Project Management in Practice

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

Tag Archives: New Zealand

How do I balance competing investment priorities?


Organisations are forever grappling with the demand of competing investments that give a varying range of benefits. How do they go about prioritising these? Most organisations use business cases as a means to filter out the projects that deserve funding from the ones that have little or no merit. This then introduces a secondary problem of spending a lot of resources on going through a business case, which will never see the light of day. How do you make sure weak business cases do not get all the way before getting knocked back.

Example-ILM-Rail-Freight

Investment Logic Mapping (ILM) provides a good way to filter out some of these early investment dilemmas. This is part of the Investment Management Standard developed by the Victoria Department of Treasury and Finance in Australia. The main driver for the development of this standard was the number of complex investments that required compliance, but never articulated the benefits they were supposed to deliver.  Effectively what started as a mechanism to shape individual investments in 2004 has now matured into programme and organisation levels – including refocusing organisations and monitoring benefits.

The theory behind the standard is quite simple. Rather than a complex set of tools, it is centred around three key concepts

  1. The best way to aggregate knowledge is through an informed discussion that brings together those people with most knowledge of a subject.
  2. The logic underpinning any investment (the ‘investment story’) should be able to be depicted on a single page using language and concepts that can be understood by the lay person.
  3. Every investment should be able to describe how it is contributing to the benefits the organisation is seeking.

In Victoria it is now mandatory for most significant investments. In New Zealand the State Services Commission (SSC) mandates the use of ILM for High Value or High Risk (HVHR) projects as part of its Better Business Cases initiative. It must be remembered that ILM on its own is not the tool that will drive the investment. It is a tool to eliminate initiatives which lack merit.

I have just recently undertaken an Organisational ILM as part of a strategic review for an organisation. I have found it an excellent tool to bring out the challenges in an open forum and to agree on strategic responses. The two hour session was perfect to get enough senior leadership in one room to work through the organisational challenges. I also found it a good use of senior stakeholder time, as they are busy people and often trying to agree a course of action individually with all of them is a significant barrier to change programmes.

If you have used ILM before, I’m keen to know your experience. The only thing I had forgotten is being on your feet facilitating for two hours, while everyone else is seated discussing and having refreshments is quite tiring.

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

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

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

5 Project Management Reflections on Novopay


NovopayI have been reading some analysis of the Novopay saga – some in project management domain, others in the media. Those in New Zealand will have seen the project on the news every week for the wrong reasons. For those outside New Zealand, it is the payroll system to pay 110,000 teachers in New Zealand that has been re-developed from an older platform. The ministry of education website has considerable information, released under the Official Information Act. While it is tempting to point and have fun at the misfortune (or mismanagement) of others, it is probably far more useful to look at it through a critical eye to learn the lessons.

1. Should change of product have led to change in supplier?

From the documents I have read, there has been at least two rounds procurement. The first round had selected the Alesco software product from Talent2. At some point, this procurement was cancelled and a new request of proposal was sought for custom development. If you look at history of Talent2 as a payroll outsourcing provider, they have done it through acquisition, rather than developing their own. Since starting with Alesco, they have acquired several other products over the last decade. If software development was necessary, I would have expected it to go to an established software house.

2. Does RFP provide best procurement outcome?

From my experience it is almost impossible to capture all requirements at the outset for a complex system that has developed over many years and has lots of variations depending on size, geographical location and even available candidates. People in the head office usually do not have a full picture of how things are done in the front-line. Companies will base their price based on the information available and the risk they are taking on. Any changes will be guarded zealously to ensure an on-time and more importantly on cost delivery. Even though PwC undertook a review of the procurement, and this is the standard procurement model for all things government, does this serve such system development projects well?

3. Can a different procurement model work better?

Changes are inevitable in such a large scale system development. There are many assumptions made when responding to an RFP and respondents will contest any adjustments to those. It costs more to do things well. If you know you are competing with other organisations the reality is some of these costs are minimised. Any modifications are therefore contested vigorously. No-one can guarantee what level of time may be required to answer questions, collaborate with subject matter experts etc. One can assume, but it is nearly impossible to validate ahead of the project. Therefore tendency exists to do as little as possible if it looks anything like above assumption level. RFPs therefore set an adversarial relationship, rather than a partnership. A contracting model where government retains the risk of scope, but partners with a supplier could lead to a far better outcome. As the risk is reduced, government should be able to extract a lower rate and remove the risk premium from the supplier.

4. Who decided to go cold turkey?

This may not have been a system that had an impact of life and death, but it is as close to that as it comes. Many teachers have been significantly overpaid or underpaid and the stress it has given to the payroll staff is near breaking point. It is people’s livelihood. Teachers do have to pay their way, have mortgages, children to educate etc. The approach should have been to go live at selected schools, iron out issues as they arose and bring other schools gradually on board. This way the support staff at Novopay may have had a snowball’s chance in hell of responding to the issues on a timely manner, rather than getting completely swamped on day one.

5. There are no winners when blame game starts

I doubt if all the fault lie with Talent2 as has been portrayed in some quarters. Everyone involved – the ministry, decision makers in the project, the supplier Talent2 and their sub-contractors carry varying levels of responsibility. It has compromised the reputation of the supplier, cost the jobs of some senior staff at the Ministry of Education and  forced ministers into public apologies. I will not be surprised if it heads to the courts for compensation. Regardless where the proportion of the blame lies, when everything hits the fan, there are no winners.

It is easier to be wise in hindsight. This post is just my reflections on the matter. Not all of it is mine alone. I will acknowledge I do not have complete facts to judge everything. An audit is being undertaken by Deloitte.

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