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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What are some of the underlying causes of ineffective project risk management?

PMI plus Disciplined Agile might be a marriage made in Heaven

How open are YOU to changing your launch plans?

Does closeout vary between projects following an adaptive rather than a predictive life cycle?

Our stories aren't getting done!

What are some of the underlying causes of ineffective project risk management?

Since I first started to learn about project management, risk management has always fascinated me.

That characteristic of uniqueness which separates operations from project work introduces uncertainties which, in turn, generate risks. Most mega-project case studies give credit to an effective risk management approach as a key contributor towards their success. But in spite of this, risk management continues to be one of the weakest practiced knowledge areas in the PMBOK.

If eternal optimism is the prevailing mindset within a company, it can be difficult for risk owners to envision things not going according to plan. What has always intrigued me is how the same leadership teams which can be moderately effective at implementing operations or business risk capabilities will be so much weaker when it comes to project risk management.  A risk averse culture will take a long time to change for an overall organization, but a project manager should be able to influence it within the ecosystem of their projects.

Unhealthy levels of multitasking by project teams and stakeholders result in those practices perceived as unnecessary being jettisoned or being given lip service only. If a team barely has time to deliver the scope of their project, how can they or equally busy risk owners be expected to expend any real efforts on considering or responding to potentialities which may never be realized? And, if we combine this limited availability with "one size fits all" approaches to project risk management, it is no wonder that many teams will do the absolute bare minimum required to meet onerous governance requirements.

If team members and other stakeholders don't know what effective project risk management looks like, how can they be expected to improve? If there are no coaches to help teams improve their capabilities, improvements in risk management will rarely happen organically. Competent risk management requires exceptional interpersonal skills in addition to some basic technical skills, so hands-on practice with feedback from seasoned practitioners is needed to improve.

Finally, there might not be a realization of the positive correlation between effective risk management and successful project outcomes. In the absence of supporting internal empirical data or strong pressure from the outside to create a valid sense of urgency, senior leaders and project teams will be unwilling to sustainably invest in the required behavior and practice changes.

Providing practitioners with risk management training or evolving project delivery standards might help in some small way, but real improvements will only come when these root causes are addressed.

Posted on: September 15, 2019 10:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

How open are YOU to changing your launch plans?

During the last week PMI announced that, based on the feedback they had received from stakeholders, they would be delaying the significant changes to the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification exam which had originally planned to be launched in mid-December 2019 to July 1, 2020.

When I first read this, I felt a burst of vicarious relief for those exam candidates who were likely experiencing a lot of stress with the original date.

I have no doubt that this was the right decision for PMI to take.

The proposed changes to the exam are likely to be more significant than others made over the past decade. With the last batch of changes to the exam having been implemented in March 2018, a significant update within two years will not only cause candidates angst but will also reduce the return on investment for the study materials which training companies would have so recently updated.

After further reflection I realized there are some good lessons in change management with this decision:

  • As a not-for-profit association, stakeholder satisfaction may be more crucial to PMI than if they were a for profit entity, but regardless, they have been very proactive at communicating both the rationale and the scope of proposed changes even though these announcements were likely to upset certain the stakeholders. Often, while considering a disruptive change, our temptation might be to avoid communicating anything until there is a full understanding about the impacts but that usually won't give stakeholders sufficient time to react to the information.
  • They were open to hearing negative feedback about the changes. It's easy for leaders to say that they are willing to hear criticism about a change they have championed but much harder to take it when it happens.
  • PMI decision makers were willing to make a change late in the game for the right reasons. I'm used to seeing leaders' appetite for change drop drastically as a proposed implementation date draws near. This makes sense as change deliverables need to be sufficiently stable before a launch date, but if there is evidence that the benefits of sticking to a date will be outweighed by the impacts of a premature launch, leaders should be willing to accept some near term embarrassment in order to realize a more sustainable outcome.

I have no idea who was the decision maker at PMI who pushed for this delay to the launch date, but this demonstrates the sort of good judgment which we should demand from change leaders.

Posted on: September 01, 2019 11:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

How do you know if your team is being agile?

Categories: Agile, Change Management

It is easy to say that demonstrating behaviors consistent with the values and principles of the Manifesto is proof of agility but this test leaves significant wiggle room for interpretation and for exception cases which fall through the cracks of the four values and twelve principles.

It is also somewhat of a cop-out to plagiarize Justice Potter Stewart's famous phrase "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of behaviors, practices or methods I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["agile"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the team involved in this case is not that." This method opens the door to framework fanaticism and furthering the conceit of "there's only one right way to be agile".

