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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How will you know when a risk is about to be realized?

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So what happens when your new project really IS "rocket science”?

How many concurrent projects following an agile delivery approach can your company sustain?

All troubled projects are red, but some projects are more red than others…

Don’t be an Ostrich!

A systemic lack of predictability regarding resource availability threatens to trump unmanaged scope creep, technical complexity and organization change resistance as the primary source of project risks.  Achieving an organization’s strategic objectives gets impacted as transformational projects require specialized skills that are in high demand and in low supply – this was admirably depicted by Scott Adams in an old Dilbert cartoon

The obvious solution to this is to either add more resources or take on less work in parallel. The first choice is usually unrealistic and success with the second is not achieved overnight.  Reducing the volume of multitasking is a key to more predictable throughput, but convincing senior management that you can actually do more by doing less is not easy. 

In the interim, here are a few tactical steps that a project manager can take:

  • Pity the poor resource manager who has competing demands on his/her resources’ time!  Unless your organization follows an objective project prioritization approach, priorities are likely set by whoever screams loudest.  In this situation, your best chance of improving resource availability predictability is to have a positive relationship with these resource managers so that they will try to be as considerate as possible with your resource needs.  If you are really lucky, they may even be motivated to assess and modify the resources’ operational duties to help you out.
  • Reduce the degree of project internal multitasking – it’s bad enough that your team members are likely working on other projects as well as operational activities, but at least try to avoid their having to context switch between tasks on your project.
  • Multitasking creates inefficiency as a result of context switching. Reduce the effort wasted in context switching by simplifying the ramp up/ramp down for team members.  One way to do this is to decompose work activities to a low enough level of detail, so individual tasks can be accomplished within one or two context switching cycles at most.
  • If your organization does not have a standard PM methodology, work with your peer project managers to define a consistent set of expectations for team member progress and issue management.  If a resource knows that the reporting requirements are consistent across the concurrent projects they are assigned to, that’s one less thing for them to worry about learning (and re-learning!).
  • Walk a mile in their shoes. When team members have multiple projects and operational activities to complete, increase the likelihood that they will want to work on yours by ensuring they understand how their tasks (and the success of the project as a whole) will benefit the organization and them.  Remove as many barriers to their being able to efficiently complete their tasks as possible. That means no unnecessary meetings and be sure to streamline project administration and communications as much as possible!  Take a page from agile approaches and embrace the role of a project manager as being responsible for clearing the hurdles from the team’s path.

Resource availability unpredictability is here to stay. You can make like an ostrich, stick your head in the sand and hope the problem goes away. Or you can take some tactical steps to increase the odds of success for your project, while simultaneously evangelizing the merits of reduced multitasking!

Which is it to be?

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in June 2010 on Projecttimes.com)

Posted on: April 24, 2018 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (16)

Have you rotated your project's tires?

A semi-annual ritual for many who live in cold climates is swapping all season to winter tires on their cars and back again. This exercise also presents a good opportunity to catch up on any other outstanding preventative maintenance for our vehicles. 

For those of us who live in places which observe daylight savings time, we are reminded to change the batteries in our smoke alarms whenever our clocks spring forward or fall back.

Here are a few questions to consider if its been a while since you've performed preventative maintenance on your projects.

What's the what? It can be too easy to have our heads down and keep executing the project, but what if there have been some shifts in the environment which have eroded the project's benefits? While this isn't a primary responsibility for most project managers, ignoring expected outcomes might be considered negligence.

How's the how? Assuming we are comfortable with the project's objectives, are the solution and delivery approaches still viable? If we chose an adaptive approach, is that still the best choice? Are there any early warning signs that solution design or architecture might be flawed and should be revisited? Is there any waste that's been introduced in our product or project processes which could be eliminated?

Risks revisited? If its been a few weeks since the contents of the risk register have been reviewed chances are some new risks could be identified and the assessment of older ones might need to be refreshed. It's also a good practice to periodically assess the effectiveness of risk responses and see if any key assumptions made to date can be confirmed.

Stakeholders surveyed? Similar to the risk register, if there are cobwebs on your stakeholder register you'd likely want to see if any new stakeholders have emerged and whether the attitude, interest and power of existing stakeholders remains the same. How effective have your stakeholder engagement strategies been to date and do they need to be adjusted?

Team thriving? When's the last time you did a pulse check on the health of your team? Was your last team building activity months ago? Even if no one has joined or left the team, you need to regularly monitor team morale and provide opportunities for individual and team development.

Lessons learned? Has any new knowledge been identified, curated and most important, disseminated and learned? Even on projects following a traditional delivery approach, the team should regularly reflect back on what has been learned to help them and others improve.

Ignoring such good practices won't usually cause immediate issues but paying down project management debt gets costlier the longer you wait!

