By Lynda Bourne
Have you ever experienced technical debt on a project? As the debt builds up, everything looks good from the outside. However, when the crunch comes and that debt has to be repaid, a major reversal in fortune can occur.
Technical debt refers to the costs of having to go back and resolve problems that arise because an earlier decision was made to take the easy route, instead of the best one. By taking the easy option, the team incurs a debt to the project that will have to be repaid later. While the concept comes from software development, this insidious effect can be seen across industries.
The Crossrail project in London offers a current, extreme example. In July 2018, it was reported that on-time and on-budget completion of the £14.8 billon rail project would occur in December 2018. By August 2018, completion had slipped by a year. Currently, the delay extends to the end of 2020, with a cost overrun of 20 percent.
What’s the main driver of this delay and associated costs?
It appears to be decisions made to ignore problems in the signaling system development. According to Construction Manager magazine, while giving evidence to a government inquiry, Crossrail’s new chief executive Simon Wright said, “We were testing on incomplete systems. Productivity was under stress, but we fought hard to maintain the schedule and thought all along that we could find a solution to bring it back, just like we have done on countless other problems that occurred during the construction program.”
This is a classic example of management decisions building up a technical debt.
In 2015, The Independent newspaper reported that rail experts and engineers were having difficulty creating interfaces for the signaling systems. At the same inquiry, Crossrail’s new chairman Terry Morgan said “problems that emerged were mostly due to difficulties with developing software to allow Crossrail trains to travel safely at speed through three separate signalling systems,” according to Construction Manager magazine. The problem was identified in 2015 and hadn’t been resolved by 2019, despite time and money wasted testing incomplete systems. In fact, the irrelevant testing probably added to the delay and costs by distracting people from the real challenge.
Fixing the problem properly the first time would surely have caused a delay and cost blowout between 2016 and 2018. But in all likelihood, the costs would have been lower, the delay would have been shorter, and the current furor surrounding the project would have been minimized.
The problem with technical debt is that often, the people who need to know about a problem aren’t informed. We will never know what the chair and CEO of Crossrail (both sacked) really knew in the 2016 to 2018 period, or what their senior managers knew about the build-up of the technical debt in the Crossrail signalling systems. But the problem could have been avoided, or at least minimized, if the technical debt had been acknowledged. If people are unaware of technical debt, then they’ll be more likely to identify paths that will result in it being created.
To avoid this lack of insight, everyone in the project group, especially team members, must be in a position to offer insight into technical debt.
The project manager can then choose to act, or not. Aware teams bring up the subject of technical debt in planning meetings, and they keep focused on it. Aware managers pose questions such as, “If this proposed shortcut is the right choice, what is there to gain, and what are the challenges and future implications?”
As with financial debt, there are times when going into debt can be beneficial, but only if you can pay back the accrued debt and interest at the right time.
How much technical debt is your project running? Please share your experiences below.
Business Transformation in Disguise
By Jess Tayel
In the quest to uplift capabilities, better serve customers, improve the bottom line or acquire market share, organizations rely on a mix of projects and programs.
Some projects are scored as critical and complex. Some organizations have a clear and defined scoring system of what is critical and what is not, while others settle for a subjective measure.
But even after you’ve determined a project is critical, there’s more to consider.
Is it Change or Transformation?
When it comes to big, critical projects, ask yourself: Are you delivering a change initiative or a business transformation initiative?
Why is this distinction important? Because they both have different characteristics that dictate how they should be brought to life.
Change initiatives execute a defined set of projects or initiatives that may or may not impact how things work across the entire organization. Examples include introducing a new payroll system, moving into a centralized shared services model or executing an office move.
Business transformation, however, is a portfolio of initiatives that have a high level of interdependencies, leading to change across the organization. They’re focused not just on execution but also on reinventing and discovering a new or a revised business model. That model is based on a significant business outcome that will determine the future of the organization.
With that in mind, business transformation is more unpredictable and iterative, and it’s about a substantial change in mindset and ways of doing business. The “how” may not be as defined as it is in change initiatives, which means you need to try different methods and be more experimental.
Set Your Organization up for Success
Because of these distinctions, business transformation should never start with finding a solution, i.e., bring in this technology, hire this firm, change model X to Y. It should instead focus on the following:
You may say that these questions can be part of the initiation phase. But in my 20 years of experience around the globe, I have rarely seen the above steps executed diligently from a customer centricity point of view before teams start to dig for a solution.
That said, time spent clearly articulating those elements is well spent and directly contributes to the success of the transformation, while reducing rework and change fatigue. It’s like spending time to sharpen your saw before starting to cut the tree.
In my next post, I will talk more about what is required from the leadership and internal transformation teams to facilitate and create success.
Feel free to comment below and send feedback; I would love to hear about your experiences with business transformation
There are fundamentally two types of organizations: functional and projectized. Of course, between those there are various combinations of functional and projectized in the form of matrix and hybrid.
Every organization type has its own advantages and disadvantages, but from the project point of view, functional organizations are most challenging, due to their focus on individual functional work.
A typical functional organization has departments like R&D, operations, procurement, human resources, quality assurance and—on occasion—project management. Each department focuses on its own area.
The challenge is, projects are often multifunctional, crossing various functions and requiring contributions from all departments. In a typical functional organization, there is no one who looks after projects end to end and connects all the dots. A project manager has little authority over the resources of other departments. All told, this results in several challenges:
Despite all these challenges, a project manager still has the responsibility to make the project successful. How can they do this?
