1. Get involved with business cases and proposals
First, lobby to get involved with business cases and proposals. The more delivery expertise we have involved in the initial stages of a project, the more likely it is that the project will be able to actually hit its goals.
Have you ever been involved with a project where you’ve been handed something to do and the sales people have made promises that you can’t deliver on? Then you’ll know what I mean!
When project people are involved in business cases, in my experience you’re more likely to end up with a timescale that’s achievable and a resource plan that reflects the real amount of resources likely to be consumed by the work.
It’s even better if you can lobby for a seat at the table when the 3-year plans are being drawn up, so your top level project people, like the Head of PMO, get involved in creating the strategy in the first place. That provides a real insight into what initiatives are coming and how the delivery teams can help.
2. Use the project assurance function as a check mechanism
Project assurance is a way of checking that what you think you can do is actually achievable. It’s their job to pick apart your plans and proposals and apply a sense of real-world pragmatism. They can also help identify whether there are any resource gaps, strategic holes or other issues that you haven’t seen.
After all, as a project manager I’m sometimes so close to the information that I can’t see the bigger picture enough to realise that this project will clash with something that someone else is working on – but project assurance has the bigger picture and can point that out.
If you don’t have a project assurance function, ask a colleague for their opinion and talk them through the plans, asking them to basically pull them apart. Ideally, to be able to add some strategic oversight to your plans, this should happen around the time of the business case or PID. By the time you’ve got to creating a schedule you’ll be looking for a different kind of peer review.
3. Share what you know – but only what you know
My third tip is something I learned from Tony Meggs, Chief Executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority in quite an old article now that he wrote for Project magazine, but it has stuck with me. He said: Only announce what you know.
We know this in theory, so it’s not news to you, I’m sure. However, many project managers are ‘encouraged’ to share dates before we are ready, or pushed into committing to dates publicly before we have all the information to support the fact we can deliver to them.
So, if you want to be a strategic operator, only share what you know to be achievable. That goes for delivery methodologies as well. Meggs talked in the article about not committing to anything unless you know it to be true, including how the work would be delivered. If you are going to partner with someone and there’s a robust contract in place, by all means announce it. But don’t announce your intentions before they are fixed in stone because if it doesn’t happen you’re then having to walk back on the messaging and that can be damaging.
We can do this as project managers on a small scale, by giving our teams the space to come up with the best methods and timescales before we announce them to sponsors, but also on a strategic level, by ensuring there is a communications plan in place that supports the bigger picture messaging for the project, programme or even the portfolio.
Do you do any of these already? How are they working out for you? Let us know in the comments!
I have lost count of the number of times my project testing phase has been squeezed. When you are up against a deadline, your carefully planned 3-rounds of testing with time for bug fixes and validation suddenly slide out the door.
And yet, no one wants to put out a product that hasn’t been robustly tested. That’s just asking for trouble from the customer. I know iterative methods allow for rounds of improvements, but they should be functional, incremental improvements, not fixing bugs you let slip through because the testing wasn’t good, or long, enough. That’s my view, anyway.
It is tricky to schedule time for testing, because you don’t know what you’ll find. Perhaps the solution is so brilliantly coded that nothing buggy will be found. (Ha!) I think this is where some of the pressure comes from: sometimes managers disconnected from the process of creating something new feel that as each component of the software works fine, together the whole will work just perfectly. “If the build has been good enough, there won’t be much to fix.” If only.
Testing goes beyond simply making sure the code is good enough. We test the processes, integration, training materials, communication approach and more. Here are 5 quick tips that I’ve picked up over the years for testing. Perhaps they will be helpful to you too.
1. Keep notes
I know, keeping a note of exactly what you pressed and what happened is boring. Users don’t always understand the rationale of following the script and noting down what happened. Detailed notes help other people replicate the error so they can see it, understand it and fix it.
Get into the habit of documenting everything. You’ll be grateful later.
2. Try to break it
This is the part of testing I enjoy the most! And it kind of contradicts with following the script – except you should have test scripts for trying to break the product too.
Encourage testers to do things in the wrong order, use the product incorrectly and see what happens. You need to make sure it is adequately developed to deal with those use cases ‘in the wild’ as well as for the users who have read the instruction manual!
3. Test with real users
Talking of users reading the instruction manual, ideally testing should be done with the involvement of users. I have been on projects where testing has been done by a professional test team, in our test lab. That was great. The level of detail and accuracy and information provided was awesome and elevated our confidence in the product. Testers are brilliant.
But you should also involve some end users. They may find the test process regimented and a bit difficult to get on with, but a little training should help with that. That community will provide a different insight into how the product works and can give you feedback on usability and process that a testing professional might not know, not being an expert in their job function with the wider business context around that.
