Saturday, March 28, 2009

Problem projects are the only ones worth managing

It’s a simple truth, if a project will complete with no issues, then there’s no reason to manage it, conversely, only problematic projects are worth managing. Simple clear logic that is often ignored by everyone. It’s much easier seeing all projects as needing the same level of support and oversight….what would make sense, during the project initiation phase, is to determine the overall risk level of a project and set the project management support level required. This would reduce project costs and allow project managers to proactively focus on those projects deemed as high risk. As with anything else, a continued review and adjustment to the determination of risk level/pm involvement would need to take place.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Had my eyes open in the dark

Tracking down root causes often reveals base, disturbing facts about our place in the corporate world. Project Managers are often working in the dark when it comes to real causes of delays and issues within any project….we are not given the insight to corporate wide decisions and political structures that are at the root of most project delays….I’m not talking about issues contained within a given project like missing tasks or poor processes, I’m talking about resource reassignment, uncooperative internal or external groups and funding changes. How often have you gotten push back or delayed response from a vendor, not because they’re incapable, but because they have not been paid for work to date? How many times when you’re looking for support from an internal group that you’re given the run-a-round, the real root cause being that the CEO has given conflicting goals/objectives to the various groups? We (project managers) often grasp at the most obvious cause to the problem and try to correct it, when in reality we’re chasing symptoms. We need to be more diligent, more willing to probe deeper, more willing to think before acting to really understand the root cause and be able to work within the given boundaries to correct. Act and don’t react. Know when then room is dark.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Irrelevance of project managers – we are not worthy

Are we what we think we are OR what others perceive us to be? This is an age old question reaching far beyond project management – but one that everyone (even PMI certified project managers) need to ponder from time to time. Are we (project managers) truly irrelevant? Are we judged to harshly? In my opinion, I think we’re not judged harshly enough. I’ve seen many instances where project managers assume the role as messenger and judge their own value by how they manage the project as opposed to the actual outcome of the project. We put processes in place without really understanding the value of them or the potential negative impact. We don’t typically separate short from long term solutions and tend to resist getting deep into either the business or technology. We need to take more responsibility for the project outcome and assume a more proactive role in process improvement….we need develop true standards for project management and not rely on groups who sell certification to do so. It would be great to have a project management network with its focus on ‘open source’ training and self-policing certification instead of finding jobs and self promotion…

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The great unknown

I know I’m repeating myself when I say the #1 cause of project failure is the unknown – the unknown according to Capers Jones is missed requirements and missing design elements….this probably represents the majority of the unknowns. HOWEVER there are other unknowns lurking out there, ready to trip up even Sr. Project Managers….unknowns that could become knowns or better knowns if more time and effort is put forth…some key areas:
  • External impacts – this includes anything external to your groups and project. What if a 3rd party partner changes their API? The HR group decides to give everyone a 3 month longer vacation? IT becomes hot again and your people are stolen (for better salaries) from you?
  • Quality – what level quality of requirements and code are being delivered? To low and the end result will probably be shocking, to high and the cost/effort explodes past expectations.
  • Risks – was your risk analysis effective and provide adequate coverage? Did you include ALL the people you should have? You can only mitigate the risks you know and how good was the mitigation planning? Do they have gaps OR risks in themselves?
  • Productivity – how productive are the people on your team? 
  • Technical limitations – can technology really address the problem at hand? Don’t be to confident, AI was suppose to be solved by now as well as having a moon colony….prototype and test the technology unknowns.
  • Expectations – do you really know the sponsors cost and timing expectations? Make sure that you’re both speaking the same language…what does complete really mean?

