Project Management in Practice

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Category Archives: People

How do I manage during uncertainty?


If you are in New Zealand, you have probably had enough of the earthquakes. Difficulties Christchurch faced is known worldwide. In recent time my home city of Wellington has also suffered from a magnitude 6.5 earthquake followed by several aftershocks of over 5. Fortunately Wellington appears to have escaped reasonably lightly due to its rock base and higher standard of building code, due to its location on a known fault line.

How do I manage during uncertainty

I did a lot of consulting at the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) during its trying times. I saw a lot of their challenges first hand. What I had not experienced is the frazzled nerves. I always had the option of leaving, if the going got too tough. I have no such luxury in Wellington. Our office building has developed cracks in the stairwell, enough for management to be concerned about evacuating safely in the event of another emergency. We have decided to evacuate voluntarily until an independent engineering assessment is completed.

While that happens, we are in indefinite exile from the office. After the first earthquake some of the staff were locked out without access to their laptops. For an IT consultancy missing your laptop is like missing a limb. There is only so much you can do without it. We were back in the office for only a day before the continued aftershocks resulted in the evacuation. At least this time we had the opportunity for an orderly evacuation and took with us our laptops, notes, password stores, two factor authentication devices … basically things the team needs to do its work. Thankfully our document, work and incident management systems are all internet based.

The first lesson I have learned through this experience is about logistics. We have traditionally asked staff to turn off their laptops when leaving the office to save electricity. I have since asked my team to leave it plugged in and hibernation setting turned off or to take the laptop home. This to ensure in an unplanned office closure, we can be in a position to either provide them remote access to their laptop or they have it at their disposal.

We have dongles and other forms of access keys to connect to our customer environments to provide support. We are getting a second set of these from our customers and storing them at one of our other offices in a different city. When some of the team did not have access to their laptops, we switched our service model temporarily to provide advice and on-site consultancy. Many of our staff take their laptops home, so this was somewhat manageable. This approach does not always work. What is convenient to us is not always convenient for our customers, and you have to accept that.

The second and most important lesson I have learned is the value of co-location. I have stayed in touch with most of my team on a regular basis to provide direction, progress information and in general ensure well being of the team. What takes minimal time when you are together in the office takes significantly longer over the phone. Staff do appreciate being kept in touch. There is nothing like feeling left to fend for yourself to kill productivity. Lack of access to the regular work items will do enough of that.

I organised some localised meet ups to retain some level of camaraderie. Like other large cities, not everyone can make those at the same time with disruptions to public transport, lack of parking and access to central business district. Now that some of those challenges are abated, we are organising a room where staff can have meetings and drop in from time to time. What is lost in working on your own for prolonged periods is the ability to learn from each other.

While we had been working on a disaster resilience initiative, last fortnight has proved we are nowhere near there. It has been a challenging experience running a team size of ours remotely for extended periods. I have intentionally kept this post off the topic of financial impact and insurance, as my intention is to ponder the human elements in such situations. If you have experienced similar challenges and have found steps that work well, or does not work so well, I will be glad to hear.

As with what I saw in Christchurch, I am pleasantly surprised at the resilience of the team. Human beings have an amazing capacity to adapt to challenging situations.

Image Credit: Stuff.co.nz

Should government be in the business of IT?


I was reflecting on the news during the week that a second head has rolled in the Novopay debacle. After Education Secretary Lesley Longstone, Deputy Secretary Anne Jackson has also fallen on her sword. There has been some interesting commentary regarding the extent government should be involved in IT.

should government be in the business of ITGovernment policy changes as often as election cycles, sometimes even more frequently with change of ministers. It seems quite a common consensus around the developed world that government is gradually stepping away from providing the IT services and replacing with suppliers. I have worked most of my career in the supplier space. Still I wonder if sometimes it provides the best outcome for the governments. There are good reasons to outsource to experts. Are there equally good reasons not to?

In my experience, those of us working in IT have an inflated sense of self worth. We tend to forget that IT is almost without exception an enabler of capability. No one does IT because they need to deliver IT. It is therefore a support activity to help core deliverables of an organisation. It is argued that this activity should be outsourced to experts to deliver. Expertise in IT does not equal expertise in delivering the business outcomes for the organisation. This distinction is not always made.

Quality in any IT service delivery is relative to the the context. You can provide a quality service only when you build up knowledge of the outcomes the organisation is trying to deliver. A good understanding of the constraints are also needed for success. These are constantly evolving. In a usual scenario a number of suppliers will provide a range of services to an organisation. Typically none will have visibility of the end outcomes desired. There are so many instances of projects delivered to specifications that do not deliver business benefits, it is frightening.

