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.

Advertisements

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.

Making the Most of your Team

“I’m calling to warn you: the CEO is cutting 10% of your budget. You’ll be asked for a plan to do this at the project review on Monday.”  Many project managers will have heard something similar.

You can talk to your suppliers about alternative solutions at lower cost. You can ban overtime and risk the project running over budget because you miss deadlines. Or you can think differently.

Project teams often have individuals that have latent skills: things they are skilled in that are ignored because they have been pigeonholed for specific skills they are associated with within the organisation. This is the opportunity to take advantage of these latent skills as well.

Ask the team the question: if we were starting today with a budget of 20% less, how would we do what we have to do in this project?  What skills have you got that we could use?

You may be surprised at the results. After initial horror at the suggestion of such a budget  cut, you will usually find creative or simply pragmatic solutions emerge from the team. Of course, you can’t take the idea at face value: work it through as a change request and prove it.

This might be worth a try for all projects in different situations: how can we do this cheaper? faster? simpler? better?

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.

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.

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?
Read more of this post

Interim Programme or Project Managers

The questions I am asked most about what I do are not about project management but about being an interim manager:

  1. Why would an organisation bring in an interim manager to run their project or programme?
  2. What’s the difference between an interim and a contractor?
  3. What’s the difference between an interim and a consultant?
  4. Isn’t it cheaper to employ someone properly?

My short answers are: expertise, objectives over attendance, stewardship not advice, no!

I hope the rest of this explains the answers. 
Read more of this post

Tools for communication within the team

Some years ago, I tried something with a project team that could never be in the office at the same time. 

Each lunchtime, I’d check my notes of the last day or so and make notes about the decisions made and events of the day.  I had just learnt html (the first time round) and this daily log became a web page on our server.  It was a way of making sure people knew what was happening across time zones and work patterns.  It worked but I began to feel frustrated that it was only my voice.  Read more of this post

Prioritising Projects : a project manager’s dilemma

In an ideal organisation, project managers have an understanding of the organisation’s project portfolio and don’t have to prioritize one project over another: it is very clearly led by senior management.

Some methods assume that project teams should only work on one project at once.

There is sometimes an unfortunate reality: the project manager has to make an interim decision on which to project to prioritize. Read more of this post

Project Management Art or Skill?

I share an office with an artist. I’m told art is a skill.  Art is something that is developed through experience, dedication and practice: nearly anyone can draw but it takes effort to be an artist.

My first reaction is that project management is a skill but the best project managers make it look like art.  Read more of this post