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Happily walking to your meeting not expecting anything outside of some boredom and quality doodling time….then they strike! Ballistic questions, explosive statements and then the eerie quiet of a ruined career…there are some situations like this that you could never predict, but there are many that you can:
  • Holding information back or not proactively communicating – shame on you! You’re leaving the only avenue for people getting information from you in an open meeting where there’s no place to hide…like beating the bush to shake the tigers out, don’t get caught in a situation that you could have easily avoided.
  • Your project is missing delivery dates, once again openly communicate prior to the meeting and be prepared in the meeting to answer some tough questions. Open and honest communication is key - if you don’t know an answer say you’ll get back to them and DO SO…people’s confidence in you is only really tried in bad times.
  • Change of management? Expect anything and everything. It’s during shakeups that new management start asking some very pointed questions. A response of ‘that’s the way its always done’ may get you a trip to visit the prior managers on the unemployment line.
  • New peer? You may not be competitive, but your new neighbor might be. Time to keep your eyes open and realize the footsteps behind you may not be friendly ones. Do your job well, keep good notes, don’t slack and hope the person isn’t a direct relative to someone higher up…..
  • Office bully – there’s always someone that got beat up in grammar school and now its their time for revenge. A sharp comment, unfounded or not, needs to be addressed quickly and directly. Its an unfortunate fact of life that once a bully gets an upper hand, they tend to play it to the max. Be direct and devastating….if it’s an unfounded comment/question/remark say so loud and clear and then back it up with facts – time to take the gloves off.
Work is work is work – if you’re feeling comfortable and you’re not home with the doors locked and a cold beer in your hand…think again.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The wrong task for the right job

A task as defined by Webster’s Dictionary ( is a usually assigned piece of work to be finished in a certain time. What often happens in developing project plans is the ‘tossing’ of all potential, real and imagined tasks into a project management tool, many of which are:
  • non-conformable – you really can’t define what done means for this task
  • non-critical – the completion of the task is irrelevant to the success of the project
  • non-clusive. – does not fully define all the work required leaving additional work to be performed that is not tracked.

The biggest downside to ‘bad’ tasks are that they reduce the confidence level of the entire plan and in the project manager. Rule of thumb – back to Occam’s razor which I often refer to (correctly or otherwise) – track the minimal tasks required to ensure project success. A project’s worth is not in its thickness (as reference to college papers), but in its ability to help focus the team.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

What do you learn from failing?

Most times you learn to fail some more…you spend most of your time covering up the failure, justifying why you failed to yourself and looking for a new job…failure is a great kick in the ass, a humbling, leveling, humanizing experience AND if you’re mature enough (aka thick skinned) you can actually learn from it. Get a beer, cold cold beer, sit in a bar you never went to before and start to think very objectively what happened and why. If your thoughts go to those typical places like:
  • Not getting the backup/support needed
  • Other people sabotaged you
  • Everyone knew from the beginning that it would fail
  • Inability to control the unknown
STOP….that’s called the Blame Game…go back two steps, order another beer and try again. If you start to think about how you:
  • Could have been more proactive in communicating issues
  • Performed a better risk analysis
  • Better communicated current issues and potential impacts
Then you’re probably going in the right direction. Whatever the outcome of the failure (aka: out of work) the reflection is powerful, painful and a catalyst for growth.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Celebrity Apprentice

As strange as it might sound, Celebrity Apprentice provides a great deal of insight into effective project management. Last week’s episode showed an interesting team dynamic basically pitting Scott Hamilton (Olympic skater) against Tom Green (Comedian). It doesn’t take a lot of time to see that there are to many ego’s in the room, but you can’t stop superstars from being superstars. What you (the project manager) should do is direct their talents and energies in directions that are mutually beneficial to all (including you). It also showed Scott making decisions without team consent, an important one that the entire team seemed to disapprove of….a project manager should contribute and direct but needs to ensure that they (we) are not overriding other considerations purely based on position. So, my list of learnings from this episode:
  • Top down planning – don’t focus on anyone area until the entire scope is known – otherwise how would you know what the critical path and/or most important delivery
  • Understand your team and use their strengths – assign tasks to the strongest team member in that area, ensure success
  • Timebox as needed – some decisions need to be made at a certain time if you’re going to hit the critical delivery dates
  • Don’t let personality issues get in the way – business is business, just because you don’t like someone (and for good reasons) doesn’t mean that they can’t contribute. Be open and honest – tell them they suck if you want, but listen to them for ideas and assign them tasks that they are capable and effective at.
  • Friendships sometimes get in the way…business IS business – decide if the friendship is worth your job and how much you’re willing to push that gray line…
  • You don’t always succeed, but you should never lose – things happen, understand what the potential outcomes are of a bad project and deal with them – pressure makes diamonds and a whole lot of coal.