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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Technical Competency for Project Managers – Valuable Asset or Source of Risk?

The Achilles Heel of project resource estimation is operational work

A self-managing team does not mean no rules!

Do you deliver dazzling demos?

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

Technical Competency for Project Managers – Valuable Asset or Source of Risk?

A question that is frequently asked in online project management communities is "How critical or valuable is it for a project manager to have detailed subject matter expertise or technical competence related to the scope of their projects?".

To clarify, I am not referring to business or process knowledge - I believe that a PM has to have a good understanding about how the deliverables of their projects will be used and they should have sufficient process awareness to help identify the project and business risks that may reduce benefits realization upon project completion.

Here are a few of the benefits to having "hands on" knowledge and experience:

  • The ability to help with brainstorming possible solutions to issues as well as the ability to contribute more extensively to risk identification, analysis and response
  • When the team gets into a crunch, the ability to pitch in and keep the schedule on track.
  • Better ability to validate effort estimates from the team
  • It can ease the process of earning respect from team members
  • Avoiding the risks related to "I don't know what I don't know"

However soft skills don't usually increase from having technical competence, and yet, these soft skills are often the biggest source of challenge for PMs.

Beyond this concern, there are other risks to be aware of:

  • We often default to giving higher priority to those tasks that we are most comfortable with - especially when we are under stress.  For a novice PM, this could mean focusing on hands on technical work and neglecting core PM activities.
  • Whereas a PM with limited technical experience is likely to seek knowledge from subject matter experts, a technically competent PM might simply make an assumption based on past experience - since no two projects are the same, what was applicable in one situation may not be applicable in another. 
  • Unless the PM is making an effort to remain technically current, their knowledge might be obsolete which increases the potential for poor decision making.
  • There is an increased likelihood of deliverables micro-management or for technical head-butting with team members.

With constraints forcing organizations to cut costs when staffing project teams, a PM is often expected to perform multiple roles.  While this approach can increase the value the PM brings to the organization and is one way of introducing someone to their first PM role, it presents risks that a PM should be aware of and should manage through courage and self-awareness.

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in January 2011 on Projecttimes.com)

Posted on: February 17, 2018 08:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

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)

Which Star Trek officer best represents your project management personality?

Just like the officers on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise (original series, please!), the personalities we bring to managing projects can be quite diverse.

This is one of the profession’s benefits – there is no single right way or best practice to managing projects. And this uniqueness also applies to growth in the profession – whether it is crossing the chasm of business domains, focusing on getting better at delivering a specific type of project or even growing your skills within a PMBOK knowledge area, there are ample opportunities for personal development.

Here are just a few of the characters I’ve run across in my fifteen year mission exploring the profession.

James Tiberius Kirk

Like Captain Kirk, these project managers emulate the motto of Star Trek’s Federation by constantly seeking out new (project) life and civilizations. They relish the unknown – once they have completed one or two projects of the same type or complexity, it’s off to challenge themselves with something different. Retaining Kirk PMs can be difficult if your project portfolio doesn’t possess sufficient depth and breadth. They also are eternal optimists – like Kirk, they don’t believe in the no-win scenario.

Montgomery Scott

Some project managers possess Scotty’s exceptional ability to turn engineering lemons into high performing lemonade. They relish the challenge of taking on troubled projects and turning them around. Rarely does some one enter this role without having gained sufficient experience successfully delivering projects from start to finish but at some point they realized that their personality and temperament are best suited to troubleshooting.

Spock

If you get off on the science or techniques of project management and find the soft side of the profession doesn’t enthuse you, you might be a Vulcan. Such project managers rarely (perhaps once every seven years?) let their emotions get the better of them which can be a crucial skill when everyone around you is losing their cool. However, this apparent lack of emotion and empathy can make it difficult for them to effectively use influence or persuasion to help their projects and having to put up with illogical behavior from their stakeholders can cause deep frustration for them.

Dr. Leonard McCoy

If you come across as a bit gruff but underneath that tough exterior beats an empathetic heart of gold, you might be a doctor not a project manager. Bones serves as a good foil for Spock with one embracing their humanity whereas the other struggles with it. Bones project managers will possess a high EQ and are confident relying on that to help them make decisions more often than with pure logic.

Nyota Uhura

Uhura posesses exceptional linguistic skills and we all know project managers like her who know just what to say in a given situation. Such project managers are very capable of managing stakeholder expectations and rarely struggle with managing the communication demands of complex projects.

So where will YOUR project management career boldly go?

(This article was originally written and published by me in April 2017 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)

 

Posted on: February 07, 2018 07:02 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Breaking Bad Serves as a Cautionary Tale for Project Managers

You might assume that a television show which portrays the transformation of Mr. Chips into Scarface would provide more relevance to the logic of paying high school teachers as opposed to being a source of useful lessons for project managers. Hopefully I can correct you of that assumption!

**SPOILER ALERT** I hope that any reader who has interest in Breaking Bad is already aware of how the show ends, but if not, spoilers are going to be discussed!

In no particular order, here are a few lessons from the story as well as from how the show itself was made.

“Are we in the meth business or the money business?” – Walter White originally started breaking bad as a means to provide for his family after his lung cancer diagnosis, but somewhere along the way, his objectives significantly changed. You might argue with me that there was always a little bad guy within him waiting to get out, but his original intentions were driven by necessity and opportunity. If there is a major shift in a project’s vision, make sure that you work with your project sponsor to help your key stakeholders and team members understand the rationale for the change and what it will mean to them.

