Life is full of surprises…they always seem to show up unexpectedly. As project managers, we rely on our PMI certification training—as well as our experiences—to both detect and mitigate the effects from surprises, such as missed milestones, new regulatory requirements and quality issues.
But what happens when the surprise turns out to be a short-term outage of the project manager? This can come about for a variety of reasons, including family, health and other personal matters. A recent health issue that took me away from a project for a few weeks got me thinking about how to address this special type of surprise.
In my early career days on projects, the short-term loss of a project manager meant the project was typically put on hold until the PM returned. In today’s complex, high-speed technology delivery environment, stopping a project is less viable due to market needs, dependencies, specialized domain knowledge, engaged suppliers and many other factors.
So, in addition to all of the usual risk factors, one has to consider a risk mitigation plan for the project manager should a surprise occur (this plan also applies to other key roles such as the delivery, test and PMO leads).
Let’s look at a few questions to help you prepare for surprises when they occur to the PM role:
1. Who could be a backup PM? The process of finding a backup project manager usually falls into two categories: easy…and not so easy. If there are project track leads with prior PM experience, rank order them as to the size and complexity of the prior projects they have managed. Discuss the project(s) with them and create a plan for the areas that you look to build out as part of their duties in being a backup.
If nobody on your project has any prior PM experience, another option could be to consider an existing program management office lead. With today’s complex program office operations, it’s common to have program management office leaders with prior project management experience. They could assist as a backup PM.
2. When should you have a backup PM? As one never knows when surprises will occur, the best time to identify a backup project manager is during mobilization of the project. By having a person identified early in the project life cycle, it better positions the backup PM to be successful should a surprise occur.
If it’s not possible to identify and develop a backup at the start of a project, consider an approach that takes advantage of the upcoming or current phase of the project. For example, if the project is headed into the design phase, consider your functional lead as a potential backup. Just be cognizant of the additional burden the backup PM role places on an existing team member; consider additional program office resources to help with the execution of project operational processes.
3. How do you make someone a backup PM? After selecting a backup, create a list of topics to educate them in the many facets of the project. This can start with operational topics such as risk/issue reporting, status report and work planning, and cross-training. From there, they can start to be immersed in domain-related topics with the project (e.g., how does a month-end financial close work?). The domain-related topics may require some specialized training if they have not been exposed to them before.
Keep in mind that the backup PM still has their core project duties to execute, so they should not be overburdened with immersion activities. Keep the window for these activities to a few hours each week, and continue them through the life of the project. It is also helpful to bring the backup PM along to attend key project meetings to make them aware—as well as to make other project team members aware of their provisional role in the event of the unexpected.
The days of having a project being placed on hold due to the short-term loss of a project manager are long behind us. In particular, with the highly integrated technology project ecosystem that exists today, the stoppage of one project can impact several others—thus affecting the overall progress of a company portfolio.
Knowing who your backup project manager is offers a mitigation path when surprises occur. In addition, it’s also an essential form of career building by exposing the backup PM to the next level of delivery stewardship.
How have you selected and groomed a backup project manager for your delivery efforts?
3 Ways to Think About Risk
Categories: Risk Management
Andy Jordan wrote an interesting article recently on rebranding risk. That got me thinking about people’s relationship to risk, especially since any decision we make has a certain amount of risk involved.
Here I share a few ways that I suggest you think about risk….
1. Know that every decision carries risk.
There is no such thing as a risk-free decision.
Acting on something carries risk.
Not acting on something carries risk.
Recognizing that any action requires a certain comfort with the unknown allows you to move to a more productive posture. One focused on the opportunity at hand.
Instead of thinking you’ll eliminate risk, this type of thinking can enable you to focus on risk management.
It is unlikely that you’ll find a risk-free solution, but you can probably find a course of action where the potential reward is greater than the perceived danger in taking action.
2. Understand that if risk wasn’t involved, there would be no change.
The twin to the first point is that risk comes with change. Every action carries a certain amount of risk, certainly. There is also no guarantee that your risk will succeed.
At the same time, there is often risk because you need to create change in a project or an organization. Understanding the necessity of risk to change helps people take action.
As Tottenham Hotspur manager Ange Postecoglou observed, “If you want change, you have to do something differently.”
That’s at the heart of risk management: You can’t expect things to be different if you don’t do things differently.
Risk is a prerequisite of change.
3. Move your focus to the opportunities at hand.
It could be that the opportunity in front of you will improve your processes in a way that will enable you to save time, money and other resources in a project with a tight budget.
The opportunity could be in building out a new product or service that opens your business up to new chances.
The opportunity could come in the form of learning and development of your team members or yourself.
Opportunity is all over. But it often comes because of the change that new solutions or new processes create.
