Project Management in Practice

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5 Questions every Project Manager must ask

5 Questions Project Manager must askProjects are inherently risky endeavours and require plenty of shepherding to ensure successful completion and the desired results. Key to successful project management is clarity of understanding on what you are trying to deliver. It is easier said than done. Different people can read the same requirements and have different impressions of deliverables. I’ve been thinking about some of the strategies I have used and seen successfully applied. Following is a set that I have found very useful. I find asking some, if not all of these questions consistently gives me best chance of success.

Q1: Can I focus on outcomes rather than outputs?

Most projects in my experience are too preoccupied with delivering the outputs. Predominant procurement methods are partly to blame for the culture of judging project success by its outputs. For example, an output may be a new software but the desired outcome is faster processing of orders. No one has monopoly on good ideas. In many instances requirements are gathered prior to projects starting, where assumptions fail on first inspection. Ask yourself if you have the ability to go back to the stakeholders if you were faced with such a scenario. If it is output that you must produce regardless of outcome, then your chances of success are low. On the other hand, if you know what the desired outcome is, you can articulate why a particular option may have more merit than another.

Q2: Do I have enough sponsor involvement?

I see plenty of projects languishing with project managers struggling to get buy in from various stakeholders. Any organisation is a political one by nature. There are stakeholders with various views. Some may have been keen to undertake the project; others may not have been so enthusiastic. Organisations have to prioritise their portfolio and you may require contribution from those that had their projects or ideas passed over. If you try to manage your way out of that, there is little hope of success. This is where involvement of your sponsor is key. They are usually in a position of authority to ensure cooperation, provide you with strategies to work within the organisation and remove obstacles before they become showstoppers.

Q3: Am I working to artificial deadlines?

I see many instances where projects are running to particular deadlines not because of level of effort required, but because someone in management has undertaken to have the outputs delivered at a certain date. Fred Brooks Jr, father of IBM/360 is one of my favourite authors. In his book “The Mythical Man Month” he gives a great example – It takes nine months childbirth. You can put nine women, you’ll get nine children, but it’ll take you nine months (paraphrasing). The effort is what it is. If artificial deadlines are to be met, it must come by trading off scope in the project. Simply throwing more staff at it does not solve the problem. In some cases you may be able to reduce elapsed time by throwing more resources. But beware, what takes one person 100 hours, will not be delivered by 100 people in one hour. There is a cost of communication and coordination.

Q4: How am I going to transition the outputs to the business?

So you have a set of outputs from the project … process, software, document, building … whatever these may be. Now what? The only way the customer can achieve any benefit out of these is once you have transitioned these into the business. I see many projects leaving transition planning to the end. That is always too late. The end of the project is usually a swarm of activity, many planned, many unplanned but necessary. You need to have planned your transition up front. Organisations have various levels of change appetite. You need to consider if you can take a big bang approach or need gradual transition into service.

Q5: What does my gut say?

If you are an experienced project manager, then trust your instincts. Our brains are programmed to catch patterns. You may get a feeling that something isn’t quite right. I have seen project managers ignore that if they have not been able to verify if there is indeed a need for concern. By the time they have realised what it is it is too late. If your gut tells you something is wrong, stay at it. Until you find out what it is. Have a method that you apply to it. Go through your risk register, deliverables, product descriptions, milestones. At first if you don’t see it, stay vigilant. Ignoring it is just about the worst thing you can do.

There are bound to be plenty of other questions that you should ask yourself. What is your list?

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5 things a tech lead can do that a Project Manager cannot

I was talking to a former colleague and reminiscing about some of the projects we had worked together. He is still in a technical role and enjoying it. I have long since moved into project management and have been enjoying that. As friends would banter, we started talking about how our different roles give us different flexibilities and constraints in projects. I really enjoyed the perspective and though I’d share the things that we thought a tech lead can get away with that a Project Manager cannot.

