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

Go slow (to go fast later)

Categories: Agile, Project Management

The January 2020 issue of PM Network provide a case study for one of the 2019 PMI Project of the Year finalists, the Société de transport de Montréal's (STM) eight-year project to modernize the underground Montréal rail system. I have a soft spot in my heart for this system, having spent most of my formative years in Montréal and having been a frequent user of its services while commuting to university and my first job. I always found it to be a clean, safe, efficient and reliable method of getting around the city. As such, it was a bit of a surprise for me to read about the operating challenges faced by the STM in recent years and the anticipated growth projections, both of which were the impetus for this ambitious project.

While this would be considered a small mega-project (CA$2.1 billion), it is still a testament to the team that they delivered it under budget and on schedule utilizing only one percent of their overall contingency budget. The post-project outcomes are also in line with expected benefits.

What impressed me about the case study was the number of practices which were used by the team which we would normally associate with projects following an agile or adaptive life cycle. This includes close collaboration and short feedback loops with customers, building a "whole" team representing all disciplines, performing operator training in parallel with build activities to streamline transition, and encouraging learning from failures rather than hunting for scapegoats.

However, what really resonated with me was the team's commitment to shifting quality left.

During the preliminary qualification phase for the new trains, problems were identified during integrated testing which hadn't been identified in the manufacturer's unit testing of the individual components. Rather than blaming the contractors, STM owned the issue and worked closely with them to fully resolve the issues. While this caused a two year delay to the qualification phase, over the remaining life of the project it resulted in minimal change requests and contributed to acceptance of the trains upon final delivery with no costly late stage rework required.

Complex projects often experience design or other solution-related issues early in their life. While no one likes reporting negative schedule variance, especially at an early stage, if these issues do not get properly resolved, or worse, are ignored to protect schedule performance (and to save executive embarrassment), the cost and schedule impacts will often be much worse later on.

Courage is one of the values of the Scrum framework, but it applies to all delivery approaches. As project managers, we need to have the courage to convince our executives that it is better to slow down now so that we will be able to speed up later.

A stitch in time saves nine!

Posted on: February 16, 2020 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

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

"... the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself."

When FDR spoke those words as part of his presidential inaugural address in March 1933, it was meant to inspire a nation to recover from the depths of the Great Depression.

But looking at global reactions to the new 2019-nCoV Coronavirus, I wonder if it would have been better stated as the only thing we have to fear is our reactions to fear itself.

This disease, like many before it, will injure and kill many before it is controlled. Economies will take time to recover from its impacts. But it is how we respond to it that will define how successful we are at recovering from it.

Whether it is the willful distribution of misinformation, hiding critical information to save face, latching on to snake oil remedies, or worse, ostracizing or even persecuting others just because of what they look like or where they come from, our reactions to this global crisis will either prolong or curtail the suffering.

So what is the project delivery lesson we can learn from this?

Issues will happen on projects. The magnitude of those issues will vary depending on the level of project complexity and the effectiveness of risk management practices. And sometimes the impacts of project issues can be dire.

But more often it is not the tangible impacts of those issues themselves that we have to be worried about, but rather how our stakeholders will respond to the issues. Acting on their amygdala impulses or using project issues as an opportunity to further personal agendas are unlikely to result in the best possible recovery outcomes.

I've witnessed projects which could have recovered fairly easily from an issue get pulled into a death roll by a few "crocodile" stakeholders. Rarely do these stakeholders suffer any personal consequences from their actions as scapegoats are easy to find.

So how do we combat this?

  • Increase transparency into what is known, what is believed and what is still unknown. Separating key information into these three buckets and updating and re-communicating this frequently will help to quell the spread of misinformation.
  • Increase predictability and consistency in our actions. When things are starting to spin out of control, stakeholders will be looking for stability within the chaos. If we are not doing what we say we will do, we will drive these stakeholders into the arms of false prophets.
  • Emphasize ongoing planning over plans. While it is important to develop and communicate recovery plans, we shouldn't fall into the trap of sticking to those plans when evidence refuting their value emerges. Our own biases will often be our worst enemies so reinforce the importance of radical candor among our trusted advisors.

"If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you..." - Rudyard Kipling

Posted on: February 01, 2020 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (15)

Handling complexity requires psychological safety

I wrote two weeks back about Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) and the benefit of models such as Cynefin and the Theory of Constraints for being able to understand them. What I didn't focus on in that article was how important the people element is when dealing with CAS. Two HBR articles published this week reminded me of that critical ingredient.

Amy C. Edmondson, who has literally written the book on psychological safety (The Fearless Organization), wrote about the culture at Boeing which enabled the 737 Max issues to fester for a long time before they tragically became mainstream news. In her article, Amy lists three contributing factors including:

  • A visible obsession with speed to market or cost control discouraging staff from speaking up about potential quality or safety concerns
  • Subject matter experts (SMEs) who remain silent during key meetings rather than raising concerns
  • A culture of "yes-men/women"

In the same week, Ryan Gottfredson and Chris Reina, wrote about the importance of leaders having the right mindset. Going beyond the well known Growth vs. Fixed mindset model, they covered three other mindset pairs:

  • Learning vs. Performance
  • Deliberative vs. Implemental
  • Promotion vs. Prevention

Out of these three, the middle one is apropos. According to Ryan and Chris: "Leaders with a deliberative mindset have a heightened receptiveness to all kinds of information as a way to ensure that they think and act as optimally as possible... Comparing the two, leaders with deliberative mindsets tend to make better decisions because they are more impartial, more accurate, and less biased in their processing and decision making."

