Project Management

Easy in theory, difficult in practice

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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.

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Let's flatten five agile fallacies!

Planning for those project disasters that no one wants to think about

What's the link between emotional intelligence and psychological safety?

How do you build your brand as a project manager?

Vigilance is vital to avoid velocity vices!

Are you an unbeliever?

I was asked a very unique question by one of the learners in a project management course I taught this week: "How do I motivate my team members when even I don't believe in the project?".

While I'd been posed this question for the first time, it is not an uncommon challenge. It is hard enough for project managers who are in full support of their projects to inspire disengaged team members so having to do so when the project managers themselves don't feel the projects are worth doing is much worse.

Start by confirming the issue does not rest with you. Are you experiencing some general malaise with the company, your role, or some other personal cause which has nothing to do with the project? If so, deal with that first, or recuse yourself if you have the option to do so until you can deal with your personal issues.

Assuming the challenge is with the project and not you, how do you go about addressing this?

You can't just grin and bear it. If you don't really believe in the benefits from the project, it will be hard for you to create a genuine sense of purpose for your team members. Worse, if you try to fake it, your team members will pick up on this and you will lose credibility with them which will hurt you much more if you have to work with them on future projects.

Make sure you understand the underlying business rationale for the project. Whether there is a financial motive or not to the project's existence, is there something you are missing with regards to its expected benefits? If you have a good relationship with sponsoring stakeholders, meet with them to ensure you have the full picture. Ask your peers if they can see something which you don't.

If it is a non-discretionary project, ask yourself why you don't believe it needs to be done? We always want to lead disruptive, innovative, sexy projects but just because you are working on a mandatory project doesn't mean that your team members can't express their creativity, especially in coming up with lean solutions to the minimal requirements. With such projects it is often a question of re-framing how you perceive them. By keeping your organization safe, you are improving its brand, reducing risk and opportunity costs.

What if it is a discretionary project? Even if it is not improving profitability or solving world hunger, is there any benefit which justifies the investment? Even if the answer is "no", could there be an intangible reason for it such as a promise made to a critical stakeholder which, if broken, would cost a lot more to address in the future? If so, why wouldn't you want to support it?

But sometimes the project you are leading truly has no merit. If so, this is the time to use your powers of influence and persuasion to convince the sponsor, governance committees and other decision makers to do the right thing. And if they don't, you have a tough personal decision to make.

If you are asked to lead a project and don't want to, always start with why.

Posted on: July 12, 2020 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

COVID-19 and agile are strange bed fellows

COVID-19 is like that car accident just up ahead which you know you shouldn't be focusing on while driving, but which draws the attention of all around it. After doing a number of articles related to the pandemic, I'd planned to write about something completely different, but as my weekly blogging time drew near I realized that there was (at least) one more topic I needed to write about.

I've often said that one of the bigger challenges with agile transformations is the costs of doing nothing (different) today is cheaper than those of changing things so that they will be much better a year or two down the line. This is especially true when you look at companies which operate in markets which are near monopolies or oligopolies as they might still succeed in spite of themselves. Implementing transformations such companies can be orders of magnitude more difficult than in those companies who need to always be more efficient and effective than their competitors in order to survive.

But all that has changed.

Operating budgets have been slashed, companies have frozen hiring, supply chains are under such heavy demand that materials may be unavailable when needed and staff availability is even more unpredictable. Regulations are being introduced at lightning speed, fast-tracking public policy changes in hours or days which normally would take months to push through.

And worse, don't expect a quick resolution.

Under such conditions, it is not enough to just deliver business value from your projects as early and regularly as possible, avoiding non-value add efforts and inspecting and adapting based on changes within and without.

Portfolio investment decisions will also need to be made in a similar manner. Funding plans might need to focus on shorter time horizons and provide Plan B (and C and D) options of what could be delivered with progressively greater constraints on investment.

Defining right-sized MVPs, MBIs and MMRs will be critical.

Product and solution viability risks will have to be explored much earlier than they might have been previously.

Understanding our cross-functional value streams and finding ways to reduce the cost of delay across them will be that much more critical.

