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Project reviews can help identify early warning signs

Categories: events, pmi, research

At the PMI Global Congress EMEA in Dublin last month Terry Williams spoke about his research into early warning signs on complex projects. Last week I wrote about what causes problems on projects. One of the things his research team considered was the role that external reviews have to play in uncovering those problems.

External reviews at all points in the project are useful. These provide a sense of legitimacy; comfort that you are doing the right thing. However, they need to be well focused, with guidelines. And of course it is not enough just to do a review and create a list of issues: issues have to be acted on as well.

Keys showing past and futureHowever in some cases it was the process of doing the review was the most useful. The interview forced the project team to defend what was happening and therefore helped them uncover what was indefensible.

Having to justify the decisions made the project team question them and this process was identified as a good tool for flagging where things were going wrong.

Barriers to identifying early warning signs

You may expect warning signs to be successfully identified and dealt with in an environment where gut feel is taken seriously and reviews are carried out. But it is not like that everywhere.

Terry also shared some of the barriers to identifying early warning signs in projects. Here are some:

  • A mismatch between project life cycles and strategic planning cycles; no alignment between annual budgeting and long term projects
  • Methods are not well focused
  • Effects of politics make you do the wrong thing. internal politics stop you seeing what's happening, and even if you do see it you won't say anything anyway
  • Quality of team
  • Being too optimistic
  • Lack of a good business case
  • Sponsors who have set up a project and then moved away leaving the team to get on with it.
  • Lack of documentation
  • Getting vague answers to critical questions
  • When people work too much or too little
  • Constant churn of people and those in acting positions (like Acting Marketing Director): they don't have ownership or the history to look out for problems
  • Unfulfilled promises
  • Frequently changing decisions.

I am not a big fan of organisational politics, and I often wish we could cut through the hidden agendas and just get things done. However, fast tracking projects through politics means you don't have time to assess early warning signs, Terry said.

What are the early warning signs?

As a result of their research the team was able to make lists of typical early warning signs by project stage. These are helpful guidelines for people doing project reviews - pointers for what to be looking for. The lists included:

During project set up

  • Poor project definition
  • Poorly developed business plan
  • Sponsor with unclear expectations
  • Inconsistent arguments about agenda
  • Vague reasons for undertaking the project

In early stages of project

  • Lack of a clear business case
  • Deterioration of relationships within the team and with suppliers
  • Incomplete docs
  • Unwillingness to conclude discussions or make decisions
  • Lack of competences in team
  • Lack of clear roles and responsibilities

During project execution stage

  • Frequently changing decisions
  • Uneasy comments
  • Strained atmosphere
  • Not showing trust in project organisation

Do you do project reviews? If so, have you spotted any of these warning signs or any other signs that things might not be going to plan?

Posted on: June 06, 2011 03:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Early warning signs in complex projects

Categories: pmi, research

"We should have seen it coming."

Have you ever said that or felt that on a project?

Terry Williams spoke about his research into early warning signs on complex projects at the PMI Global Congress EMEA in Dublin recently. The researchers looked at how successful project assessments are in uncovering the warning signs that something is going wrong on the project.

They set out to discover what the most important early warning signs are, and what to look for in different contexts. Terry specifically focused on complex projects. "A complex project is one where you don't understand how the inputs generate the outputs," he said.

The team went in to 14 organisations and interviewed people about what went wrong in their complex projects. The issues they asked about included:

•  Political processes and reasons for projects

•  Business case

•  Risks and opportunities

•  Stakeholders

•  How you learn lessons from other projects, and the difference between lessons identified and lessons learned.

This last point was interesting. A public sector project lessons learned report included the advice that future projects needed a strong leader. That's not rocket science. But when the researchers dug into the reasons why the lack of leadership had been an issue on this project they found out all the political reasons behind it, which is much more useful. Understanding the context and the narrative around the lessons is helpful, Terry said.

He cited the NASA lessons learned database which I also refer people to when I give talks - it is a great example of managing organisational knowledge.

What causes the problems?

Problems on projects are caused by all kinds of things, and the researchers uncovered some common themes:

•  Overly ambitious plans

•  Development of new technology

•  Difficulty of stopping projects when they have gathered steam.

•  Complexity

•  People in senior roles forgetting what managing projects is like as they have moved to levels in the organisation where they have no recent relevant operational experience

•  Group-think

Then they took a step back and looked at what warning signs came before these problems.

The researchers saw that early warning signs include 'gut feel' and non-verbal, people-related issues. "Early warning signs may be evident from people's behaviour," Terry said.

Unfortunately, project managers and executives don't always pick up on these signs, or know what to do if they notice them. And the more complex the project, the more likely they are to ignore them.

Half of the companies taking part in the research distinguished what a complex project was. They had guidelines set by the company specifying what 'complex' meant for them.

"We got this feeling that people doing complex projects define more things to look at and this takes away reliance on gut feel," Terry explained. "The more complicated guidance distracted you from using gut feel."

The more structured and complicated the organisational structure, the harder it is to allow soft interpretations of concerns.


Next time I’ll be looking at the value of using external reviews to assess early warning signs on complex projects.

Posted on: June 02, 2011 05:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Live from PMI Global Congress North America: How to Become a Program Manager

Categories: events, pmi, program, salaries

Convention CentrePedro Serrador presented yesterday at PMI Global Congress North America on how to become a program manager.  There are many career advantages to program management – not least that program managers tend to earn more than project managers.  So if you want to move into program management, here are Pedro’s tips.

“A program manager adds more value than just project managers,” said Pedro.  He said there are eight principles to being a successful program manager, and shared these from Vincent J. Bilardo, Jr.:

  • Establish a clear, compelling vision
  • Secure sustained support from the top
  • Exercise strong management and leadership
  • Facilitate open communication
  • Develop a strong organisation
  • Manage risk
  • Implement effective integration
  • Create your own success

Moving to a program manager role requires you to deliver the goods, he said.  There might also be a case for upgrading your education, and learning from others.  Pedro also said that prospective program managers should put themselves in a position where they can lead and mentor others, and especially learn to delegate appropriately.  “Show that you are a leader, not just one of ten project managers in the group,” he added.  Look for the opportunities that arrive and take them.  Finally, act the role, he explained.  “If you want to become a program manager, act like a program manager. Start to structure things like programs.”  If you act like a program manager, your manager will see that you are capable of operating at that level.

“Often it is beneficial to move around,” he said, when he spoke about how to land that new program management job.  That could mean moving to a new initiative or to a new company.  He explained that outside CEO’s earn an average of 13% more than internal candidates.  However, they fail 34% of the time, compared with only 24% of internal candidates, so there is something to be said for sticking with what you know.  “Moving is riskier,” Pedro said.

Pedro had some tips for what to do when you get that first program, or you choose to structure your existing work as a program (even if you don’t yet have the title):

  • Structure sub-projects properly
  • Make your project managers run things how you would run them
  • Don’t micro-manage
  • Get strong business and executive level focus

Pedro also said that senior managers spend more time planning their own time.  “You help the projects managers get on the right track and then go on to something else,” he said.  Factor that into your daily schedule and take the time to plan your day (and your schedule in general).  It might seem like it takes a long time but it will be effective.

“A big part of your role is to let the stakeholders know the importance of your program and you need to be able to push to have obstacles removed,” he said.  His final piece of advice was to have a 30 second status summary in meetings in case the executive you are presenting to gets called away.  “Know to stop at yes,” he added.

Posted on: October 11, 2010 04:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

No matter how much cats fight, there always seem to be plenty of kittens.

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