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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The five signs of a self-managing team

Impacts of traditional project funding models on agile delivery

Project lifecycles are like the seasons

Are you missing a musketeer on your projects?

The project management profession – crossroads but not dead ends

Which of these leadership traits do you demonstrate?

A March 2016 HBR article shared the results of the first round of a research study conducted by Dr. Sunnie Giles, which focused on identifying a short list of key leadership competencies. The study involved the participation of 195 leaders from 30 organizations in 15 countries.

The article provides examples of how these competencies can be demonstrated by executives or functional managers. Project managers are equally responsible for exhibiting these behaviors so here are some ideas on how each of the top ten traits can be applied within the project management context.

Has high ethical and moral standards

As a project manager, you have the responsibility to act with integrity and fairness in your dealings. Your behavior sets the standard by which your team members will operate. If you are a member or credential holder with PMI, this privilege comes with the requirement to follow the PMI Code of Ethics. Beyond the impacts your actions have on your project stakeholders, if you compromise these standards you are also damaging the credibility and reputation of the project management profession.

Provides goals and objectives with loose guidelines and direction

You must ensure that your team members have a clear understanding of what a project’s expected outcomes are and why the organization is investing in it. However, this shouldn’t be mistaken as permission to micro-manage the team’s work. While you do need to monitor and control performance, the emphasis should be on encouraging your team to come up with the most efficient and effective means of achieving the project’s objectives while removing hurdles from their path.

Clearly communicates expectations

In functional or weak matrix organizations, you might have limited or no formal input into the performance evaluation of team members. In spite of this, if you don’t effectively set expectations with them as part of their onboarding to your team, you shouldn’t be surprised when issues arise. Once again, I am not giving you carte blanche to dictate every step of how their work should be performed. You should make it clear what your needs are as far as reporting and control and then help the team to develop as a set of practices which will fit their working style while still meeting your requirements.

Has the flexibility to change opinions

You have to make a number of decisions over the course of any project, but one of the attributes of a good project manager is the ability to help team members and other stakeholders lift their heads out of the sand if they are affected by tunnel vision. Increased stress levels cause people to narrow their focus so this is where mindfulness techniques can help you get some perspective and redirect the energy of the team.

Is committed to my ongoing training

Successful project management is not just about reaching a destination – the journey is equally important. If you don’t take the time to learn what the development objectives are of your team members, you aren’t fully answering the WIIFM question for why they should commit their efforts to your project.
Even if the scope of the project is virtually identical to multiple projects they’ve contributed to in the past, you can still provide them with stretch opportunities to help their further development. And when it comes time for them to leave the project, act as a champion for their development objectives with their people managers.

Communicates often and openly

More than 90% of your time will be spent communicating, and ineffective communications have frequently been identified as a contributor to project failure - enough said!

Is open to new ideas and approaches

As project managers, we are on the pointy end of change, but it’s amazing how often we are unwilling to consider an alternate approach to an issue or decision. One of the quickest ways to stifle the creativity of your team will be to take the “my way or the highway” approach – it won’t take too long for them to realize that their ideas aren’t really being considered.

Strive for an eclectic set of skills and backgrounds when negotiating for team members – the greater the diversity, the greater the likelihood of unique solutions.

Creates a feeling of succeeding and failing together as a team

Although your team members come from different departments that doesn’t mean they won’t be looking for the opportunity to connect and form bonds with peers from other areas of the organization. Helping to create those connections and focusing on team building efforts throughout the project’s lifetime will increase the likelihood that your team members will act in the best interests of the team and the organization as a whole.

Helps me grow into a next-generation leader

Every interaction with our team members provides the opportunity to coach them and encourage the development of their own leadership skills. My own interest in the profession was sparked by a project manager who “walked the talk” that the role is more than just tools and techniques. How you conduct yourself in challenging situations will make a lasting impression on your team.

Provides safety for trial and error

If your project microcosm reflects the fear of failure culture of your organization, creativity and efficiency suffer as team members stick to tried-and-true approaches and frequently employ wasteful CYA techniques to shield themselves from the consequence of failure. You are in the best position to create a working environment where your team members can afford to fail fast, learn from their failures and succeed.

Developing leadership competencies such as these will not only raise your profile within your company but will provide a good standard of behavior for the stakeholders whom you work with.

As with quality, elevating organizational capability is everyone’s responsibility.

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in May 2016 on Projecttimes.com)

Posted on: March 26, 2018 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

How successful is your sprint planning?

Categories: Agile, Team Building

Sprint planning is one of the standard events within the Scrum framework.

This ceremony or an adapted version has also been incorporated within other agile delivery frameworks which time-box the work of teams. The purpose of the ceremony is to align the team on what they will be working on during the upcoming sprint to ensure that their efforts are focused on delivering the highest priority work items in a quality manner while maintaining a sustainable pace of work.

Successful sprint planning lays the foundation for a successful sprint but this just completing the ceremony doesn't mean it is delivering value.

