Sometimes The Rules Must Be Different

There is a big debate in GB media this week: should the Olympics and Paralympics be treated the same, combined or be carbon copies.  Aside from the practicalities (4 hour opening ceremonies and time tabling venues) Peter White (bbc.co.uk) reminded the media that there are differences and what suits a person in a wheelchair will not be a level playing field for those on two legs.  The country is learning new sports (e.g. boccia). Closer integration of the games might be possible but we must acknowledge the key aspect: these games are different with different rules. It would be unfair on all competitors to try to make them the same.

Some companies and project managers make similar mistakes seeing a portfolio of projects as homogenous and trying to endorse the same methods and processes. A fundamental definition of a project is that it is a unique undertaking. In organisations, the types of project they undertake may be grouped by type and complexity to help assign effective project management teams. However, many don’t do that, they group by location or year: accidental dragooning into manageable groups.

The underlying problem with accidental grouping is the assumption that a consistent management can be applied to the projects in that group. That is where the project that isn’t quite the same can be the performance management equivalent of a land-mine: hidden, explosive and unexpectedly damaging. These land-mine projects are damaging because they go wrong, add cost, demotivate the team and upset stakeholders. Sometimes the costs of these projects can stop the business performing in other areas. If the dispute goes to law it can have a catastrophic impact on the organisation.

Therefore, portfolio and programme managers need to find a way of identifying those projects that are different: different type of delivery, different type of client, more complex, bigger or smaller teams, longer or shorter timescales, new or innovative. They need to tailor their controls and processes to manage these.  This is adaptation for a situation not a licence to lose the overall controls applied.

I recognise that a number of Paralympic competitors first “qualified” for the trials that got them into their nation teams because of land-mines.  While “the project that brought down the business” isn’t really on the same scale, the metaphor works. Their life has been set on a new unplanned direction that is incomparably different from their original hopes and dreams. Their success as elite athletes may be a huge achievement and entirely worth celebrating but it is not the same: the rules are different.

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Defininition, planning, avoiding rework and getting 40% savings in projects

On my travels I spotted a hotel advertising “lounge food”. That obviously means something to them. For me, it is something to label “jargon” and wonder what they mean. Do they mean nibbles to eat relaxing on a sofa? Or would it be dainty sandwiches, cup cakes and cream teas? Are they recreating historic banquets lounging in Romanesque opulence? Is this a reflection of the modern habit of eating in front of the TV rather than at a dining table?

As project managers our use of jargon can cause issues we could avoid: “stakeholder management” is a defined process which doesn’t mean the same to some. The need for precision in language is more important in defining the measures by which you know something is complete – project or product.

What does commissioned, usable or handover mean? How do you define acceptable performance or customer satisfaction? By carefully defining the detailed qualities and aspects of what you are delivering, and how you will measure that and when. This is work that often gets forgotten in the “just get on with it” cultures of some organisations.

It is worth remembering that the Olympic development projects used a 2:4:1 approach. Two years planning and defining, four years of delivery and a year of testing. Late delivery or failure would have been catastrophic for the organisations involved, so planning was seen as vital. I know from the discussions with some of the project managers that the planning and defining was not all done first but very little was started without being fully defined (including handover and legacy). There was also very little waste or rework.

By comparison, I have worked with a number of organisations that use a ratio of 1:6:3 (and they are not the worst). Their lack of planning means they do at least 50% rework, have to spend considerably more on testing to make sure the errors don’t get out and retesting after rework. Defining what you are doing, how you test it is complete and the measures you’ll use are worth the investment; about a 40% saving on the overall cost of the project.