Project Management

Easy in theory, difficult in practice

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.

About this Blog


Recent Posts

Go slow (to go fast later)

Should we hire full-time or contract agile coaches?

The only thing we have to fear on projects is...

Transparency improves customer satisfaction

Handling complexity requires psychological safety

What would I want to receive from my team members this holiday season?

With under a week till Christmas 2019, Mike Cohn wrote a good article about what wishes team members might want to have granted this holiday season from their Agile Leads, Product Owners and People Managers.

But even if each of these roles were to grant all the wishes which Mike listed, there is one more role which needs to be considered, namely their fellow team members.

Give me a hand

One of the differences between a group of individuals and a real team is that with the latter we will see team members helping each other out without an explicit request for assistance being made. While it is desirable for team members to ask for assistance during events such as a daily standup, many times the need for help might emerge suddenly and if someone else on the team sees that their teammate is struggling they can provide assistance in a timely manner.

This behavior is often seen in professional sport teams. When an ice hockey goaltender is caught far out of their net while clearing the puck, one of their other team members who has much less protective equipment might put themselves in the line of shots until the goalie is able to get back in the crease. You'll almost never hear the goalie verbally request this assistance, but the teammate sees the need and helps out regardless.

Help me improve

While there are always a few people who don't like hearing the truth, most of us prefer to find out when we could have done something better.

Retrospectives are one forum in which teams can share what's working well or poorly, but these events might not be the best setting for providing one-to-one feedback as they are a group ceremony and the feedback will usually have been delayed by a few days.

I've written previously about the importance of radical candor - most team members would want their peers to provide constructive feedback directly while still demonstrating that they care about them. This is especially critical when the behavior violates the working agreements defined by the team. If the offending team member does not receive direct and caring feedback, their behavior is likely to recur and they could find themselves isolated and ostracized by the rest of the team without knowing what they did to deserve this.

One way to turn these wishes into a self-fulfilling prophecy is to model the behaviors which we would like to see from our team members. When you perceive that a team mate needs help, ask if they would like it before they ask you for it. When you see them doing something wrong, ask for permission to provide them with feedback.

Let's be the change we wish to see within our teams!



Posted on: December 22, 2019 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)

Don't be like a squirrel hiding nuts with project lessons!

As weather gets colder, it is common to see squirrels digging holes to bury nuts and other food items to feed themselves when resources becomes scarce during winter time. But given the volume of nuts which are required to sustain squirrels through the long winter months and the large areas covered by an average squirrel, they often end up forgetting where they have buried all of their treats. While observing the little fellow I captured in the photo above, I was reminded that we are not so different from our furry friends.

Whether we capture lessons over the life of a project or wait till the end of a phase or the project as a whole, we frequently end up forgetting most of the lessons we have foraged.

Squirrels will eat a few nuts while they are in the process of gathering them. In the same manner, there will be certain lessons which we can implement right away.

But what of the remainder?

If we just store them in a repository or, worse yet, in standalone documents or distributed Wiki pages, we are no better than squirrels who have forgotten where they have buried their nuts.

Thankfully, unlike squirrels who are unable to invent and use GPS-based nut finders, we do have a few options:

  • Enhance our standards by incorporating identified lessons. This option works well as there is no need for practitioners to search for lessons but over time it could result in overly prescriptive, bloated standards.
  • Share lessons in community of practice meetings. One approach would be to leverage the oral traditions of storytelling from our ancestors by taking dry, theoretical lessons and make them come to life.
  • Develop playbooks or other types of practice-based learning offerings for practitioners. These would offer identified lessons as options but not as prescription.

Putting the "learned" back in lessons learned begins with doing a better job of learning from the lessons we have previously identified.

Posted on: November 10, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)

Personal development action planning starts with the "What?" and "Why?" before the "How?"

Categories: Personal Development

How many times have you been on a project where your customer or some other key stakeholder has prematurely tried to jump to a solution without having fully articulated their needs and wants? This behavior gives rise to many risks including wasted effort, the perceived loss of autonomy for delivery team members, and a loss of optionality.

So why should we consider our personal development to be any different?

Translating the vision for where we see ourselves in the future into reality meets the PMBOK® Guide's definition of a project in that is a unique endeavor (there is only one "you") and will definitely be temporary (until someone invents immortality).

Through online discussion groups and in the in-person interactions I've had with fellow practitioners, two of the more common questions I am asked are:

  • "I've just attained credential or certification X - what should I do next?"
  • "Should I pursue credential X or credential Y?"

