Project Management

Easy in theory, difficult in practice

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My musings on project management, project portfolio management and change management. I'm a firm believer that a pragmatic approach to organizational change that addresses process & technology, but primarily, people will maximize chances for success. This blog contains articles which I've previously written and published as well as new content.

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What won't change...

Five questions to answer before seeking a project management mentor

Does precarity impede agility?

Am I about to join a psychologically unsafe team?

Applying the heuristics of "How Big Things Get Done" to adaptive delivery

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Agile, Artificial Intelligence, Change Management, Decision Making, Governance, Hiring, Kanban, Personal Development, PMO, Portfolios (PPM), Project Management, Risk Management, Team Building, Tools

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What won't change...

Based on the extensive media coverage, YouTube videos, TED Talks, and books published, many might agree that 2023 has been hailed as the year of artificial intelligence, at least in terms of mindshare if not market dominance.

Throughout the past year, online project management communities have frequently discussed the potential impact of A.I. tools on the role of project managers. While concerns persist about potential negative effects, such as new project risks and potential job displacement, there's also optimism. A.I. tools, when used appropriately, are seen as potential assistants in delivering projects more efficiently and effectively, akin to other professions.

However, let's maintain perspective. Like previous project management tools—such as schedulers and knowledge management platforms—some aspects of our work won't be affected by A.I. until projects can be entirely completed by machines without human involvement.

Certain challenges will persist:

  1. Commitments will still be made prematurely: A.I. might provide better reasoning for unattainable completion dates or funding amounts, but it's unlikely to deter senior stakeholders from imposing unrealistic constraints.
  2. What you don't know will still hurt more than what you do know: In the near term, we won't have sufficiently advanced A.I. capabilities to identify all the possible risks which could impact our projects. And as complexity continues to increase, the likelihood remains that unknown-unknowns will affect our projects to a greater extent than the known-unknowns.
  3. Stakeholders will continue to surprise us: Provided sufficient context, A.I. tools might be able to improve our forecast of how stakeholders will respond to a given decision or project approach. However, if we've learned anything from The Matrix, even if humans are part of an A.I. system, they'll still find ways to behave unexpectedly.
  4. More concurrent work than can be effectively delivered: A.I. tools might give us a better understanding of the capacity within our teams and our throughput potential, but with the exception of those who use product-centric delivery models or who embrace the flow guidance of Dr. Goldratt or Don Reinertsen, most will still welcome more work into their system than should be permitted, so multitasking, work overload and the inability to accurately forecast people's availability will persist.
  5. The single biggest problem in communication: A.I. tools will eventually help us to bridge communication gaps with real-time context sensitive translation and guidance to make better choices about messaging tone, medium and other factors. Nevertheless, some gaps, as demonstrated in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation's' episode 'Darmok,' may remain insurmountable.

So as the dawn of 2024 approaches, lets greet it with the confidence that while some things are likely change in project delivery, most won't.

"The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order." - Alfred North Whitehead

Posted on: December 23, 2023 10:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Five questions to answer before seeking a project management mentor

Whether it is in one of LinkedIn's project management discussion groups or in PMI's Projectmanagement.com community, one of the more frequent requests made by members is for mentoring. Sometimes the mentee has done a good job of articulating their needs which will increase their odds of finding a suitable mentor but this is the exception, not the rule.

Project management mentors are usually senior practitioners who tend to be quite busy, hence providing limited information almost guarantees that the request won't be fulfilled in a timely fashion.

So before you post a request for a mentor, take the time to answer these five questions:

What are my objectives for the mentoring relationship?

This is a good case of where the S.M.A.R.T. test for objectives should be used - are they specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound?

This question will help you answer the next one.

Is the mentoring relationship I'm seeking short or long term?

This will help prospective mentors decide whether they are willing to commit for a longer period of time and will serve as a good sanity check on the achievability of your objectives.

The answers to these two questions might help you answer the next question.

Will I be better served with a mentor whom I can meet in person?

Depending on your objectives, you might find that geographic or temporal distance will significantly reduce the mentor's ability to help you succeed such as intimate knowledge of the local business environment. Thankfully many PMI chapters have well established mentoring programs which might help you to connect with a local practitioner.

How much effort will my mentor need to commit to help me achieve my objectives?

You might think that you have found the perfect practitioner from a personality and experience perspective but if they are too busy to effectively support you, you may need to connect with someone that has more time but less experience or you might need to adjust your expectations of the mentor's time commitment.

Finally, while many mentors provide their services on a voluntary basis, others might treat it as billable work.

Am I willing to pay for mentoring support, and if so, what is my budget?

If you don't know what you want to get out of a mentoring relationship, no mentor can help you achieve your goals.

Posted on: August 21, 2023 09:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)

Does precarity impede agility?

Categories: Agile, Project Management

I've almost finished reading "Gigs, Hustles & Temps" by Jason Foster which is about precarious work and the negative impacts it creates on individuals, their families and society in general. While we might think of precarious work as something limited to Uber drivers, home cleaners and other gig workers, such work covers multiple industries spanning both public and private sector employment.

The author does a great job of highlighting the personal impacts of precarity such as reduced wages, reduced leverage with employers and delay or deferment of capital purchases, but the chapter on the economic impacts of precarious work resonated with me as it covers the productivity impacts when a large proportion of a company's work force is experiencing precarity.

The author identifies three reasons for this:

  • Leadership teams don't have the same motivation to train and develop precarious employees
  • Workers experiencing precarity are less likely to be invested in the organization and its long term success
  • There is a ripple effect on permanent, non-precarious staff as they see how precarious workers are treated by their company and are more likely to be concerned about how well they will be treated in the future

The author also writes about the link between precarity and reduced physical and psychological safety as employers are less inclined to invest in exceeding health & safety standards and workers are more like to experience high levels of ongoing stress.

But the kicker for me is this quote from the International Labour Organization of the United Nations (ILO): "The use of temporary workers can over time erode the motivation that workers have to contribute to the organization, and can lower the level of ability available in the organization to innovate or in other ways contribute to firm performance."

This made me think about the companies I've worked with over the years that had tried to increase their delivery agility and the relative differences in success between those which had few precarious workers and those which had much more.

While I wouldn't consider it the sole cause, it is safe to say that those companies which had a higher percentage of workers in precarious positions were more likely to struggle with the transition, especially the organizational commitment to ongoing continuous improvement.

Precarity reduces safety, and without safety, nothing else matters.

Posted on: August 07, 2023 01:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Am I about to join a psychologically unsafe team?

During a presentation I delivered today to members of the PMI Nova Scotia chapter on cultivating psychological safety, one of the attendees asked how would she be able to assess whether the team she was going to join was safe prior to joining.

This is a great question because whenever we move to a new company or even a different division in a sufficiently large company, our access to verifiable information is quite limited. For obvious reasons, the leadership of our new team will usually not want to provide evidence of a poor team culture and unless we have trusted connections within the team itself or have access to someone who has recently left the team, it can be difficult to feel confident that we aren't jumping into a snake pit.

It is certainly worth asking your potential new manager questions such as:

  • "How much turnover had there been within the team?"
  • "Could I see a copy of the team's working agreements?
  • "Can you give me an example of a recent time when a team member challenged the status quo?"
  • "How frequently do your team members challenge a decision you've made?"

But, I'd also recommend asking the manager to speak one-on-one with a few team members.

If they resist that request, walk away.

But let's say they are open to it.

Here are a few questions to consider asking when you meet with each team member:

  • "Think back to the last time you made a mistake with the work you do in the team. How was the news of that mistake received by your manager and your fellow team members?"
  • "When was the last time you provided constructive feedback to a fellow team member? How about to your manager?"
  • "Can you describe a situation where you challenged a decision which your manager and the majority of the team were endorsing?"
  • "Can you think of a time when someone from outside of the team was being overly critical of you or another team member and what did the rest of the team or your manager do?"

While it is quite feasible that one or more of the team members you speak with might be under the manager's thrall, active listening while you ask these probing questions might reveal something different than what the person is saying.

Joining a new organization is fraught with risks but with a little bit of due diligence you can reduce the odds of snake bite!

Posted on: June 09, 2023 09:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)

Applying the heuristics of "How Big Things Get Done" to adaptive delivery

I read a number of project leadership books each year but usually I find only one or two which really make an impact. Professor Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner's book "How Big Things Get Done" is one of the latter.

I have never had the opportunity to lead a megaproject (the term is typically used for those with a budget in excess of $1 billion), but over the last fifteen years I have read a number of the articles published by Prof. Flyvbjerg on the subject and always learned lessons which were applicable to the projects I was involved with.

In the book, the authors provide many case studies supporting eleven heuristics derived from Prof. Flyvbjerg's decades of research into large, complex projects. While the term "heuristic" is apt as each is a useful mental shortcut, they could also be used as principles.

Given that twenty-two out of the twenty-three categories of the projects evaluated are physical projects (e.g. construction, mining, aerospace), it is tempting to assume that these heuristics are only relevant to projects delivered with a predictive approach.

That would be an invalid assumption as out of the eleven heuristics, I found that most are equally applicable to adaptive delivery. Here are just a few which fit well.

Hire a masterbuilder: we want to have someone with significant domain experience and a proven track record of success leading the work. Whether we are looking to fill the role of a project manager, an agile lead (e.g. Scrum Master) or a product owner, relevant experience and knowledge are critical.

Get your team right: The first value statement in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development is "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools". And as Prof. Flyvbjerg states, the main job of the masterbuilder is to pick the right team members to get the work done.

Ask "Why?": While the scope of a project is expected to emerge over its life when using an adaptive delivery approach, it can be a fatal mistake to not spend sufficient time upfront identifying an expected end vision. This North Star enables the team to challenge work items which will not achieve the desired outcomes and reduces the likelihood of an adaptive delivery approach being a random walk to nowhere.

Build with Lego: The idea of creating large systems from smaller components is a natural fit with the incremental nature of adaptive delivery. When a team takes a large work item and figures out a way to slice it into smaller pieces which still individually deliver value they are applying this heuristic.

Think slow, act fast: On the surface, this heuristic sounds like an invitation for big, heavy, upfront paper-based planning which agilists eschew. This is not what Prof. Flyvbjerg is advocating. What he is recommending is to reduce the cost of trial and error by taking the time to identify key areas of uncertainty which could impact successful delivery and to learn and find ways to address them effectively as early as possible in the project's life cycle. The examples which are provided about how Pixar plans its films or how Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao both demonstrate early de-risking which is a core attribute of adaptive delivery.

Say no and walk away: Prof. Flyvbjerg highlights the importance of focus when delivering complex projects. If an action does not contribute to achieving the project's outcomes, skip it. This aligns well with the tenth principle of the Manifesto: "Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential."

While I have not covered all of the heuristics and their adaptive delivery applicability in this article, I hope that I have encouraged all of you to read this book, regardless of the domain or the approach used to deliver your projects.

Posted on: May 08, 2023 09:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)
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