Danger:too many projects!

It’s still February and rugby is still the preferred sport for a few more weeks. The big debate seems to be, simply, why doesn’t England win the Six Nations tournament more? England has a relatively big population, the biggest sports economy, the national rugby organisation with the biggest turnover, most players, more registered professional players, etc.  The press question if those resources are being wasted. The answer cannot be about numbers and statistical ratios but about what is done with those resources.

At the end of the game, the important thing is the result created by the 15 guys on the pitch. If they have good enough facilities, high quality coaches and plenty of practice, a player can leave the locker room at the start of the game with confidence of a good start and a potential win. If the 15 are focused on doing the small things right, take the opportunities that present themselves and play for each other as a team, then they could be running back to their lockers as winners. That is true no matter how big your resource pool is. If you have a squad of 50 instead of 22 (15 plus the 7 allowed substitutes) the dynamics of communication between players becomes problematic and building a coherent team is harder. If you have just enough players the team will  probably work well. If you have too few in the team, guys start to play more than one position and risk loosing focus on the important things.

So in reality, it does not matter how many players England have: it’s the quality of the team that is selected to play the big game and the support they get to win. For England, the number of players available may be a distraction because the selection process has to cope with more possibilities. The temptation will be to spend the same effort on all players for consistency of process (and fairness). But that robs people of the attention they need (if they need more than average) or wastes the coach’s time (if things can be done quickly.) The team’s key players need the best coaches. Those at the start of their career need coaches who can help them grow. Every player needs an appropriate time with the right coach to get them ready for the game they need to play.

Like every international team needs a selection process, every portfolio of projects needs a governance process. And like every player needs a coach, every project needs the right attention in the governance process. Each project team needs good preparation before the game begins. The processes around a project portfolio also need to increase the opportunities for success.  In really large portfolios, the time and energy to do this can seem inefficient but not doing it can be really costly. This is where some organisations start to go wrong: they have lots of projects and management start to feel there is too much time and cost devoted to the governance process – they want to spend the resources on the projects. The real measure should be about how well the governance process works: how many projects slip through and fail or how many real opportunities are missed? The right level of governance for each project must make sure that the right projects are run and the right resources are available for the best chance of success.

Quite simply, if you don’t have time and resources for an effective governance process, you have too many projects running in your portfolio. Time to consider either rescheduling the portfolio or looking at changing the resources applied to governance.

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Portfolio Ambition

It’s February and six weeks into the year I’ve listened to project portfolio managers wrestling with their organisations’ daydream-like expectations of the project portfolio. When the board signed off the portfolio with a list of change initiatives and project objectives in January, they had not made a proper evaluation of the resources available to complete the work or the risks involved.
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Now that was a Surprise

When a surprise or bad news hits your desk as a project manager, how do you deal with it? “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” is the old saying but the smart leader only acts when action is needed. Read more of this post

Be Clear About Your Assumptions

Assumptions: we all make them.  Some times stated. Sometimes implicit. Occasionally, utterly unaware that we made an assumption. They are in all projects and can be found in all project planning decisions. If we don’t make assumptions we can’t plan – uncertainty will get in our way. Read more of this post

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?

Project in Trouble: Don’t Panic!

Something about the current debates about English secondary education (age 11 to 16 years)  has reminded me of a project that didn’t go well.

The debate about introducing a new qualification before completing a review of the system (http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/news/ebac-report-substantive/) is beginning to look like someone with power was making a big decision based on opinion and a perceived need to act quickly and not a more objective view – and after a few weeks the situation looks starkly different.

Sometimes, a manager must make a fast decision based on the information available because there is no time left to contemplate. However, often waiting for your team to give more information or think of alternative can mean a better decision. Action is vital when a project hits a problem but panic reactions and instinctive firefighting can lead to more trouble.  Unfortunately, that a problem has been found can build a desire to take decisive action fast.

I was in the meeting when Joe (the project manager) realised that his team had discovered something that was going to put him wildly over schedule and put a huge hole in his project budget. We talked about how he could calmly take this forward and rescue best value from the project for the stakeholders. He had some ideas but realised he needed more information from the team and had to test out some potential solutions.

He had a real sense of urgency about him when I left that meeting: he was telling his team that they must get all the work they had in hand to a sensible point to leave for a few days. The project team would need time to work on what to do about this issue. They agreed a good place to start was a workshop about the facts of the problem before they left that evening.

