Easy in theory, difficult in practice

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

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Do you deliver dazzling demos?

Categories: Agile, Project Management

Demos, reviews or showcases as they are sometimes called, are a critical ceremony when they are run effectively as they address multiple project delivery objectives in a single event including:

  • Validating that what the team has completed to date is valuable from the perspective of their customer and other key stakeholders
  • Helping the team and stakeholders change or evolve their understanding of the desired solution
  • Getting signoff on completed work items in those organizations where such signoff is a required prerequisite for implementing change
  • Facilitating transparent progress reporting as stakeholders see what was committed by the team and what was completed
  • Providing team members with regular feedback and recognition for their hard work which increases levels of engagement and job satisfaction

But demos are just like any other project delivery practice in that their misuse could result in a worse outcome than if they had been skipped entirely. Here are some do’s and don’ts to help increase the value your organization gets out of demos.

  • DO send meeting invitations well in advance and if you are following a standard sprint or iteration frequency (e.g. two or three weeks) then schedule a set of recurring invitations
  • DON’T book demos on Friday afternoons to avoid having stakeholders who are absent in body or mind
  • DO share the wealth by having everyone on the team take a turn to present a demo
  • DON’T use the demo as your soapbox for complaining about the team, blockers or what could or should have been done different
  • DO provide objective context when sharing sprint or iteration outcomes (e.g. committed vs. completed)
  • DON’T present a demo without having tested what you are going to show beforehand
  • DO invite both your customer representatives and relevant control partners to your demos
  • DON’T overwhelm your stakeholders with content
  • DO record the presentations either in advance or (if you feel lucky!) during the demo itself for the benefit of any stakeholders who were unable to attend
  • DON’T take negative feedback personally

While this article is applicable for teams who are using an agile delivery approach, it is equally suitable for traditional projects.

Dazzling demos will help sustain the attention and support from your customer and will focus your team members on value delivery.

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in January 2017 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: February 14, 2018 08:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)

Don’t forget the two T’s of successful change management

When we think about what facilitates successful organizational change, we tend to think of visible sponsorship, active engagement of those involved in the change, and incrementalism.

However, I was reminded of two other important pieces to the change jigsaw puzzle after reading the book Agile Change Management: Trust and talent.

You might take exception to the first one and say that trust is necessary for any business interaction or transaction to succeed.  While that is true, there is a greater need for trust when people are being asked to leave their comfort zones and adopt new processes or tools.  When there is a high level of trust that the leadership team is looking out for them and acting in the best interests of both the organization and its people resources, there is a stronger likelihood that staff will take a leap of faith.

When staff distrust the intentions or actions of their leaders, they may say that are going to embrace a change and might even begin to adopt it.  Unfortunately, their commitment to staying the course is likely to be brief, especially if they hit the inevitable challenges which come with trying something new.  When this happens, they will regress to previous practices defending their behavior by saying that they did give the changes a fair try.

We’ve seen this happen frequently in the world of politics – citizens will blissfully vote against their self interests simply because they don’t trust the person who is pushing a platform which is beneficial to them.

Melanie Franklin, the author of the book, references talent in relation to those implementing the change – this is obviously important since the change will not be implemented as effectively or efficiently by those lacking necessary skills and further, the perception of the change will be sullied in the eyes of those impacted by the change.  Her logical assertion is that when we work on things which we are good at, we tend to derive more satisfaction and are more engaged in the work.

I’ll go one further and say that talent is an equally important consideration in those who are expected to adopt the change.  Nearly all change implementations including a communications and training component to help adopters learn new practices.  However, many times the change team does not consider whether the necessary prerequisite behaviors and skills are in place to ensure that the training they are providing will achieve the desired objectives.

My favorite analogy is that of teaching a caveman how to use a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.  You might educate him on the importance of a firm stance to absorb recoil, but without foundational understanding, he is as likely to fall to the ground and worship the weapon as he is to use it properly!

So the next time you are managing a change initiative, add these questions to your impact assessment checklist:

  1. Do those about to be impacted by the change trust those who are implementing and championing it?
  2. Do those who will be impacted by the change have the necessary foundational skills to successfully adopt it?

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in May 2014 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)

 

Posted on: February 13, 2018 08:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Beware milestone convergence!

One of the symptoms of lower organizational project management maturity is having more projects active than can predictably be delivered by teams.  Even if processes have been implemented for work intake or prioritization, if governance committees continue to accept all project requests presented to them (i.e. the project funnel is a tunnel) the likelihood of staff overworking but still under delivering is high.

In most cases, this may not be the worst thing that could happen – so long as project and functional managers are able to keep their team members focusing on completing the most critical milestones, delays on less important projects might be an acceptable inefficiency.

Where this does become more concerning is when there are multiple genuinely important projects underway and this gets coupled with a work allocation model that has most staff performing operational and project duties.  In such cases, there is a strong probability that at one or more times of the year, there will be a convergence of “can’t miss” milestones across multiple projects conflicting with the completion of one or more critical operational initiatives.

In an organization with lower levels of maturity, this situation can be similar to the chaos that would ensue if a half-dozen footballs were dropped in the midst of an unsupervised group of preschoolers.  In the organizational context, staff will focus on the project milestone or operational activity which has been given the greatest priority by their project manager (in strong or some balanced matrix organizations) or by their direct reporting manager (in functional, weak or some balanced matrix organizations).  Since not each team member will receive the same instructions or priority directions, the risk is high that nearly all milestones will be missed.

To avoid such entropy, the easy answer is for the organization to take on less work – they should cut their coat according to their cloth.  However, this requires a fairly detailed quantitative understanding of staff capacity and capability as well as a governance team that is judicious about project selection & scheduling – both signs of a higher maturity organization.

