Voices on Project Management

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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with--or even disagree with--leave a comment.

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Cameron McGaughy
Marian Haus
Lynda Bourne
Lung-Hung Chou
Bernadine Douglas
Kevin Korterud
Conrado Morlan
Peter Tarhanidis
Mario Trentim
Jen Skrabak
David Wakeman
Roberto Toledo
Vivek Prakash
Cyndee Miller
Shobhna Raghupathy
Wanda Curlee
Rex Holmlin
Christian Bisson
Taralyn Frasqueri-Molina
Joanna Newman
Linda Agyapong
Jess Tayel
Ramiro Rodrigues

Recent Posts

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Best Practices for Managing Project Escalations

Questions from Project Management Central - Interviews

The Ying and Yang of Resilience

3 Tips For Simplifying Complexity

Viewing Posts by Lynda Bourne

The Ying and Yang of Resilience

By Lynda Bourne

In the world of materials science, resilience is the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape after it has been deformed by a force or load. Resilient materials absorb the stress by flexing under the load —typically with increasing levels of resistance the further they bend.

Provided the material’s elastic limit is not reached, it will return to its original state once the stress is released. Plastic materials perform similarly under load but retain their new shape after the load is released.  Brittle materials do not deflect under load, they retain their original shape until the load exceeds their load-resisting capacity (strength) and then they break.

Most practical materials used in the modern world combine these attributes in different ways to optimize performance: 

  • Strong materials typically combine aspects of resilience and plasticity.
  • Hard materials combine aspects of resilience and brittleness.
  • Fragile materials are brittle with very little in the way of resilience or strength.

For more than 1,000 years, Japanese swordsmiths have combined resilient steels to provide strength with hard, brittle steels to provide a “cutting edge” in the manufacture of their swords — the Celts, Vikings and Saxons used similar techniques. In the days when having a good sword was literally a matter of life-or-death, the best weapons combined steels with different aspects of resilience, hardness and strength — no single option was “the best.”

Now, however, everyone is talking about “resilience” as being desirable, both as a personal attribute and as an organizational characteristic.

But is this really the best option? 

 

The Case For Resilience

In terms of a personal or organizational characteristic, resilience is the ability to adapt to stressful circumstances or bounce back from adverse events. This is particularly important when dealing with the unknown in risk management. By definition you don’t know these risks exist and therefore cannot put management processes in place to deal with them. 

Only after the risk eventuates can the organization start to adapt to the situation and deal with the issues. Flexibility and strength are essential. Once the risk is controlled, the organization returns to its original “shape” and work can resume as planned.

At the individual level, resilience is defined as the psychological capacity to adapt to stressful circumstances and to bounce back from adverse events. It is a highly sought-after personality trait in the modern workplace. But is too much resilience a bad thing?

 

Too Much Resilience

Too much resilience can easily drift into a stubborn refusal to accept reality. “The Serenity Prayer,” written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, says “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

In many situations, an excess of resilience can be very counterproductive. It can lead to:

  • Being overly persistent with attempts to achieve unattainable goals.
  • Being overly tolerant of adversity and putting up with boring or demoralizing jobs.
  • Reduced leadership effectiveness and, by extension, team and organizational effectiveness.
  • Being focused on the original “goal” at the expense of stakeholder satisfaction.

Persistence and resilience are valuable attributes in the right place at the right time but need to be applied sensibly.

 

The Challenge

As with the manufacturing of swords, resilience, plasticity, hardness and softness are all important characteristics that are needed at different times. However, unlike a sword, people can adapt their behavior to each situation.

At times an agile/adaptive approach is best, bending to the needs of other stakeholders and changing the goals you are working towards. At times a fragile approach is best — break the relationship and walk away from the unnecessary stress (but you do need the internal resilience to accept the break and move on). In other circumstances, resilience and persistence are precisely the right response to adverse circumstances.

The difficulty we all face is knowing which option is best in each situation both as an individual and as a member of an organization or team. Acquiring the practical wisdom to know the difference is never going to be easy. Perhaps one solution can be found in an effective team. Melding people with different characteristics into a strong and effective solution — it worked for the ancient swordsmiths, why not you?