The pressure from bean counters to reduce head count has resulted in false accounting. People are very resourceful and learn to manipulate systems to get what they need. By reducing IT head count, the cost is passed on to specific projects. When suppliers are engaged in those projects, government is paying for the actual cost to deliver the project + contingency applied by the supplier + supplier’s profit margin. Even if you retain the same vendor, you are not always guaranteed retention of intellectual property. In reality the cost to deliver the same outcome is no less, and is likely to be significantly more.

I do not see government contracting model encouraging sharing of risks and rewards. Contracting method encourages offloading risks totally to the other party. This results in most contracts being administered in an adversarial way. Where deliverables are provided for a fixed cost, suppliers will always try and deliver minimum that will pass acceptance, rather than trying to maximise outcomes. Where many individual contractors are used, I have seen instances where they have tried to stretch out the delivery in subtle ways.

The role of the government is to deliver a service to the taxpayers. All that is required to deliver the service in an effective and efficient manner should be part of the role of government. A government department has its own legal teams and human resource staff. Why should IT be any different. This is even more critical considering the long list of failed IT projects. Disagree? Let’s discuss.

How much financial knowledge do Project Managers need?


I attended a training seminar the other day on finance and accounting for non financial managers. It was an interesting training course. If you consider the constraints within which project managers must work to, one is financial. The last time I studied anything remotely close was accounting 101 during the first year of my under graduate degree some 17 years ago.

How much financial knowledge to Project Managers need

The course was run by Victoria University Professional and Executive Development school. Not being a student of accounting and finance, the seminar title seemed like exactly something that I’d be able to use in my project management role. As the course outline was being set out, I realised this was probably the wrong form of accounting for me. The primary focus was on accounting concepts and how to understand company accounts and performance. It appears management accounting is what I should’ve been looking into for making decisions based on numbers.

While I didn’t totally achieve what I wanted to in terms of outcome, it wasn’t a total waste of time either. We focused on importance of cash and return on investment based on various capitalisation models. I had never thought to consider projects, or even business cases along those lines. It is a very useful knowledge to have when considering the straight ROI figures. I will be much wiser to attempts at manipulation along those lines.

This all made me think, how much financial knowledge o you really need to manage projects effectively? Projects are usually incurring expense until such time it is transitioned into the business. Usually project managers will not be responsible for the realisation of he benefits. That means unlike accounting, all the numbers are in one direction. That is why most project managers will be able to get away with limited or no accounting and finance knowledge, as long as te are reasonably good with numbers.

This all changes when the project manger becomes responsible for both generating income and controlling expenses, which is the case in supplier environments. I have a set number of resources that I can utilise for various projects. How I use these resources not only determines success, but also income for my team. In strict sense this is more akin to portfolio management, rather than project management. In this scenario, I found the focus on importance of cashflow and various funding models was very useful.

If you are running a programme that is designed to deliver a financial benefit, I can see a very practical application in terms of analysing if you’re meeting the desired profit targets. Similarly, if your benefits can be quantified in terms of monetary value, then understanding accounting and finance is very useful. However, in general I haven’t found the lack of understanding in this area hasn’t necessarily made life any more difficult, as I am comfortable with numbers in general.

My role involves more than simply managing projects. It also includes forecasting of revenues, participating in the sales process and contributing to strategy among others. I still think understanding management accounting may be very useful. I will probably look to get some more professional development in that area. Again, those in my view are more portfolio management in nature, rather than project management.

What has your experience been? Am I totally off track?

Image Credit: best-financemanager.com

5 things to do when projects go wrong


5-things-to-do-when-projects-go-wrongAnyone spending a decent amount of time in project management field will sometimes have projects from time to time that experience significant difficulties. For all the planning, it is never possible to predict all the eventualities and therefore foreseeing all risks. Projects are by nature more risky than other business activities. It is always useful to apply a few techniques to aid in such situations.

1. Show leadership

An oft repeated cliché this is something that is hard to explain in terms of action. When things go wrong there is plenty of nerves in the project team and management. Project team members often struggle to think beyond their immediate problem. You will find internal executives or sponsors worrying about contractual obligations and any fallout with the customer. Showing leadership in this context is to ensure this uncertainty does not spread into panic. The role of the project manager is to steer a clear course and stopping any blame game that may raise its ugly head. Now is not the time for that. Focus on why after the project.

