Viewing Posts by Kevin Korterud
As a project manager, there’s perhaps nothing better than starting a new project. With it comes a fresh start and the promise of a successful conclusion. To me, it’s akin to starting a new year in school with new notebooks, where nothing has been written to spoil the fresh sheets of paper.
However, as we become more experienced as project managers, we’re called on more and more to assume control of a project already in motion. This might be triggered by a happy event, such as a promotion for the existing project manager, or a less-than-happy situation, such as a lack of progress on the project.
Assuming responsibility for a project that has already launched is a lot different than starting from the beginning. You won’t have the benefit of starting with a clean sheet of paper, and there will be things you need to do—and undo.
Here are three tips I always follow when assuming control of an existing project:
1. Assume Nothing
When starting a new project, you have the opportunity to perform mobilization and initiation activities to effectively set the project on a path to success. In addition, there are some early checkpoints where you can perform structured control actions to further assure the proper trajectory of the project.
While the existing project status reports can show the assumed disposition of a project, they may not reveal essential missing activities needed for project success. For example, an existing project might not have had the benefit of a thorough mobilization and initiation effort to properly set its course. In addition, there may be hidden or under-mitigated risks, emerging issues, stakeholder challenges and hidden dependencies that have not yet come to light.
When taking over an existing project, the first thing I do is review it in the same way I would a new project. Introducing a pause in project activities to perform a “soft reset” allows both confirmation of assumptions and validation of project progress.
In addition, this activity can reveal unseen factors that put the current project position in doubt. This is a good time to reforecast the remaining work. By assuming nothing about the project, the “soft reset” serves as a basis to properly transition the project towards success.
2. Match the Team to the Realistic Remaining Work
One of the most important facets of a soft reset is reforecasting the amount of remaining work. Use the existing forecast as a foundation for considering other factors that may influence the future progress of the project. These may include effort, scheduling conflicts (e.g., year-end holidays), upcoming business process changes and technology-readiness dependencies.
From the reforecast, compare these factors against the capacity and capabilities of the existing project team. Review whether you have the requisite skills and team members available for each phase of the project. In addition, consider the availability of key resources who cannot be readily substituted in case they are not able to work on the project. This examination of project resources by phase should include not only individual team members, but also team leads and third-party suppliers.
3. Engage More Frequently With the Most Accountable Stakeholder
While there are many inorganic components of a project, such as deliverables and status reports, often the most critical components revolve around the organic nature of people. Having strong executive sponsorship, a structured governance engagement model and open communication all enable project success.
When you are introduced as the new project manager on an existing effort, some change management work will need to be done to ensure a smooth transition.
Given the myriad stakeholders involved in a project, who should you start with? The typical consideration is to start with the most senior leadership stakeholder, who is typically also the project sponsor.
I think, however, a better place to start is with the most accountable stakeholder. This would be the person who after the project is implemented would manage the new solution to achieve the project objectives. In addition, this person would likely have the greatest knowledge of requirements and implementation considerations, which would be valuable to your soft reset.
Set Your Team Up for Success
Assuming control of an existing project should have that same level of attention to detail and precision. Now that you are leading this existing project, be sure to consider the factors shared above that confidently allow you to say, “I have the controls.”
When assuming existing projects, what sort of activities do you perform as part of a transition? I’d welcome other thoughts to help make us all better project managers.
A great emphasis is often placed on the selection of a project manager. Much has been written about the need for training, credentials, experience and ability to engage with stakeholders as the keys to a successful project.
But, I have not seen a similar level of attention paid to the selection of project team members. In fact, I believe many project stakeholders think there are only two roles on a project: project manager and everyone else. It’s often thought that project managers can surmount every difficulty a project may encounter—and that other team members are less of a consideration.
In reality, the selection of team members is as important as the selection of a project manager.
Here are some techniques I use to make good choices as I put together a project team:
Every project has a dynamic driven by the urgency of completion. This dynamic varies by the rigidity of the finish date, required project duration and the number of outside dependencies. Examples of projects with high levels of urgency include regulatory compliance, merger and acquisition and internal corporate mandate projects. Projects with lower completion urgency tend to be longer in duration, but also often are quite complex in nature—think transformations, large system integrations, etc.
