Project Management in Practice

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

What the Americas Cup teaches us about management

It has taken a few days for the Kiwis to recover from Team NZ‘s slow strangling at the hands of Oracle Team USA in the Americas Cup. In the space of 8 days, they went from 8-1 up to losing 9-8 with skipper Dean Barker visibly distressed. This collapse has been on par with what the national rugby team the All Blacks and the South African cricketers have managed throughout their history. Now that the cup is over, I was thinking if there were any parallels to take away from a management point of view. It appears there may be a few.

What the Americas Cup teaches us about management

Keep improving or perish

In the beginning of the regatta, Team NZ seemed to be sweeping all before them. They won the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series by a country mile. It was obvious that Oracle started the Americas cup proper undercooked. Oracle struggled to match Team NZ, but kept improving throughout. They were even ruthless enough to drop John Kostecki and bring in Tom Slingsby in the afterguard. It is no different in business. Getting ahead is sometimes the easy part. Staying there is often more difficult.

Resource matters

As I read today about the automatic ‘Herbie’ foiling system Oracle perfected towards the end of the regatta, it appears access to funds does help. While Team NZ itself was funded to the tune of $36 million by the New Zealand government, sponsored by Emirates and plenty of other corporate interests, Managing Director Grant Dalton spent significant time in securing some of these. Interestingly, he was also part time member of the sailing crew. On the contrary, having a single benefactor being able to drop a millions when needed does appear to have helped here.

Survive to fight another day

What made the defeat more hard to take for Barker and his crew is the fact they were only minutes away from winning the cup. Leading 8-3 and within sights of victory, opposition skipper James Spithill decided to take an unexpected route in the third leg of the race. While Team NZ seemed on course for victory, they followed conservative match racing mantra of covering the opposition, so they could not pass them. While Oracle could not pass, it resulted in Team NZ not being able to complete the racing within the time limit. While Spithill could not win that race, he made sure he got the next best outcome. He managed to put enough pressure on Team NZ to force them into mistakes on other occasions as well.

Keep cards close to the chest

The history of the Americas Cup is littered with litigation at every turn. Even Oracle itself had won the cup in court. They promptly changed the deed of gift to prevent the challengers going to court. Despite that, when Oracle was penalised 2 races for skulduggery in the AC45 racing series, everyone expected them to head to court. By not making public their position, they made a very wise decision. Having already won the cup they have no reason to go there. To top it off, they can now take the moral high ground that they would never have gone to the courts in the first place.

For me at least, it seems following some of the cup had some positive after all.

Image credit: TVNZ

When Project Managers can be dangerous

When project managers can be dangerousAs Project Managers we are in the business of control and order. We are placed in a position of trust to achieve the desired outcomes. Most actions we take usually reflect this. The other day I was nearly caught out by something and was rescued by my architect. The worst consequence would have been some lost time in discussion. That made me think, can project managers be dangerous on projects sometimes? I think yes. Here are my top 5.

1. Know too much

This was my problem. Having come from a technical background, I thought I knew something when I only knew part of it. I enjoy keeping in touch with technology and am usually good at knowing when to shut up and let the experts lead. Usually this technical knowledge gives me a good insight to ask questions on approach, probe for weakness. On this particular occasion I could have sent the discussion on a tangent. A position of authority usually brings with it a level of credibility. If you overreach your knowledge there is a risk that people will not challenge it. Project Managers must know their limits. It always pays to have in your team that are willing to ask questions and willing to correct you if you are in the wrong.

2. Know not enough

It may sound like I am trying to have my cake and eat it too. Just as overreaching your knowledge can be problematic, so can be being totally oblivious to problems. Project Management text books will have you believe you need no content knowledge when managing projects. While that can be true, it can only succeed when you have able technical expertise on tap. That is not always available unless the project is of a certain size. The best way to build credibility with your team is to demonstrate you know what success looks like. You can only do that with some content background or the help of a very able lieutenant.

3. Project going too well

Things going too well early in a project is sometimes is just about the worst thing that can happen. It may sound counter intuitive. I have too many occasions where Project Managers get lazy and forget to pay attention to the important things – recording decisions, deviations from scope, paying attention to risks etc. Projects are risky endeavours. Experience tells us that not everything will go to plan during the project. If you have grown lazy with a good start, you can be guaranteed difficulty ahead when the worm turns. When Fred Brooks Jr, the father of IBM 360 was asked how one of his projects got to be twelve months late he responded … one day at a time.

4. Becoming rigid

There is a tendency sometimes to manage by actions rather than outcomes. Our goal is not to deliver the actions in the plan, but the outcome in the business case. Project plans must be living plans. There will often be the need to adjust course to get the best outcome. Sticking to prearranged plans will give you a great Gantt chart with beautiful baselines. Sometimes you can deliver to exact plans and deliver no benefits to your customer. Your plan must have some slack, so as to not fall over at the first risk. Allow yourself the flexibility of not using 100% allocation. Expect some sickness, administrative times, training needs for project team members. Avoid having to hand a change notice every day. Project Managers must understand the difference between being in the right and getting the right outcome.

5. Spreading chaos

There will always be an element of pressure on the Project Manager. We get paid to navigate the team through uncertainties. Sometimes progress is not what we hope for. From time to time we face unrealistic expectations from our own management or customers. There are various ways to handle that pressure. The one thing you must avoid is spreading that feeling of pressure to the project team. Even in most difficult cases if shield your team from some of the external pressures you have a reasonable chance to salvage something out of the situation. If you let your pressures on to your team, chaos will ensue.

I’m sure there are many other ways we can compromise a project. I would be keen to hear your thoughts.

Image Credit:

How do I make decisions under pressure?

Whether you are managing projects, a portfolio or staff … bigger the size, more pressure you are under to make decisions under pressure. The pace of technology and resulting expectation means the time you had to consider options once seem to be reducing every day. Sometimes it feels like a daunting challenge to operate in this environment. What can one do about it?

how do i make decisions under pressure

Implement required tools

Today there is expectation from customers that you operate in an environment that has real time access to information, that your staff have a good knowledge of what is happening in an account. There is expectation from your own company executives that you are able to provide status of projects immediately and change course as soon as needed. There are enough players in the market with the ability to meet that expectation. There are plenty of cloud offerings that provide per user per month solutions. More and more organisations are getting this capability every day. Longer you put off implementing and using the right tools for the job, you are putting yourself at more disadvantage. Check out tools like AtTask, Liquid Planner, Teamwork PM, Collaborate to name a few. Try them out and settle on the most appropriate one for you. It does take a bit of effort. If your company is loathed to part company with the investment cost, articulate the cost of not doing so. The worst thing you can do is to be comfortable in your own traditional systems and let the world catch up and pass you.

Trust your judgement

Information is one thing, judgement is totally different. In many sports referees utilise television systems to make judgements on matters they may have missed. To my horror I have seen them make mistakes in adjudication despite evidence to the contrary. If you follow cricket or rugby league, the recent Ashes series or the NRL competition are prime examples. I am sure it is no different in other sports. It is not the systems in fault, but the person making the judgement. The best tools will give you the most accurate and timely information. It is your judgement that will set you apart. There are many decisions to be made each day on strategy you want to employ, trade-offs, risk and issue management and so on. You must remember that the reason you are being asked to make such decisions is because of your previous track record and confidence generated from that. Double guessing yourself will lead to your teams doing the same.

Accept you will get it wrong occasionally

We are not born with hindsight. Not every decision you make will turn out to be perfect. Even the best make mistakes. As long as you are making more correct decisions than not, you should be ok. What is considered a good ratio is dependent on the industry you are in. However, one thing you should always do is record the basis for your decisions. This will allow you to analyse them for future decision making or to defend your decisions should something go really wrong. You have to make decisions with the information you have at hand. Recording the basis for your decisions will allow you to judge whether your tools allow you best chance of success or need replacing.

Empower your team

The days of a manager being able to control every aspect of a project, programme or initiative are long gone. Your teams are usually communicating at various levels with your customers and also other suppliers. You have to ensure that not every decision has to be made by you. This is especially true if you are managing in an area where you used to be a subject matter expert. If you start making decisions, I can guarantee you will have to make every decision, thereby ensuring bottleneck. Also beware of outdated knowledge. Just because you knew the content in yesteryear does not mean you know it today. Have trusted leaders in their disciplines. Build a culture of people solving problems themselves. You must reward initiative and avoid being punitive. Nothing spreads hesitation like uncertainty. As long as mistakes are founded in good endeavour and not repeated or caused by negligence, provide mentoring rather than taking them to task. In case of a crisis allow people to step up by showing confidence in them, rather than fighting fire by stepping down. It is hard to hold your nerve in such situations. However, once you do it, the whole dynamic will change.


If there is one thing that you must do, that is to learn from others. Study your industry, field of work, management literature, design patterns … things others have found to work in various situations. There is no sense in learning by repeating mistakes others have made. Research your own success and failures. Look at how your competition works in the market … both good and bad ones. Look at systems and technologies that may give you an edge. Look out for disruptors in the market that threaten the way you work. More aware you are of these, less you will flinch when taking a decisive action.

What are your experiences? Is my feeling having to make more decisions under pressure simply a reflection of my taking on more responsibilities? Or is it a larger trend?

Image Credit:

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:

Are conference attendances useful in delivering better projects?

I was at an industry conference at San Diego last week. Aside from the stark difference basking in 26°C, compared to the 6°C that I left behind in Wellington, what struck me most was how projects face the same challenges the world over. Having spoken to my counterparts from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, Austria and East Africa, our challenges and constraints in projects are not markedly different.

Are conference attendances useful in delivering better projects

As I was attending various presentations during the week, it was quite a pattern. Most presentations covered what the project did, followed by a demonstration and discussion on technology used to deliver those feature functions. This is in keeping with other similar conferences I have attended over the years. What we most often do not share in these industry forums is what outcomes the customers were looking for, challenges the delivery team faced, tradeoffs the customer had to make because of this, which resulted in the final shape of the project as it was delivered. I found it far more useful to talk to some of the presenters after their talks. I found they were much more relaxed and readily forthcoming with the kind of information I was looking for.

Delivering IT projects are interesting exercises even at the best of times. On my flight I was talking to a company director who was quizzing me on why IT projects fail so often. From his point of view such projects are usually one of the top CAPEX projects in companies that he and fellow directors worry about. He had a valid point. If I had a ready made answer for this, I would be a millionaire. My main goal attending these conferences it to ensure I can minimise having to learn lessons first hand that my peers have learned from making mistakes.

It is a delicate balance however. Having spoken to my peers around the world, it seems that same approaches have worked in some parts of the world and failed miserably in others. Some approaches that we had discounted seems to have flourished elsewhere. It is key therefore just to not look at results on the surface, but also understand the cause of such success or failure. Conference settings are notoriously difficult to delve to that level of detail. I have also found that we are much better at scrutinising things that have not gone well and less aware of what made our projects successful. It seems success makes us complacent.

You have to always remember to not take away half baked ideas as learning. This is where the connections you make in such conferences are gold. If you stay in touch with like minded peers and exchange ideas, this can form a huge source of information and a place to test your ideas before you jump in at the deep end.

%d bloggers like this: