Easy in theory, difficult in practice

Kiron Bondale's musings on project portfolio and change management. Kiron is a firm believer that a pragmatic approach to organization change that addresses process & technology, but primarily, people will maximize chances for success.

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Project planning should start with the 5 W questions before getting to the How?

Does your company recognize “Here, there be (project) dragons”?

Post-it Notes just might be a PM's best friend!

Improving portfolio management MUST be part of an agile transformation!

Be a Mindful Project Manager!

Project planning should start with the 5 W questions before getting to the How?

Categories: Project Management

With all of the tools, techniques and processes within our profession, we sometimes lose sight of the basic principles of project management.  One way to ensure that you are not over-complicating things is to assess your approach from the perspective of a small child.

On project planning, understanding & communicating the five W’s can provide context and perspective for the low-level details found within the individual project plans.

What – at its very essence, scope definition is about answering the “What do we want to do?” question.  It’s amazing how many projects will consume significant resources (and churn as a result) without having a simple answer.

Why (and Why, Why, Why, and Why?) – if there’s one thing we lose as we grow up, it’s the admirable (?!?) persistence that a small child demonstrates when trying to learn about something new.  We might ask the “Why are we doing this project?” question once or twice, but how often do we probe really deep to understand the fundamental root benefits & motivations that are driving its existence?  We should adopt the traditional performance improvement technique which recommends asking “Why?” five times to ensure that we are not presenting a surface-level driver as the main reason for investing in a project.

Who – Although the What might not have been sufficiently decomposed to identify all of the skills or competencies required, there should be some idea of the critical roles that are required to deliver the What.

When – When is the latest that the What must be delivered to enable the organization to achieve the Why?

Where – where is the optimal location for the work to be performed and where will the What be used?

The project manager’s focus can now shift to the question that too often gets all the attention before there’s a good understanding of the five W’s: How

This ensures that we don’t spend too much time on approach, methodologies and practices, without having first understood the project’s essence.

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in May 2012 on https://kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: January 15, 2018 11:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)

Does your company recognize “Here, there be (project) dragons”?

Over time companies tend to take on projects with increasing levels of complexity. This happens either as a side benefit of a boost in organizational project management maturity, reactively when responding to regulatory or competitive pressures or organically as an outcome of strategic planning.

Unlike many of my previous posts, the WHY behind this increase is not my focus but rather the HOW.

Do governance bodies within most companies recognize when a proposed project or program is beyond its current capabilities and if so, how do they do this?

Project uncertainty and complexity are continuums and the sweet spot along those continuums will vary by company. There are three company-specific zones within this continuum - low uncertainty/complexity, high uncertainty/complexity and the chaos zone.

The boundary between the first and the second zones tends to become clearer over time, and as a company matures, they will use that boundary to dictate staff assignments as well as the required level of governance. For example, lower complexity projects might require minimal oversight and can be managed by a junior or intermediate project manager whereas those in the higher complexity zone will benefit from steering committees, highly seasoned project directors and regular delivery assurance checks.

But what about the chaos zone - what defines its boundaries?

In the past, when travelling the world's oceans, ships' captains used maps with notations indicating where the edges of the known world were as well as that wonderful warning "Here, there be dragons". Unfortunately, such cartographic aids are not available to portfolio governance teams! Without having the boundaries for the chaos zone defined, it would be easy for a company to invest in a project whose failure could result in catastrophic organizational consequences.

One approach might be to use the same set of criteria which are used to distinguish low and high complexity projects. A radar chart such as the one below provides one way of presenting this. Complexity inputs such as the number of distinct stakeholders involved/impacted, total number of unique delivery partners or the extent of external influence could be assessed using a simple questionnaire.

Assessing and presenting this information is a good start, but it might still not be enough to prevent a sponsor or line of business from undertaking a "bet the firm" project. This is where the checks and balances of effective governance are crucial.

A common misbelief is that Sir Edmund stated the reason "Because it's there" when asked about climbing Mount Everest. In fact, George Mallory is believed to have said it almost thirty years earlier. Unfortunately, George perished on the way to the summit.

Start a chaos zone project and your company could face a similar fate.

Posted on: January 14, 2018 04:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Post-it Notes just might be a PM's best friend!

Categories: Project Management

A discussion happened a while ago on a LinkedIn group attempting to identify the best project management tools. While there was healthy debate, nearly all of the responses pertained to the virtues of different software solutions ranging from applications within the Microsoft Office suite up to multi-million dollar project portfolio management solutions.

However, I was surprised to see that no one chose to honor one of the most powerful, versatile and cost-effective tools in a project manager’s belt, Post-it Notes!

Before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, let me provide my own version of Cyrano de Bergerac’s nose monologue by listing multiple ways in which Post-it Notes can help us better manage our projects.