1. Do the work themselves

A wise man once said if you need a job done well, do it yourself. There is an element of truth in that. Sometimes it is more optimal to do the work than to explain what needs doing. If you are a technical lead you can easily do that yourself from time to time for expediency. A Project Manager cannot really do it. That is especially the case if they have less content knowledge.

2. Be blunt in feedback

There is a different code of interaction between technical people when they relate to each other and when they relate with others. In their own way they can afford to be quite open and challenge each other. This may not always manifest in a cohesive way, unless there is trust between the various personnel. Many times this is how they challenge each other and extend their own knowledge. Project Managers deal in more shades of grey. They meet people from many different stakeholder groups and bluntness is the last thing you want. You may take a client’s requirements to your technical team and how often have you heard the comment … “this is cr*p.” From a technical point of view this may be a very legitimate answer. However, the Project Manager needs to translate the reasons from a business point of view that would preclude it being an option. Both groups are trying to achieve the same outcome, but communication style is very different. Often getting the client to be flexible enough to think differently is where good Project Managers distinguish themselves.

3. Relaxed attire

Tech leads are usually in a position where any interaction with the customer is planned well ahead of schedule and most of the time they are not necessarily required to be customer facing. They can easily be in the office in the jeans and t shirt. A Project Manager on the other hand either needs to dress differently in most industries, or keep a separate set of clothes in the office and be prepared to change as soon as needed. Managing stakeholders and project teams is a less precise activity than managing technical work.

4. Chasing the Cool option

Tech leads can often go off on tangent to do things that interest them. These could be trying out new design patterns, pet technologies or even specific devices. There is always a good argument in favour of innovation or up-skilling that can justify those, within reason off course. Project Managers are required to be more outcomes driven. If something is not geared towards meeting an outcome desired by the stakeholders, there is little appetite for doing it.

5. Turning phone and email off

While this can not be done for long periods, tech leads can have periods of time where they can turn the phone and email off and lock themselves in a room in order to concentrate on particular technical challenges. A Project Manager will struggle to do that. Turning off the communication tap is the worst thing they can do. This is a sure way to send a project south. Certainly, a lot of the communication ends up being wasted effort. Any risks or issues you may be able to pick up through the communication channels that you can prevent before they get to unwieldy proportions outweigh that.

If you have read this far, you may think why would one want to move into project management from a technical role. In fact not all tech leads make for good project managers.  Not to worry, we had an equivalent list of things that a Project Manager can do that a tech lead will not be able to do. That is a post for another day.

If you have moved into project management from a technical role, I would be quite interested to hear your list.

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5 different types of Project Managers

I am preparing to deliver part of a day long project management workshop at a conference. As I was thinking through the content I wanted to cover and reading some references, the BBC was covering the US Presidential election and relative chances of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Inevitably, the religious angle came up. Funnily enough, I was thinking about how dogmatic some of us in the project management field are about the way we work. Religion and project management has some ironic parallel. I can categorize project managers and religious followers in the same 5 high level baskets. A bit of creative generalization on my part, but hold this thought.


The Ideologue

The fervent believer. In religious context, holding extreme view … my way or the high way. Everyone else is wrong and the wrath shall fall upon them. In project management sense, these are the Project Managers that catch a specific methodology and way of working and stick to it come hell or high water. They are not one to be shy on telling everyone whey they are correct in their ways and everyone else is wrong. They are not particularly interested in hearing any conflicting ideas and have no appetite for discussions. They already know it, no-one else gets it. Just like fundamentalists, there is not much you can influence with this type of project manager. You can only pray that you get a team that fits to their style.

The Zealot

A slightly considerate version of the ideologue. A firm believer nonetheless, who is willing to acknowledge contrary views exist, but considers his views the most appropriate and sniggers at all others. In a religious context, I relate this group to the clergy. In a project management sense, these are the ones that adopt a particular methodology really strongly. While accepting other schools of thought exist, they give little credence to the usefulness of those and look down upon others that do not hold similar views. This is probably a redeemable quality. You may one day be able to get them to accept an alternate point of view. In my experience most project managers fall in this category.

