are in your business year, it’s probably the right time to be looking ahead at what needs to come next. Here are 3 focus areas for Quarter 3.

3 focus areas for quarter 3

Forward planning

Begin strategising and planning for high-priority projects in the upcoming quarters. That might look like warming up stakeholders, seeing who is going to be available to work on upcoming projects, doing some light discovery work or pre-initiation investigation, especially on the areas that are likely to take the most time such as procurement and contract negotiations, or getting suppliers to submit security information and forms, or the RFP process. (Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything!)

Involving the team in these discussions can help maintain their focus on future goals and the bigger picture, while hopefully getting you a head start when you come to get those projects going in earnest.

Process optimisation

There’s never a right time to optimise processes, in my experience. The process is in use and it works, so often it feels better to sort out something that is broken, or that is strategically important. But those inefficient processes contribute to low staff morale and wasting time, month after month, so it’s worth scheduling some time to put some effort in. Each quarter, tackle one point or a couple of points, and soon you’ll build up a momentum and improvements.

So how do we do this? Analyse the project management processes and methodologies. Look for inefficiencies or bottlenecks in workflows that could be streamlined for better performance in busier times. I would look through the lessons learned from recent projects and see what’s highlighted there that could be improved.

Ideally, you’d do a full analysis of all possible problems and highlight one or two from the priority list, but in reality that’s a load of work before you see any improvements. A better option might be to just trust your team. If they are telling you that the change control process is a pain in the behind, just focus in on that for now. Improve what is causing people the most headaches, and trust me, they’ll have an opinion on what that is if you ask them.

Tool use

Do a quick review of who is still using the project management software tools you have. People move on so it might be time to claw back licences from users who are no longer in the business or who have changed roles. And other people might benefit from having the licences.

On the topic of forward planning for the quarter, look at what projects are coming up and whether your current licence package is adequate. You might need to add in more licences if you’ve got more projects or more stakeholders needing access to the tools.

If you foresee a need to add in more users, it might be worth scheduling the training for them now so they can hit the ground running when they get their own account.

What else would you be doing at this time to feel prepared for the upcoming months ahead? Let me know in the comments!

Posted on: June 11, 2024 08:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.

- Jack Handey