I knew Joe had a regular lunch meeting booked with the Mark (the senior manager responsible for the project) the next day. That seemed like a good opportunity to talk about the issue, bring some early information and ideas, and ask for support and guidance from Mark. It all sounded like a plan to get to a new plan.

I went on a business trip for a few days. When I got back, I could only wonder at what had happened.

The project team were running in various directions with panic written across their faces, Joe looked downtrodden and Mark appeared to be the new project manager issuing instructions to everyone but there was no sign of a plan.  Everyone was in firefighting mode but without the calm disciplined approach I know trained firefighters have. That didn’t seem to be an improvement.

I had a quiet coffee with the very stressed Rob (PMO consultant assigned to the project) and got the story. Joe had done all the things he and I had discussed. The team had defined the problem sensibly and had some ideas that might work but these were not complete before lunch with Mark.  Once Mark had heard the details of the problem he quickly knew how important it was.

However, just as Joe was about to discuss his ideas and plan, Mark got a phone call from his boss who demanded why he hadn’t taken change of the problem as 24 hours had already passed.  How the boss knew about the problem we never found out but Mark’s expression changed as he was berated and he was heard to say “I am already on it … I’m meeting with Joe now … I am confident we can find a way to satisfy this customer …of course I’ll take charge myself”. Now Joe and Mark are both trapped in a senior manager’s “Just Get On With It” pronouncement from afar.

Mark saw Rob and I return from our meeting and called us into his office. That at least gave the project team some respite. Sometimes, I just say the wrong things: “I see the solution to the issue isn’t progressing well – what does your plan look like?” After Mark described his frustrations for about 10 minutes, Rob started to relax and there was silence. What now? The only thing I could say was, “why don’t we call Joe in and see how far we’ve really progressed and what ideas his team has now?”

By the end of the day, we concluded that

  •  all the activity had made some progress but not as much as we could have done,
  • we had learnt some lessons and gained some valuable insights into the solution,
  • we could see a logical plan to solve the issue by the end of the next day,
  •  Mark was paying for the team dinner that night as they agreed to work late to make up the time he’d lost.

That dinner was considerably more elegant than the pizza the project budget might normally have yielded. The team was as good as their word and produced the solution the next day. They also had some other ideas which improved the project as a whole, made money for the organisation and delighted the customer.

Will the education debate end so happily? I do hope so. When I think of that team, they were all very intelligent and able – partly thanks to their education.

HomeTech London 30 June 2011

Last day of the Home Technology Show (www.hometechnologyevent.com) at Excel in London’s Docklands. I haven’t been to a show like this for a few years but a new project sparked an interest. I was expecting it to be a gadget fest with a few specialist building suppliers for switch panels and lighting effects. The market has changed.

Today’s show tells me that all the thinks the geeks were chatting about over lunch in 2000 (like Bill Gates home or the latest Phillips lab demo) are now mass market. You can have a house build to the best eco standards and have integrated home cinema projection units, TV’s wider than the wall in my first flat, wireless sound, video and security. All with the wires and switches hidden in single remote or wall switches. You can even have a flatscreen TV in the hall that shows you your security cameras view but switches when the doorbell rings to display a high quality film of a fish tank nicely framed into the wall. Some members of my family have wanted to watch TV in the bath – I won’t show them the one with a glass mosaic surround.

A friend’s husband has just built himself a shed. The way to keep him happy there would be to get him the so very realistic indoor golf kit – just like the simulators in the amusement parks. He could play with family across the internet or just try out a new course anywhere in the world.

To keep me happy, I want more variety. 3D TV still needs me to wear glasses but it is improving each year. I could get myself a new docking station and have a flush wall mounted IPad in my office or a wall mount, a custom coded house control app and flat wireless speakers.

For me the highlight of the launches was a simple iPad mounting gadget – a music stand that will safely hold my iPad. Why didn’t I think of that? Of course, not all iPad users are musician but they do use the technology they have in as many ways as they are individuals. Music stand becomes recipe book holder, iPad baby mobile stand, or speakers’ lectern. For those of us who are developing an iPad-lifter-arm, there is now an app for that too! (www.ratstands.com

Back to the office for a conference call in a meeting room with a phone line but no phone and poor mobile cell reception. Frustration! As a project manager often finds, making do with the equipment in the temporary office isn’t always fun and the budget doesn’t always stretch to a refurbishment. The Revolabs FLX teleconferencing system (www.revolabs.com) I saw at the show would be ok in a large brief case as a portable meeting room conference phone kit. Encrypted and wireless it only needs power and a phone line: no more trailing cables. Time to start a new equipment wish list.

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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