The dynamics around urgency of completion help shape the selection criteria for project team members. For higher urgency completion projects, I tend to go with people who exhibit high creativity and the ability to deal with high uncertainty. For lower urgency completion projects, I typically select people who are more measured in their actions and show consistent execution over long periods of time.
I also try to select one person for the team who has the opposite social style as others to serve as a counterpoint, which can be very healthy for a project. This ensures that a balanced perspective is being employed by the project team to resolve issues.
2. Look for Learning Experiences
When selecting team members, I ask them to share the greatest learning experiences they’ve had on past projects. These learning experiences can take the form of working on troubled projects, handling issues with project team members or managing adversity in their personal lives.
These learning experiences build confidence and character that is desired not only for the person being selected for the project, but also for mutual growth with other people on the project. Effective project resources tend to exhibit strong performance in the face of adversity. Project team members with these skills are essential to building a strong, synergistic project team.
A lack of learning experiences tends to indicate a more narrow range of capabilities, which would not contribute to building a strong project team.
Project managers are often pulled in many different directions, which can slow a project’s progress.
To remedy this situation, make one of your team members your second-in-command on the project. They can backfill in times of high engagement to help resolve issues and keep the project team going.
The other benefit to having a second-in-command is the valuable development opportunities the role provides. He or she gets to experience active project management while having the safety of the project manager for guidance. I have found over the years that people who perform well in second-in-command roles perform extremely well when they become full-fledged project managers.
I once had a senior project manager tell me, “Your team is only as strong as your weakest link.” Picking the right team is as important as selecting the project to manage. A rush to staff team members quite often leads to a re-staffing exercise that consumes precious time and energy, not to mention being disruptive to the team. Considerable care and patience are required to build an effective project team.
What good and bad choices have you made when selecting team members for a project? I’d like to hear about them.
by Kevin Korterud
I always enjoy hearing about the early careers of the project managers I meet. In almost every conversation, the subject turns to when they were team members being led by a highly capable senior project manager who provided guidance in starting up, executing and sometimes turning around projects.
It’s also not uncommon to hear stories of the worst project manager they ever worked for. These stories, while not as glowing, also influenced their careers around what not to do. By probing a bit deeper, they offered up observations of certain behaviors that created havoc, dissatisfaction and quite often failed projects.
From these observations of the worst-ever project manager, I started to put together my own thoughts on who I would select for this inglorious label. After careful consideration, I arrived at the only logical choice: me. In my early years as a project manager I managed to consistently demonstrate all of the behaviors of poor project managers.
Here are my votes for the most significant behaviors that led to consistently poor performance as a project manager early in my career:
When I was a project team member I relished the thought of one day having a business card with an impressive title of project manager. My thought being once I received that lofty title, it would allow me to be successful at whatever project I was assigned to lead. In addition, the acquisition of that title would instantly garner respect from other project managers.
I failed to realize that most project managers are already quite proficient at leading teams and producing results. The title comes with a heavy burden of responsibility that was exponentially greater than what I had as a project team member. As a team member, I didn’t realize how much my project manager shielded me from the sometimes unpleasant realities of projects.
The satisfaction of acquiring the title of project manager can be very short-lived if you’re not adequately prepared. My goal became to perform at the level at or above what the title that project manager reflected.
2. I Talked Too Much
Perhaps I was wrongly influenced by theater or movies where great leaders are often portrayed in time of need as delivering impressive speeches that motivate people to outstanding results. I remember quite clearly some of the meetings I led as a new project manager that quite honestly should have won me an award for impersonating a project manager.
Meetings were dominated by my overconfident and ill-formed views on what was going right and wrong. In addition, I also had the false notion that I had the best approach to all of the risks and issues on the project. No surprise that this mode of interaction greatly limited the size of projects I could effectively lead. Essentially, it was a project team of one.
