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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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If Your Project Addresses the Wrong Problem, It Won’t Be Successful

In my previous post, I emphasized the importance of engaging and involving stakeholders proactively in a learning process about project definition and planning. I highlighted soft systems methodology as a powerful problem-structuring method.

But how exactly can we incorporate problem-structuring methods into the project management practice? Are they really useful and feasible? Let me guide you through an example below, step by step, according to the Soft Systems Methodology.

Project: Build a New Power Plant

  1. Problem situation unstructured: Our energy supply isn’t meeting demand.
  2. Problem situation expressed: This expresses the area of concern through a rich picture containing both appropriate symbols for real-world activities and words.

Figure 1: Simplified rich picture for the project “Build Power Plant” (Trentim, 2013)

  1. Root definition: The purpose of the project is not to build a new power plant; the end objective is to deliver enough energy to the client. The client expresses the most important human activity system (HAS) to be further studied. We could define more than one root definition to represent a different HAS. For each HAS, we have an analysis of the customer, actors, transformation, weltanschauung (comprehensive worldview), owner and environment (CATWOE).
  • Root definition: to ensure that the client has enough energy.
  • CATWOE Analysis

Customer: client

                           Actors: sponsor, project manager, team and contractors

Transformation: provide enough energy

Weltanschauung: energy fuels operations

Owner: client

Environment: client environment

  1. Conceptual models: We could develop many models in different levels to better understand the problem. Simplifying, I’ve created a conceptual model of how the client uses energy, based on the root definition stated before.

Figure 2: Conceptual model based on root definition “to ensure that the client has enough energy” (Trentim, 2013)

  1. Comparison between conceptual models and the real world. This stage compares what we are now to what we want to be able to do. The conceptual model (or models) represents how things should work. The reality has to be changed in some way to improve the problem-situation.

Table 1: Comparison to reality (Trentim, 2013)

  1. Feasible desirable changes: The project manager and his or her team propose solutions (project scope). In stage 5, we compare the ideal conceptual model to reality, so we can propose feasible solutions and create action plans.
  2. Implement solutions: project execution.

Actually, the solution implementation might encompass all of the project life cycle. Stages 1 to 6 may happen prior to project initiation or in the beginning of the planning phase. Once we have the problem statement and the proposed solution aligned strategically to stakeholders’ expectations and needs, we can use our traditional project management knowledge, as compiled in the PMBOK® Guide, for example.

A successful project delivers solid benefits. That’s why we have to understand the problem before we start creating a solution. In other words, well-crafted plans and detailed scope definitions are useless if they do not address the real needs of stakeholders. Don’t you think?

Have you ever solved the wrong problem? Please leave your comments and thoughts below.

Posted by Mario Trentim on: September 15, 2015 04:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (18)

Want Satisfied Stakeholders? Guide Them Through a Learning Process

A successful project must satisfy stakeholders. But how can we agree in advance what success means if we don’t have all the information?

Although you cannot control stakeholders’ expectations, you can influence and persuade them. The key is to engage and involve stakeholders in value creation. Success hinges on a stakeholder-centered approach to project management.

Your job as project manager is a cross between a physician, a consultant and a professor. You have to guide and educate stakeholders, diagnosing their pain to uncover their real needs. If you really want to uncover stakeholders’ needs, you have to learn how to ask the right questions.

Since 2011, I’ve been applying problem structuring methods (PSM) to project management. These methods guide stakeholders through a learning process in which you define the boundaries of a problem to be solved. You understand more as you advance progressively and iteratively, tilting the project toward success.

Soft systems methodology (SSM) is one of the most powerful PSMs I know. It is organized into seven steps:

  1. Problem situation unstructured: area of concern, purpose and end objectives.
  2. Problem situation expressed: rich picture created to represent the structure and processes of the problem situation.
  3. Root definition: clarifies what needs to be addressed and which human activity system is of concern. You can have more than one root definition, representing the HAS (human activity system).
  4. Conceptual models: use creativity and logical argument to derive relevant activities in the HAS and build conceptual models in different levels of abstraction.
  5. Comparing #4 to #2 (real world and the conceptual model), provide comments and recommendations.
  6. Identify feasible solutions: you can use a multi-criteria model to compare alternatives.
  7. Improve the problem situation by implementing the solution.

Soft systems methodology (adapted from Checkland, 1981, Fig. 6).

In my next post, I’m going to provide a real project example showing how to use SSM. 

Do you have any other ideas or experience on how to engage your stakeholders in a learning process? Please leave your comments.

 

Posted by Mario Trentim on: August 25, 2015 06:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)
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