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

Humility is a prerequisite to agility

Tips for coping with multiple concurrent must-do projects

What are the tipping points for your agile transformation?

Three simple questions you should ask before kicking off a project

Project lessons from playing pool

Tips for coping with multiple concurrent must-do projects

Long-time readers of my blog will know that I support the concept and principles of objective project prioritization. However I am pragmatic and recognize that a significant percentage of the organizations who aspire to having objective rankings of their active and pipeline projects can’t get there overnight, and even as their practices mature, they still must successfully deliver multiple parallel projects with constrained skills and capacity.

If this sounds like your organization, what can be done to meet commitments while not ignoring the practice improvements required to achieve a more manageable active project portfolio?

  • Make sure must-do projects are REALLY must-do – As with any negotiation, the starting point for a project customer will be the one that is in their best interest, namely that their project is the most important one in the portfolio. However, the discussion around priority should always ask the questions “What’s likely to happen if we don’t do this project?” and “What’s the impact if we don’t do this project right now?” to get a more objective understanding of a project’s criticality.
  • Understand constraint flexibility (no, that is NOT an oxymoron) – Similar to the previous point, the initial response to “What will happen if we pushed the project back by a month or two?” or “What would happen if we added some external resources to the critical path?” might be negative, but you’ll need to dig deeper to ensure that the portrayed constraints are in fact immovable. The reality is that not all project’s constraints will be fixed – you can either be proactive and have those conversations up front, or back into them when issues arise!
  • Don’t overplan – With more concurrent work underway than can be easily delivered, issues are going to emerge and plans must be flexible and scalable to adapt to these challenges.
  • Prioritize milestones – Once a small set of must-do concurrent projects has been identified and preliminary planning has been completed, the focus of prioritization should shift to the truly critical milestones within these projects. Near term milestones should be given a higher priority as there is less flexibility or time to resolve issues related to those than with longer term ones. This does not mean ignoring longer term milestones – the confidence level of meeting those should still be reported regularly to leadership teams, but decision making regarding scarce skills should favor near term critical milestones.
  • Establish consistent cross-project resource contention issue management at the portfolio level – Significant effort and time can be wasted in dealing with resource contention issues between projects so effort spent up front in defining processes and governance for resolving such contention will pay for itself within the first few milestones.
  • Communicate the reality of the situation to all staff – Although the leadership team may understand the rationale for having multiple parallel #1 projects, if they don’t do a good job of cascading this information down through their direct reports to all staff, morale and productivity will suffer.

Juggling multiple balls might seem like an impossible feat to an untrained novice but just as jugglers develop techniques and practices to do this, it is possible for organizations to improve their ability to manage multiple concurrent must-do projects.

However, even expert jugglers eventually tire, and if the volume of concurrent work doesn’t subside to more manageable levels in time, inevitably one or more critical project “balls” will drop along with a side order of skilled staff attrition.

(Note: this article was originally published in August 2013 on kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: November 07, 2018 07:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (15)

Three simple questions you should ask before kicking off a project

Whether your company is operating at a low level of organizational project management maturity or is world class, one of the most critical points in the lifetime of a project is when it is initiated. Start too soon and valuable resources and time will be wasted while people are figuring out what needs to be done. Wait too late and work on the project may have already commenced in stealth mode and without involvement of key stakeholders.

Designing and rolling out a consistent project intake process helps, but good process rarely compensates for poor execution.

Here are three questions which can tell you if the project is ready to be started.

Why are we doing this now (and what are we saying “no” to)?

If there’s no one who can clearly articulate the rationale in investing in this project instead of the myriad other initiatives which could have been funded it might be best to go back to the drawing board. Beyond that, it’s important to understand why now is the right time to kick it off. Is there a committed deadline of some kind which will be missed if work doesn’t commence immediately?

Who’s backing this project (and can they afford it)?

