Project Management

The PM Observer

I'm not a project manager, but I play one on the internet. As editorial director of gantthead since 2000, I have been living in the project management world for a decade now, and I'd like to share my inside-outsider view of the art, science, discipline and industry of project management

About this Blog


Recent Posts

Hide and Seek

Movie Violence

Borderline Crazy

Planning a Zombie Attack

My Kitchen Project

Hide and Seek

It was 10 years ago that gantthead started its mission of making project managers more successful. The biggest mystery, to my mind, is how the site has grown and changed so much while all of the people around here look EXACTLY as we did back in 2000...weird. 

Despite the freakish lack of aging among the staff, gantthead itself has grown to boast almost half a million members and way more content than I ever imagined. There are so many nooks and crannies around here, it's easy to get lost--but sometimes you can find the most wonderful treasures hiding in the corners. In the interest of reminding everyone what's out there, my colleagues and I here at gantthead have put together a little Scavenger Hunt for fun and prizes!

Take a few minutes to see what you can uncover. We're giving away some cool electronic gadgets and a bunch of free gantthead Premium Plus memberships. Visit the Scavenger Hunt page for complete details.

So poke around, have fun, and maybe you'll win something! Another success for gantthead members...we never stop trying. 

Posted on: November 10, 2010 10:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Movie Violence

We recently published an article by Michael Aucoin that illustrates how character development in (good) movies can teach us something about agile project management. Like the vast majority of articles around here, it's a great read and insightful, and I recommend you all take a few minutes to read that.

But, while you're HERE and while I'm thinking about movies...let me tell you about my PM experience at the movies. This has nothing to do with what's on screen, but rather what happens in the lobby...the concession stand, to be specific. As processes go, this is a place with ample room for improvement, but I'd like your impressions on what exactly is the problem and where does the process break down.

I admit that I am a creature of habit, and I have been brainwashed or marketed into believing myself incapable of watching anything on a screen without consuming at least some kind of snackage. I know it's the equivalent of like 400 Big Macs, but a bag of popcorn is pretty much a requirement of my movie going experience. I am not proud that I am passing this down to my impressionable 8-y.o., but neither am I ashamed. It's a long tradition and I have no intention to change it. So the concession line is not an's an absolute inevitability.

Also inevitable is a 10- to 25-minute wait with a corresponding rise in blood pressure. I am generally an even-tempered kind of person--I drive in rush-hour traffic on the Washington Beltway on a regular basis without leaning on my horn or threatening my fellow commuters--but the concession line pushes me as close to irrational rage and violence toward my fellow human beings as anything else I've experienced. So, what's the problem?

The problem is that the LINE DOESN'T MOVE...ever. Even if there is only one person in front of me, it's always at least a 10-minute process. I tend to blame the other customers, but I'm sure the fault lies elsewhere. There is a menu; customers should be able to choose anything on that menu without causing a delay that makes me want to throw things. So, I can't blame people for ordering whatever they want. That's something that the process should be able to handle.

It could be the lack of employee motivation. They are going to be ringing up popcorn and Icees and nachos for their entire shift, so there's no reason to hurry. My anger means nothing to them...nor does my pleasure. There is no incentive to move people through faster. 

The management isn't really motivated to make it better, either. I'm going to stand in line no matter how long it is. I've already paid for my ticket, so I'm going to see the movie. I'm not going to walk out before I even sit down. And I'm not going to forgo concessions...that's already been established. They are clever enough to make you go through the snack-detectors at the front of the theater, lest you smuggle in your own Junior Mints.

Here are the process improvement ideas that I've come up with (as I seethe and try to focus my thoughts on something constructive). 

1. Limit menu choices, or identify a line or two as "express" lines, for popcorn, candy and drinks. Pizza, nachos, hot dogs, and chateaubriand have a different line.

2. Separate those who are taking orders from those who are filling orders. Essentially, you need runners to collect items and bring them to the counter. The cashier can't be doing everything.

3. Create a self-service cafeteria-style concession stand. Employees stock the serving area, and I can get my own items and pay for them at the register.

4. Bring the concessions to me. Some theaters have mobile carts that they wheel into the auditorium, like the sellers roaming the stands at the ballpark. 

What would you add? Which of these ideas would absolutely NOT work? Are there any other places where inefficient process drives you batty?

Posted on: November 08, 2010 11:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Borderline Crazy

I just got a chance to watch Rory Kennedy's documentary The Fence on HBO. It's about 35 minutes long, and outlines pretty much every element of terrible project management that you can think of. The film is about the fence (or wall or whatever you want to call the structure) along the U.S.-Mexican border, running through California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas...kind of. You see, planning was a bit of a disaster, so the eponymous structure isn't exactly what you would call "continuous". I would describe it more as "sporadic" or "disjointed" or "preposterous".

The materials estimates were soooo close...