A reasonable assumption is that I'm asked these questions because I do list a number of certifications after my name in my professional written communications.

In such situations, I'm often tempted to channel my internal Twisted Sister (I was heavily influenced by 80's hair bands) and yell "What Do You Want To Do With Your Life!". Before I can attempt to help the requestor, I need to understand what they are aspiring to be and why that's important to them.

The same is true for those who aspire to a higher titled role within their companies. Is that a means to an end (and if so, the only means) or is it the end unto itself.

As with negotiations, let's seek to understand interests before jumping to positions.

Posted on: October 06, 2019 03:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

I, for one, welcome our new PM AI overlords

A frequently asked question in the main community discussion group is about the perceived impacts of machine learning on project delivery.

Some contributors worry that sufficient advances in AI will render the role of a project manager obsolete whereas others remain bullish about the prospects for the profession.

A recent Harvard Business Review article by Stephen M. Kosslyn titled "Are You Developing Skills That Won’t Be Automated?" would support a positive outlook on this topic. In the article, the author asserts that roles in which emotion and context play a strong influence will still need to be performed by human beings. We have enough challenges with human leaders struggling to inspire team members or effectively align stakeholders to expect that machines will have an easier time doing so.

I'm expecting that enhancements in current machine learning technology will free us from rote administrative activities which even the most senior project manager finds themselves having to perform from time to time. While such advances might reduce a full-time requirement for project administrators on large, complex projects, it might enable such roles to support a larger number of projects at the same time.

What might projec managers do with all of this extra time?

Being assigned to more projects concurrently is not the answer! If we believe that project management is a strategic role then we should be encouraging greater focus, not less.

Freed up capacity could be better utilized on frequently neglected practice areas such as stakeholder engagement, risk management and knowledge creation. Envision the potential benefits to your projects if you had even 10% more time to devote to such practices.

We could also invest more in our own personal development or giving back to the profession or the community.

Is it possible that at some point in the future, AI will have the ability to independently manage a project staffed with humans?

This seems realistic if we agree with Gene Roddenberry's vision of intelligent sentient machines such as Commander Data, but I'm equally optimistic that the next one or two generations of project managers will have little to fear so long as they continue to invest in developing their soft skills.

Posted on: September 29, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

The importance of radical candor for delivery teams

Kim Scott's bestseller is normally read as a guide for managers but it provides equal value to the members of self-organized teams. While she details a number of useful models within the book, her main model which positions a culture of radical candor relative to others can provide a good basis for team improvement. The culture of the organization in which a team is formed will often dictate the default starting quadrant for interpersonal behavior.

In those companies where higher value is placed on playing nice rather than being effective or in those where conflict suppression is preferred to confrontation, team members may demonstrate behaviors consistent with Ruinous Empathy™. If a particular team member is constantly tardy for daily standups, rather than tackling the issue directly, other team members will internally stew but silently put up with it. Over time this will damage their relationships with that team member and will impact the synergy of the team.

Where the atmosphere of a company resembles a shark tank, Obnoxious Aggression™ might be the starting point. When that same team member shows up late once for a daily standup, they will be so thoroughly chewed out by one or more team members for having wasted time that the offender would be likely to set multiple redundant alarms to avoid ever being put through that particular wringer again! Feedback is provided in a timely manner when someone violates a team norm or isn't pulling their weight, but the method in which the message is delivered bruises egos and, over time, results in a culture of docile submission and low psychological safety.

If Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish from Game of Thrones is considered a role model, then teams might start by exhibiting Manipulative Insincerity™. The team member who shows up late to standups will eventually receive feedback but only indirectly as a result of overhearing grumbling from other team members around the water cooler or through unnecessary escalation to his or her functional manager. Such passive-aggressive behavior not only delays the time for receiving and acting on feedback but it also erodes trust and reduces collaboration within the team.

One approach to address such dysfunctional behavior is to use Kim's model during a retrospective. Team members could brainstorm specific actions they witnessed (or themselves performed) which fell into one of the above three quadrants as well as recognizing other actions which demonstrated radical candor. This could be used to help the team enhance their working agreements or to identify specific interpersonal improvements. The challenge is that the team members need to be self-aware and willing to suspend their default behavior patterns in their participation. A skilled agile lead may be needed to facilitate such an event.

Psychological safety is critical within high performing teams. Knowing that your peers have your back gives you the confidence to experiment, to express vulnerabilities, and to ask for help when you need it. But another critical ingredient for building a good team is to cultivate a culture of radical candor.

Posted on: September 22, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."

- Albert Einstein