If there’s no one who is ready to commit resources to the initiative, there’s little point in getting started. Even if there is a sponsor identified (both in the funding and executive support perspective), if they are at too low a level of political influence to be able to effectively align stakeholders, create a coalition of the willing and knock over hurdles in the path of the team, with even a moderate level of complexity, the project will likely get and stay in trouble.

Do we have everyone we need to start (and keep going)?

Even in the first few weeks of a project, a sponsor and a project manager can accomplish very little without active involvement of key stakeholders and team leads. If that critical mass of resources is unavailable, your project will burn time and money without making much progress. In some organizations, if the core team is not assembled, a project is not permitted to start. Faced with a hard completion deadline, that can help increase the sense of urgency across the organization to staff up the project rapidly.

The simplest way to avoid having a project fail is to stop it from getting into trouble from the beginning.

(Note: this article was originally published in January 2015 on kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: October 31, 2018 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (17)

Execution without vision is like pre-school soccer!

The quote attributed to Thomas Edison of “Vision without execution being hallucination” is one side of the coin. As Roger Martin wrote in a 2015 HBR article, execution without vision is mindless.

A good analogy I’ve used to express how tightly integrated the two need to be comes from organized sports.

Head coaches usually have the vision of taking their team to the playoffs or even winning the overall championship. The first failure occurs if that vision can’t be translated into strategies adopted by the management & coaching team including how they will get the right players, how those players will be forged into a cohesive, efficient team and which plays are likely to stymy their opponents. A subsequent failure may happen when they try to execute those initiatives. In either case, the head coach may end up looking for a new gig come the end of the season.

Pre-school soccer presents the opposite problem.

Small children have unlimited energy and lots of enthusiasm, and when they are able to make contact with the ball they can usually deliver a solid kick. Unfortunately, they possess limited attention spans, get easily distracted and require frequent gratification. Their rudimentary execution skills are good, but they are just as likely to kick the ball into their own net as they are to score on their opposition.

While most executives I know would not like the comparison to pre-schoolers, in the absence of an overall vision for a company or division, and without that vision being distilled into strategy, the compass guiding the decisions for those executives usually points to either their own ambitions or their assumptions on what is best for the organization.

Pet projects flourish within such environments.

Here are some of the warning signs which indicate your organization may be suffering from mindless execution.

  • Projects increase the level of risk to the organization without delivering commensurate value
  • Multiple projects whose goals conflict with one another
  • Decision making on transformational projects made by a single executive with little or no collaboration with other leaders
  • Significant shifts in scope driven from within, not without
  • Team members completing project work without understanding the expected benefits or desired outcomes for the project
  • Projects are never cancelled
  • The Abilene Paradox best defines your organization’s culture

My favorite expression from the Daleks of the popular television show Doctor Who, is what they’d say when their eye stalk was damaged: “My vision is impaired, I cannot see!“. This was usually followed by the Dalek in question being destroyed. If your company’s vision is impaired it might be your company that is Exterminate-d!

(Note: this article was envisioned and executed in March 2015 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: September 19, 2018 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)

What’s your sponsor’s benefits reliability rating?

Many of the companies I’ve worked with have invested significant effort in developing and implementing consistent project intake processes, often supported by fairly costly project portfolio management systems.

While these changes can reduce the occurrence of pet projects, they still won’t make a meaningful difference in portfolio value realization. Yes, increased effort may be spent in creating business cases than before and those business cases may get challenged by different levels of governance committees, but that doesn’t mean benefits will be realized as expected. Unless the requested funding is tremendous, the level of scrutiny the business case will experience is likely to be restricted to a quick review of assumptions, validation of SWOT analysis and other such sanity checks. To really validate the realism of the benefits model would require an investment of a similar (if not greater) level of effort which was spent on creating the original business case.

Most sponsors tend to display a strong optimism bias – if they didn’t, they’d be unlikely to sponsor transformational projects. However, this optimism bias can result in inflated expected benefits and the underestimation of the one-time or ongoing costs or the impact of external factors which could reduce benefits.

