Project Management

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
Lynda Bourne
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Soma Bhattacharya
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Viewing Posts by Lynda Bourne

The Entropy at the Heart of Project Management

Categories: Best Practices

By Lynda Bourne

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the concept of modern project management. How did we get here and where are we going?

People have been doing things that require planning and organization for millennia. But no one involved in leading these endeavors called themselves a project manager until the concept of being a project manager emerged from general business management in the United States starting in the 1930s and ’40s.

Following on from this start, the catalyst for modern project management was the development of PERT and the critical path method of scheduling in 1957. Practitioners of this new craft formed the early project management associations: INTERNET (now IPMA) in Europe in 1964, and PMI in the U.S. in 1969.

These new associations defined and created the concept of modern project management. In particular, PMI created the first project management body of knowledge in 1987 to support its original PMP examination. The structure of the PMBOK® Guide was reorganized in 1996 and remained fundamentally unchanged through to the Sixth Edition published in 2017. The project phases, knowledge areas and processes defined in the PMBOK® Guide had a major influence on the emerging understanding of project management worldwide.

The 20th century version of modern project management was based on reductionism (WBS, etc.), and focused on control (CPM, PERT, EVM). The prevailing view was the work of a project involved people with hard hats creating something you can kick.

Project success was achieved by implementing the processes in the standards effectively. Consequently, project failure could be overcome by the better application of better processes. Internationally, efforts were focused on identifying and defining the required processes, training people in the processes, and qualifying trained people as project managers (the PMP credential being the pre-eminent example).

Almost everyone involved in these developments through to the early 2000s believed projects were special and distinguishable, that project management was a transferrable skill, and that good project management could be defined. We thought that with a bit more work, we would be able to fully define projects, project management and the processes needed for project success.

Then there was entropy!
Entropy describes the level of disorder in a system and shows that all closed systems will tend to become less ordered over time. Work has to be applied from outside of the system to return it to an orderly state.

For 40 years, project management associations had worked to create order in the discipline of project management. But in the last 10 years, a range of external influences have caused a rapid increase in entropy. And because of these influences, it looks as though efforts to standardize project management into a single structure are no longer feasible.

The three primary drivers of entropy are:

1. Everything is a project. In the 21st century, almost anything can be a project. Traditional “hard hat” projects have been joined by:

  • School projects
  • IT projects
  • Business change projects
  • Research projects
  • Environmental projects
  • Volunteer projects, etc.

2. Methodology overload. Approaches to project delivery now include:

  • Agile, including Scrum, Kanban, XP and a range of blends; with ranges of control spanning SAFe and Disciplined Agile, through to people advocating no planning
  • Light and lean concepts
  • Complex project management
  • Traditional, waterfall, etc.

3. Project scope is expanding. Project management has expanded to include:

  • Portfolio management
  • Program management
  • Benefits management/organizational change management
  • Front-end loading

It appears there is no longer one right way to manage a project; the processes used to successfully run an agile project are fundamentally different to those needed to run a “hard hat” project. This dilemma led to the fundamental change in the structure of the Seventh Edition of the PMBOK® Guide. But this also means the concept of a project manager and the skills the person require are extremely variable.

This divergence is recognized in the way PMI is restructuring its range of credentials and qualifications. But both the revised PMBOK® Guide and the qualification framework seem to be adapting to the symptoms, rather than the fundamental changes occurring in the global understanding pf projects and project management.

The challenges for PMI, and all project management associations globally, are:

  1. Refine the definition of project management. My suggestion is “The management of a temporary team, created to deliver a predefined outcome for an organization, in a disciplined way.”
  2. Identify the universal factors that are consistently required to separate a project from other business and general activities. These appear to include:
    1. Temporary teams set up to deliver an objective
    2. Stakeholder engagement and communication
  3. Rebuild a purpose around these core attributes, augmented with industry and methodological specifics.

This approach would produce a knowledge framework with a constant set of core skills and knowledge, supported by workplace skills such as being a scrum master of a construction scheduler.

What future do you want for PMI and the project management associations?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: April 06, 2022 06:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

How Are You Finding Information?

Categories: Communication

By: Lynda Bourne

We now live in an age where Google search is ubiquitous, and the “find” function in Word and PDF documents is almost instantaneous. The challenge for most people is sorting through the long lists of information returned from a search to locate the most useful items. This was not always the case. As Dennis Duncan—a British writer, translator and lecturer—set out in his book Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure[1], the need for indexing first emerged in the 13th century and has been evolving ever since.

There are basically two indexing systems. The simplest is a listing of the important words that occur in a reference book, identifying the pages or sections in which the word is used. The more complex system is built around topics and identifies the section of a book in which the topic is discussed, often indexing multiple publications. Both systems were developed around the year 1230, and marks the change from a time when books were a valued artifact to be read and enjoyed, to one where books became an information repository to be used as a resource. The invention of the printing press would not occur for another 200 years (1440), so in 1230 books were an incredibly valuable resource in limited supply.

