Project Management in Practice

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5 things to do when projects go wrong


5-things-to-do-when-projects-go-wrongAnyone spending a decent amount of time in project management field will sometimes have projects from time to time that experience significant difficulties. For all the planning, it is never possible to predict all the eventualities and therefore foreseeing all risks. Projects are by nature more risky than other business activities. It is always useful to apply a few techniques to aid in such situations.

1. Show leadership

An oft repeated cliché this is something that is hard to explain in terms of action. When things go wrong there is plenty of nerves in the project team and management. Project team members often struggle to think beyond their immediate problem. You will find internal executives or sponsors worrying about contractual obligations and any fallout with the customer. Showing leadership in this context is to ensure this uncertainty does not spread into panic. The role of the project manager is to steer a clear course and stopping any blame game that may raise its ugly head. Now is not the time for that. Focus on why after the project.

2. Avoid temptation to simply throw more resource

A common reaction to a struggling project is to throw more resources at it. If the project is of high visibility and management is not able to provide subject matter expertise, they will feel they need to contribute somehow to correct it. The commodity at their disposal is resources. Be wary of this. More cooks do not equate to a better dish. You may need to enlist some mentoring for project team members or even yourself if you are managing a project outside of your technical expertise. Always consider how much time it will take before new resources can contribute to the project. If the issue is time, you will virtually ensure a delayed delivery by adding resources. Also take into account the additional communication required to successfully integrate them.

3. Avoid sugar coating

There is a temptation to play things down as things start going wrong to avoid creating panic. I have found it easier to be transparent about progress. Late surprises will compromise integrity of the project like no other. While your stakeholders likely be upset with you, in the long run it will get you more respect. You need to be clear with communication internally. If you need some of your resources to be allowed uninterrupted project time, you need to give that clear sense of urgency. Otherwise, you will not get the outcome you desire. Clear does not mean antagonising your people. You may need the same people later in the project or for a subsequent project. Do not burn bridges.

4. Undertake review

Very often when a troublesome project is completed, people are so pleased to see the back of it, no learning takes place. This is just about the worst thing you can do. You are not making sure same problems are not repeated. Wait for a reasonable period after project closure to undertake review. While things are still raw, people are more likely to be defensive and the value you get from the exercise will be limited. When you review, structure it so everyone has the ability to come forward with what they could have done better. Start yourself to show the way. If people are forthcoming, leave it at that. Your aim should be to avoid repeat, not to be punitive.

5. Follow up

Do not leave the review in a document and expect the next project to pick up on it. Use the information from your review to recommend training plans and process changes for the organisation. Present these to someone with influence within the organisation. After some time follow up on progress of the recommendations. Improvement takes hard work and tenacity.

Do you have any rules for managing troubled projects? I’d be very keen to hear.

Why LinkedIn dumped HTML5 & went native for its mobile apps

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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Project management lessons learned from a vacation


After nearly a two month hiatus in blog posts, it is time to jump back on the horse. In that time, I have spent five weeks on vacation and either side of it two and a bit weeks in doing handover and picking the work back again. I thought it would be useful to share lessons I learned from this exercise.

Project management lessons learned from a vacation

The Preparation

This is the most stressful part of going on a long vacation. I had worried about projects suffering in my absence due to lack of control or guidance. Clarity in decision making based on experience is a key skill of a Project Manager. As many Project Managers do, I still carry my cell phone during short holidays. There is always a fallback if the wheels start to wobble. On such a prolonged vacation overseas I was not about to entertain being on call. I therefore asked for a short term stand-in for my role. I involved in various projects during a two week period to ensure he had sufficient background in the processes we followed and status of the projects to carry them through for five weeks.

The Vacation

This was the first vacation of this length I had taken in nearly five years. Having done the legwork with my stand-in, I was surprisingly relaxed during the holiday. I cannot put my hand on heart and say I never worried. Anyone with a level of responsibility will from time to time worry about events beyond their control that they cannot steer their team through. Most of the incumbent project teams and support teams – sales and management – were still there. Needless to say I enjoyed my time off in the knowledge that with the handover I gave and the available support structure the risk of total cock-up was relatively low.

After the Vacation

On my return I was pleased to see three quarters of the activities were done as I had wanted. Some were left for my return that required a level of experience or authority to carry out. While there were some thing done slightly differently, I can accept that as best effort choices based on information at hand. One particular area was done better than I had expected – breaking development work packages into short sprints. The week following the vacation was spent trying to get back to the rhythm of work and getting a handover.

What the team learned

The team understood the consideration, communication and time it takes to make decisions on project related matters. Many a time some of these challenges are nto visible to the project team (or for management for that matter) and cannot be readily appreciated. The fact that quite a few decisions were deferred and a lot of the decisions required quite a bit of internal discussion gave them an appreciation of challenges I deal with on a daily manner.

What I learned

The biggest learning on my part is that I need to worry less about thing going wrong in my absence. My team is made up of some very capable people and are able to provide good guidance on how projects should be executed. I will probably look to see how I can take advantage of that to get some of them to provide more leadership. From a personal point of view, the vacation has enabled me to recharge my batteries and come back with renewed energy. I will also look to ensure my team gets the same opportunity.

It is good to be back. Keen to hear your learnings from similar experiences.

Image Credit: NewHotelsUs.Com

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