With Scope Management, they provide an easy method of supporting requirements elicitation as well as scope inclusion and exclusion discussions. Post-it Notes can also be used to facilitate a bottom-up work breakdown structure process by having team members provide activities and then using affinity grouping to work up to key work packages.

With Schedule Management, they can help you develop an activity network diagram – it’s a lot easier to move notes around on a whiteboard than it is to fix incorrect dependencies using paper and pencil, and this “old school” method can encourage teams to focus exclusively on activity sequencing without becoming distracted by dates or resources as might happen when using software schedulers.

For Cost Management, when estimating costs, they can be used to help team members in brainstorming one-time and ongoing costs. They can also provide critical assistance of reminding team members to complete time sheets or to submit invoices in a timely fashion when stuck on people’s monitors!

Post-it Notes can support inspection activities when we consider Quality Management. After all, who hasn’t used Post-it Notes to mark pages in hardcopy documents which need further review or refinement? They can also be used to label and identify physical components requiring re-work.

If a process map is being developed to identify efficiency or effectiveness improvements, they can be used to develop the right process sequence and to distinguish value-add, non-value-add and value-enabling activities. They can also support prevention activities – a Post-it Note next to a lever, gauge or button can often provide a more timely reminder on correct procedure than a detailed checklist. Finally, Post-it Notes and a whiteboard make it easy to create a quick Ishikawa “fishbone” diagram when trying to identify the root cause of defects or when troubleshooting an issue.

When performing Resource Management, Post-it Notes can help the project team to develop a project RACI matrix in a collaborative, iterative fashion and could also be used to construct a project’s organization chart.

They can be used during team building activities – a simple one is for team members to write their names on one Post-it Note, and then have them write something unique about themselves on another. The project manager gathers and randomly sticks these two different groups of Post-it Notes on either side of a whiteboard. Then, each team member can take turns drawing links between the names & the attributes.

When faced with a conflict, project managers could consider having team members individually write what they believe the problem is on Post-it Notes and then have the whole team analyze the perceptions to develop a shared understanding of the true issue.

A project manager can also use Post-it Notes to recognize team members for small wins (getting a “You Rock!” note on your monitor can be a small, but powerful motivator) and helping them to focus on what’s critical by having them write down their top three project priorities and sticking that in a frequently observed location.

The most obvious use of Post-it Notes for supporting Communications Management is the ubiquitous “Come see me when you are back at your desk!” notification. Unlike e-mail messages or phone messages, if the recipient returns to their desk they can’t truthfully say that they never received the message!

Colored Post-it Notes can also be used to differentiate types of work items or the criticality of issues on Kanban boards, Issue boards or other types of visual dashboards. Finally, they can also be used to facilitate identification and grouping of similar lessons when conducting a lessons (to be) learned session with the project team.

Beyond their use in helping a team to brainstorm risks during identification workshops, they can also help when analyzing risks visually – a two-by-two table can be drawn on a whiteboard, and individual risks can be organized by probability and impact across the cells of the table. This is a great way to surface risk biases amongst team members and stakeholders and can also help to focus response efforts on meaningful risks.

When reviewing contracts or Statements of Work as part of project procurement activities, Post-it Notes can be used to flag specific terms and conditions requiring rework or can be used to easily identify where approvers need to sign.

Finally, with Stakeholder Management, similar to their use during risk analysis, Post-it Notes can help a team to categorize stakeholders on Influence/Impact axis when performing stakeholder analysis.

How many software solutions do you know which can claim to effectively support so many PMBOK knowledge areas?

I encourage you to provide me with more creative uses to support my belief that while there is no "one size fits all" tool for project management, Post-it Notes come pretty close!

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in April 2014 on ProjectTimes.com)

Posted on: January 14, 2018 10:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Improving portfolio management MUST be part of an agile transformation!

When we think of an agile transformation, improving portfolio management might not be high on the organization’s list of priorities.

But what happens if your organization doesn’t have an effective and efficient portfolio management capability?

There is a greater likelihood of having too many active projects which increases the risk of resource shortages. Instead of having a dedicated team of primary roles for a project, most team members will be multitasking between multiple projects. This makes it impossible to accurately estimate capacity during iteration planning and usually contributes to a team missing their iteration commitments resulting in delivery delays.

Multitasking also increases the effort to have a consistent understanding of the product and can impact quality as team members might be delivering based on stale knowledge.

If multitasking is not a concern, stealth or low value pet projects might be consuming resource capacity which is required to effective staff more strategic projects. This will cause delays to these projects.

Finally, for secondary non-dedicated roles which are needed to contribute to specific work items only, a lack of visibility into when they are becoming available will be a further source of delay.

