Running On Ice

Summer isn’t warm enough for lots of ice but the metaphor struck me as so true in a project rescue I was discussing with an old client. Their new project manager joined to turnaround a project but seems to be making little progress.

With a little coaching, the client admitted that the project manager was being pushed to deliver fast but had no control over the things that were the causes of his predecessor’s struggles: poor portfolio management and resource churn.

When the team is constantly being churned, leaving, reassigned and re-forming, momentum is lost. Inductions and hand-overs take time that should be spent on the project. Rework become inevitable because the learning curves are being trodden every day. The lack of stability in a team means communications channels are restarted (or fail to include the right people) nearly every day. That is wasteful.

The portfolio management was broken. There was so much pressure to get projects out of pipeline and to “started” states that there were more projects in progress than the organisation had capacity to  deal with.  That meant the rare, highly skilled resources had more churn than anyone else. They were getting worn down.

Time for my client to face reality. They had to stop running on ice. We laughed at the metaphor but my client’s presentation may have a cartoon on the page were he delivers the  tough message to the senior team: be serious guys, either resource the teams for the projects we are doing or do less projects at once. In agile terms: minimise work in progress.


scheduling decisions change atmosphere

What do Agile and the Olympics have in common?

The London 2012 Olympics have a few days left before the break to prepare the next phase (Paralympics). The home side have achieved golds (much to the relief of team officials who were beginning to worry if the pessimism of the media was correct). In fact, Team GB have had a very successful game. People have been inspired to take up sports either as fans or to stay fit – we’ll soon know if that commitment lasts

I have a new role and I’ve done my first two week travelling across London using public transport. That’s usually nightmare: rush hour is often “crush hour”. But it hasn’t been. why?

The London 2012 organisation has tried to schedule events so spectator journeys have been spread across the capital city at different start times. To keep the transport network flowing. They have invested in those areas that showed signs of  potential failure before they were needed.

The school holidays have helped and because of the dire warnings, some families have escaped the city. That removes the time constraints on the morning travel peak; “I drop the kids and dash to work” doesn’t apply.

Some employers have encourage working from home or changing working hours (one friend starts at 7 and is done by 3:30) and that means people have more flexibility over start and end times to allow them to get to evening events.

Others have taken holidays to escape the big show because they are not sport fans. They are missing the cultural events and the atmosphere. As one visitor from a more northern city commented, “this isn’t like London – it’s so friendly!” part of that is because there are more people to give directions and welcome visitors, letting the staff get on with other important tasks uninterrupted. there is also some extra capacity in the system (special buses)

The net effect is that demand is reduced and spread across more time and people are being patient with each other.   It is all about scheduling, resourcing and capacity buffers. Agile approaches aim to minimise work in progress and flatten out the resource peaks. That works in a similar way by removing the usual assumptions about scheduling constraints.

Will London change forever because of this? Unfortunately, no. The children will be back at school for fixed hours. Parents will all be heading to work at he same time pushing capacity to the max. The festival spirit and extra people running the system will disappear. Some employers will revoke flexible working.

But imagine if we could remove those constraints and keep this calm, friendly, capable transport system. Now imagine what a little rescheduling might do to remove the stress from your project.

Welcome to 2012

Well it seems so odd to finally be in 2012!

I spend a lot of time in London and the pre-Olympic theme in many places has lulled me into a dream-like state of it already being 2012. Now it really is 2012. That got my attention: something has changed and yet nothing has changed.

Christmas was also a reminder of the truth behind “culture shock”. I hear change specialist worrying about culture shock for big changes in organisations or moving teams to new locations. However, the biggest shocks I see are when people arrive somewhere after being away. How many of us expected our parents to be the same with other children as they were with us or return “home” after a long trip  expecting to be treated to the same reception as we used to get only to find things have changed? We may have changed but so has own old home and the people in it. The behaviour is not what they expect it to be. That can grab our attention too.

That grabbing of attention makes me stand still for a moment to work out where I am,  what I expected and how to reset my expectations to deal with the reality.  That is fine if I have that time to spare.  If my project doesn’t have that time, I need to be better prepared.

In projects, you can prepare people and help them be ready for a change but if that change doesn’t meet their expectation then there will be a shock. Managing stakeholder expectations of the changes your project plans to make needs to include two-way communication to discover what they think it will be like and correct any misunderstandings. It is an area of change that, with a little more understanding of the people concerned, can show lasting results.  A little research will uncover assumptions and associated risks.

My new year wish for project managers is that your people are healthy in terms of change, your projects are wealthy or at least appropriately resourced, and you grow wise in terms of risk management.

Happy New Year

Well that was new …

As a project manager, there are times when you simply need to get new thoughts about the project’s direction to the stakeholders. Mostly people use a presentation deck of slides and a formal presentation. I went to three events last week where that didn’t happen – people simply got the group talking. That was coincidental (I didn’t plan a week without PowerPoint deliberately) but i’m recognising it was a great week and there are things project managers can learn from that.