2. Avoid temptation to simply throw more resource

A common reaction to a struggling project is to throw more resources at it. If the project is of high visibility and management is not able to provide subject matter expertise, they will feel they need to contribute somehow to correct it. The commodity at their disposal is resources. Be wary of this. More cooks do not equate to a better dish. You may need to enlist some mentoring for project team members or even yourself if you are managing a project outside of your technical expertise. Always consider how much time it will take before new resources can contribute to the project. If the issue is time, you will virtually ensure a delayed delivery by adding resources. Also take into account the additional communication required to successfully integrate them.

3. Avoid sugar coating

There is a temptation to play things down as things start going wrong to avoid creating panic. I have found it easier to be transparent about progress. Late surprises will compromise integrity of the project like no other. While your stakeholders likely be upset with you, in the long run it will get you more respect. You need to be clear with communication internally. If you need some of your resources to be allowed uninterrupted project time, you need to give that clear sense of urgency. Otherwise, you will not get the outcome you desire. Clear does not mean antagonising your people. You may need the same people later in the project or for a subsequent project. Do not burn bridges.

4. Undertake review

Very often when a troublesome project is completed, people are so pleased to see the back of it, no learning takes place. This is just about the worst thing you can do. You are not making sure same problems are not repeated. Wait for a reasonable period after project closure to undertake review. While things are still raw, people are more likely to be defensive and the value you get from the exercise will be limited. When you review, structure it so everyone has the ability to come forward with what they could have done better. Start yourself to show the way. If people are forthcoming, leave it at that. Your aim should be to avoid repeat, not to be punitive.

5. Follow up

Do not leave the review in a document and expect the next project to pick up on it. Use the information from your review to recommend training plans and process changes for the organisation. Present these to someone with influence within the organisation. After some time follow up on progress of the recommendations. Improvement takes hard work and tenacity.

Do you have any rules for managing troubled projects? I’d be very keen to hear.

What responsibility do outsourcing organisations bear?


Savar_Jeans_BloodI have taken a bit of time mulling over this post. I was born in Bangladesh, but have been an expat for most of my life. As I looked on in horror at the calamitous scenes from the garment factory collapse in Savar and the outpouring of grief from various quarters, I could not help but think if the likes of Walt Disney, Diesel, GAP and Walmart are in some ways not partly responsible for it. What of my own profession where I have managed projects where I have been both the supplier and customer in outsourcing situations … how much effort did I really put in to ascertain conditions?

Let us look at the motivations of outsourcing. There are usually one of two reasons to outsource. First an almost without fail the reason is cheaper supply cost. A secondary reason I have sometimes dealt with is rapid mobilisation, which in New Zealand context is difficult to do simply because of the size of the market. It is probably unfair to even try and compare projects I delivered as the sub-contractor, as the working conditions here are in no way comparable to the scenario in Savar. However, I did utilise sub-contractors in India for some projects. Did I really try and explore if conditions are great there? How are they able to mobilise so quickly. What happens after the project is complete? Not really, I just assumed that someone in the executive had done that due diligence. Never occurred to me to check.

Can this lax attitude be excused? Companies spend a lot of time selecting suppliers with the correct skill set, that can deliver on time, have the correct quality control measures. Should they not be expected to provide equal oversight to the working conditions? This becomes quite a thorny issue. They are engaging the supplier for a set of services or products. They can legitimately expect working conditions should be responsibility of local administration. Many of these suppliers serve many masters. Who should then be responsible for conditions.

Even if these companies are willing to take on the burden of ensuring good working conditions, can they really achieve that? The building that collapsed housed five garment factories and had an A category safety certificate from the Fire Service, even though the entire construction has been documented to  be illegal. Local officials have obviously been on the take for some time to allow the construction and then issuing of false safety certificates. No reasonable person can lay the blame on the outsourcing companies for such failures.

Pope Francis called the working conditions as modern slave labour. There is an element of truth in there. However, one must be careful not to judge conditions through western standards only. $38 buys a lot more in Bangladesh than it does anywhere else. This industry also employs 4 million workers, same as the entire population of New Zealand, 80% of them female. It has given a large section of the community a voice and self reliance that never existed before. Those protesting in front of these companies to stop doing business in Bangladesh must remember that would hurt these people more than the owners.

The world runs on influence. What these companies have over many of the suppliers is leverage. They use this every day to drive down their procurement costs. They should use the same to better the working conditions. As these companies have found out, there is a reputation risk even if there is no legal obligations. Treat the working conditions in the supplier environment as a risk that needs to be managed like any.

Where there is a will, there is a way. The world came together to end trade of conflict diamonds and apartheid in South Africa. Surely some social responsibility is not too much to ask.

Image Credit: http://www.sifascorner.com

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