Here are three questions you might consider asking:

  1. Is the team improving across the three dimensions of delivering business value early & frequently, improving product quality and making people awesome (as per Modern Agile)? A team might be capable of improving their performance along one or even two out of the three dimensions, but this often comes at the cost of the third. One could consider these three dimensions to be an agile equivalent of the project management iron triangle.
  2. Are regular feedback loops well established for both the product itself and delivery process and do these loops result in changes to the "what" and the "how"? Whether these loops follow a fixed cadence (e.g. reviews & retrospectives tied to the the heartbeat of a sprint) or are performed on a just-in-time basis when a continuous flow delivery approach is utilized, they demonstrate that the team possesses the humility and understanding that there will always been the need to inspect and adapt.
  3. Is there evidence of the team truly self-organizing when it comes to how their work is done as well as how they interact within the team and with key stakeholders? Key characteristics such as courage, respect and collaboration should be evident.

Agility should never be treated as "the" goal but rather as a catalyst towards achieving one or more business goals. But defining what it means to "be" agile in terms of the outcomes we want to realize can help us understand whether we are making a difference or not.

Posted on: July 21, 2019 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Just because you have information radiators doesn't mean senior stakeholders will review them!

Categories: Agile, Change Management

Information radiators are a great idea.

After all, who wouldn't want to reduce the effort involved in keeping stakeholders up-to-date about a product or project or increase the consistency in messaging to all stakeholders?

But convincing executives to use information radiators as a primary means of staying current is not an easy task. Yes, there might be a few early adopters who are open to trying a different way  but most are likely to prefer to receive these updates the way they've always got them through one-on-one or steering committee meetings using status reports. So project managers or Product Owners spend time harvesting and curating information from the radiators into traditional status reports or presentation decks.

This introduces a few challenges:

  • The activity of creating these reports or presentation decks is non-value add
  • The information shared is likely to be somewhat stale
  • There is an increased likelihood of reduced transparency as the "warts & all" information available in radiators might have been redacted or modified to fit the spin which the publisher wished to portray

So how can we help executives through the transition to using information radiators?

Start with why - if they don't understand how traditional reporting approaches hurt them, they are unlikely to have any sense of urgency about adopting a different approach. Whether it is reducing delivery costs or improving the quality of information presented, find out what concerns them and use that as a lever for change.

Second, you will want to ensure that the information radiators being published are relevant to senior stakeholders. Taking the time to understand what they need to support their decision making should help in creating dashboards which they will actually want to use.

Finally, rather than asking them to make the significant leap from a meeting-based approach to a self-service model, consider continuing the meetings, but use information radiators as the supporting materials for the discussions in place of traditional presentation decks. This should spark your stakeholders' curiosity as they are likely to ask questions based on their interpretation of the information published which will provide you with an opportunity to provide live "color commentary" about the project or product's status.

If you want management to change, you need to apply effective change management.

Posted on: May 12, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Scrum values can help your team become psychologically safe

While teaching a class earlier this week, a learner asked how will team members start to feel psychologically safe, especially if they are working in a company whose culture isn't fully supportive of this critical ingredient to a high performing team.

Updating existing corporate values, and senior and middle management leaders holding themselves and each other accountable to modeling behaviors consistent with these refreshed values helps as does coaching at all levels of the organization. For individual team members, the Scrum values can provide good reminders of our own responsibilities for creating a psychologically safe working environment regardless of which delivery framework or method we are using.

Commitment: While we normally think of this value in terms of committing to achieving team goals, this value can also be considered as a shared commitment to creating a safe environment.

Courage: The Scrum Guide encourages team members to show the courage to do the right thing and work on tough problems. This is equally applicable to interpersonal relations. It takes significant courage to speak up when you witness behavior which is corrosive to psychological safety especially when the person misbehaving is more senior than you are.

Focus: While team members should be focused on completing work, living this value also means that we are focused and actively listening when we are part of a discussion or ceremony. By doing that, we are better able to pick up on the tone and body language of others to understand if they are feeling uncomfortable about what has just been said or look like they want to say something but just need that little bit of encouragement to speak up.

Openness: Just as we expect our teams to be transparent about the blockers they are facing, the same level of openness should be exhibited during retrospectives or other opportunities for inspection and adaptation with regards to how we interacted with one another.

Respect: Demonstrating this value towards our team members means not only treating them with respect but challenging others who would show them disrespect.

Edmund Burke - "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Posted on: March 31, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)
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