And teams will have to take an enterprise-level view, making sure they are engaging delivery and control stakeholders appropriately so that business and control objectives are both being met.

And above all, we need to double-down on putting people first. 

Posted on: April 05, 2020 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

What's blocking your benefits realization?

PMI just released the Benefits Realization Management practice guide this month which provides comprehensive but still easily consumable coverage of a benefits management framework covering principles, practices and roles. There is no doubt that benefits management is a critical competency for any company whether they are for profit or not-for-profit but it is also not well  implemented in many organizations.

Overly optimistic business cases might be one reason for this as I'd covered in an earlier article, but there are other potential causes including:

  • An unwillingness to hold sponsors accountable for expected benefits. While punitive measures may create a culture of fear and drive otherwise effective sponsors away but there still needs to be some way of ensuring that sufficient due diligence has gone into identifying benefits. Independent verification of benefits analysis is one way to reduce inflated expected outcomes without scaring off potential sponsors.
  • A lack of objective definition of the benefits expected to be realized when executing a given investment. Even for initiatives with a financial benefits motive, it may be difficult to demonstrate causality between the outputs of the project and expected financial outcomes as there will usually be more multiple projects with the same types of measures (e.g. increase revenue, reduce costs).
  • Limited monitoring of expected benefits over the life of an investment. Projected benefits like scope, schedule and cost baselines represent what is expected at the point in time when they were defined so ongoing forecasting is crucial. Without this, delivery might be successful within approved scope, schedule and cost constraints, but the project's ROI is never realized. Sometimes there is no owner identified for tracking benefits during the life of the project while other times an owner has been anointed but is ineffective in that role or is unwilling to declare that the project won't deliver expected benefits proactively.
  • Benefits realization timelines are excessively long. The more time which passes between the end of a project and when expected benefits should materialize, the more fragile those benefits will be due to the impacts of internal and external changes.
  • Poor project delivery. While the outcomes of a given project may not change, if the costs or timeline for realizing those increase significantly due to delivery issues, the project's ROI will be worse than expected.

For leaders looking to improve benefit realization from their project investments, doing some root cause analysis to identify why projects aren't generating expected benefits can help them to focus their improvement efforts.

Mohamed El-Erian - "Investors have to ask themselves two questions. How much can we grow our investments? And, can we afford our mistakes?"

Posted on: January 20, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Organizational team culture – the Achilles Heel of concurrent project management?

I attended a thought provoking session at PMI’s 2010 Research & Education Conference which covered factors necessary for project managers to successfully manage multiple concurrent projects.

The research was done based on a single large financial organization focusing on their IT project portfolio.  However, the findings from the research align very closely with anecdotal evidence from past clients and industries I’ve worked with.

The top two factors (in order of priority out of a set of five in total) identified as contributing to effective multi-project management were:

  • Teamwork oriented culture (organizationally)
  • PM competency

The second factor is no surprise – good staff can overcome bad processes and tools to deliver expected results so long as they are pointed in the right direction and suitably motivated!

The first factor is less obvious, especially since it trumped other factors including consistent PM process & methodology, sufficient & sustainable people allocation and consistent practices for selecting & assigning PMs to projects.

However, think about the challenge of managing multiple projects when you DON’T have a good teamwork oriented culture.  There will likely not be individual commitment to work products, reward for performance, open communication & team work.  If these attributes are not present, a PM spends a significant amount of time escalating people performance issues, trying to motivate disengaged team members and chasing after “invisible” stakeholders and sponsors.  While this is aggravating on even a single project, a PM with sufficient experience and influence can still succeed.  However, when managing multiple concurrent projects, the PM does not have the luxury of time to focus on this and this will impact their overall effectiveness.

Understanding that the need for concurrent project management is not likely to go away anytime soon, organizations need to ensure that they increase their PMs odds for success by fostering a suitable organizational teamwork oriented culture.  This could start by introducing team member evaluations tied to performance on projects, providing basic PM training for all team members, and requiring commitment to accountability for all staff.

(Note: this arrow was originally shot in July 2010 towards the target of kbondale.wordpress.com)

Posted on: December 19, 2018 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

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)
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