This aligns well with two of the leadership actions which Amy recommends in her article. Leaders need to insist on input by explicitly soliciting feedback and by responding productively to concerns raised by staff.

So what does this have to do with CAS?

Most of you would probably agree that a modern jetliner is complex system given the large number of interdependent software and hardware components which all need to work effectively together under a wide range of physical operating conditions. While it is possible to build solutions in which complexity won't increase non-linearly as the size increases, this requires significant, sustained commitment to good architectural principles with an appropriate balance between quality and other delivery constraints.

When faced with a CAS, psychological safety within a delivery team is more important than with simple or complicated systems as there is a higher likelihood of things not going as expected which drives a greater need for legitimate transparency and candor.

Posted on: January 19, 2020 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

How do you handle unresponsive key project stakeholders?

It is a common challenge for anyone who has managed projects for a meaningful amount of time. One or more of your key stakeholders who are integral to the successful completion of the project appears unwilling to engage as expected. It could be the project sponsor who ignores your pleas for assistance with a project issue, the functional manager who turns a blind eye to your requests for staffing support or the executive who never seems to have the time to review and sign off on a key deliverable.

How should we handle this situation? As usual, "It depends!" is the correct, yet, most unhelpful answer!

While the response varies depending on the scenario, we need to understand the root cause for the behavior and then assess the range of options available to us within the specific context we are facing.

Four causes for unresponsiveness are:

  1. The stakeholder has insufficient capacity to do what we are asking of them
  2. The stakeholder doesn't appreciate the importance or urgency of the request
  3. The stakeholder has a hidden or visible agenda which is counter to the request
  4. The stakeholder is being influenced or compelled by something else within the system in which they are working to not meet our needs

If the stakeholder isn't being responsive to an urgent request they are rarely going to tell you the real reason why. You will have to do some digging to determine the truth. It is fairly easy for someone to say they are too busy or they don't see why your request is important when their real reason is they actually don't want your project to succeed. Or, they might take the easy route and pass the buck ("I don't have the authority") when it could be one of the other reasons.

Even still, once you've identified the root cause, it may not be easy or even possible to implement an effective countermeasure. For example, if you are delayed on the sign off from a key stakeholder, there is no way to proceed without that key stakeholder's approval and they are unable or unwilling to appoint a proxy, your project will be delayed. You might have done a great job of informing all other stakeholders in a timely manner about the cause and impact of the issue, but if schedule performance is one of your project's success criteria, it won't be met.

This is why the scope of risk management is so critical. Identifying critical dependencies, failure points in decision processes and stakeholder unresponsiveness issues from past projects can help us to be better prepared. It can also be helpful to identify common decisions over the life of a project and define the decision processes and exception paths up front before we find ourselves in trouble.

You can't control other people. But you can proactively plan your reactions to them.

Posted on: January 12, 2020 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (15)

Thriving at the Edge of Chaos - a review

Over the past couple of years I have regularly heard companies, their portfolios and even individual projects referred to as Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). With a CAS, understanding of the individual components does not convey an understanding of the whole, and reductionist thinking which can work so well with simple or even complicated systems is of limited use.

Given this, I felt it was somewhat timely when I was invited to review Jonathan Sapir's new book, Thriving at the Edge of Chaos - Managing Projects as Complex Adaptive Systems.

In the first half of the book, Jonathan does a good job of covering the challenges we face when trying to apply traditional planning approaches to complex projects. His differentiation between complicated and complex contexts, the importance of systems thinking and his walk through of the Cynefin framework make these sections a good primer on the subject.

Whether it is Ian Malcolm's quote about non-linearity from Jurassic Park, the old joke about the drunk looking for his keys around a lamp post, or the analogy of a fence and treats for a dog as examples of boundaries and attractors, Jonathan provides many quotes, analogies and examples which all help to make a complex (no pun intended) topic approachable for most readers.

A number of the principles he covers in the first half of the book will resonate with both agilists and anti-fragilists including:

  • Self-organization
  • Simple rules
  • Encouraging emergence of solutions
  • Preserving optionality
  • Distributed control
  • Rapid feedback

I liked his guidance that operating at the edge of chaos is where modern organizations should strive to be as excessive control leads to paralysis and eventual obsolescence whereas a lack of any guardrails will often result in chaos. Uber is frequently referenced in the book as almost a "poster child" for living on the edge, but I found the inclusion of Cemex and how they overcame the challenges they were facing in a traditional industry more appealing to me given that the majority of organizations are not founded to disrupt an existing business model.

The second half of the book covers Dr. Eli Goldratt's Theory of Constraints (ToC) and focuses heavily on its application in Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM).

While CCPM provides good solutions for dealing with common scheduling issues, I did feel that the book could have delved deeper in terms of applying ToC and other models to addressing some of the non-scheduling concerns caused by CAS. There could have also been some guidance provided for leaders who face the challenge where there are multiple resources who are all equally constrained. ToC works well when there is a single bottleneck but with multiple equivalent bottlenecks what should we do?

The following qualifier from the Introduction also raised some concerns: "This book applies primarily to repetitive, as opposed to one-off, never-to-be-done-again projects. It does not apply to software development projects that use agile methodology." I would argue that some of the most complex projects we have to deliver are highly unique. Also, while many of the ideas shared by Jonathan are already incorporated in agile methods, these approaches haven't fully solved CAS challenges and the book could have addressed those.

If we accept that complexity is going to continue to increase in delivery, Jonathan's book provides a solid grounding on the subject and I hope that a future revision will address some of the opportunities I've raised.

Posted on: January 05, 2020 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

"Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18."

- Albert Einstein