The word “index” was invented in Paris by a Dominican Abbot named Hugh of Saint-Cher. The Dominicans are a preaching or mendicant religious order, founded in 1216. Their calling was to have Friars live among the people in big cities and preach sermons to stop the flock from going astray.

To help his Friars write their sermons, Saint-Cher instructed a group at the Dominican Friary of Saint-Jacques to create a word index, or a concordance, of the Bible. Every single word in the Bible was put in alphabetical order with a locator indicating where that word appears. The friars listed about 10,000 individual words and 129,000 locations. As a consequence of this work (that still exists), the preaching Friars writing new sermons were able to find the information they needed reliably and consistently.

Figure 1: Source British Library - On Line ExhibitionA parallel driver for indexing was the creation of universities, with Oxford being one of the earliest. Robert Grosseteste, a medieval English scholastic philosopher, taught at Oxford until his appointment as Bishop of Lincoln in 1235. Grosseteste read widely, and to help locate materials for his lectures, invented an indexing system based on symbols made up of curved and straight lines, circles, E-shapes, etc., which were added as annotations in each of his books. Different symbols represented different subjects, and in a separate general index he kept a record of where they were located. The result was a kind of parchment Google—once he's read and annotated a book, he knew where information on a subject was for future reference. This type of index is still called a general index.

In the 13th century, very few people could read, and books were scarce, making the oral delivery of information vital either as a lecture or a sermon. But delivering a lecture (or sermon), required information to be sourced, organized, synthesised and written down in preparation for the delivery. This means the presenter needed to use books—not just read books, but to be able to go back and use the contents of books as an information resource.

Engaging with a book transitioned from being a linear process where the reader had all the time in the world to journey from end to end, to one where books became seen as storehouses of morsels of information. The invention of indexes allowed people to use and research their books more efficiently, enabling them to preach or lecture at short notice.

800 years later, these concepts are still evolving. Unfortunately, the traditional concept of indexing is rapidly disappearing. The fundamental requirement for an index is a page number, and e-books don’t have set pages; the page a word appears on changes depending on the font size and screen size selected by the reader. This is a pity; creating a good index is both an art and a craft, requiring interpretation and judgement to look at each passage and decide what words a person would use to look for that specific text.

On the other hand, Robert Grosseteste’s concept of the general (or subject) index has moved from the world of academia to mainstream. Google indexes millions of pages of new information every day. Both Google and the various feeds to your PDA index then select what you see based on the topics you are interested in, filtered by the application of a liberal dose of artificial intelligence (AI).

The challenge for everyone in the modern era is being able to filter and validate the thousands of returns from a typical Google search and to make sure their feeds are not too limited. The various systems will order the information you see in a way its AI systems calculate will give you the best experience. But best from the system’s perspective is that you like the result and will therefore use it again. This is not the same as offering the most accurate selection of information, particularly if there are contradictory viewpoints.

How reliable do you find the search engines and indexes you use to find information?

[1] Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure, Duncan, D. Allen Lane, UK, 2021. ISBN: 9780241374238

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: February 09, 2022 06:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

The Planning Paradox

By Lynda Bourne

How much detail is too much? Traditional views tend to favour a management approach built on the assumption more detail is better, and to a point this is undoubtedly correct, insufficient detail in a plan of any type is a sure way to fail – ‘just-do-it’ at the overall project level does not help.

But looking at the ‘Coastline Paradox’ and using the length of a coastline as a synonym for the duration of a project suggests there is a point where too much detail is counterproductive.

The coastline paradox states that as you increase the detail by using smaller units of measure, the measured length of the coastline increases. If you use a small enough unit of measure, the length becomes infinite. For a more detailed explanation see: The Coastline Paradox Explained

So, what does this mean for project controls and project management?  No one navigating a ship into a UK port would be happy using a map where the smallest measurement was 50 km, significantly more detail is needed, but they do not need absolutely everything about their intended destination. What’s needed is useful information at an appropriate level of detail, the same goes for you, when navigating your car in a strange city[1]:

Finessing project plans to present useful information at the right level of detail is not easy, decisions have to be made! 

Take a typical risk register, if you tried listing every conceivable risk, the document would emulate the ‘coastline paradox’, and be of almost infinite length, which means the register is never finished and the project does not start.  Conversely, miss one or two significant risks and the project team may have a very unpleasant experience, possibly causing the project to fail. Pragmatic guidelines about the risks to be considered are needed and these have to be tailored to the project.  Similar guidelines are needed for the schedule, cost plan and all of the other sub-plans needed for a project.

How much detail do you feel is appropriate for your projects?

