Project Management in Practice

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

Category Archives: Project

Hitler implements SAP

What methodologies do not solve

Organizations evolve through various phases in their existence. Good organizations have a continuous focus on how they do business and strive for improvement. One of the most common realizations organizations come to is the need to utilize standard methods and best practices in order to ensure higher quality outputs from its staff. While this is a correct realization, implementing these is where a lot of organizations go wrong. Let us explore.

A lot of organizations, when they realize the need for standard methods and best practices will send staff away to courses. In the case of project management, they may get sent away to do a certification in PRINCE2, PMP or Agile, for service delivery management, they may get sent out to get certified in ITIL. You get the drift. What I see many a time is this is sufficient and the organization will suddenly become followers of best practice. There is then wide-spread surprise and the reality turns out to be something different. Why then despite the obvious intent, do many of these initiatives fail?

The first thing everyone needs to appreciate is no methodology can ever cover all the practical scenarios an organization will face. Best practices are just that … best practices. Knowing the theory is all well and good. Reading a particular scenario and understanding it to answer questions is different than what someone will face in their regular role. There is no benefit of hindsight. In many situations, you have to make a decision on the facts at hand, which may not be full. Later, you may be required to account for those decisions to someone with benefit of hindsight. This requires not only understanding of methodology, but also an appreciation of how to apply it to various scenarios.

If you have studied information systems, one of the first things they teach is the theory of normalization. However, what they do not necessarily teach is in certain scenario, it is a more efficient to de-normalize parts of the system. For non-IT readers, I can equate this to child rearing. The best practice is to always keep a routine and not deviate from that, so you set clear boundaries of expectations. However, every now and then it is good to indulge your children slightly to build a warm reciprocal relationship with them. There is always fine balance here that requires judgement and constant review. What is best practice may not always be a good practice in certain scenarios.

I have seen selection of methodologies as a response to a project disaster or an attempt to cover gaps identified in a procurement process like responding to a Request for Proposal. That usually leads to selection of methodology from a very narrow focus. There is also a huge difference between selecting a methodology and adopting a methodology. Selecting one is on the easy end of the spectrum. Once selected, the organization may send some people to training. When these people come back into the organizations with new ideas, they challenge the established way of doing business. This challenge may go beyond what management had intended to address when it embarked on the process. Unless there is a willingness from management to re-examine the practices, then there is little or no value in selecting a methodology.

Methodologies do not solve any business problems. It is the people that absorb ideas, question existing practices, design improved processes appropriate to the organization and have the will to see it through that make the difference.

What do you look for in a Project Manager?

We have recently hired a new Project Manager. While we were looking to hire, I spent a bit of time thinking about what skills would best complement our team. While it did not necessarily start out as the most scientific process, as we progressed, we started to get things more structured. I thought I would share my experience with my readers.

The first thing you need to establish is someone you are considering for the position knows the basics of project management. While this may sound like an obvious statement, it was quite an eye opener how many do not have a well rounded understanding. An accreditation such as PMP, PRINCE2 or Scrum Master is a good indication of some proficiency. I look for an element of commitment to one’s profession and use this as a way of eliminating the lazy ones. Depending on the type of organisation and the type of work you want delivered, an executive management degree like an MBA may be more appropriate as the first screen. Some make it in the profession without a recognized qualification. In my view it is likely to be the exception, rather than norm. Hiring someone is inherently risky. Stack the odds in your favour.

A Project Manager is an interface between the customers and the delivery team. Communication is a critical success factor. When you review resumes, look for uncluttered and grammatically correct ones. These indicate attention to detail, a key to successful communication. If you are using a recruitment agency, this becomes difficult. They have a tendency to use predefined templates and negates your ability to judge the candidate’s written presentation skill. When you are considering a candidate’s contributions in a project, always pay close attention to “I was part of …” sentences. Always enquire what the candidate’s role was in the success or otherwise. If you notice unusual gaps between projects, ask why. It may indicate projects that did not go well.

When you are interviewing, let the candidate speak first to an open ended question. This will give you an indication of confidence levels. More clear and concise the introduction, the better. A good candidate will stand out here. As you drill down to specific skill areas, always quiz someone on what methodology they use for estimating effort for a project. Many projects fail because work is under-estimated. A good project manager must have a consistent repeatable method for estimating. Follow this up with how they monitor and control projects. This is a tricky area to judge. Some Project Managers are great at initiating and starting projects, others excel in monitoring an controlling. Closing projects seems a more difficult art and fewer people excel here. It is unusual to find a single project manager with exceptional skills in all three of these areas. Depending on the mix of your existing capacity, it may pay to consider where the biggest gap is and focus your search accordingly.

Things never go to plan. If it did, project managers would not be required. A good project manager has a solid grasp of the risks the project faces and has some ideas about what actions they will take if certain thresholds are exceeded. Quiz the candidates on how they handled a similar scenario. Listen out for what plans they had made beforehand, how they initiated the risk actions and how things were escalated up the chain. People are reluctant to talk about things that did not go well. A good project manager will be able to articulate a reasoned set of actions even as things are unfolding.

Many organizations have an expectation that he project manager will provide vision for their projects. This is a flawed notion. Project managers need to be good leaders to ensure they command the respect of their team and lead by example. However, vision is a luxury for a project manager. It is the role of the top management or the client to provide he vision for the product. The project manager’s responsibility is to deliver the products within given tolerances, and to escalate as soon as the tolerance is likely to be exceeded.

I am keen to hear about your experiences. Drop me a line if you have hired recently. I would love to know how you went about it.