After a while, I started to observe that senior project managers spent a fair portion of the time in their meetings practicing active listening. In addition, they would pause, ponder the dialogue and pose simple but effective probing questions. When I started to emulate some of these practices, it resulted in better performance that created opportunities to lead larger projects. “Less is more” became a theme that allowed me to understand the true problems and work with the team to arrive at effective mitigations.
One of the most critical components of any project is the people that comprise the team members and stakeholders. As a new project manager, I tended to over-engage with stakeholders and team members by attempting to instantly resolve every issue, whether real or perceived. My logic was that if I removed any opportunity for dissatisfaction then project success would be assured.
I failed to realize this desire to completely please everyone quite often resulted in pleasing nobody. In addition, I also managed to pay insufficient attention to the key operational facets of a project: estimates, forecasts, metrics and other essentials needed to keep a project on track. Furthermore, the business case for the project gathered almost no consideration as I was busy trying to make everyone happy as a path to results.
Over time I began to adopt a more balanced approach that allowed me to spend the proper level of engagement with people, processes and the project business case. This balanced approach allowed me to have a broader span of control for factors that could adversely affect a project.
For all the things we have learned over the years as project managers, it sometimes causes me to wish for a time machine to go back and avoid all of the mistakes we made. But then, we would not have had the benefit of the sometimes-traumatic learning experiences that have made us the project managers that we are today.
Did you ever consider yourself to be the worst project manager you ever worked for? I think we all were at one point in our careers.
by Kevin Korterud
The technology found in today’s automobiles is simply amazing. Front and side traffic radar units, anti-dozing head movement detectors, driving timers that alert drivers when they should stop for a break — all good examples of accident prevention mechanisms.
Projects to some degree are like automobiles: They are on a journey to deliver passengers (the project team and stakeholders) to a pre-determined destination. However, despite the introduction of many modern project management technologies, research shows that we continue to experience project accidents. These accidents result in extensive and costly rework to get a project back on track.
I think part of the solution to avoid these potential problems is to borrow from recent automobile technologies as a way to detect troublesome signals. These signals are not readily perceivable from traditional project management methods.
Here are a few examples of anticipatory signals that portend the onset of a skid that often leads to a project accident.
A core competency of a project manager is to determine the schedule, budget and progress trajectory of a project. The project forecast is essential to determine where the project will finish for these measurements. Schedule, budget and progress forecasts from team members that exhibit great degrees of change over prior reporting periods are indicative of trending to an accident. This downward spiral is exacerbated when the forecast measurements come with great uncertainty; e.g., “I don’t know what this will take to finish.”
Several techniques can be employed to reduce the volatility of forecasting. Some of these techniques include initiating a peer review of the forecast with another project manager or supplier subject matter expert, as well as pausing the project to recalibrate the forecast in a dedicated working session. Taking time to implement these and other techniques to mitigate forecast volatility will get the project back on track before an accident.
2. Static Project Status
Project status reports can offer a tremendous amount of value to a project manager. They accumulate both qualitative and quantitative data that sheds light on the current project state. But, despite the visibility status reports provide, they’re just a snapshot. That limits their ability to show progress trends. In addition, a project status report that does not show content changes week over week indicates that the project is likely stalled and headed toward an accident.
To increase the anticipatory value of a project status report, introduce trending and predictive data for risks, issues, deliverables and milestones. This allows the project team to determine what level of progress has been achieved, as well as what progress to expect. It also better positions the project manager to escalate mitigations to avoid an impending project accident.
At the beginning of a project, stakeholder engagement and enthusiasm is typically high. This is not unlike the start of a road trip. But, as time passes on a project, the level of enthusiasm and engagement can begin to wane. Stakeholder engagement over time will face tough tests from project risks to resource challenges to dependency conflicts. Each can sap the energy levels of stakeholders. This leads to passive engagement at best and complete disengagement and absenteeism at worst.
To keep stakeholder engagement at the proper level, stakeholders need to be treated like any other resource on a project. Their time needs to be managed in work plans to avoid oversubscribing their capacity. In addition, their work should be focused on higher value activities that promote project progress. Providing the team access to project support staff to maximize productivity also helps further stakeholder engagement and leads to persistent engagement.
