Project Management in Practice

Beyond the alphabet soup of PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, PMBOK, ITIL, Agile

Category Archives: Monitoring

How do I handle external pressure?


Project management principles are the same world over. However, the application of those principles vary widely depending on the type of organisation you are in and the type of external pressures you face. Here I use the word external to mean influences outside the project, rather than the organisation. PMBOK and PRINCE2 contend that the Project Manager runs the project on behalf of the governance team or the project board, so the decision on project selection and business case rests with them. Most organisations will use the experience of a Project Manager to determine the business case.

I work for a niche technology company that predominantly provides professional services and software development. Recently we have moved into the product sale market. One constant pressure we face is to limit costs of professional services in order to land a product sale. This is not unique to our company. There is always a judgement call between the appetite for cost the customer has in determining the final price. Regardless of the pressure, the effort required to deliver the outcome the customer is after does not change.

When there is internal pressure to reduce estimates, the Project Manager can negotiate with the sales staff to reduce scope as a trade off. That does not always work, as professional services companies are rarely in the position of setting the agenda. More often than not, they are responding to a demand based on gaps in the customers core staff. Usually everything is a must have. The question at this point becomes not a project management one, but a strategic one for the company. The project may be desirable despite possible overruns in the current project. There may be future projects, or may provide foot in the door to a particular segment of the market or may be a key reference customer. It is the Project Manager’s responsibility to quantify the cost appropriately, so the management can make an informed choice about how much risk they wish to carry. Simply adhering to the wishes of the sales staff is a dangerous game to play.

A second external pressure that constantly challenges project estimates is the pricing of competitors. This is a more difficult proposition to deal with, as the parties are outside the organisation and you will never have the full facts to compare your estimates. The opposition may be desperate and willing to undercut any estimate you provide. Equally, they could be significantly underestimating the risks and deliverables. The key here is to not look at your competitors on a project basis. Look at the pattern over a period of time and see if they are making a success of those projects where you are being undercut. If they are, then challenge your teams to sharpen their estimates. Be mindful though, there will always be cowboys in the market and clients willing to make to do on shoe strings. If that is the case, move on. Choosing to compete at that end of the market will be at the cost of reputation and professional satisfaction.

A third challenge a project manager faces is trying to recommend when a project should be terminated. Usually business cases are made to start a project. It is less common to continually validate the benefits sought in the business case as the project is in flight. Things can get complicated if it is a pet project of someone higher up in the organisation. It is imperative that a Project Manager is aware of what benefits are expected out of the project. That will allow for quantifying accurately if the benefits sought can be achieved based on realities of the project. Nothing is black and white in projects. That is why they are temporary and higher risk than Business As Usual activities. In some cases the organisation may decide risk to reputation is worse than loss in a project.

Projects are inherently risky and pressures are a fact of life. How we deal with the risk and how we quantify it to management is where a good Project Manager stands out. It is the organisation that makes the decision, but it is the Project Manager that provides the analysis to facilitate that decision.

How do I manage a distributed team?


As the world becomes smaller due to more efficient communication, distributed teams are becoming quite common. If you ring a customer service line in any country, the odds are you will end up being serviced by someone in Manila. Your latest Microsoft software was most likely developed in Bangalore. I have been managing projects with teams and clients  scattered in different parts of the country, and in some cases spanning multiple continents. I have been thinking about some of the challenges I face and how best to overcome them.

The biggest and most obvious challenge faced in managing distributed teams is the fact that you are not where they are. Even with all the new technologies, talking face to face remains the best form f communication. There are many forms of communications in projects – the truths, the half truths and the outright guesses. When you are managing the deliverables, you need to be on top of what is what. While this is not an insurmountable obstacle, it is a rather expensive one to mitigate. People work best with people they have known personally. They are more likely to be upfront with realities, than someone they find hard to relate with.

Working in different time zones also amplifies the problem. As an example, I work out of New Zealand and work with people in the west coast of the United States. During the southern hemisphere summer, it is reasonably workable, with abou 5 hours overlap. However, we lose a day. So we get about 20 hours during the week. In winter, during the Pacific Daylight Time, the overlap is as little as 12 hours. Our other base is in India, which starts work as we are leaving for the day.

Work cultures vary in different parts of the world. That plays a significant part in bringing a team together. New Zealand has a very relaxed working environment and an excellent work life balance. This is not to say, Kiwis are lazy by any nature. A lot of our innovation comes from this part of the world. I find Americans are much more intense with their work and put in significantly longer hours. Consequently there is always possibility of conflict if the teams perceive each other to be too pushy or too relaxed. Work cultures also vary in how people communicate bad news (or how they do not). While you do not want bad news in projects, if it does  pay to get it early.

If you are indeed managing people from all the different locations, the likelihood is you are not their direct line manager. They are each likely to have their own line managers to keep happy. This in itself is not uncommon in a project scenario. Temporary assignments from operational teams is a routine occurrence. It is quite different when you are not there to ensure the story you get is the reality, rather than the party line.

You can alter your usual working hours to accommodate additional collaboration between the teams. You can utilize advanced telecommunications to give a feeling of co-location and one team culture. These are all good measures, but intermediate ones. The more the teams are isolated, your picture will be less realistic and you will struggle to enforce uniform processes across the teams. The only way to bridge that gap is to ensure regular face time.

If it s important enough to have distributed teams, it is important enough to ensure effective management.

Can a Project Manager afford to go on vacation?