How do you balance resilience and adaptability?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: September 29, 2017 08:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Maximizing the Value of Agile

Categories: Agile

By Lynda Bourne

Everyone wants to “go agile.” But far too many organizations seem to think agile is simply a different way of doing project work that will miraculously achieve major efficiencies. 

For the approach to achieve its promise, the upper echelons of the organization need to become agile aware and adapt the way projects are initiated, funded and governed so that the project team can optimize their use of agile processes to create value. After all, one size does not fit every situation in an agile world.

I’d like to look at the differences in the management approach that are needed to maximize the value of agile in different situations.

One quick note: Different agile methodologies have different terminology and approaches. For this post, agile is defined as producing an output using a series of relatively short, time-boxed iterations, or sprints, where the work to be accomplished in each sprint is sized to be relatively consistent (e.g., can be accomplished by a team in two weeks), and what is to be done in each sprint is determined during the lead-up to that sprint.

There are three environments where the agile approach can add value:

1. Maintenance environments: In these efforts, the application of agile concepts without the need for project management overheads can be very beneficial. Techniques including small focused teams, short sprints, backlog prioritization, and management. Burn down reporting can show how much maintenance work is facing the teams, the team efficiencies, and the overall backlog trend.

Agile does not need to be embedded in a program or project to be effective. In this situation, the finance and resources (i.e., the agile teams) are the fixed constraints; the organization’s budgeting procedure funds a predetermined level of staffing on an annual basis. The management variable is the amount of work accomplished each month and deals with new and emerging maintenance issues and minor enhancements in a timely manner based on some effective form of prioritization.

2. Contractual or legal obligations: In projects like these, the scope of work is fixed (or at least subject to formal change control) and the management variables are efficiency and cost consequences. In this environment, with adaptation, a whole range of standard project management processes such as earned value can be applied to the oversight of project work and used for management reporting and project control. The agile teams still function in the traditional agile way, sizing the amount of work included in each sprint, producing usable outputs in short intervals and progressively building toward the completed project. The management challenge is achieving the specified scope within the approved time and cost parameters.

3. Projects that lack a defined scope: In these projects, the client often has a vision of what the outcome should achieve, frequently framed in terms of business improvements. In this situation, the project is on a journey to optimize the delivery of as much of the vision as is sensible. The management variables for this type of project include scope, cost and time.

Decisions will have to be made about which parameters are more important—either as an overall consideration or on an element-by-element view of the various components within the project.

a. In some projects, time to market is a key factor, possibly with scope as the second most important factor. And, to a large extent, how much it costs to achieve the necessary scope within the deadline will be a consequence rather than the control. The primary management challenge is delivering the scope required to implement the vision within the time constraint as efficiently as possible.

b. Other projects have the quality of the vision as their primary drive, and the management challenge is to achieve all of the vision for the optimum time and cost outcomes. Decisions on how much and how long can vary depending on progress toward achieving the vision. Obviously, there must be some cost and time constraints. And a key conversation with the client has to be around the value proposition of still achieving their vision based on cost information to date, with the possibility of adapting the vision based on learned experience as the project proceeds.

c. Lastly, in some projects where the available funds are limited, the challenge for management is to achieve as much of the vision as possible within the defined funding limit, frequently with time as an additional limitation imposed by the funding cycle or the market. To maximize value, the client needs to be fully engaged in the decision-making process around scope inclusions, deferrals, and exclusions.

Once you understand the agile framework you’re operating within, the real challenge is making sure your clients and other senior stakeholders also understand that an agile approach to project delivery requires very different governance and decision-making processes. Organizational agility starts at the top by setting the right challenges for the agile teams within the right funding model. The next step is to use appropriate assurance functions to make sure agile teams are delivering what’s needed to create value—old-fashioned budgeting processes are unlikely to be appropriate.

How do you go about engaging your senior stakeholders in this type of conversation?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: August 24, 2017 07:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (28)

Understanding Expert Judgment

Categories: Leadership

By Lynda Bourne

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) uses the concept of “expert judgment” in most of its processes, but only has a relatively brief description of the concept. It describes expert judgment as “judgment based on expertise appropriate for the activity being performed and advises, “such expertise may be provided by any group or person with specialized education, knowledge, skills, experience or training.”