Learning a new skill/process or creating a new product is all risky stuff, but risk is the partner of opportunity. Again, without change, nothing new happens—and that requires risk.
I appreciate Andy thinking about risk in a new way. For me, I always look at the opportunity first. Then, think about risk later. That is sometimes risky as well—because there have been occasions where I could have used a bit more patience before action.
Of course, some of these risky actions paid off incredibly. And that’s the point: Risk and reward go hand in hand. Nothing changes without change, and that is risky.
How do you think about risk in your own projects…and life?
As part of starting my technology career, I augmented my undergraduate degree in computer science with a minor in economics. Over the years, I began to appreciate more the inherent wisdom of the demand and supply relationships as it pertains to labor forces. In particular, the laws of economic supply and demand are playing themselves to new heights in these uncertain times.
We see it every day in the news: Jobs by the thousands of all types are going unfilled with nobody stepping forward to fill them. In our industry, we are seeing multiple factors converging to create difficult times for project and product managers. The exponential growth in technology, changing demographics in work forces as well as COVID-19 have all greatly impacted what we do on a day-to-day basis.
For project and product delivery, I am observing that labor shortages that impact our delivery efforts take on two different forms:
As a project and product manager, these market conditions create a confounding set of risks that need some refreshed thinking in order to mitigate their impacts. Here are a few of my thoughts on ways we can manage around these challenging times:
1. Up Your Game on Scope, Schedule and Resource Management
In addition to giving more emphasis to these areas than ever before, project managers need to look beyond their project for external threats. By taking more of a portfolio manager mindset and looking for external threats including other projects, they can better anticipate and address challenges to their own delivery commitments.
For high-speed, iterative agile product delivery, labor shortages make for even more challenging times. One of the benefits of a dedicated set of resources for an agile product team is that over time they reduce the learning curve and improve decision-making efficiency. Swapping resources in and out of agile product delivery due to labor shortages creates damaging disruption to both schedule and quality. This environment compels agile product managers to be even more vigilant when it comes to managing scope, schedule and resources.
2. Get Back to Basics
While the increased frequency and depth of examination improves stewardship and has helped with early detection of delivery volatility, in these times there may not be enough capacity to warrant this level of detail.
To help mitigate impacts of labor shortages while not adversely impacting delivery, take a good hard look at the project and product metadata that is currently being produced. For the level of uncertainty and risk on your project or product, can the frequency of reporting, analysis and review meetings be reduced in order to spend more time on activities that directly impact delivery?
For the depth of metadata, explore simplified methods for conveying progress against a plan. For example, the use of additional done/not done milestones to measure progress would take less effort than gathering timesheets to calculate total effort. Rationalizing where it makes sense, the frequency and breadth of supporting metadata creates more capacity for direct project and product activities.
3. Restore Real-Time Individual Engagement as a Norm
Pre-pandemic, there was a lot of personal interaction in an office or site; these days, we rely on online collaboration tools as a primary means of connection and communication. Despite the ability as a group to remotely connect audibly and visually through the use of these tools, difficulties remain in terms of the effectiveness and efficiency of personal engagement, especially at an individual level. Individual connection has always been a means of identifying both new ideas as well revealing challenges that may not arise in a group setting; all the more reason to make it an increasingly frequent activity when managing projects and products.
While modern times present new challenges, it’s still possible to connect on a person-to-person level. Outside of the normal cadence of group meetings, set up recurring individual connection sessions with team members. These can still be done with collaboration tools—but they have all the advantages of what private conversation can provide. I’m finding these individual meetings have a great propensity to really help us understand the underlying dynamics of project and product delivery. (If you happen to live in reasonably close proximity and abide by any local regulations, that doesn’t mean an espresso in person to stimulate conversation would be out of the question!)
These are indeed challenging times, the likes of which I have never before seen in my project and product management career. Labor shortages as well as volatility from resource overcommitments are all causing us to rethink our day-to-day activities on how we interact with people. While we can long for the days when walking down the hall in an office to connect with a team member was the norm, we as project and product delivery managers still need to take steps to overcome these challenges in our drive for successful delivery outcomes.
I welcome any comments on what others are doing to help reduce the impact of labor shortages with creative project and product management techniques. Share your insights below!
Although we expect most organizations to have a crisis response plan in place, very few actually do. As the COVID-19 crisis continues to develop, organizations are trying to keep their heads above water as distractions and urgencies create barriers to effective decision-making. But this is not the world’s first crisis—and it won’t be the last.
Is it too Late for a Crisis Response Plan?
First things first: Every project professional needs a plan. As organizations realize they’re wasting time and resources with hasty solutions, project teams are realizing that they have to go back to the drawing board and set up a plan. A consistent and structured approach is needed to successfully deal with a crisis.
