Viewing Posts by Kevin Korterud
By Kevin Korterud
It’s quite possible that, if asked to remember every project I led over the years, I would be hard-pressed to do so. Our typical project management journey takes us down a new road when we complete a project, so we’re never really stopping to take a retrospective on how each one shaped who we are today.
A much easier exercise for me is to recollect which projects played a significant part in shaping my journey as a project manager. These projects, not unlike silver polish, brighten our skills and capabilities to a shine that allows us to undertake even larger and more complex projects.
Here are three projects that had a profound impact on my capabilities, and what I learned from each:
Up till a certain time in my project management career, I felt that my work included some rather large projects in terms of team members and scope. However, nothing prepared me for the massive construct that is a transformation program involving almost 2,000 people.
Transformation programs extend well beyond the realm of what project managers normally lead. They involve significant changes to business processes and technology, as well as altering what people do on a day-to-day basis. In addition, there are many project and team members involved with multiple, parallel tracks of work. All of this makes a project manager feel as small as the tiny people in Gulliver’s Travels.
Transformation programs pushed me to think and engage externally beyond my assigned project, especially when it came to dependencies between projects. I also realized it was essential that project managers collaborate and cooperate in order to maintain progress for the overall transformation program.
2. Technology Is in Everything
Over the years, I have followed with great interest the increase in the proportion of a project that involves technology. On my first projects many years ago, the level of technology was quite modest, relying mostly on data inputs, online screens and reports that augmented existing business processes. Today, technology permeates nearly all facets of a project.
When asked to assist with the estimation and implementation of a new type of airliner, my initial assumption was that there would be some form of enabling technology and the airliner would still operate as before. For example, there would be some technology support required, but the fundamental functions would not really change.
After reviews and discussions, I was astounded at the depth of technology that was found in this new model. The flight deck had provisions for laptops to be used by pilots to both prepare and operate the airliner. Flight operations and integration tasks that were once managed manually were now conducted automatically and at high speed, all of which reduced pilot and ground crew workloads. The technology found in this new airliner caused me to dramatically re-think the level of rigor required to estimate and plan its implementation. In addition, it raised my expectations of the effort required to estimate and plan today’s projects in order to ensure quality delivery.
As we consistently execute project delivery over and over across a number of projects, our growing confidence can sometimes cause us to view project delivery as commonplace. We can begin to lose our sensitivity towards project outcomes as we proceed through a seemingly endless stream of phases, sprints, tasks, activities and artifacts of project management.
A big wake-up call for me occurred when I led a project to process calls from customers of infant nutritional products. Customers would call in on a variety of topics ranging from inquiries about the right product to use as well as potential infant health issues. Before I formally began the project, the sponsor reviewed with me existing customer cases showing both simple inquiries as well as potential emergency health issues. I realized then that my efforts on this project could potentially save the life of an infant.
It’s easy to think about projects as two-dimensional entities that refine business processes and technical capability. From the dialogue with the project sponsor, I came to appreciate how this project could improve both the time and quality of response on an inquiry related to the health of an infant. This motivated me and the team to always be thinking about how this project would interact with the customers in the most effective and efficient manner, especially when the life of an infant could be at stake.
As we all proceed through our project management careers, we tend to remember the distinct impact these projects had on us. Some of the projects affect how we plan projects, others influence project execution and still others will be remembered for how they served as key waypoints in our project management journey. In addition, these “waypoint” projects are well-suited as experiences to share with the next generation of project managers following in our footsteps.
What projects on your project management journey have shaped who you are today?
by Kevin Korterud
Once upon a time, projects were just projects. They were simple, had small teams and quite often finished on time. Projects were viewed as a path to operational improvements that reduce manual labor and free up people for other tasks.
As time marched on, the notion of a project began to increase in scale and complexity. Technology projects, for example, began as modest hardware and software initiatives. Over time, the technology project landscape has changed to include network, servers and cloud infrastructure. Software projects began growing into systems, software packages and complete end-to-end solutions.
As the quantity and business focus of project work increased, they became packaged into programs. Programs were created to help orchestrate myriad projects into cohesive outcomes. These were governed by an expanding slate of waterfall methods designed to both enable and oversee delivery.
With the advent of agile, a different form and pace emerged. Product delivery moved toward quicker and more frequent outputs, with delivery cadence driven by what an organization believed was best for customers and consumers.
Today, organizations have a delivery ecosystem of project, program and product delivery work based on internal and external dynamics. As the ecosystem changes over time, the balance of projects, programs and products does as well.
With project, program and product delivery all moving in different directions and at different speeds, how can an organization prevent these efforts from crashing into each other? Here is an approach I follow to help define, oversee and enhance the natural delivery ecosystem:
First, ensure that definitions are in place. These should be clear and concise portrayals of the work to be performed. Having these definitions commonly understood will go a long way in matching the correct policies, processes, controls and people to the form of work.
Here are some sample definitions:
These definitions also serve to identify the portfolio proportion of these different types of work, which helps determine the right people and supporting structures for success.
The ecosystem can change and flow to meet the needs of organizations, market forces, suppliers and people. Given this ebb and flow, one practical reality of this ecosystem is that any one form of project, program and product work cannot exist as 100% of the work.
2. Govern the Ecosystem
Any delivery ecosystem left to its own resorts will result in chaos with teams having different perceptions of how project, program and product delivery should be executed. This chaos will result in delays, additional costs and sometimes stalemates as teams negotiate over the execution of work efforts.
There needs to be balancing forces in place that help direct delivery. A delivery ecosystem governance model sets the boundaries for delivery work from ideation into formation and through execution. The governance model implements policies, processes and enabling artifacts that create predictable and repeatable attainment of desired results. This governance model is typically overseen by an enterprise delivery management office.
For example, one process within this model sets the venue to identify, confirm and release for execution the proper delivery process for a type of work. A portfolio review board based on input from the sponsor would analyze the characteristics of the work and determine whether it is a project, program or product. The outcomes from this portfolio review board promote consistency, ensure impartiality and avoid costly re-work due to poor decision-making.
Even an effective delivery ecosystem needs to have a “tune-up” every once in a while. As changes in business strategy, support for new regulations, market expansions and technical innovations come into play, the delivery ecosystem needs to change accordingly. These drive the need for a function to continuously harmonize and improve the delivery ecosystem. An EDMO will be the primary vehicle to both harmonize and improve the delivery ecosystem within an organization.
Improvements can include initiatives to reduce mobilization time, avoid resource contention and improve supplier integration. These initiatives are universal in nature and can be consistently applied to improve project, program and product delivery.
With the increased complexity of work and differing approaches for projects, programs and products, you need a means of harmonization to prevent misalignments, conflicts and collisions between work efforts. Harmonization processes can include release, dependency, data integration and test environment management.
Embrace the New Normal
Organizations need to recognize and embrace the different forms of delivery that are now the new normal. By adopting a structured approach to the definition, oversight and enablement of projects, programs and products, they can be delivered in a synergistic manner to lower costs while improving time to market and quality.
How do you balance the project, program and product initiatives at your company to avoid weather problems?
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.