“Would you just, for once, stop working me?” – The relationship between Walt and Jesse Pinkman is one of the most fascinating aspects of the show. Walt appears to goes out of his way to protect and promote Jesse, but it is all done to further his agenda. Jesse frequently recognizes that he is being used, but goes along with it to get the recognition and attention from someone whom he considers almost a surrogate father. Project managers often wield a great deal of influence over team members and stakeholders, but there’s a very fine line between influencing someone to do what’s in the best interests of the project, and working them to satisfy your own ego or a personal agenda.

“So, you're chasing around a fly, and in your world I'm the idiot.” – One of the more amusing episodes of the series takes place during Season 3 when Walt’s chronic insomnia causes him to obsess about the risk of contamination from a single housefly which has entered the meth super lab. His attempts to remove the “contaminant” result in physical injury to him as well as almost maiming Jesse. Tunnel vision can often occur to us on high stress projects – we lose focus on the big picture and begin to obsess on minutiae. This is when having a trusted impartial observer can help to set us straight – so long as we are willing to listen to them!

“We're just getting started. Nothing stops this train." – The episode Dead Freight from the final season provides a great example of how a project which appears to be right on track can go horribly wrong if basic expectations for behavior have not been established with team members in advance. After Walt and his crew had successfully pulled off the methylamine heist in almost perfect fashion, Todd Alquist kills an innocent kid who most likely had not even witnessed anything incriminating. Had Walt done a better job of setting his expectations with his team members for handling such unforeseen surprises, things might have gone differently.

“W.W. I mean, who do you figure that is, y'know? Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?” “Heh. You got me.” – Midway through the fifth season, Walt learns his cancer has returned, but having achieved his financial goals is ready to live out his remaining days in peace. Unfortunately, his mistake of not disposing the copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which had been personalized by Gale Boetticher gives his brother-in-law, Hank, the final puzzle piece he needs to connect Walt to the meth empire. While I had indicated in an earlier lesson that obsession is dangerous, a lack of attention to detail can also introduce risk into projects.

“Sell off what we have and then...well, then I guess I'm done.” – Vince Gilligan knew he had a hit on his hands with Breaking Bad after the first season aired and he could have tried to keep milking the cash cow well beyond the fifth and final season. However, having spent several years writing for The X-Files, Gilligan was also well aware of the dangers of a show “jumping the shark”. Ignoring or encouraging gold-plating or other attempts to increase scope might appear to be harmless and in the best interests of the project customer, especially when you are ahead of schedule or below budget, but it’s not the project manager’s place to make such a decision.

To use one of Mike Ehrmantraut’s great quotes, if you ignore these lessons, someone may eventually say to you “If you'd done your job, known your place, we’d all be fine right now!

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

Posted on: February 02, 2018 06:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

D’oh – Homer Simpson provides some Project Management lessons learned!

While there’s probably a little Homer Simpson in all of us (especially when faced with a “forbidden doughnut”), he has spouted off some witticisms that provide some lessons learned for project managers!

  1. “Well, it’s 1 a.m. Better go home and spend some quality time with the kids.” While project managers are notorious for burning the candle at both ends, work-life balance is important as sooner or later, you will have no more (work) projects to manage.
  2. I want to share something with you: The three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: Cover for me. Number 2: Oh, good idea, Boss! Number 3: It was like that when I got here.” All great examples of what Neal Whitten would call project managers being too soft.
  3. Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.” Failures are not what makes us, it’s how we handle failures that makes us.  Project managers who get jaded or disillusioned after experiencing project failure are doing themselves and their organizations a disservice.
  4. I’m normally not a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me Superman.” Faith is good, but project managers need to leverage some earthly sources as well!  Having developed good relationships with your sponsors and stakeholders and (hopefully) having a mentor or two can provide you with multiple layers to your support “onion”!
  5. Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do?” Flexibility with regards to procedures and practices is important.  Applying a project management methodology rigidly regardless of the scale or complexity of a project will likely result in frustration and resistance from your team and your stakeholders.
  6. What do we need a psychiatrist for? We know our kid is nuts.” Even if you have specific expertise into a decision or issue, project management is about using the right skills from your team to the right problem at the right time.  Too many project managers take on too much decision making by themselves and undermine the skills and roles of their team members.
  7. Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. 14% of people know that.” Yes, statistics can be wrong some of the time, but failing to use quantitative project performance metrics means you will likely be wrong 100% of the time when monitoring your projects.
  8. How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive?” Project managers (especially seasoned ones) can sometimes become complacent about their own professional development.  While there’s a lot to be learned from the school of hard knocks, the profession is evolving with research across multiple knowledge areas and a project manager who refuses to spend some time on knowledge enrichment is setting themselves up for obsolescence.
  9. If something goes wrong at the plant, blame the guy who can’t speak English.” Scapegoats exist in all companies, and it’s often convenient (and easy) to blame project failure on one.  Professionalism comes from taking responsibility for project outcomes.
  10. If something’s hard to do, then it’s not worth doing” Applying many of the hard and soft project management competencies is not easy – this doesn’t mean that you jettison them as soon as things get tough.  To quote President Kennedy “…not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

And finally, here is one Homer Simpson quote that is applicable to all project managers “All my life I’ve had one dream, to achieve my many goals.”

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in October 2011 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: January 29, 2018 08:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)
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"All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure."

- Mark Twain

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