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.

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Recent Posts

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!

Nudges might lead to better project governance

(From Monty Python's Flying Circus - Eric Idle)If a survey of teams was conducted to find out what they hated the most about working on projects, governance is likely to rank fairly high. Ask a group of project managers working for a large organization the same question and governance is likely to receive the most votes. This is because most governance approaches are or at least perceived as being onerous and viewed as barriers rather than enablers to getting work done.

Have a theoretical conversation with project managers about governance and they won't argue about its importance unless they are anarchists. Governance keeps both individuals and the organization safe and ensures that resources get used in a responsible manner. The issue lies not with governance itself but with its implementation.

An approach I've supported in the past has been for governance leaders to effectively educate delivery teams on the control objectives which need to be satisfied but then leave it to teams to figure out how to meet those objectives. The challenge with this approach is that if teams feel under pressure to deliver (and tell me the last time you were on a team which didn't feel such pressure!), without simultaneous emphasis on achieving control objectives, those might get ignored. The project manager can try to act as the conscience of the team, but by doing so they might lose the respect of their team, or worse, the full burden of satisfying governance requirements might fall on them.

A different approach might be to leverage nudge theory.

Wikipedia provides the following overview (I have highlighted in bold the two most common approaches for implementing project governance): "Nudge is a concept in behavioral economics, political theory, and behavioral sciences which proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behavior and decision making of groups or individuals. Nudging contrasts with other ways to achieve compliance, such as education, legislation or enforcement.". Later in the same page the authors state "A nudge makes it more likely that an individual will make a particular choice, or behave in a particular way, by altering the environment so that automatic cognitive processes are triggered to favour the desired outcome."

One example which many travelers have probably experienced is how bed linens get changed in a multi-day hotel stay. A number of hotel chains have adopted the practice of using a card which the guest needs to place on the bed to signal the housekeeper to change the linens. In the absence of this card, the housekeeper's default behavior is to make the bed with the existing linens, thus reducing the environmental impacts of unnecessary washing.

When introducing nudges there are a few principles to think about:

  1. Don't hide the nudges as we want to ensure that delivery teams are fully aware that they are being introduced
  2. Involve delivery teams in the design, development and roll out of the nudges to avoid change resistance
  3. Focus nudges on helping teams do the "right" thing as opposed to preventing them from doing the "wrong" thing as there is more likely to be buy-in when the outcome is a positive one.

So what nudges can YOU come up with which might satisfy the governance requirements faced by your team?

Posted on: August 02, 2020 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Control partners should have skin in the game!

Categories: PMO, Project Management, Tools

I finally completed reading Nassim Taleb's book Skin in the Game which I had written about in a recent article.

In that piece I had applied his principles when comparing the benefits of a product-centric orientation to the project-centric model which is still found in many organizations. But after finishing the book, I realized that there is a much more compelling example of the challenges experienced with risk asymmetry in many large organizations, namely with those staff who are responsible for developing the policies, standards and methods used by teams for delivering projects or products.

In small companies, how a product gets developed and delivered is usually defined by a "Big Brain" (e.g. a solution owner or similar role) or developed collaboratively by those actually building the solution. But as the size of the organization increases and stakes get higher, control partners emerge to influence not only what but how production occurs.

Where things get difficult is when these control partners do not experience first-hand the downside of their decisions.

For example, in some companies, project management standards are set by a centralized department such as a PMO. While some delivery roles such as program or project managers might report in to the same PMO, there are staff whose sole focus will be to define and maintain standards. As those staff are not in a project delivery role, even if they possess years of practical experience, as they won't themselves have to use the templates and tools which they have developed, they don't have true skin in the game. Delivery staff may complain to control partners about how onerous or non-value add specific practices are, but there is little direct impact to them.

There are a couple of ways to rectify this situation:

  • Serving in such control functions could be a rotational responsibility. After someone has spent a reasonable amount of time in a control role, they should be required to spend an equal amount of time in a delivery role. This will also help them better identify patterns and anti-patterns specific to a given context.
  • Introduce performance measures and incentives for control staff which are tied to the impacts created by their work as opposed to just the completion of this work. For example, quantifying the cost of control or conducting regular satisfaction surveys with delivery staff are two methods in which we could bring back skin in the game.

Method makers and framework formulators - practice what you preach!

Posted on: January 06, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

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)

The grass is not always greener in project-oriented organizations

For those of us who have worked most of our careers in companies with functional or matrix power structures, project-oriented organizations can appear very attractive in comparison.

This is understandable given the many challenges project managers can face when their roles are poorly defined or when they have no little authority over team members or decision making. I can recall countless cases of project managers escalating concerns over individual team member behavior to people managers only to be told that perhaps the project managers themselves are the problem.

Support for project managers can also be limited.

If they are lucky, they might report into a PMO which provides professional development opportunities and they can benefit from the support of their peers but unless the company is at a higher level of organizational project management maturity, the role of the project manager might still be a thankless one at times.

In a project-oriented company, the role of the project manager is well defined, they usually possess formal authority (including hiring and firing power) over their team members, and they are likely to have greater decision making authority than in matrix or functional organizations.

Seems like Nirvana, right? Unfortunately, formal authority is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Just because you have the ability to directly impact someone’s performance evaluation, annual bonus or even their job, doesn’t mean that will automatically motivate them to give you their best efforts. Possessing formal authority over team members can be a curse – you have to work twice as hard to capture the hearts and minds of your team members through vision, influence and persuasion as it is all too easy to fall into the habit of saying “It’s my way or the highway!”.  In functional or matrix organizations, that approach isn’t even possible, but in project-oriented organizations, team members will listen because they fear the consequences of not doing so, but you will get their support at the cost of true engagement and commitment.

In project-oriented organizations, the project manager can also bear the brunt of negative project outcomes. They possess the authority, but with that comes the risk that if the project fails or the customer is unhappy, they are more likely to be impacted than in a functional or matrix organization where decision making authority and accountability is diffused.

Finally, what happens when your project ends and there is no more work? Project managers in functional or matrix organizations might lose their jobs if they are unable to find a lateral role. In a project-oriented organization, lack of new projects could mean that not only the project manager, but their team members could also be negatively impacted, and the project managers will have to bear the resulting emotional stress.

Can project-oriented organizations be better than functional or matrix ones? They can, but caveat emptor!

(Note: this functional article was originally published on in February 2015)

Posted on: August 31, 2018 08:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (18)

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,

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

"I'll do the stupid thing first and then you shy people follow..."

- Frank Zappa