Failing this, what else can be done?  Try to avoid milestone convergence at all costs.

While the ultimate tool to help achieve this might be a detailed cross-project/operations schedule, this will take a tremendous amount of effort to develop and, in low maturity organizations, it will be out-of-date the moment it has been published.

A simpler approach is for project & functional managers to maintain a list of critical milestones for their project and operational responsibilities for the next few quarters.  The only information required to be captured is the name of the initiative, the milestone description, the true degree of schedule flexibility for the milestone (or rather, the impact if the forecast date slips) and the forecast date. 

When developing project schedules or creating operational calendars, project and functional managers should review this list and if they are in a situation where a new milestone will conflict with existing ones, a quick meeting should be called to identify the “pecking order” at the milestone (NOT project or initiative) level, and rescheduling should take place on all other initiatives.  If this can’t be done for a particular convergence point, at least the organization will have a sufficiently advanced “head’s up” to assign additional staff or other such techniques of avoiding contention.

Reducing the number of active project and operational responsibilities for staff is a long term goal for lower maturity organizations, but a good short term objective is to shift focus to key milestones across concurrent work streams to avoid perfect storms.

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in June 2013 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: February 12, 2018 09:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Have we learned anything?

In a recent role, I had the opportunity to review the lessons submitted by teams running large, complex projects and programs and found that over 90% of what was being captured and shared was of low or no value.

Back in April 2009, I published my very first blog article titled "Lessons Learned; Avoid the Oxymoron".  Since that time, I've gained a broader appreciation of the multiple challenges organizations face when trying to get sustainable, reusable knowledge out of projects and felt it was time to put a capstone on my writing about this specific topic.

So what have I learned about lessons over the past decade?

Patterns

  • Frequent identification - either on a fixed cadence such as in a sprint ending retrospective or just-in-time based on a team's recognition that there is something of value to be captured and shared.
  • Scrubbing and distillation - lessons are like a diamond hiding within a drab rock. Someone needs to take the time to harvest reusable knowledge from a raw lesson. This is not simple because stripping out too much specificity will result in a generic, low value outcome, but leaving in too much contextual detail will make it hard for a reviewer to decide whether it is applicable to their project or not.
  • Category-driven response - depending on whether a lesson is a reminder, an organizational blocker or true knowledge, its deposition will be quite different. Reminders might be a call for more training or guidance whereas blockers should be escalated to an appropriate owner.
  • Context-based guidance - rather than poring over hundreds of lessons spanning a project's lifecycle, it is helpful if a reviewer can be presented with a subset of lessons applicable to where they are in a project.
  • Likes and dislikes - give reviewers the ability to like or dislike lessons. Let the free market decide which are truly useful and should be retained and those which can be safely purged.
  • Regular incorporation into standards - instead of leaving it up to an individual to decide whether a particular lesson should be followed or not, those which are applicable in most cases should be baked into your templates, standards and policies.

Anti-patterns

  • Lesson suppression - sometimes the most valuable lessons are those which weren't shared. A good PM must provide a safe environment and approach to help stakeholders be open about sharing the good, the bad and the ugly.
  • Finger pointing - PMs need to ensure that lessons learned sessions don't turn into the blame game.
  • Going through the motions - a risk of capturing lessons frequently is that the activity becomes mechanical and produces little value. Team members should have the confidence to cancel a session if there is nothing of value to be shared.
  • Superficial parroting - as with requirements, the value of lessons comes from their analysis, not just regurgitation.

"The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing" - Henry Ford

Posted on: February 11, 2018 11:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

When it comes to quality, walking the talk means talking the talk!

Categories: Project Management

A Harvard Business School blog article shared some key lessons in creating a culture of quality within one’s organization.

One of those key lessons was the importance of leadership emphasis in creating such a culture.

While it is certainly important for leaders to model the quality behaviors they would like their individual divisions to follow, this extends beyond actions to the share of airtime given to quality through their regular interactions with their direct reports and with other staff.

In the context of project delivery, one way to identify whether there is a genuine commitment to quality is to count how frequently delivery-focused language (vs. quality-focused language) gets used during executive management’s participation in steering committee meetings or during their reviews of project or portfolio-level reports.

If the predominant focus in their feedback is on hitting dates or meeting financial constraints and only rarely are the topics of deliverable quality or requirements achievement mentioned (except when it is in the context of schedule, cost or regulatory impacts), this emphasis is not likely to be missed by project teams.  In turn, teams will tend to focus their efforts on schedule and cost targets – short term gains for long term pains.  In such cases, it doesn’t matter how many town hall meetings are held in which the importance of quality is proclaimed by leaders – staff know that’s just lip service.

To create a more visible balance between tactical delivery objectives and quality-related ones, sponsors and executive stakeholders should require quality-focused metrics at both the portfolio & project levels, and the determination of project health status should go beyond triple constraint or financial realization indicators to also incorporate assessments of quality.  Dashboards, wall posters and other such high visibility tools could be used to highlight quality metrics, tips & techniques.

This needs to go hand-in-hand with creating a culture where staff are not afraid to raise warning flags and where there is true transparency of health reporting from the team all the way up executive views.  In such a culture, taking a page from the Toyota Production System, executives could encourage their staff to be able to push a virtual “STOP” button alerting them of quality concerns in a timely fashion.

Where focus goes, energy flows.

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in March 2014 on my personal blog kbondale.wordpress.com)

 

Posted on: February 10, 2018 11:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)
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"My goal is simple. It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is, and why it exists at all."

- Stephen Hawking

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