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.

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Quality comes from Professional Responsibility

Testing is a double edge sword. Testing is done for two reasons: to catch any unintended consequence of changes and (for risk management) giving a fresh view to find anything that would be a reputation issue if it reached a customer. However, because testing is done there may be a tendency for a “I’ve got a safety net” mentality that can allow corners to be cut and process precision to be lost. Read more of this post

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

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.

My dirty little secret: code in the raw

This is a unashamed geek post. 

I was asked this week why I gave up being a programmer and moved into software quality and project management. Read more of this post

Non-participation in project meetings

You have gathered your whole team for a meeting. It is important to get them all in a room from time to time but that is a lot of people. You’ve had to hire a cinema or conference hall.

You want it to be engaging but you don’t seem to have all their attention. You know your presentation skills are OK and that they are interested to hear what you have to say because they asked you to explain this bit. 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

Equality has value and a new law

90% of the new United Kingdom Equality Act became enforceable on 01 October 2010. This new act covers every aspect of equality and diversity and adds some more responsibility for employers and public bodies. It covers many aspects of life: service in shops, school opportunities, and equal pay for similar work. It applies to people gender, race, religion, sexuality, economic and family background. The underlying theme is that everyone must have the same chances to do what they can and some people may need extra help to get those same chances.

In a project where the team have very similar backgrounds “group think” can be a destructive force: risks are missed, assumptions are not challenged and decisions are not suitably scrutinised. Diversity is useful to mitigate these. Read more of this post

Humbled by a Compliment

This isn’t a self-help channel, don’t switch off!  Skip to the fourth paragraph if you must.

Sometimes the most unexpected things happen to you and you revert to type: you become the person you are when you are not being the professional you.  At least that is true for most people: there are some wonderful expectations who “are all that they are” in or out of the office. They always seem to be so successful and over the last few years the business press has told readers to “become authentic”. Read more of this post

Planning Communication with the Team

Planning for formal communications with the project team might seem to pre-empt the project manager’s role.  However, deciding the frequency, style and timing of communication with the team is important.  Read more of this post