4. Test what you can’t see
A lot of testing in my experience has been around what buttons do on the screen, functionality, do you get the data you expect. But when working with professional testers (as opposed to subject matter experts and team members we’ve drafted in to help check the software meets their requirements) they have always focused on what you can’t see as well.
Those are the non-functional requirements. Does it meet the company security guidelines? Is it fast? Can we back it up and do those back ups work? You should have non-functional requirements in the product spec or as use cases, so make sure the testing doesn’t overlook those.
5. Plan the testing
Finally, and I know it sounds obvious, but all of those things above should be in a test plan. Sometimes the test team has written this on my projects, sometimes I’ve had to write it (and probably didn’t do that great a job). But whatever you do, to whatever level of quality, the important thing is that a test plan exists so you have some idea of what is expected, who is going to do it, what you are looking for and how the test results will be fed back to the people who can make the improvements.
Make sure a test plan is included in your overall project plan, and if you aren’t sure how to put one together, get some support from people who have done it before.
I’m not a tester, so I’m sure there is more to it than what I’ve written above from the point of view of a project manager. What would you add? Leave a comment below to tell me!
Recently I spoke to Nick Nuss, data manager, Excel expert and blogger. I like to think that I’m OK at using Excel, but one of the things I don’t understand is pivot tables. So I figured it was about time I learned how to use them.
Luckily, Nick was on hand to explain all.
If you’ve ever struggled with pivot tables, you’ll want to read this interview.
Nick, how can I use Excel to better report on data?
Excel is very versatile. You already know this. As a project manager, you probably have Gantt charts and templates saved out. Excel solves many of your data problems. As a data manager myself, I use Excel in a variety of ways but the functionality I use most is the pivot table.
OK, basics please. What does a pivot table do for me?
Pivot tables allow a user to report on a large data set in a table format. For instance, if you have to track anything in excel, you can report on it. Financials, time, counts of sick days, anything that you can lay out in a table, you can report on it.
So what do I need to know?
First, I want to tell you about table design. Then we’ll move on to creating your pivot table. Lastly, I’m going to dive into how to best use the pivot tables.
Great. Tell me about tables.
Good table design is essential for good reporting. Garbage in is garbage out in the data world, so if you create your table in a poor way, your reports will not be accurate.
Let’s talk lingo for a second. I will be referring to rows as “records” and columns as “fields” from now on. When we have a record, it will be a unique instance that we want to track. This can be per person, per date, per person per date, etc.
The lower down you go, the more information you can get later on. By tracking at a department level, you may not get the results you want later had you tracked things at an individual level.
What about fields?
Fields are what we will use in the pivot table to describe the records. These can be dates, IDs, financials and numbers to tell us information about what has or is to happen.
It’s important that fields have the correct formatting. For instance, financials should always be listed with the financial signs, and dates should always be listed as a date. Without the correct formatting, when you go to use the data, your dates may not calculate correctly (i.e. the difference between 11/30/2017 and 12/1/2017 is one day, but if you do not have it in date format, excel may calculate it as 1212017 - 11302017 = -10,090,000!).
Got it! Anything else I should know about fields?
Fields can be further broken down into two levels; descriptors and metrics. The descriptors are ways to split the data, such as department and job role. The metrics will be the things you want to control down the road, like your financials or hours.
You can certainly use metrics as descriptors, such as people who work more than 40 hours per week, against people who work fewer than 40 hours.
How do I do that?
It is usually easier to create the data table before creating the pivot table. You can create these metrics with functions like “=if()” which will take on one value when logic is true and another when logic is false. You can even have the function return “true” or “false” if you don’t enter what to do.
To do this, set up this equation =if(CELL >= 40, “what does it do when true”, “what does it do when false”). Be sure to replace “CELL” with the correct cell for your records! You can then click and drag this down your table to auto populate.
This image shows the beginnings of a data table with the IF formula for working out whether someone works more than 40 hours a week.
OK. Any other tips for the data table?
A good rule of thumb is to also have one field set as “count” where you enter a 1 for each record. This allows you to report on the total number of records later that meet a certain criteria.
Keep your records clean as they are created. Fill in each field for the record and keep them accurate. If you can track numbers as a decimal, do so. The more exact you are, the more exact future reports will be.
Each field needs a label name in record one for a pivot table to work. Be sure to name these with descriptive names that you can use later. These labels should be unique for later on. It’s also good practice to label these with the field type in case you forget. Keep “date” in the name for any dates and “amount” for any financial values.
Now I’ve got a good quality data table. Are we on to the pivot table?