The Practitioner

This is a group that is more concerned about the practicalities, rather than a particular belief. From a religious context, I equate this group to the general followers of a religion. They are not concerned about all methodologies going around. While they may specialize in a particular methodology, they are not shy in adjusting it to the situation and if necessary borrowing from other methodologies to make it work. This would be the ideal project manager in my view. However, project managers being of strong wills and of a mind to control most things, it is hard to get to this space.

The Secular

This is a group that is not particularly concerned about methodologies. They are happy to go along with any methodology and let others get on with whatever they choose. From a religious context, I equate this group to the believers of sort that kind of understand the basics, but is not particularly worried about the customs of the religion. They may go to the church or the mosque every so often, but not feel guilty if they have not. From a project management sense, these are people that are yet to develop an attachment to a particular methodology. Usually these people are new to the field and looking for the correct guidance. They are the group that can be converted to the practitioners easily.

The Non-believer

This is the group that feels little or no need for methodologies. From a religious context you can equate this group as atheists. From a project management perspective this is highly dangerous, and possibly do not see the value in investing in this discipline. The only thing you can guarantee with this approach is inconsistency. Making it up from the seat of your pants is not as exciting from a strategic view as it is sometimes from a technical view. Unfortunately, I have seen a few too many IT projects that fall into this category.

This was my attempt to parallel religion and project management. Have I been too generous or critical of any particular group here?

No offense to any religion is intended.

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Light at the end of the tunnel

Ever feel like there is too much to do and not enough hours in the day? I have just had a couple of weeks like that. Each day I worried how I’m going to get through the tasks at hand without dropping the ball on something else. It is not uncommon in professional services. Work is lumpy in nature and you have to ride the rough with the smooth.

Light at the end of the tunnel - Project Resource Management

I have made the statement of the lumpy nature of professional services work several times, but seldom put any thought to why that is the case. The most obvious reason I have seen is the fiscal year and budget allocations. In many organisations, unused budget is lost from future budgets and there is incentive for customers to hold on to budget until the last possible moment and only commit to projects once all their other costs have been accounted for. That leads to a stream of projects at the end of the fiscal year, as organisations are more confident that they do not need this budget to cover for risks in other areas.

There are holiday seasons which traditionally see a lot of staff leave. From an IT perspective this includes a lot of change freezes at various organisations both suppliers and customers. That automatically means less activities, because of system constraints. I find this is not a bad constraint, as inevitably our capacity to provide services is also low because of high leave demands.

The risk element is during school vacations, where a lot of staff want to take leave but is harder to adjust customer expectations around delivery timeframes. It is a good practice to ask for early visibility of leave requests during these times and to have a record of previous leave taken. This would allow a services company to be fair in allowing leave to staff over the course of the year. A bit of flexibility is required from everyone here. The services company itself is also obliged to set the expectation with the customer about delivery based on staff availability. It is a hard discussion to have with key customers, who have a lot of influence.

A lot of the challenges identified are quite common to most organisations and not necessarily specific to services companies. The challenge comes in the sales cycle and the desire to maximise the utilisation of resources. Higher utilisation, more profitable the company. By definition, there is less slack and less agility. A particularly efficient few months sets management expectation that high utilisation is manageable for the duration of the year, when it is not necessarily the case. Revenue expectations therefore needs to be balanced with reality of resource management.

From my point of view, It appears that the particular wave of new work may be getting to a manageable point now. However, there is a conference that is nearly here. I am presenting a day long workshop on project management in our particular industry sector, which takes a lot of effort to prepare for. In today’s environment no one has the luxury of complain about being busy. That is a sign that the company is doing better than most. We are also hiring, so my challenges on agility may be relieved somewhat.

It now looks like there is light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully it is not a freight train heading my way.

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Interesting PRINCE2 Infographic

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