Here are four common challenges which impact this critical ceremony.

Where is everybody?

Sprint planning is that singular opportunity to get everyone's buy-in on what will be accomplished in the upcoming sprint. Partial participation means that decisions are being made on behalf of team members who are not in the room. That is likely to reduce their sense of ownership for the sprint backlog and increases the risk that work may be accepted which cannot be successfully delivered without heroics.

While it might be convenient to conduct this ceremony first thing in the morning, the team should develop a sense of when they are likely to be fully present in mind and body and schedule it accordingly. Similarly, it is not advisable to start sprints on Mondays as that tends to be a more common day off than the middle days of the work week.

A lack of preparation

If the backlog doesn't reflect the Product Owner's priority, sprint planning is not the time to bring it up to date. Similarly, while highly mature teams are able to complete task identification, modeling, sizing or other preparatory activities during sprint planning, most others find that spending some effort in the previous sprint doing some look ahead planning will reduce the likelihood of running out of time in the ceremony or slicing off a sprint backlog with only a limited understanding of what needs to get done.

Appetite exceeds capability

Its normal for new teams to accept more work in a sprint backlog than they are realistically capable of delivering. However this gap between expected and actual velocity should reduce progressively sprint over sprint.

When a lack of predictability regarding team capacity is not a blocker, teams which consistently take on more work than they are able to deliver are either demonstrating a lack of self-discipline or they lack the courage to educate demanding stakeholders on the dangers of accepting unrealistic commitments.

It's my way or the highway

Whether it's the Product Owner or a (supposedly) observing senior stakeholder, there's no excuse for the development team being told how much work they will accept in a sprint.

Does your team experience any of these dysfunctions? Is your team sufficiently self-aware and transparent such that these challenges are identified during retrospectives? If not, why not?

 

Posted on: March 25, 2018 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Project managers can make change stick!

Organizational change management (OCM), while not a new discipline, is receiving more air time than it used to when the focus used to be on “just do it”.  Whether this is the outcome of well publicized changes which didn’t get implemented as well as planned, brainwashing by consulting firms, or an evolution in thinking on the part of leadership teams, it is a positive step.

So what does this mean for a project manager?

In most organizations, the project manager’s role begin once some financial justification has been provided to initiate a change and will end once the deliverables required to implement the change have been completed and transitioned to operational team.  Viewed through that lens, a project manager might feel that OCM takes place before and after their involvement.

While this is partially true, it doesn’t mean that a project manager can’t take a leadership role in setting the organization up for change success.

Here are a few of the ways in which this can happen:

  • Reminding the change leadership team of the importance of an easy-to-understand end state.  Change champions might have a crystal clear vision of what they are trying to accomplish, but if that same vision is not consistently shared by those expected to adopt and sustain the change, it will become very difficult to get commitment and alignment towards the same goals.  Through regular stakeholder analysis, a project manager can identify gaps in understanding and buy-in and can help to focus communication efforts from the change leadership team.
  • Ensuring that adoption and sustainment deliverables are not given a lower priority.  If the project falls behind schedule or runs over budget, it might be tempting to cut back on the scope on key OCM work packages.  In such cases, the project manager should engage appropriate stakeholders to identify and quantify the risks of such short cuts to avoid the “operation was a success but the patient died” syndrome.
  • Helping the change lead develop a detailed plan for delivering OCM work packages.  While a high-level change plan should exist in advance of the project’s initiation, that will not be at the right level of detail to identify timing risks with key communication or procedural deliverables.
  • Ensuring an appropriate level of involvement by those affected by the change in key activities.  Whether it is in requirements elicitation, user interface prototyping, desk-level procedures development, or communication messaging, active participation from those who are expected to adopt the change is a recognized good practice but may not be given the attention it needs due to competing operational or project priorities.  The project manager can help to reinforce the importance of this involvement and should escalate through their defined governance escalation path if end users are not being engaged at expected levels.

Project managers are expected to go beyond just meeting the triple constraint by helping the business to realize the expected outcomes of the investments made in projects.  Active involvement and support for sustainable organizational change practices is one path for them to meet those expectations.

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

Posted on: March 24, 2018 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

How do you onboard new project team members?

A past article I'd written covered the importance of preparing your team members to tackle a new project.

But what happens when a new team member joins in the middle of the project?

Onboarding is the complete set of activities which get performed when someone joins a company – providing their system access, finding them somewhere to sit, introducing them to their co-workers and so on. But onboarding is also crucial when an existing employee joins a new project – without this they are likely to feel disconnected from the rest of the team, and may not commit themselves fully to the project’s success.

Is this really necessary? After all, the new team member has likely worked for the company for a while, already has an assigned workstation, knows his or her co-workers and will probably understand what’s expected of them.

That may all be true, but a specific project’s team culture can be quite different from the culture of the department or organization as a whole. While the new team member may have worked on projects before, the specific practices which your team is using may be different from what they were used to before. They may not know all the other team members, especially if it is a cross-departmental project.