Without some sort of benefits management framework that insists on objective representation of expected benefits when baselines are committed and then regularly re-checks the likelihood of realizing those benefits, risky project investment decisions could still be made. And once a project is over, even if no benefits were realized, few organizations will hold the sponsor accountable for poor outcomes. While chronic offenders likely deserve some punitive action, I’m not a fan of tying compensation to benefits realization – while that creates “skin in the game”, it also might generate an overly conservative culture which could result in competitive disadvantage for a company.

This made me think about credit ratings – independently established metrics providing an objective method of evaluating the credit risk of an individual, organization or country. Could this approach not be adapted for assessing the benefits realization reliability of a given sponsor?

Similar to a credit rating, new sponsors would start out with a modest reliability rating. As they request project investment decisions and the benefits are realized (or not), their rating would increase or decrease. These ratings could then be used as an input into project intake reviews. Sponsors with good reliability ratings would be subjected to less scrutiny and have access to higher levels of project funding. Those with lower reliability ratings would have their business cases challenged more rigorously and could have more funding disbursement gates.

So who would calculate and publish such reliability ratings? This could be a job for your friendly, neighborhood PMO.

(Note: I checked the credit rating of this article when it was originally published in March 2015 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: August 28, 2018 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)

Warning signs of weak project governance

We all recognize the criticality of effective project sponsorship. The selection of the right individual for the role and an onboarding process to help them properly fulfill their responsibilities can increase the odds of project success.  Sponsorship is a key component of project governance.

Project governance does not end there.

There are always going to be project decisions which a sponsor won’t be able to make on their own. A common example of this is a funding request which exceeds the financial authority of the sponsor. Sponsors may also be unable to unilaterally make decisions or remove hurdles which impact functional areas outside of their jurisdiction.

What does overall governance effectiveness & efficiency even mean?

A well designed, properly implemented governance framework ensures that project decisions are made in accordance with organizational policy and that they fit within the organization’s risk appetite. It ensures that these decisions are made with minimal wasted time and effort such that project flow is not impeded. Good governance is also there to act as a safety net for issue resolution such that hurdles which impede a project and which can’t be resolved at the team level are dealt with in a timely fashion such that project impacts are minimized.

So how can you assess if your project’s overall governance process is both effective and efficient? How do you know that you’ve found the sweet spot between too much process and anarchy?

Here are some symptoms of governance gangrene which could help you make some immediate improvements or could at least help you to identify lessons which could be applied to future projects.

Frequent reversal of decisions. While this is sometimes caused by excessive multitasking or making decisions prematurely, analysis of reversed decisions may reveal insufficient engagement of the right stakeholders when decisions are first made. Thorough stakeholder analysis and consideration of broadening the governance safety net may be one way to reduce the likelihood of this.

Excessive effort spent on administration or documentation supporting decision making. If more effort is spent on supporting the decision making process than coming up with the decision recommendation itself, that’s often a sign of a bloated, wasteful governance process. Process analysis to determine non-value add steps could help to lean governance out.

Decisions or issue resolutions are chronically late with measurable impacts to the project. If death-by-committee is causing decisions to be made long after the time when they should have been made, an assessment should be conducted to determine if the processes are too complex and can be shortened and if not, is there a way to move up the timing for when decision requests are submitted.

Governance committees never evolve beyond the storming phase. It’s a good practice to establish a steering committee or advisory group on large, complex, cross-functional projects, but if there is no one supporting them through Tuckman’s stage of team development, your project could end up falling victim to long standing executive personality clashes or organizational turf wars. A strong sponsor can help in such cases by acting as an informal coach to the committee.

Blessed with a good sponsor but cursed with ineffective or inefficient project governance?

Diagnose it, or you might be humming “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”

(Note: this article was approved through lean governance and published in January 2015 on my personal blog, kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: July 13, 2018 07:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

"If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things."

- Rene Descartes