Yes, creating the pivot table comes next. Go to a new tab within Excel to keep your table data separate from your pivot table. Select cell D6, which will give ample space for your pivot table to populate. This is will be the upper left of your new report. When we discuss how a pivot table works, selecting down and over will make more sense.
Now, in the ribbon at the top, navigate to the “Insert” tab and select “Pivot table” from the left.
This will open the data selection. Click where it asks you to enter the range for the data.
Now, click on the worksheet tab where you entered your data and select the upper left cell of your data (this will be field A and row 1). Next, press ctrl+shift+end on the keyboard (PC shortcut). This shortcut will select all records and fields in the table. Press enter and you have successfully created your pivot table!
This image shows selecting a portion of the data source for creating your pivot table. The full data table is shown below.
Pivot tables work best with lots of data. In this table you can see resource names, hours worked per week, whether or not the hours are above 40, a field for 'count' and the week number. That gives lots of metrics to analyse and report on.
Excellent! Is that it?
Not quite. The third step is reporting from your pivot table. By selecting the area of the pivot table that we had before, a wizard will appear at the right. The top section will show all of your fields from the data table and the bottom will contain four quadrants. The lower left quadrant will be where you place what descriptors you want for your data. In the lower right, you will place the metrics you want to display. You can still use your metrics in the lower left quadrant, but you cannot report on descriptors in the lower right.
In this pivot table, we've calculated sum of hours per person worked on the project overall during the first 3 weeks.
My favourite part about metrics is you can use the drop down to select properties, and display an average, sum, or percent of the total.
The top two quadrants are used for additional analysis. If you wanted to cross your descriptors by ANOTHER descriptor, you would want to place the second criteria in the upper right. The upper left quadrant is used as a filter, which tells your report “only by these records.” This limits the records to certain selected values, but they do not necessarily show in the report.
This pivot table shows average hours worked by employees who work over or under 40 hours. We can also add in more columns and see hours worked per week per employee as in the screenshot below.
That’s really helpful! I think I get it. Anything else I should know?
You can create any number of robust reports using a pivot table. The value of using pivot tables grows with the size of your data table. The larger the table, the better analysis you’ll get. Pivot tables are fast and easy to create. You will be amazed at how quickly you can report on things in Excel using pivot tables.
For more advanced pivot tables, you could also get data out of a database or Access file as long as you select the data as an import. You can do this from the data tab to allow you to select the information in a pivot table! Excel is amazing.
About my interviewee:
5 Tips for Better Decision Making [Infographic]
When decision making falls on your shoulders, you need to be able to step up and make the decision quickly! Here are 5 tips for making better decisions.
You can read more about some of the ideas on this infographic in this article.
Wyzant (say: Wise Ant, I think), a marketplace that matches up tutors and students for in-person and online study sessions, has done some research into how people feel about working with numbers.
They surveyed 235 students who recently struggled with statistics. Only 5.5% of these students were pursuing a career in a maths-related field, and many called out business or project management as a potential career path.
That’s a lot of people who don’t intend to use maths as their ‘full time’ day job who are using statistics as part of their course and possibly their future job. Nearly 45% of the students said, “I’m not a maths person,” which is the answer I would have given too. If you hold that view about yourself, you’re creating more stress, anxiety and mystery around the basics of statistics.
What People Struggle With
70% of all the students struggled with the same two statistics concepts, hypothesis testing and probability.
Personally I don’t use hypothesis testing in my project management work, but I’m sure understanding it is essential in some industries. It hasn’t been since university that I’ve had to think about hypotheses, thankfully. My days of having to understand T-tests and ANOVA are hopefully long gone… if I ever truly understood them at all.
Probability, though – we’re all exposed to that as a function of risk management. It’s often so simplified though that risk assessments are subjective: “I think that my risk is not likely, likely, quite likely, almost definitely going to happen.”
Wyzant worked with expert tutors in the field of statistics to identify the concepts and break them down in ways we can all understand. The article quotes PhD candidate, Brian, who tutors university students in stats:
“Typically, when students are introduced to the normal distribution, they’re given a curve and told probability is the area under the curve. But this is still confusing.”
He says it’s easier to think of probability if you break up the area under the curve into 100 squares, each equal in size.
“If you can look at the distribution and say each of these squares is equal to 1% probability, you can just count the squares to develop good intuition about what the normal distribution is and what it means.”
Image credit: Wyzant
I can see how thinking about probability in this way would make it clearer. The bell curve of a normal distribution is all well and good but blocks really call out the way that the 100% is made up and how it spreads out across the distribution.
What do you think?
The website has some helpful guides for common statistics and probability concepts as well.
You might also find this book interesting: Math for Grownups. I certainly found it helpful!