A True vacation spirit

Image by Kenzoka via Flickr

I recently went on a vacation after many months. I had almost forgotten what it had felt like to have some time off. As I returned I felt re-energised and about to recommend the same to others. Basking in that glory lasted until I sat in the first resource allocation meeting and I discovered to my horror that all the resources for my projects had been gobbled up and I was consoled … “you weren’t here, so we …”. Whatever the rest of the sentence was, didn’t make any difference to my situation.

I had made task allocations before I left and was expecting some clarifications from my clients on matters so I could make allocations on my return. Now I’m faced with a situation where I cannot assign what I had planned when I left for my vacation. I’m not one to let things rest as they are. I’m about to go negotiate with some of the other project managers regarding relative priority of tasks and make sure I get some compromise along the line, so none of the projects are compromised.

How on earth could this happen? In a services environment, it is not an uncommon scenario. It reminded me of something that I had taken for granted in my daily role – to be an champion for my projects within the enterprise, to prepare for possible resource contentions, following up on allocations and monitoring progress. For a while I was thinking if it was indeed wise to go for a vacation. Everything was going well before.

I had to pull myself back into reality. I had been feeling mentally exhausted and it would have led to something suffering – my health, family or projects. Working madder cannot be the solution. As I think about what could have been done to ensure I didn’t get the shock, I am convinced that each project needs a champion at all times to make sure its demands are appropriately represented within the enterprise. I can think of one particular person who may be having a heart attack as he reads this post. I can assure you that the resources are now in place :o)

Morale of the story … If you dare to go on leave, do leave a champion behind.

Knowledge sharing


I came to project management from a software development background. Later, I took on responsibilities of leading teams and designing solutions and most recently managing entire projects. I started off by running projects based on my experiences in delivery teams and approaches that I saw worked and failed. After some time, I did the PRINCE2 certifications. Then what? I found PRINCE2 had validated many of my practices, and in some cases given me food for thought on how I could do things better. Unless you work in a PMO environment, where there are other Project Managers you can learn from first hand, implementing many of the principles become a much harder task. Read more of this post

How do I know if my project is going well?


Cost Variance

What is the main job as a project manager? If you go by the PRINCE2 manual, it will tell you my job is to control the 6 parameters in a project – time, cost, quality, scope, risk and benefit. Let’s look a bit deeper.

Schedule Variance

In most cases, unless you are part of a portfolio of projects, most likely you as a project manager won’t be responsible for the benefits realisation. This is there to ensure the project is always concerned with delivering to the business case as closely as possible. With risks you can plan and have management strategies and specific budgets. If it is outside your tolerance levels, you have the project board to get direction from. You can tightly control scope through the mechanism set out for your project – either the project board itself or a designated change authority. Quality management is one area where PRINCE2 is quite prescriptive and actually provides a mechanism.

When you think about it closely, the two things that will set you apart as a project manager is on time, on budget delivery. Usually most project boards are willing to consider some amount of off-specification or compromise on quality. When time is impacted, you cannot bring the project back to equilibrium without compromising one of cost, quality, scope or quality.

Cost Performance Indicator (CPI)

Schedule Performance Indicator (SPI)

Where you or the project board may need to compromise may depend on how far the project is likely to be delayed and what the projected cost will be under the current scope and quality. It is very easy to know that the project is 2 weeks behind. Does that mean that the project will be delivered only 2 weeks later than scheduled? If you delve down into the reasons for the delay, the most likely causes are underestimating efforts or risks. It is more likely rest of the project will follow the delay pattern you’re seeing than what you had originally planned. So how do you measure the most likely completion date and cost?

Project Health

This is where Earned Value Analysis (EVA) plays a huge role. In your role in monitoring project progress, reviewing this pattern is critical. Say you are part of the way through a project. So far you have completed work that you had planned 758.55 hours to complete. In fact it has taken you an additional 34.70 hours to achieve this. This is your schedule variance. It is obvious that you’re spending more than what you planned. This on its own does not necessarily indicate the project is in trouble. In fact, the reason you may be producing the additional output may be because you are significantly ahead of schedule. Using less hours is also not necessarily an indication of being on track. You may be burning less hours than planned and as a result falling further behind in your project.

Project Health Over Time

To get a better sense of this, compare how much of the schedule you expected to be through at the current date. In the project I am using to illustrate, I had expected to complete about 786 hours of earned value (completed tasks). This tells me I am also behind on schedule. How far ahead or behind schedule and cost I am can easily be calculated by calculating the SPI and CPI indicators. If you multiply the two, you get an accurate reflection of where your project is. In my case here, I’m slightly behind on both cost and schedule.

CPI is critical to forecast what your likely final cost would be, based on current status of the projects. The fact that the estimates in the project so far has been slightly less than what it has taken to implement them, means the other estimates are also out. Plot the project health indicators each time you monitor progress. It will very quickly give you a feel for the status. Any single week’s assessment may not give you an accurate reflection of where you are.

Estimated Final Cost

Project estimates, especially in software development, is an art rather than science. If you get within 5% of time and cost, I think you have been successful. Therefore, I consider anything around 0.95 x 0.95 = 0.9 to be around the low side of acceptable result. Ideally you are not out by 5% on both counts. A project health score of 0.95 would be an outstanding achievement. How do I calculate what the likely final cost is? Divide the original planned cost by the current CPI. Based on current rate, this is what the final cost will be. Estimating final scheduled delivery is slightly more complex, as you have to consider the critical path. If the progress is ahead of schedule in tasks outside the critical path, in reality you won’t gain any schedule reduction.

The most crucial part of a project manager’s job is to ensure professional management of the project itself. The key to achieving this is ensuring anyone responsible for making decisions about the project is fully aware of how the project is progressing. Something running behind schedule and cost should not come as a surprise near the end of the project.

%d bloggers like this: