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

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

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

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

Posted on: October 31, 2018 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (18)

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,

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

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."

- Mark Twain