Perhaps one day in the future there will be technology solutions that provide anticipatory signals for projects headed for an accident. Until that day comes, however, project managers still need to think organically and look for hidden signals of dangers to project budgets, schedules and progress.
What do you see as the leading indicators that a project is trending toward disaster?
Award-Winning Metrics For 2018
by Kevin Korterud
What are the best metrics for determining if a project is about to experience schedule, budget or quality slippages? These metrics are best categorized as delivery volatility metrics.
Executives already know when a project is in trouble — they are more concerned with those projects whose trajectory is on a currently unseen course to trouble.
PMI offers guidance on project metrics to help detect delivery volatility, such as the Cost Performance Indicator and Earned Value Management. While project reporting will likely have one or more of these metrics, I got to thinking what other metrics would indicate the potential of delivery volatility.
An additional complication is the various approaches used today, including agile, waterfall, company custom, software product, service supplier and regulatory. These can all generate their own set of metrics.
While pondering this question watching TV one evening, I noticed a multitude of movie, theater, television and music award shows that tend to occur this time of year. A characteristic of these shows is the numerous categories that are awarded to nominees — Best Supporting Actress, Best New Pop Group, Best Special Effects and so on.
As I was organizing my thoughts around metrics, I figured: Why not use award show categories to help shape an answer on which metrics would best suit early detection of delivery volatility?
As the Master Of Ceremonies for the 2018 Project Metrics Award show, here are a few of the winners:
As our projects become more complex and more numerous, the ability to deliver on a set schedule becomes more important. The SPI has the great benefit of comparing actual and planned progress in an objective manner: earned value/planned value.
The true power of SPI comes into play when selecting a method for earned value accumulation. Assuming work plans are at a level of granularity where task progress can be measured within a two to four week window, a conservative earned value scheme such as 0%/100%, 25%/75% based on task start and completion is a very objective means of calculating progress.
With these conservative schemes, you capture value when the tasks have started (when resources are truly free to work on tasks) and whether the task has been completed (usually with acceptance of completion by a project manager or stakeholder).
Given today’s tight delivery timeframes, as well as the need to coordinate delivery with other projects, SPI is a good indicator as to the schedule fitness of a project.
2. Best Supporting Emerging Metric: Functional Progress Metrics!
As I shared above, there are now a multitude of methods available to run projects. From these methods, all sorts of new metrics are available to project managers to identify delivery volatility. These metrics can include completed user stories, forecast backlog, project burndown, build objects, test case performance and many others.
In addition to these new metrics, a whole host of new waterfall, agile and other tools have come into play that capture functional progress outside of the traditional work plan tasks and milestones. In fact, work plan detail requirements can be relaxed when these tools are used to shed light on the functional progress of a project.
The power of these functional metrics is that they allow the next level of inspection underlying project phases, tasks and milestones to see delivery trajectory. For example, being able to see the detailed completion progress of requirements, build objects and test cases in automated tools allows project managers to catch underlying barriers to progress before it is revealed in a work plan.
As project managers, the universal outcome for our efforts is that we need to create value for our project executives and stakeholders. While activities can lead to creating value, our mission revolves around the production of deliverables in a timely manner to fulfill a project value proposition.
The inherent power in providing and approving deliverables in a timely manner is that they are completely objective means of progress. No matter what method, effort, dependencies, resources, tools or other constructs of project management are employed, deliverables are an indicator of whether you are making progress. The track of deliverables being created, reviewed and approved on schedule means you are making definitive progress toward value.
Creating a track of deliverables and their targeted completion dates with progress that can be monitored through other metrics allows a universally understood path to project completion. For example, if a deliverable has not yet been approved by stakeholders, you are making visible a potential schedule delay that would impair future work activities.
To host your own 2018 project metrics award show, one does not need a spotlight or trophies. You just need to think about what metrics can serve to detect early signs of delivery volatility beyond the self-declared green/yellow/red stoplights that are typically found in project status reports.
If you were handing out your very own 2018 project metrics awards, what categories would you select? What would win?