Let’s discuss some tools and techniques that a project manager can use:
Until you get to know the stakeholders and analyze their engagement, a project cannot be successful. The communication strategy is key to bind stakeholders, and any communication strategy without proper stakeholder analysis will be ineffective. Moreover, it will lead to chaos.
A project launch, the kickoff meeting is an important event and may decide its fate. It helps in onboarding functional managers, securing their buy-in and building trust. Take time to ask each functional manager what they want from the project in order to support it.
The project will become a struggle if trust is not built among stakeholders, especially in a functional organization. The kickoff is the starting point. Project managers need to build transparency and create opportunities for networking and exchanging ideas. Keep functional managers informed about project progress and seek their help when required. In turn, offer help when they need it. A helping mind set could be key to build trust.
In a functional organization there is a fair possibility that people on the project work in silos. Therefore it is important for the project manager to create networking opportunities for greater interaction among contributors and supporters. Informal networking events could be more effective.
Due to the different goals of independent functions, varied personalities and the loosely coupled structure of functional organizations, different functional managers may have opinions that differ from the project manager’s. To get a functional manager’s buy-in, conflict management skills are essential. Please refer my post The Techniques That Don't Resolve Conflict. A project manager has to find a solution where both the functional manager and project manager feel they’re winning and achieving their goals.
Communication is an underlying skill required to apply all the tools we’ve discussed so far. A project manager has to focus on two aspects: establishing an information system and ensuring effective interaction with team members and stakeholders. A project management information system keeps stakeholders informed and fosters collaboration. Effective interaction requires active listening skills. Here, refer to my posts Listen Up and 8 Steps for Better Listening. Listening skills help you understand others better, do stakeholder analysis, make up your mind and thereby communicate effectively.
I’d love to hear from you: How do you drive your projects to success in a functional organization? I look forward to reading your thoughts.
by Dave Wakeman
I’ve been doing some reading on leadership. I don’t know exactly what brought the topic to mind, but I think it’s a combination of coaching my 9-year-old son’s soccer team and seeing institutions struggle to get people to take responsibility for their actions.
As project managers, you are leaders in your organization and your team. That’s why I wanted to highlight a few leadership lessons I learned coaching a bunch of 9-year-olds—lessons you can apply to your teams.
Simplify Your Message
When we were coaching our soccer team, the other parent coaching with me came up with the 3 Ps that symbolized what we wanted our kids to learn over the course of the season.
Those Ps were:
Each P represents a principle we wanted to teach the kids about life and soccer. Passing was about being a good teammate and recognizing that you have to work together.
Possession was about paying attention to what is going on around you and making the proper decision.
Pressure was about taking action and initiative.
You can see how much these things apply in life. What would happen if you broke your own message down into a simple format? Maybe even 3 Ps for your project?
In a lot of businesses and teams, people love responsibility but never want to make decisions. In coaching youth soccer, you learn pretty quickly that if you don’t have a plan and you don’t act with intention, the kids will run all over you. I think the same happens in projects without strong leadership.
If you aren’t acting quickly and decisively, your team can start taking actions that are inconsistent with your goals and ambitions. But how do you act decisively, especially when you are operating in situations with little clarity?
Four steps stand out to me:
Recognize the Buck Stops With You
The most important thing in coaching and project management is that you have to be responsible—win or lose, succeed or fail. You have to take ownership of the outcomes you produce, no matter what.
Why is this so important? Because when a team doesn’t have a strong talisman to identify with and look to for support, it can create a situation where the team underperforms, has a lot of disagreements and doesn’t meet its goals.
The best way to accomplish this is to be decisive, as mentioned earlier, be clear in your communications, and be consistent in your demands and expectations.
If you do all of that, you will hopefully find that you are not just a project manager, but a project leader.
Have you found a way to distill your leadership strategy into a simple message for your project teams? Please comment below.
By Ramiro Rodrigues
Recently, an acquaintance pointed out to me that the projects environment is susceptible to chaos. In his view, all it takes is a lack of effective leadership. If leaders aren’t constantly focused on solving the problems that occur in an environment of resistance and change, chaos will take place. After 20 years of professional work on corporate projects, I couldn’t disagree.
Obviously, the forces that pave the path to chaos in projects are not exact, but rather derived from human factors. Without adequate leadership, distinct interests, personalities and priorities will drive any corporate enterprise to disorder and, consequently, failure.
But if chaos has already taken hold, is there a way to reverse it?
In order to determine an effective solution, you’ll need to research and analyze the environment. Here, I present a practical and relevant framework for projects in this situation:
Step 1: Investigate carefully and critically all the variables that are exerting power in the project. These could include the political context, governance, financial and operational applications, organizational models, skills and the human characteristics of those involved.
Step 2: Based on these investigations, develop a list of items that are bringing negative interferences to the success of the project and seek to prioritize them with the support of the project sponsor. Consider all the layers of issues that are creating turmoil on the project.
Step 3: With the list in your hands, develop a proposal of actions aimed at the effective recovery of the items. The tip here is that one should be attentive so that the proposed actions to recover the specific items do not divert at any time from the ultimate goals of the project.
Step 4: Validate whether the project sponsor is truly engaged and committed to making the proposed recovery plan viable. Without their engagement, the effort will be worthless.
Step 5: Execute the recovery plan as a parallel project, albeit one related to the original project. In this stage, it is important to implement best practices of project management, such as status meetings with the analysis of obtained results and clear communication with those involved.
It’s obvious this process will require more effort from the leadership, but if the sponsoring organization is committed and interested in project recovery, the investment is justified. And in this context, the project manager will have a great opportunity to demonstrate his or her resilience and ability to overcome challenges.
Have you turned around a project in chaos? Share your experiences below.