Project Management in Practice

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

Tag Archives: Information technology

How do I estimate based on risk?

Risk Management - Image from bigthink

Risk Management – Image from bigthink

I have previously contemplated the challenges of keeping to scope and budget and keeping customers happy. If a customer adds new requirements on to a project, it is an easy discussion to have around additional time and cost, or a reduction in scope elsewhere. Grey areas in scope aside, you can show a definite impact on the project because of an omission that needs to be rectified. Where I see challenges are in trying to prevent slow bleeds.

One approach is to state assumptions that all dependencies will be met and manage exceptions by change requests. From experience I find that is a hard way to manage. How long does it take to do a task? The answer is always depends. You may be doing a task very similar to that you have done elsewhere. However, you cannot assume it will take the same amount of effort or elapsed time. The environment where you are deploying, number of other suppliers involved and in-house expertise of your customer all play significant roles. Experience tells us that we must take into account these factors as risks when we estimate project cost and duration.

My area of expertise is in delivery of IT projects. However, I believe the principle is the same in all fields of work. In an IT context, even in simplest projects you will have a customer taking on the task of solving a business problem through a project. The supplier will be engaged to deliver the project to a scope. Usually interactions are required with subject matter experts in the business, the IT service provider for the customer (could be in-house or another supplier), possibly procurement … to note a few. There are risks that we must associate with each of the players and estimate the project accordingly. While it is difficult to create a good risk profile for a new customer, we should be able to build a reasonable picture for customers we deal with regularly.

Think of a scenario where one of the other suppliers delay delivering a component that is a pre-requisite for your delivery. It may only have been delivered a day or two late. However, you have created an optimum resourcing based on something being delivered on the agreed date. In reality, you cannot re-assign those resources unless you have significant notice of the delay. Even if you know well ahead of time, in many occasions it is impractical to re-allocate those resources to another project, due to the short available window. By the time they are up to speed with the other project, it will be time for them to start working on the original assignment. Effectively the supplier through no fault of their own ends up absorbing the cost.

Sometimes the lost time is less than days, maybe a few hours every week due to lax turnarounds to required information or pre-requisite delivery. However, at the end of a project it does end up being a significant impact. You cannot really go back with a change request every time something is delayed by an hour. This will give a new meaning to death by change request. And you can be guaranteed a breakdown in communication with your customer. How so do we then ensure projects do not suffer this fate?

PRINCE2 Risk Probability Impact Grid

PRINCE2 Risk Probability Impact Grid

The only way around this dilemma is to expect some level of these risks materialising. PRINCE2 suggests using a probability impact grid to evaluate risks. While PRINCE2 is predominantly useful for the end customer to run the project, there is no reason the suppliers cannot use similar techniques to analyse risk. It is worth analysing what your particular scale for impact or probability is to get a good feel for impact. When you are constructing your estimates and plans, have these built in.

The key message here is to initiate a change request only when the risk that you have tolerance for in your plan is exceeded. Many IT projects fail to take this into account and bleed. One can legitimately ask why doing a PERT estimate should not take these risks into account for the pessimistic scenario. The key to remember on that is when you get your technical staff to estimate the pessimistic scenario, they are taking into account pessimism from a technical point of view, whether that be an unknown pattern of software development, familiarising with new API etc. They are not taking into account human or communication risks.

In my observation, construction projects are better at taking risk budget into account than IT ones. This is possibly because a half finished construction project is an obvious reminder of a failed project. Failure of an IT project is usually a less visible eye sore. That has probably made those in IT projects lazier than we should be.

5 Must dos for recovering failed projects

NovopayAs I was writing my last post on Novopay, I was also contemplating how one can rescue such a project. The minister in charge, Stephen Joyce has announced a $5M fund for addressing the issues. How would this work in real life? Reports are rife that the government wanted to get its money back from Talent2. That, along with the fact that relationships are already at breaking point, are not good success factors for the project. So what are some of the things that need to happen before you can achieve any improvement?

Acknowledge the failings

When doctors treat patients with substance abuse, the first thing they try to instil on patients is the acknowledgement that a problem exists. The environment around failed IT projects is exactly the same. It lurches from one problem to another while trying to apply band aids to keep things going. Until parties are willing to admit problems exist, there is no hope for a resolution. If you keep doing the same things there is no chance of the result being any different than what it is today. It is very likely that some within the project saw the train wreck coming and may have voiced it. Seek those out to understand what went wrong.

Divorce emotional investments

One of the basic practices of IT is that software developers do not test their own code. It is not because they are not capable. In fact, they should be more capable than anyone else. However, as human beings we are predisposed to not finding holes in our creation. Same is true for the management of the project. The current status is a reflection of many decisions taken through the course of it. Many in the management will feel the decisions were correct at the time with the information they had at hand. You need to remove the management decision makers from both the supplier and customer to ensure progress. Leaving them intact will risk required changes not happening. If the changes do happen, it risks those people losing their authority as they have been “proven” wrong in hindsight. To top manager from the public service, Education Secretary Lesley Longstone has already resigned. If the same has not happened from the supplier Talent2, that needs to happen.

Aim for small wins

In a major failure it may sound couter intuitive to look for small wins, as the problem is a sizeable one. Most adults are reasonably sensible and not easily taken in by bulls**t. They are well aware that a major failure like Novopay is not going to be resolved quickly. What you need to achieve at all costs is some confidence among your user base that improvements are underway and they can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Bigger your ambition is, more balls are in the air and higher the chance of it all coming crashing down because of weak foundations. Identify how you are looking to improve, set target of small improvements often and communicate honestly.

Throwing more resources is not always the answer

As Fred Brooks Jr has pointed out, the most reliable software is written by one or two man bands. The need for quicker output requires many more developers and as a result introduces complexities several folds. One of the major reasons projects fail is because communication is poor. Having large teams working on it is therefore more risky than the original projects. It is a common tendency in projects to throw more resources at a problem. That is just about the worst things you can do in a failed project. With smaller wins go for smaller teams.

Be prepared to abandon the project

For all the best will in the world sometimes you will not be able to retrieve failed projects. Cost of retrieval may be higher than doing another project from scratch. It also may not give you the benefits you were after based on the additional cost. You may find there is more political will to spend in trying to fix something than re-doing it correctly or abandoning it. Be careful to be seduced by that. It is difficult to contemplate ditching a system like Novopay as that cannot be done without a replacement to pay the teachers. Supermarket chains, farms and IT industry contains a lot of similar requirements with a considerable part time contract staff alongside permanent staff with various levels of skills and entitlements. A fully functional system that does 90% of the requirements may be better than an error prone system designed to deliver all of the requirements.

Have you worked on recovery of a failed project? I will be interested to hear your feedback on Novopay or even failed projects in general.

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Sh*t ‘Agilists’ Say

My two cents worth

As an Agile coach I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best minds in the IT industry over the years. Unfortunately most of these individuals remain unsung heroes throughout their careers. But fame or recognition isn’t what drives these individuals, instead, it is the satisfaction of producing unique solutions to complex business problems day after day that keeps them motivated.

Being human beings however, even the best of us get frustrated, angry, agitated at times. In fact in all of my 8+ year career, I have never seen a team be able to avoid the storming phase from the  ‘Form-Strom-Norm-Perform’ cycle. Some have bridged the chasm quicker than others but all teams that I’ve worked with have had to go through this cycle.

My job as coach is to be there for my teammates through their team building journey; help them re-configure their mindset, encourage debate, encourage criticism while keeping emotions and ego out of conversations, enable…

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Is Agile for me?

If you talk to any project team, you will find varying range of opinions regarding the best methodology for development – all very passionately putting their points of view across. Barring the occasional accident, most of these teams have given considerable thought to what is most applicable to them and have followed that course. When each of them argue in favor of a different methodology, it is well founded in facts. However, the one thing that is missed in all these discussions is that the challenges facing all the different teams are not the same. Let us consider various scenarios.

Follow this scenario … an organization realizes the need for a new system. They go through an internal requirements gathering process and invite tenders for the system, to be implemented by a certain date. You are a professional services organization. You are required to estimate the effort required to design and implement the system. In your response, you have to provide a price, as that would undoubtably be one of the selection criteria. You happen to win the tender. What is your status? You are now locked into a fixed deliverable to the client, to be completed by a date within a cost you have specified. Is there any room for agility? When you think about the triangle of constraints, effectively you can move none.

You can legitimately ask why not estimate to do the work following Agile principles, that would solve this dilemma. Let us then review how business is done in the real world. For all of us IT professionals that like to think we’re God’s gift to mankind :o), the reality is that we’re a support cast in most organizations, that only utilize IT as a means to achieving their business goals. In business, everything is driven by supply and demand. Think of it this way … if you bought something from a store, you may be able to take it back and get something else that is in a slightly different color, or size. However, if you ordered something custom to be made, and then changed your mind on the size, would you expect that to be accommodated? This is the difference between a product sale and custom work. Software development is no different.

When you are developing a product, or are in a development or support team within the organization, you have a steady commitment to resources. You have the ability to select your sprint schedule. Your costs are also therefore fixed. You have some leeway on scope. In such scenarios the organization has already accepted the cost of this continued effort and therefore scrutiny on the resources (and by extension cost) is not the same. The scrutiny is likely to be more along the lines of value for money … is the overhead we have agreed to getting us the improvements (or new functionalities if it is a product development) we’re after.

Custom development is an entirely different beast. Here uncertainty reigns. Most likely reason the organization is getting you to do the project is they do not have the resources or capability to do it themselves. At the same time many of the users will also not have the understanding of what is possible to achieve. In such scenarios you will end up spending significant effort in communicating possibilities and success criteria for your work to be accepted. Encouraging change of requirements, even at late stages like Agile methodologies will ensure you never come in on budget or are forever locked into a change control battle.

The second key when considering using Agile methodologies is the likely size of the project team. In essence the Agile teams are self organizing teams that work based on a given set of requirements and set their own schedule. The emphasis is on responding to change over following a plan. This works really well and reduces overheads. However, this is only true for a small team. When the team size goes to beyond six or seven, this becomes more and more difficult. Adding each new team member adds many new lines of communication necessary to keep this self-organization working efficiently. Bigger the team lesser the chance of success using Agile methodologies.

If you have been landed with an Agile project because no-one knows the requirements, think again. That is a guarantee for chaos. Agile is not a substitute for requirements gathering. In fact, Agile requires a continued emphasis on requirements through product backlogs and user stories. There is a constant requirement to refine user stories, even for items that do not make it to the current sprint. Many a time customers will not object to time spent writing code and testing it. They will object to this continuous refinement and management efforts. Before you jump in, consider if your client is inclined this way.

Does this mean that you cannot use Agile principles at all in some of these scenarios? No, that is not necessarily the case. You can use Agile principles in your teams, but will most likely struggle to run the entire project using Agile practices. You will need something overarching to ensure adequate control and communication. Agile is best suited for product development and in-house support teams.

Can I control scope and keep stakeholders happy?

A brief hiatus in posts, as I was busy with our client conference. During the conference, I was discussing with a contemporary the thorny issue of managing scope and the challenge of keeping stakeholders happy. While there are plenty of material out there regarding good approaches to control scope, I find not many address that in conjunction with managing stakeholders. Read more of this post

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