What does your PMO have to do with all of this? A PMO is uniquely positioned to solve problems that the project managers cannot solve themselves. On top of that, some PMOs are responsible for portfolio management, and they also support decision-making and the strategic planning processes within an organization.
In fact, because of the COVID-19 crisis, organizations kicked off a number of urgent projects all at the same time. These projects were created to enable remote work, fix supply chain disruptions and more. At the same time, many other projects were terminated or paused without careful analysis.
Whatever phase your project is in due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is not too late for a crisis response plan.
If you are a PMO manager and you don’t have a crisis response plan, you must create one now. It does not have to be perfect or extremely detailed. Follow the seven steps below:
7 Elements of a Crisis Response Plan
When you and your team are playing out the potential scenarios and alternative responses, re-think the organizational strategy for the long, mid and short terms. As you pay attention to strategic shifts and changes related to the organization’s objectives, try to uncover how this information impacts the current portfolios and projects.
In order to truly be helpful during this crisis and stay relevant, your PMO needs a very clear chain of command, a war room (even if it is a virtual) and clear communication channels. Shorten the planning cycles and adopt a streamlined feedback process.
Keep in mind that during a crisis, a different type of PMO is needed: a Crisis PMO. In a time of great uncertainty, you should drop all those heavy processes used during stable times and put in place a nimble and flexible crisis response plan.
Let me know how your PMO and projects are doing during the COVID-19 crisis in the comments below.
In a previous article, I discussed the COVID-19 crisis from a risk management point of view. As PMOs around the globe work through the pandemic, unexpected challenges continue to arise. Countries are implementing several restrictions, as extreme times call for extreme measures to contain the disease.
It is expected that many teams will be working remotely for at least four to eight weeks. In a push to stay connected while working remote, PMOs are relying on communication and collaboration tools. But is it enough?
Working from Home Is Different Now
Although many organizations are accustomed to flexible and remote work, this marks the first time that we have seen virtual teams operating on a global scale. And we’re not talking about the traditional home offices we once knew. Project professionals are quarantined, which means they are working with their spouses and kids nearby—and sometimes even babysitters, nannies and home maintenance staff are part of that equation. Keep in mind that your team members are very concerned and stressed at this time. And while they may be out of the office, they are part of a completely different team at home, which comes with its own set of challenges and needs.
In a meeting with my team this week, I level set with them. I don’t expect my team to put in exactly eight hours each day. It is okay if their kids show up during conference calls and meetings, and they can set an unavailable status in case they need to take care of personal or family duties. Cultivating a great team spirit and reinforcing an environment of accountability strengthens team morale.
Operations and Projects Must Go On
If we all stop working, companies may not survive. In fact, a number of companies have already shuttered their doors for good ahead of the pandemic’s peak. Everyone is forecasting difficult times ahead. And it is our duty as directors and managers to make rational decisions and to plan diligently for the future. That said, what happens to our projects?
From a portfolio management perspective, we are going through deep reevaluation due to major strategic changes. Projects were canceled or paused and investments were postponed. But we also have incoming and extremely urgent projects.
Organizations implemented their business contingency plans, and many resulted in additional projects. It could be a project related to supply chain and vendors, IT systems to enable remote work or new product development, among other initiatives. As the crisis looms, these projects become even more urgent.
Be Realistic When Planning for New Projects
As we plan for these urgent new projects, we must be very careful. We must take into consideration high risk and uncertainty and pay attention to the estimates.
Remember that people are not only working remotely (which is already a challenge for some organizations), people are quarantined. I advise you to develop a solid plan based on requirements and deliverables prioritization, understanding you might have to adjust planning to overcome bumps along the way.
Estimates and buffers are crucial. Something that takes two weeks to get done when we are collocated might take more time virtually. Therefore, during this period of quarantine, plan for more execution time.
Capacity Planning and Resource Utilization Are Crucial
During this crisis, capacity planning and resource utilization are extremely important. Imagine your team as traffic on a highway: When traffic is high, a minor crash might severely impact traffic flow. Now imagine all the people are distracted and in a hurry at the same time. You might end up with multiple minor crashes that add up to total failure in delivering the urgent project you need right now to overcome the coronavirus crisis.
In order to be successful, PMOs and project managers are tracking resource utilization with more details during the pandemic. Here’s what you can do:
The aforementioned steps aren’t some big secret. They are more sensitive now. Unfortunately, some organizations are responding to the crisis with too many uncoordinated initiatives that will result in more harm than good. If we want to overcome the project impact of COVID-19, it is time to conduct:
To conclude, do not forget that your team members are quarantined. It’s not business as usual. That means lower productivity and some availability obstacles.
How is your PMO navigating the COVID-19 crisis?