This description leaves three questions:

  • What is expertise and how did you define it?
  • What is the judgment process needed to apply the expertise?
  • Where do you find the necessary expertise to assist you in making a wise judgment?

Obtaining the expertise necessary to arrive at a wise judgment is not the exclusive responsibility of the project manager—you do not have to be the expert! However, the project manager is undoubtedly responsible for the consequences of any judgments that are made.

Instead, project managers should focus on knowing how to obtain the necessary expert advice and how to use that advice to arrive at the best project decision.

 

Finding an Expert

The first challenge in applying expert judgment is identifying the right people with the right expertise to provide advice.

By definition, an expert is a person whose opinion—by virtue of education, training, certification, skills or experience—is recognized as holding authoritative knowledge. But this definition is subjective and different experts will frequently have very different opinions around the same question or set of facts.

Also, as the Dunning-Kruger effect explains, people with limited knowledge are often absolutely certain about the facts.

Experts, however, being more cognizant of what they don’t know and having the knowledge to appreciate the complexity and depth of a problem, will frequently only provide a probabilistic answer, such as, “I would suggest this option, but….”

The decision-maker must ensure that the information brought into the judgment process is the best information—not the information that is advocated most loudly. 

The organization needs to make information available to its managers about the sources and types of expertise available, and the location of useful experts. This information needs to be updated on a regular basis and be accessible.

 

Wise Judgments

In the context of expert judgment, judgment is an action verb—it is the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions based on information and knowledge derived from the application of expertise. Consequently, while the project manager can, and frequently should, seek expert advice to help inform his or her judgment, ultimately the considered decision that comes out of the judgment process is the responsibility of the project manager.

The defining competence of every good manager, project managers included, is their ability to make effective and timely decisions. The challenge is balancing the decision’s importance, the timeframe in which the decision is required, the cost (including opportunity costs) accrued in reaching the decision and the availability of the resources used in the decision-making process.  

The key elements of effective judgment are:

  • Obtaining the best information available in the allotted time (you’ll never have all the desired information).
  • Balancing and weighing information within an appropriate decision-making framework.
  • Making the decision in the timeframe necessary.

The judgment portion of expert judgment is part of the individual manager’s skill set. Their innate abilities should be supported with training and a culture that rewards a proactive approach to deciding.

 

Making an Expert Judgment

Bringing expertise and decision-making skills together to form an expert judgment works best in a structured process. PMI’s publication, Expert Judgment in Project Management: Narrowing the Theory-Practice Gap, outlines the framework:

  1. Frame the problem.
  2. Plan the elicitation of expert opinions.
  3. Select the appropriate experts.
  4. Brief/train the experts so they can contribute effectively.
  5. Elicit their opinions/judgments.
  6. Analyze and combine the information to create your expert judgment.
  7. Document and communicate the results.

When significant decisions are needed on a regular basis within the organization, standard operating processes should be defined to reinforce the practice of obtaining an expert judgment using the organizations knowledge resources.

How do you go about making expert judgments?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: July 30, 2017 09:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (26)

The Problem With Paradox

Categories: Decision Making

by Lynda Bourne

The dictionary defines a paradox as a statement or group of statements that, despite sound reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems to defy logic or intuition. An example of a paradox is: “This statement is false”—if it is, it is not; and if it isn’t, it is.  

A well-known project management example is Cobb’s Paradox: “We know why projects fail; we know how to prevent their failure—so why do they still fail?” The apparently true statement is that we know how to prevent project failure, but do we really know how to make projects successful?  And if we do, the illogical element is, why do we let them fail?

This concept extends into the realm of project management. Virtually every management system generates a range of contradictions that can be removed by better design. It also creates a series of paradoxes that can’t be removed because both factors that create the paradox are important, but at the same time contradict each other.

This type of management paradox is defined as “a persistent contradiction between interdependent elements that resist a simple binary choice between the elements.”