The first event was a gathering of about 40 people. The discussion was wide ranging and through 2 hours we discussed the issues around a big topic in short sessions in 2s or 3s, groups of 8 or 10, or leader facilitated plenary. It had a consistent theme of “what can you do about this intractable and complex problem, how will that benefit everyone round you and how will it help you?” no one session was long enough to solve anything but we all understood the situation a little better. At the end we were asked to scribble down a list of 2 or 3 small specific and immediate actions we committed to do with the understanding that we’d get email reminders from the facilitator. The potential progress before we meet again in a few months could be incredible – lots of small solutions motivated by the individual’s own needs which when combined would make the problem a considerably smaller issue. We won’t solve it but the interaction of all those small changes could be significant.

The second was an event with an expert speaker at a comfortable venue with no projection equipment. I found I was watching the speaker and that helped me to listen more effectively. While I had heard the information before, I was hearing shades of meaning that I missed last time round. As a presenter, recognise that your visual aids should help your audience,not distract them.

Finally, I had a Friday evening speaking engagement at Southampton Solent University for BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT) at a local branch and Quality specialist group combined meeting. I usually have a lecture hall for these meetings and deliver from a stage but this was a smaller group and we sat down to a large round table discussion. We recognised how things had changed, how everyone round the table had different insights, and that we could learn from each other. I had the agenda I would have used for PowerPoints beside me and yes, as presenter, I did more talking than anyone else. Fascinatingly, I noticed how energised my audience was as they left the room. There was something in allowing them to participate beyond the question and answer session that changed how they felt. There are times when that engagement can change the nature of stakeholder support.

So next time you have a presentation to make, check with yourself: do I really need PowerPoint?

Not another meeting!

I see two major problems happen with project meetings: there are too many or there are too few. I know from painful experience how likely either case is to make a project manager unsuccessful. How can we get the balance right?
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Twitter for project managers (4 of 4)

The first 3 parts were about Twitter, it’s conventions and how to find and share information. This final post in the series, Part 4, suggests how to use Twitter for a project

Please add your ideas and comments if you are a #pmot (project manager on Twitter). What works for you?
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Twitter for project managers (3 of 4)

Parts 1 and 2 were about Twitter and it’s conventions, Part 3 suggests how to find useful information and collaborate on Twitter
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Twitter for project managers (2 of 4)

Part 1 was about Twitter, Part 2 is about the habits and traditions Twitter users have.

Twitter was started by some friends who wanted to tell each other what was happening. As others joined, habits and traditions started.
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Twitter for project managers

Another mini series of blogs on a topic for project managers – enjoy the four parter on Twitter

Social Media has grown. Facebook is the communication method of choice for some groups of people. Foursquare tells you where people often are. Some counties or age groups use it a lot, for others it is only common in some sectors. carries the news from the spot as it happens and commentary from conferences and events in just 140 characters.

To get the best from Twitter you need to build a network of contacts to “follow”. These are people or organisations who give you useful information or who you hold online conversations. There are also tools that will tell you what the world or your part of it are posting about (tweeting) by looking at these trending topics, you may discover others who tweet the sorts of things that interest you.

In your main Twitter account settings, you have a choice to make your account private. That means you can choose if you allow others to follow you and see your posts. I am not convinced of the practical use of these. While Twitter has a pretty good record of defending it’s data, nothing you post onto a public site, even behind a privacy wall, is truly private any longer. I compare it to having a changing room in a big store that has salon doors – there is some protection of your modesty but it is not truly private.

So what make the difference to success?

That is the big question for a project manager: how to turn a delivered project into a success. With a clear understanding of the objective, good planning, team management skills, an eye on quality, effective financial and risk management a manager can bring a project in on time.

Even then, a few things will not be perfect. Think of the projects you spend years planning and working towards: your graduation, wedding, winning a major sporting event or building a new company headquarters. Do they happen without a glitch? Something will go wrong at some point.

Two of my friends just got married. They have been planning this for about two years. One has had to move countries to do it. They had a plan of all the things they needed to do and worked through it. Everyone wants a perfect wedding and they did all they could to make that happen. They had all the normal stresses that putting on such an event means. They made sure they had a team around them to help with the practical things that needed to be done and that these people understood the flow of the day. It was the best day of their lives and at the end, they were exhausted but ecstatic.

There were glitches: shoes that looked great for the ceremony were not good for dancing, luggage in the wrong place, running ahead of schedule and arriving at the reception a little before the venue was really ready. None of this mattered in the end because the team understood what the outcome of each part would be and could do what was needed to make that happen. Things were fetched from the hotel, some last minute shopping got missing essentials, transport was rearranged and bar staff were alerted before guests got to the venue.

That autonomy to fix the problems meant the team (without fuss) made the adjustments needed to keep the day on track. That team were fully engaged in the efforts to meet the day’s objective. They served that objective not through checklists but by being considerate of the stakeholders. The stakeholder’s opinion is the final deterimination of success and they had a great time.

A project manager does not complete the project alone. To be a truely successful project, the team has to be part of that success. Success is fun and it is habit forming. Most importantly, success is achieved by being thoughtful and having an awareness of what is important and what can be changed to make it so.