Some of the many, many problems not anticipated by the planners of this project include:

Existing natural habitats: The coyotes and roadrunners who chase each other around the desert don't know what side of the border they're on, and they don't care. They just want to get to that food source that is now on the other side of an 8-foot concrete barrier. Oh, and water tends to flow where it wants to as well...until you decide it needs a valid passport.

Nogales, 2008. That's the border fence. 
Water level in U.S. = 6 inches
Water level in Mexico = 20 feet

Where, exactly, is the border?: The Rio Grande is really, really twisty. No one wants to build a fence that snakes along that. Instead, the engineers put up a (much easier) fence in a relatively straight line to the north. Ahhh...wait. Now there's a bunch of land, including what looked like a lovely golf course) that sits somewhere between Mexico and the U.S. border fence. Limbo Pines or something.

People are smarter than your fence: Evidently, people who are desperate for a better life (or a chance to sell drugs north of the border), who have a lot of money invested in getting into the U.S. don't just turn around when they see a fence. They figure it out. So, while it's an inconvenience, it hasn't actually stopped anyone from crossing the border. There are just as many people entering the U.S. illegally from the south as there was before the fence went up.

It's gonna cost HOW much?: 1 mile = $1.9 million. And it doesn't go all the way across. And we still have to maintain it. Because parts of it are really not that strong, and people keep knocking it over when they're illegally crossing the border.

Kennedy makes the whole enterprise seem completely absurd and terribly, terribly executed. Which would be funny if it weren't so tragic.

Honestly, I'd love to hear what you project managers think of this film. Where did it start to go wrong? What was the single worst mistake made in the process? Could anything have been done to fix it? Putting aside the wisdom or efficacy of such a barrier, how would you have planned a project to seal a 2,000-border with a fence?

If you've got 35 minutes and HBO, take a look and tell me what you think. 

Posted on: October 02, 2010 07:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Planning a Zombie Attack

Unless you happen to be keenly interested in Northern Virginia community theater, you are probably unaware that I am a sometimes actress around here. It's fun and keeps me out of trouble. Also, I like applause. A lot. I've done some stage managing as well, which isn't quite as fun, because it's mostly like...well, you know.

This past weekend, I expanded my thespian horizons to the world of film. Specifically independent horror/comedy. I got eaten by zombies. Now, I suppose you all could give me many parallels between zombies and project managers, but that's not where I'm going with this. I was thinking of it more from the producer/director side of things, where planning can make the difference between Oscar bait and B-movie schlock...almost, anyway.

The face of my doom. He gets a lot scarier when he's hungry.

We spent the morning shooting a "beach party" scene, in which one of my fellow actors (and the other zombie meal) was wearing a lovely white cover-up. In the afternoon, we shot the zombie attack scene. As it turns out, zombie attacks can be quite messy, and by the end of the shoot, my unfortunate friend was saturated in a gloppy red mix of detergent, Karo syrup and red paint. That's when I pointed out that we needed to shoot the rest of the beach party the next morning, and--wow, that cover-up was going to be a real continuity problem...

Had the director planned the shooting schedule better, he would have shot ALL of the beach scenes before our wardrobe was ruined by stage blood...or he could have made sure that there was another identical cover-up for the later shoot...or he could have done the beach scene without the get the point. This lack of planning meant that we spent the evening laundering the dickens out of that poor cover-up when we could have been painting the town red...although, to be honest, we had seen more than enough red paint for one day.

Posted on: September 22, 2010 09:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

My Kitchen Project

This isn't about a renovation and contractors who won't show up and insufficient tile resources or anything like that. This is about the very unwanted project that started in my kitchen about a week ago...I don't know what the objectives are, but it seems to be moving quickly and based on the quick and efficient response to change, I'm pretty sure they're using some Agile methodology. 

I'm talking about ants.

The project team gathers for the morning stand-up.

I actually saw something on Animal Planet or Science Channel or something like that (my 8-year-old and I generally agree on that kind of programming) about ants recently. Fascinating how quickly and completely they organize themselves toward a common goal. I swear, I'm hiring army ants the next time I have to move...

The teamwork and efficiency of ants is legendary. I think we played around with "gantthill" as a name for some bustling, organizing center of this site at one point (I have a terrible weakness for puns). What struck me was how easily the little buggers adapted to my attempts to thwart them in their

 mission (whatever it is). Like the stereotypical clueless stakeholder, I threw everything I could think of in their way...

Corn meal was supposed to give them a false sense of accomplishment so they might close the project before it was really complete.

Cinnamon was supposed to discourage them with an environment too unpleasant to continue. 

The poison bait was supposed to bring bad news back to the powers that be, destroying the project by essentially cutting off funding, or at least killing off their myrmecine resources.

As it turns out, those ants were too organized and too dedicated to their task for my feeble attempts. They switched routes, times of day, spot of entry, number of scouts and was inspiring.

Until I blasted them with Raid.

Sometimes even the best managed projects with the most talented, dedicated teams still fail for reasons that are just beyond anyone's control.

Posted on: September 21, 2010 07:41 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)