Posted on: April 22, 2018 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (19)

Leverage diversity when boldly going where no one has gone before!

When Gene Roddenberry staffed the U.S.S. Enterprise with a highly diverse set of races, species & genders, he used Star Trek as his soapbox to challenge pervasive social injustices of the late Sixties. However, by doing so, he also provided another benefit of diversity: improved risk management.

When you consider the Enterprise’s original mission, it meets many of the criteria for a large, highly complex project:

  • Scope – to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.
  • Schedule – five years.
  • A unique endeavor – its original mission statement “to boldly go where no one has gone before” reinforces how unique the mission was.

In multiple episodes from the original series, and later through some of the movies, we saw instances of where diversity was a key contributor in helping the crew overcome dire situations. One such example comes from Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. Of the entire crew, Spock was the only person strong enough to withstand the radiation within the matter/antimatter chamber to jump start the Enterprise’s engines. Anyone other than a Vulcan would likely have been overwhelmed before the process could have been completed.

So how does diversity facilitate more effective risk management?

When identifying risks, use of checklists and historical data can help surface uncertainties which would otherwise have been missed, but they are no substitute for a diverse range of expertise. If team members and stakeholders have similar educational and experiential backgrounds, there is a greater possibility of key risks remaining unidentified.

When analyzing risks or when monitoring early warning signs of risk realization, diversity is a good way to overcome risk biases and groupthink.

Finally, the quality of risk responses is constrained by the creativity and imagination of the team. It is well known that properly harnessed diversity promotes greater creativity.

So the next time you have the opportunity to tackle a challenging project, resist the temptation to staff the project with team members who are just like you by making diversity one of the key criteria for resource selection.

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

Posted on: April 20, 2018 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (16)

Never neglect the human side of agile!

Categories: Agile, Team Building

People and not policies, processes, practices or platforms are required to achieve successful projects.

This is why the following principle from the Agile Manifesto needs to be careful considered whenever an agile transformation is underway:

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done. 

The required shift is significant but subtle.

It's a project manager changing how they phrase a simple action from "assigning work items to team members" to "team members committing or selecting which work items they will complete". It's a sponsor being mindful of how she expresses her concerns when observing a daily standup. It's a team member volunteering to help peers without fear that someone will say "Focus on your work, that's NOT your job!".

Training at all levels is a good first step in the journey, but as with any type of soft skills learning, there is no substitute for hands-on experience.

Coaching will help to create behavioral muscle memory, but good coaches don't come cheap, and limited availability of effective coaching support could act as a throttle on the pace of your agile transformation.

Leaders who walk the talk are essential but it is insufficient to have only executive leadership aligning with the desired to be set of behaviors if functional managers or other important influencers continue to follow traditional playbooks. This is one reason why coaching services could add value beyond just delivery teams by reinforcing leadership learning.

Behavior changes need be embedded across all aspects of culture.

One way to support this could be by taking the Manifesto's value statements and principles and incorporating them in a personal, meaningful way into the company's core values. These will provide a baseline for verifying individual alignment during performance appraisals and could also serve as a litmus test for evaluating how well potential candidates might fit.

It's relatively easy to change organization policies or to introduce updated procedures or tools, but (to mashup Lao Tzu and Gladwell) changing human behavior requires a journey of ten thousand steps.

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

Posted on: April 12, 2018 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

The end inspires the means

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

When Kennedy delivered this speech in 1961, while many listeners might have thought he was dreaming they were also inspired.

Most of us can summon the energy to work on short projects, but when faced with a long, challenging project where the end state or penultimate objective remains fuzzy, if there isn’t an obvious “What’s in it for me?” answer, it’s little surprise that enthusiasm can fade.

In most environments, this gets aggravated by the multitasking faced by project staff – while the large, long running project they are on might be of greater strategic value, their understanding of the expected benefits of shorter projects or even of day-to-day operational responsibilities means that they may choose to prioritize those tactical quick wins higher over persevering on completing their work on the larger project.

If the vision for a project’s outcome is not obvious, it is our responsibility as project managers to engage the sponsor and others to be able to define what the world will look like from the viewpoint of team members, their managers and key stakeholders once the project’s outcomes start to be realized.  That envisioned end state needs to be depicted as personally as possible to the team, and depending on its duration, we should remember to reinforce the importance of the project at regular times over the lifetime of the project.

I’m guessing there’s a (very) small desire on the part of some project managers to live in the time of the Pharaohs when it was expected that Theory X measures would be used to sustain team member productivity!  However, persuasion is always superior to use of formal authority, and you’ll find that 1% of inspiration will help to generate the 99% of perspiration required to complete your projects!

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in November 2012 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: April 07, 2018 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)
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"A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat"

- Eric Idle, Monty Python's Flying Circus

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