How do I ensure continuous improvement?

As I sit back and relax for a few weeks, I have had the opportunity to reflect on some of the projects that I am currently running and the challenges facing them. I am getting back to work in a week’s time and now is the time to think about some new year’s resolutions that can improve my projects this year.

As a Project Manager, a majority of my working day is spent communicating with various stakeholders, internal and external. This comes with its own set of problems. I am sure I am not the only one facing the email hell. These days email has become the primary method of communication. So much so, that something written in an email is taken as an agreement, even though it may not give a total picture of a particular communication. Worse still, the constant stream of emails break the rhythm of any work and leads to many scattered pieces of work, rather than ordered tasks being ticked off as complete. As French tech firm Atos has found out, almost 90% of their emails are time wasters, that on reflection did not need a response.

How can I make sure I do not fall into the same traps again in the new year. I do not want to go as far as Atos in setting a goal to banish emails altogether. I have been thinking about checking my emails only 3-4 times a day and each time dedicating half hour to get through the lot. I have set myself a target of only sending small emails with a single topic. This makes it easier for the recipient to focus their attention. After all that is the purpose of all communication. I’m not going to aim for twitter length emails, but probably will try to limit myself to five or six sentences. If I am particularly interested in knowing if someone has read an email, I can always use the read receipt functionality in Outlook. If something cannot wait until my scheduled, it is obviously important and should be communicated through direct contact – phone, Skype or talking to them in person, where you have the undivided attention of the other party. When you think about it, there should be very few things that cannot wait a couple of hours.

Another dilemma I face is conducting meetings. This is true for both internal and external. There are cases where many attend the meeting, but do not contribute. In some cases too many attend and want to contribute. Dissenting opinion should never be squashed in projects. But neither should a meeting become a free for all. In cases where many opinions exist, it is more appropriate for each group to consolidate their positions and put forward a representative, so meetings can take place in an orderly fashion. I have found any more than six people in a room is a recipe for not getting a consensus and results in inaction. I have also decided to review before sending out each meeting invite, whether a direct conversation with the stakeholder can achieve my goals. That will ensure people do not sit idle during a meeting. I also plan to be much clearer on what I expect each person attending the meeting to contribute. This requires planning effort on my part to ensure any required reading material is provided in due time, allocations are made in people’s work schedules to look into the material etc.

I have seemingly taken on a couple of very simple improvement goals – get better at emails and meetings. In reality it is fundamentally different to the way I approach my daily schedule. I also recognize that small but continuous improvements has a higher chance of success, than radical ones. As the year progresses, I will review if I have indeed got better at this. I am quite keen to know what areas you are targeting for improvement.

Why do I need Project Managers?

I had intended to write the post about the value of establishing a Programme Management Office (PMO). It then occurred to me that implementing PMO implies there is a level of maturity and value of project management is accepted. However, there are plenty cases where project management is either not practised or if practised, done more as a begrudging necessary evil than something that provides a value to the business or to the client.

This got me thinking. As a project management professional, what can I point to as value provided by my chosen discipline? More people today pursue project management certification than ever before. Both PMI and The Stationary Office through APMG are making a killing on this. But does that guarantee success? From a sceptic’s point of view, one can argue why bother having a Project Manager. They are not managing children. They’re dealing with grown men, in most cases very skilful ones. Why not simply let them get on with it?

First argument for having project management included in your project is to ensure efficient planning and execution. You will need ensure you have appropriately estimated the work, created a schedule, line up the resources at the correct times, control costs and report to the appropriate body in the organisation. One can argue that a Project Manager actually does not do the estimates. It is your delivery staff that do that. Is the Project Manager simply not recycling that, adding a bit of fat and keeping themselves in a job? Could your secretary not do that? After all, how difficult is it to make Gantt charts?

These are entirely valid arguments. Many organisations use their project managers in a work distributor role only. This is where they tend to go wrong. Project management is much more than shovelling work around to minions. Monitoring and control is a key part of a Project Manager’s role. Unless you are Nostradamus, not everything will go to plan. This is where a true Project Manager earns his money, by adjusting within tolerances afforded to him, or passing up the chain if a decision is required at that level. They plan risk and issue management and monitor these actively and implement the appropriate actions if they materialise. Many a project go wrong without good scope control. While this may be an unenviable job, this is absolutely necessary if you want projects coming on time within budget.

An often understated part of a Project Manager’s role is leading the project. If you want to see the effect of leadership, or lack thereof, a study of the New Zealand political scene is a must. The National Party, routed under the leadership of Bill English not too long ago, now sits with a comfortable majority in Parliament and are odds on to be re-elected under John Key, with English his deputy. At the same time, the NZ Labour party, after three successful terms under Helen Clark, struggles to be an effective political force under Phil Goff. If you reviewed the political manifesto for either party, you would have struggled to distinguish between them. A Project Manager with personality and character has the same effect.

The organisation has to decide what their mode of operation is. Is it one that treats Project Managers in a shovelling work capacity, then likelihood is they view it as a cost to the project. In a services context, they allow their customers to easily talk them out of this necessary skill when push comes to shove about pricing. These are usually the projects that end up costing money, since the effort to deliver them with the necessary quality was underestimated to begin with, risks are not attended to in time and need for adjustments are picked up too late to be effective. Organisations that value project management skills as a necessary component that adds value by ensuring a quality delivery and build capability in this area are the ones that usually reap the benefits.

You deserve the project you get. Is this being too simplistic? Let me know.

%d bloggers like this: