Project Management in Practice

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

Tag Archives: Leadership

Casualty of unrealistic deadlines

Ever worked on a project where you pushed the team and yourself to the limits and still felt like struggling to keep your head above water? The likelihood is the project you have taken on (more likely your organisation has signed up for) has been underestimated for effort. Another possibility is that resources were available for the project later than originally planned. In either case, you need to consider the impact on your project and how best to proceed.

The first response to this predicament is to work longer to catch up on promised timelines. That only works for short bursts for some recovery in timeline. Prolonged period of long hours is not sustainable. Working tired means the brain simply does not have the same capacity to consider various scenarios when designing your outputs. In various industries it could lead to different compromised outputs. In software development it could lead to poor design and defects, in government policy development it may cause poor policy, in production lines or medical professions it could cause fatalities. Even if none of these transpire, some may choose to move on. As happens with re-structures, it is your best people that will move on.

You must remember people are your best assets. Breaking them for one project, means inevitable problems for the next one. With the squeeze on resources due to the economic turndown, a lot of people have got used to working over capacity for various reasons – threat to job security, professional pride despite lack of resources among a few. There is however an emotional cost for that. Constant over exposure leads to poor work, make people sick easily. People are more easily irritable and less considerate of others. People’s personal lives suffer and they bring those baggages to work. The work environment suffers, as does productivity.

The biggest casualty of all is innovation dies off. Pre-requisite for innovation is capacity. When everyone is working beyond their limits, there is no room for this. Innovation suffers even if you have people working to constant capacity, as that too does not leave room for experimentation and an element of risk-taking. Even if your organisation starts off being a leader in its field, this kind of work practice will soon ensure others catch up and pass, while you try to find the wood for the trees.

It is easier to point out the problems than trying to correct them. If the organisation is making good money, then the odds are management will be reluctant to change patterns. I cannot put my hand on heart and say I have never been sucked in by this. The most effective way I have found is to plan for 80% productivity of available time when you plan projects. There is always something that needs doing that is typically not factored into project estimates … admin work, sickness, learning, knowledge sharing. If you fall behind it gives you room to catch up by restricting some of these for a period of time, without having to send people over the edge.

Post implementation reviews are a good time to review your practices. Ask the project members to provide feedback and encourage open communication. Then again, when time is at a premium, these reviews are usually skipped. This can be a devil’s own circle. Review your estimation processes continually. Past experience is the best guide for future. Review if there are specific phases of projects that are being under-estimated, type of costs not taken into account properly. It may be that some staff may need up-skilling to avoid the same mistakes. Training needs identified should not be to chastise people, but to acknowledge their willingness to step up from the crowd and help their growth.

Working constantly to unrealistic deadlines creates a goodwill debt for the organisation. Most good employees will accommodate a little bit of it. Eventually, it will come home to roost. A good leader will recognise not only the realities of today, but also will have a feel for tomorrow.

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How do I lead when I’m not the line manager?

If you have been managing projects for any length of time, you will have come across scenarios where you are utilizing resources in your projects that actually do not report to you. This is true regardless if you are coming in from the outside and managing a project for an organization, or you are part of the internal Project Management Office (PMO). The project will be identifying resources that may be a combination of existing subject matter expertise and some external skills to complement specific gaps. I have found Project Managers from an internal PMO finds it easiest to deal with external resources for the project. Internal resources usually have their own line managers to keep happy. They are the hardest ones to manage. External resources can be difficult, as they are beholden to the organization, not the Project Manager.

Cross-functional teams are all too common to make worrying about it any use. In fact, this is how project teams should be structured. Most change initiatives will require expertise across the organization, rather than simply a collection of software engineers for example. A Project Manager is not the correct person to lead a team of that nature in day to day business operations. What then does a Project Manager to do to ensure a successful project?

Most successful projects have one thing in common – a sense of purpose for the required change from the top management of the organization. From a project point of view there are two options open to the Project Manager – the carrot and the stick. First is an inclusive approach – to get the line managers contributing resources for the project to be stakeholders in the project itself. If that is not viable or the managers simply refuse to engage, then ensure the mandate for the project comes from above the line managers. They will then have reason to direct their subordinates to contribute towards the success of the project. If the Project Manager is left holding neither carrot or the stick, then consideration must be given whether they should continue with the project. Ingredients are perfect for failure.

If the first hurdle has been crossed and there is buy in from management for the project, it still not a guaranteed success. Actions always speak louder than words. It is easy in theory to provide some resources to a project. However, when push comes to shove, line managers always have the ability to pull the rug from under the project. Consider some practical steps to make that less likely. One approach could be to have the project team located together, where day to day influences can be reduced by the project team around them. If someone has been allocated to the project for a set period of time, they can be provided new contact numbers, email addresses etc. If they have been assigned on a part time basis, it is incumbent on the Project Manager to know the likely demands on that resource. If the resource is involved in billing, beginning of the month may be particularly busy for them and project work may have to be planned outside the first week of the month.

A cross-functional it is precisely that. In their day jobs, they usually do not deal with each other. For many of the team the thought of accountants sitting next to software developers or scientists may be a bridge too far. Project teams by nature have to be less change averse than the others in the organization. They are the ones that will produce the products that will achieve the change. The Project Manager should seek out team members with those qualities.

Above all, a Project Manager needs to exude authority, understand the purpose and be able to communicate that effectively to the team. If that can be achieved, the team will follow.

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