If governance committees aren’t selecting the right projects which are in alignment with strategic objectives, and only kicking off as many projects as can be effectively staffed, it won’t matter how efficient, empowering or customer-centric the organization’s delivery practices are. In addition, if the existing portfolio governance practices are inefficient and onerous, by the time a team has finally received funding approval to get started with delivery, they might have insufficient time left to deliver even minimal value to exploit a market opportunity or to meet a regulatory deadline.

Portfolio plans are useless, portfolio planning is indispensable.

Rather than having business executives, finance analysts and PMO staff spending weeks coming up with the perfect roster of projects for the next year only to realize a month or two into the year that their plans have been disrupted by domino effect delays, new priorities or resource shortfalls, portfolio planning needs to be an ongoing activity.

To enable this, a lean but effective resource capacity management capability also needs to be in place to ensure that portfolio decisions are being made based on a current and accurate understanding of resource availability.

Agile delivery is not a silver bullet.

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in September 2017 on https://kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: January 13, 2018 10:34 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Be a Mindful Project Manager!

Mindfulness has received significant coverage as a good practice for improving one’s interactions with others on both a personal and business front. It is rare to find an article in the Harvard Business Review on leadership, conflict resolution or negotiation that doesn’t touch on the concept.

But what exactly is mindfulness?

Maria Gonzalez defines it in "Mindful Leadership" as “simply noticing the way things are.” Our own biases, emotions, and preconceived notions get in the way of truly seeing things for what they are. The decisions we make based on that altered view of reality are what get us and our projects into trouble.

So what does mindfulness mean to a project manager?

1. Be present. When meeting with your key stakeholders or your team members, don’t dwell on the past or dream of the future. Focus on what is being said, who is saying it, and how they are saying it. It can be a tremendous recognition for someone to know that the person they are speaking with is giving them 100% of their attention, especially because this occurs so rarely!
2. Be aware. Mindfulness is not about suppressing one’s emotions and reactions. It is about recognizing them as they bubble up and not letting them control you. When meeting with a stakeholder who has let the team down, or confronting a team member who repeatedly misses their commitments, it can be easy to let anger drive your behavior. Acknowledge the feelings of frustration but don’t let them drive you to an impetuous response.
3. Be calm. The first line of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If “, says it the best “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.” Not only does calm in the face of chaos help you make better decisions, but it is also contagious. If your team members see that you can be calm even when it seems like nothing is working out for the project, they will draw strength from your composure and will be less likely to make things worse.
4. Be focused. Projects can have hundreds if not thousands of moving parts, and team members might be tempted to juggle multiple tasks along with their operational responsibilities. By focusing them on one or two concurrent tasks, throughput will increase, and you’ll generate less waste.
5. Be clear. Emotions can introduce unpredictability and inconsistency into decision-making. If you know what the expected end state or outcome is for your project, and what the relative priorities are of all of the project’s constraints, then that can inject objectivity into the decision- making process.
6. Have equanimity. The “Serenity Prayer” should be a mantra for project managers. The uncertainty that is present in all projects will result in issues that you and your team will not have direct control over. While you may not be able to control the occurrence of an event that impacts your project, you have total control over your reaction to it. As the project manager, you need to set the standard of behavior for your team, and if they witness you accepting the bad with the good, and proceeding in a thoughtful manner, they are also likely to proceed in a calm manner.
7. Be a positive force. When your project is behind schedule or over budget, it can be easy to fall into a fugue, and this can colour your interactions with stakeholders and team members. However, if you can accept that things are tough, but still greet people with a smile on your face (and in your heart), that might be one of the easiest forms of recognition you can offer each day.
8. Be compassionate. Like charity, compassion begins at home. We are our own worst critics, and if we are beating ourselves up when things are going bad on our projects, this is likely to reduce our ability to cope with stress, leave us more open to getting into unnecessary arguments, and increases our likelihood of making poor decisions.
9. Be impeccable. This doesn’t mean that you are always right, but it does mean that you demonstrate integrity and honesty in all of your dealings. If you have made a mistake, then take responsibility for it and don’t look to find a scapegoat.

While each of these behaviors might seem obvious, incorporating them will take lots of practice.

Without this practice, the analogy of an anti-drunk driving television ad from the past decade comes to mind. It shows a view of the road through a windshield getting progressively blurrier as empty beer glasses are placed in front of the camera lens, one after another. Our emotions act in the same way – if we let them cloud our judgment, we are committing the sin of project managing under the influence.

(Note: this article was written and published by me on April 2015 on Projecttimes.com)

Posted on: January 12, 2018 01:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

"The creator of the universe works in mysterious ways. But he uses a base ten counting system and likes round numbers."

- Scott Adams