So what are some steps to properly onboard a new team member?

Prepare for their arrival. Just as you would want to ensure that a new employee’s workstation, computer, phone and e-mail access and even business cards are ready before their first day, make the new team member feel that their joining was not a surprise by informing the rest of the team of the new arrival in advance, finding a spot for them to work and confirming their access to project documentation and other applications.

Introduce them to your sponsor and all of the team. This seems like a small thing, but if they have never worked on a project for your sponsor before, establishing that connection will likely make the new team member feel that their contribution is valued. While they may not work directly with the full team, they will be equal custodians for the team’s ownership of its practices and work products so it is important for them to know and be known by all.

Hold a mini-kickoff meeting welcoming them to the project. While the primary audience will be your new team member, you should use it as an opportunity to do some team building, to reinforce key messages about the project’s vision and remind the whole team how important everyone’s work is to achieving that vision. Have your existing team members share some of the key rituals which are part of the team’s culture.

Find them a project buddy. Whether it’s one of the existing team members they will be working closely with, or someone leading a different work stream, identify a willing “go to” person who will help support them in their first couple of weeks. This is a great way to make the whole team responsible for supporting one another, and will reduce the draws on your time.

You’ll never get a second chance to make a good first impression, so onboard new team members with the same thoughtfulness as you’d show to a new employee!

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in May 2015 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: March 23, 2018 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (15)

Pay Heed to the Four Horsemen of the Project Apocalypse

Categories: Project Management

The Book of Revelation describes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who, based on a common interpretation, foretell the Last Judgment. Regardless of your religious beliefs or the extent of your theological knowledge, there are lessons which we can learn from these harbingers to avoid project failure.

The rider on the white horse is frequently identified as conquest, evil or, in mainstream pop culture as pestilence or plague. In the project context, a common infectious disease is chronic negativity.

Just like a contagion, it starts with a single dissatisfied team member or stakeholder who disagrees with the direction the project is taking, is disengaged or feels the project is doomed. While it is perfectly natural for folks to voice their concerns or to not always be positive, when this negativity becomes the new normal and nothing is done to manage the situation, other team members or stakeholders may interpret this lack of response as being an implicit validation of such behavior and it can spread. If swift action is not taken, the doom-and-gloom prognostications of Patient Zero can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Your role as a project manager is not to stifle others views or emotions but it is to be aware of them, and if you recognize that someone is sucking the energy and life out of the team, it is your responsibility to respond in a timely but professional manner. Often times the individual may not be sufficiently self-aware to know how their behavior is being perceived or how it is affecting others. In such cases an objective, one-on-one discussion may be sufficient to turn things around. These situations can also be a good wakeup call for a project manager – if morale has been neglected, it might be the right time to re-energize the group with some team-building activities or other types of recognition.

Another lesson to be learned from this horseman relates to effective change management. Ignore or marginalize the few who are actively resisting planned changes at your project’s peril. It is very easy for unmanaged change resistance to spread from them to the masses and even to infect those who you felt were the best advocates for the planned changes.

The red horse’s rider is generally interpreted as representing war. With the uncertainty which is baked into the DNA of projects and the high likelihood of team members having differing personalities, values and styles, conflict is to be expected.

Conflict is recognized as being a valuable driver of creativity and innovation so the goal should never be to eliminate it. Unfortunately, weak project managers are uncomfortable managing conflict and find themselves letting prehistoric “fight or flight” emotions drive their responses by either being autocratic and forcing resolution or avoiding conflict in the hopes that it will just go away. In both cases the conflict will fester, furthering the gap between the involved parties and increasing the likelihood of other team members or stakeholders joining the battle.
Escalating conflict impacts team morale, reduces productivity through distraction, and provides highly visible evidence of a project manager’s poor judgment and competency, and can often result in their removal from the project. There is no single panacea for resolving conflict but it is critical that a project manager recognizes it and responds at the right time in the right way.

Famine is how the black horse’s rider is usually identified and an obvious analogy could be drawn to the under-resourcing of projects. Unfortunately, in many cases, a project manager has limited authority over resource commitments, especially when working in functional or matrix organizations.

A different interpretation of the third horseman could be ineffective communication with the team and with stakeholders. Some project managers hoard or act as the gatekeepers on information. In such cases, team members are starved for the knowledge they need to be as productive as possible and velocity suffers.

In other situations, the issue may not directly impact the team, but might relate to how well the project manager is keeping stakeholders apprised of project direction and status. This can translate into dissatisfaction, misalignment and perception becoming reality as these stakeholders begin to fear the worst.

A project manager should not overwhelm recipients with information – situational communication which meets the information processing needs of stakeholders is key. The focus of the project manager should be to reduce distance and latency in information getting to those who need it to get their job done.

Ignorance of these three riders increases the likelihood that your project will encounter the fourth and final horseman who sits astride a pale horse – Death!

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

Posted on: March 22, 2018 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)
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