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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?
I’m frequently asked for insights on performance measurement criteria for project managers. This comes as a bit of a surprise given how professional certification programs, such as PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification, have brought more consistency to project management skills.
Organizations’ typical performance measurement framework for functional roles is focused on growth and results. But that framework is becoming less effective at measuring project managers.
Project managers differ from functional roles in that they perform their duties with definitive time periods, outside influences, ever-changing activities and a higher level of uncertainty.
At the same time, more and more companies are seeking both individual and aggregate project management performance measures. Aggregate measures provide insights into overall capabilities and indicate if improvement initiatives — training, methods, processes — are actually increasing project manager productivity.
I’ve spent some time thinking about how to improve measurement criteria for project manager performance. Here are three areas I believe must be included:
Over time, individual project manager metrics, such as schedule and budget, can be analyzed to show the project manager’s track record. Supplementary metrics, such as change control activity, deliverable finish date delays and cost of poor quality, can provide a complete picture of project manager performance.
By aggregating and averaging these metrics — as well as using other data points such as labor cost — the enterprise capability of project managers can be measured.
2. Project Manager Engagement Reviews: The ability of a project manager to successfully engage with stakeholders is a key success factor for projects. A high level of engagement allows for early visibility to potential delivery issues, as well as a stronger understanding of the success criteria for a project.
The most effective means to measure project engagement is to conduct a post-project review with the project’s primary stakeholder. As engagement is not a binary yes/no condition, open-ended questions allow for deeper insights into the project manager’s level of engagement. For example, probing when project managers anticipated potential project issues would help to reveal engagement. These reviews are not meant to be punitive, but instead to guide and educate.
In addition, the reviewer should also look at the engagement level of the primary stakeholder. It’s not uncommon to find unengaged stakeholders, which can lead to poor delivery results for which the project manager is unfairly held to account. A balanced view of both the project manager and stakeholder will give the reviewer a true measure of engagement.
Capturing project performance data allows project managers to share successes, as well as provide rationale for when things might not have gone as well as anticipated. It serves as a platform for career growth.
In today’s world of ever-increasing project complexity and scale, both companies and project managers need to expand their demonstrated performance results beyond what is found today.
How do you measure project manager performance? Do traditional performance measurement frameworks for functional roles continue to meet the need?
By Kevin Korterud
I experienced my first agile project nearly a decade ago. At the time, agile was still an emerging concept. I remember thinking there were all sorts of activities going on that I had never seen on any of my projects. People were standing up for meetings, marker boards were filled with things called “stories” and delivery moved forward under the framework of a “sprint.”
At the center of this whirl of frenetic activity was a person who the team called a “scrum master.” At first, I thought this person was a project manager. But they were doing things that were outside of the traditional project management realm.
Since that first experience, agile has matured and continued to grow in popularity. This trend prompted me to examine the evolving role of the scrum master in complex agile delivery environments. Here are my observations:
1. Agile Delivery is Becoming Mature
Agile delivery teams used to function within isolated pockets. But, as the use of agile—as well as the size and complexity of solutions being delivered—grew, new methods, such as SAFe®, were developed to help orchestrate agile delivery across an organization.
With agile becoming more common in organizations as a delivery method, the overall need for scrum masters’ general process advice diminishes. Agile teams over time—as well as with the support of enterprise framework methods—will become more self-sufficient, which reduces the need for some of the current activities performed by scrum masters.
2. Higher Engagement and Direct Accountability
One of the guiding principles for scrum masters is that they are not supposed to intervene with the team and are not responsible for delivery outcomes.
While a focus on process advice was essential during the early days of agile, today’s larger and more complex solutions demand that delivery quality issues be identified as soon as possible. In addition, there is also a need to ensure on a more frequent basis that the solution being created will yield the desired business outcomes.
Given its proximity to agile delivery teams, the scrum master role is positioned to leverage a higher level of engagement and accountability. In addition to traditional agile process advice, scrum masters should also serve as a durable checkpoint for both delivery quality and alignment to business outcomes.
These checkpoint activities would include reviewing user story quality, monitoring non-functional requirements and checking solution designs against business needs. As other roles in agile delivery possess some form of delivery accountability, the scrum master must also become more engaged and accountable in order to remain relevant.
3. Emerging Project Managers Becoming Scrum Masters
While scrum masters are not meant to be project managers, that notion is preventing project managers from becoming scrum masters, especially earlier in their career. Emerging project managers invariably have some form of solution delivery experience. They know what makes for sound requirements (especially non-functional), designs, testing, quality and implementation plans.
As the level of complexity and scale increases with agile delivery, so does the need for some form of delivery oversight at the agile team level. With the scrum master position in their repertoire, teams would have developed competencies and know-how for scaled agile delivery, release train engineer, program manager, etc.
Scrum masters have played an essential role in the growth and adoption of agile as a practical means of delivery. Their direct interactions with agile delivery teams create a unique opportunity to expand their influence in generating valuable outcomes for end-users, consumers, customers, employees or suppliers. To do so, they need to further extend themselves— both in terms of skills and engagement—to remain relevant in today’s complex delivery environment.
How do you feel the scrum master role has evolved? Are newly minted project managers the scrum masters of tomorrow?