Some of the more common paradoxes found in most organizations include:

  • The need to manage the tension between consistency (following the rules) versus flexibility (creativity to enhance outcomes)
  • The need to mitigate risk to provide certainty versus the need to take risks to seize opportunities
  • The need for planning and control versus the need for agility to respond to issues
  • The need for standard operating procedures to maximize quality versus the need for continuous improvement to enhance quality

The persistent nature of every paradox means the decision maker has to get used to living with contradictions. Dealing with the paradox requires intuitive judgment to decide on the best balance to strike between the competing elements in the current situation.

Group decision making, diversity, and consensus can help achieve the best judgment call. But there will always be viable alternatives—and any change in the situation will usually require the judgment to be adjusted. The problem with any intuitive judgment is that different people will arrive at different conclusions because they apply a different frame of reference to the problem.

The final element that makes paradox hard to live with is hindsight.  Regardless of the decision made, balancing the competing elements in a paradox involves a compromise and different people will have differing opinions of the optimum balance point.

When circumstances at a later date show there was a better balance point, criticizing the original decision (and the decision maker) is very easy. The 20/20 vision afforded by hindsight rarely matches the uncertain fog that surrounded the possible futures confronting the decision maker. 

Math does not help either; binary decisions have a 50/50 chance of being correct and these odds can be improved by the application of good decision-making processes. A paradox presents a continuum of choice. That means there is an almost unlimited array of possible options and the one chosen is highly unlikely to be the best in hindsight—the best outcome one can hope for is one that is reasonably close to the optimum.

This type of decision presents a real challenge to trained engineers and technical managers who expect to find the right solution for every problem.

Generally, at the technical level, there are correct solutions. But, if not, in most cases you know a decision is needed and can choose the lesser of two evils.

Good managers decide—lucky ones get it right (and you can usually correct wrong decisions).

The further up the organizational ladder you move, the more you will be exposed to paradox. Every decision you make to balance the competing elements in a paradox will be open to criticism.

It’s a tough place to be. How would you deal with a paradox in your environment?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: June 26, 2017 09:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Strategy In a VUCA World—Part 2

Categories: Strategy

By Lynda Bourne

In part one of this post, I introduced the management concept VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Managing VUCA effectively at the project level should not be underestimated: The agility and decision-making needed to respond to VUCA will inevitably have effects on the outcomes of projects and programs and, consequently, the direction of the organization.

Naturally, there will be a difference between planned and implemented strategy. One approach is to see this gap as “strategic non-alignment” and assume it’s bad. The alternative is to see the gap as strategy that emerges from the work of the organization and changes in the environment, then actively manage its effect to capture as much value as possible.

This idea is not new. It’s been nearly 40 years since the concept of emergent strategy was developed by academic and management author Henry Mintzberg. This concept seeks to create a framework that can identify and act on emerging strategies, resulting in a more incremental approach to strategy formulation. Developing strategy from the bottom up may be a novel concept for many organizations but academic studies suggest this is an important value-adding process. 

Projects and programs are a rich source of VUCA, and almost everyone says successful project management offices (PMOs) and portfolio managers should have a strategic focus. Given that, I suggest it’s time to start conversations with your executive management about identifying and managing the emergent strategies that are appearing in your organization as a consequence of projects and programs responding to VUCA. This will maximize the value created and influence the next iteration of formal strategic planning.  

In their 1985 paper Of Strategies, Deliberate and Emergent, Mintzberg and fellow academic and author, James A. Walters, concluded by suggesting “strategy formation walks on two feet, one deliberate the other emergent.”

The challenge for PMOs and portfolio management professionals is to engage with the gap between implementing strategy and adapting strategy. They also have to engage with the challenges that arise from allowing sufficient agility and flexibility to maximize value in a VUCA environment without sinking into undirected chaos. 

By adapting these elements to the strategic levels of the organization, you may be able to reduce the potential chaos of VUCA within a project or program:

  1. Use a staged, adaptive approach to planning. We really don't know that much about the far future.
  2. Be agile. Act quickly to manage emerging issues and problems—things will not get better on their own.
  3. Be adaptive and flexible. When you need a new plan to achieve the project’s objectives, be prepared to make the changes.
  4. Expect the unexpected. Things happen—watch for approaching Black Swans.
  5. Use emergence to your advantage. Seize the opportunities you did not expect.

How do you reduce the potential chaos of VUCA?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: May 18, 2017 09:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (18)
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