[1]  Image source: Understanding Design, The challenge of informed consent. Dr. Lynda Bourne, 27th November 2014; maps of North Sydney

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: September 06, 2021 01:04 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Are Organization Charts Still Useful?

By: Lynda Bourne.

Has agile killed the organization chart? The concept of business management evolved with the development of factories during the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Initially, factories followed the same system as pre-industrialized enterprises where the “Lord of the Manor”/owner made all of the significant decisions and told others what to do. But this straightforward command-and-control process was limited by the capacity of the owner to stay on top of the flow of information and decisions needed.

As organizations grew larger and more complex, the delegation of authority became necessary—but initially appears to have been very ad hoc and dependent on personalities. But as the concept of an organization evolved in the 19th century, management structures became more formalized—and one of the early tools used to demonstrate the management hierarchy, and the division of labor, was an organization chart. The example below is from 1917:

This view of an organization give rise to concepts such as departmentalization, chain of command, span of control, centralization, work specialization and formalization. The business appears well organized (at least on paper), but is not very adaptive.

Traditional project management grew out of business management, and uses the organization breakdown structure (OBS) linked to the work breakdown structure (WBS) to define the person responsible for each element of the work. The OBS fulfils the same function as an organization chart in general business, defining the management hierarchy and reporting lines within the project or program.

But is this type of thinking useful in today’s flexible working environment? In one respect, knowing who is going to be responsible for delivering each element of the project and ensuring their work integrates with the other parts of the project is important, as is the need to balance the delegated levels of authority and responsibility with the capability of the assigned person.

The OBS is also useful for informing the people doing work who they need to keep informed of progress, issues and the completion of the task. These concepts are central to the way earned value management is designed with the management cells above becoming control accounts.

But does the effective management of human resources need a hierarchy, or can distributed responsibility work as effectively and more dynamically? There are many success stories built around self-organizing teams, cross-functional teams, and agile ways of working. And in business, matrix structures are probably more common than the hierarchic structure depicted by an organization chart.

The organization chart has been around for a very long time, but does the type of structure and management theories built around the concept of a management hierarchy really help at the project and program level when confronted with “alien” concepts such as self-organizing teams and agile? The two questions posed for discussion are:

  1. Do you think the OBS is useful, and is something similar used in your project or organization?
  2. What options are available—or need inventing—to replace the OBS in an agile, self-organizing workplace?
Posted by Lynda Bourne on: July 27, 2021 11:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Is Planning Predictive or Persuasive?

Categories: Agile

Lynda Bourne

To paraphrase Gen. George S. Patton, “A good plan, enthusiastically executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” The objective of this post is to suggest that too much emphasis is placed on developing ‘perfect plans’ that attempt to accurately predict future outcomes (a passive process)—and not enough on using the planning process to proactively influence the project’s future direction.

The thinking behind this proposition comes from American political theorist John H. Schaar, who said: “The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created—created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.[1]

In this frame, project plans become a guide to the pathway you are intending to make rather than a prediction about achieving something already fixed.

Unfortunately, the mathematical and scientific approaches to planning—particularly cost estimating and scheduling—have evolved in a way that implies that the plan is a factual statement of what will happen. This concept is embedded in contracts, law, and expert submissions going back decades. But is this approach the best way of achieving a good outcome? Fighting over what should have happened after it did not happen and allocating blame is not very useful, even in traditional industries.

My suggestion is that we adopt a more agile and adaptive approach to planning focused on engaging all of the important stakeholders. This type of collaboration is far more likely to craft success! Working with people to build a plan they are willing to commit to achieving is far better than telling them what the plan says they have to do. Then working with them to progressively adapt the plan to deal with the unfolding reality on your shared journey towards success is far more likely to optimise the eventual outcome.

The final project objectives of time, costs and outcomes are unlikely to change in most projects, but the pathway you chose to follow towards achieving these objectives is yours to make, adapt and improve along the way. The two key ingredients are building consensus and commitment with the stakeholders (particularly those involved in the work)—and then keeping them engaged. In this scenario, the project plans become a key communication tool and people are held accountable for achieving their commitments.

The analytical aspects of planning are still important, and should be used to support this approach. There is no point in committing to a plan that will deliver failure. What the analysis shows is the scope of the problem to be solved, and the solution is crafted with the project’s stakeholders. The trade-offs and challenges of project management don’t change; the difference is moving from a paradigm where the project manager tries to make people work to the plan, to one where the project manager leads the team in planning to achieve the project objectives and outcomes.

How flexible is the planning on your project?


[1] Legitimacy in the Modern State (ed. Transaction Publishers, 1981) - ISBN: 9781412827485

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: June 16, 2021 06:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

"There's a Mr. Bartlett to see you, sir."

- Graham Chapman, Monty Python's Flying Circus