Managing Projects at the Speed of “E”

Lou Russell

A Guest-Post from Lou Russell

President and CEO of Russell Martin & Associates and author of Rocket, Project Management for Trainers, Leadership Training, and 10 Steps to Successful Project Management.

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“The project manager is the linchpin in the horizontal/vertical organizations we’re creating.”

– William Dauphinais

Imagine you are in a room with 100 people. Take a moment and think about how you and a team of four other people would gather as many signatures as possible (one per person max) on a single sheet of paper in two minutes. This exercise would demonstrate some basic truths of why project management is so difficult. The requirements of this project would prove to be unclear (can we tear the paper in pieces, must we stay in this room, are initials sufficient…?) and the constraints daunting (not enough time, not enough resources, too much to cover, competition, conflict…). Consider taking this same competitive room of people and changing their focus: their new goal is to try to get them all to get as many signatures as possible together. As a project manager of this new task, this adds to the problems inherent in project management. Not only are you faced with the original challenges but now you are faced with managing multiple small projects within a single goal. At any time, any team could decide that its goals are more important than the team goal in its entirety. This is project management in the highly matrixed e-world.

There are ways you can stack the cards in your favor on these matrixed projects. These are not magical techniques, and most of them are not new or difficult. All it takes is discipline and diligence. What matters most is that someone is actually doing project management. This includes techniques for quantifying risk, estimating unknowns, transferring knowledge, and managing development options.

Quantifying Risks

The Standish Group published some interesting statistics in Computerworld in late 1994. According to its studies, canceled and failed projects averaged cost overruns of 189% and time overruns of 222%. It would appear that technology would increase the risk of failure, but in fact, Capers Jones reported that new technology itself posed less of a threat to project success than neglecting the project management techniques. In other words, certainly the new technology brought with it a challenging learning curve, but even this could be handled if someone stepped up to managing the project. Look at the following list of risks: creeping scope, unrealistic expectations, inadequate requirements, and changing priorities. All of these are present in all projects, with new technology or with none.

New technology may encourage creeping scope just by its tendency to be flexible, and this does lead to unrealistic expectations (lower cost, lower development time). Finally, changing priorities is a business issue, not a technical one, and business is changing as fast as technology. The challenges of project management are the same now – just more of them.

The purpose is not to freeze scope, which would just be denial; the purpose is to communicate on an ongoing basis with the customers what the scope is. If the scope changes, as it always does, the scope diagram is added to (maybe another input or output, or maybe a new stakeholder), and everyone agrees that the scope has changed. With this agreement comes the inevitable discussion of what to do about it – add time, add money, or do a really bad job at the additional requirements. Troubles occur when everyone disagrees about whether the scope has changed and estimates are not tied to anything concrete. Unrealistic expectations occur when people are not honest up front. Most people on failed projects would admit to you in private that they knew they were in big trouble at the very beginning. Why hide this?

There are three manageables on any project: time, cost, and quality. People may say they want all three, but in reality, there can only be one number one priority, one number two, and one neglected. Behavior speaks louder than words. For example, if your project seems to be running out of time, are you more likely to get additional resources (cost) or are you more likely to be encouraged to work more hours free (less quality)? Sitting everyone down with this simple model in the beginning of a project is a great way to see what the hidden agendas are. Ask them to individually rate the priorities in their opinion and then share. Remember, many people believe that technology and cool tools guarantees either faster or cheaper projects, or both. It is best to debunk these misconceptions in the very beginning. Since most people initially behave as if quality is the number one goal, it does cause a great deal of stress when they start to run out of time and that goal is compromised. However, consider how perfect most of the Web sites you interface with are – you see quality compromised almost everywhere. Keep this initial worksheet around – project constraints tend to change as projects hit milestones or management changes.

Transferring Knowledge

Many managers mistakenly believe that you can hire external technology consulting resources, place them on a project, and your internal people will learn through some magical osmosis. Time and time again this has proven to be completely untrue, and valuable business knowledge has left with the consultant. The flaw in this theory comes down to the principle of serving two masters – you can’t do it. Consultants are there to complete a project successfully. Sure, in the beginning they can take the time to carefully duplicate all their efforts and nurture the internal staff, but when the going gets tough, as it always does, the first thing that will be abandoned is the nonessential knowledge transfer. The external consultants are not rewarded for that, so if you want knowledge transfer to occur, you must measure that it occurs (we value what we measure) and build that into the reward structure. For example, allocate project activities and build time into the schedule. Again, this is simply a choice between time and quality – in this case, knowledge transfer.

“For the new middle manager, power flows from sources other than position. One is expertise in project management itself.”

– Tom Stewart

What to do if you’re behind (or it’s your behind):

Up to this point, I have spent a lot of time on preparation and project planning. Once the project gets going, the project managers add to their plate of responsibilities. Not only are they planning the next milestone in detail, but they are also organizing and controlling the phase that the project is currently in. The most critical activity while controlling is troubleshooting. What happens when things start to slip? First of all, in any project if the project manager sees a big problem on a task estimate (for example, it takes four times longer to do than planned), it isn’t rationalized away (oh, they were just tired that day). There is every reason to believe that all future tasks will take four times as long as well. This is supported by the sage advice offered by Fredrick Brooks in his classic book The Mythical Man Month: “How does a project get behind? One day at a time.”

Suppose you are running out of time. You have these options: add resources (which may actually increase your duration – not generally a good strategy) add overtime (cost), sacrifice quality (generally the default if no one decides to react), or cut scope. Cutting scope and phasing in the project are generally the most rational choices. If you are budget constrained, you can add time, sacrifice quality, or cut scope. Finally, if your quality is slipping, you can add dollars (buy help, buy better tools, buy consulting), add time, or cut scope. Sometimes none of these are comfortable choices, but you will always choose something, even if it is only by default. For example, if you choose to force your people to work tons of free overtime to maintain budget or rescue the schedule, your quality will slip. Last, priorities generally do not slip because of intent; they slip because of neglect.

Summary

In summary, today’s projects are not that different from yesterdays’ projects, but they do tend to magnify the project management weaknesses that have always been present, including creeping scope, unrealistic expectations, inadequate requirements, and changing priorities. By documenting the scope and constraints, answering the tough questions at the start of a project, completing some type of risk analysis, creating a realistic schedule through more rational estimates and troubleshooting, project managers can succeed. The following analogy illustrates the true role that a project manager plays:

Once upon a time, there was a land that was inhabited by pigs. These pigs had a problem because they were quickly running out of food. After discussing their plight, they decided to take their last remaining food and build a boat. With this boat they would sail across the sea – none of them had ever been across the sea, none of them really knew whether there would be food on the other side, but it was their only hope. They built the boat, and set sail. This is just like your role as a project manager. Your job is not to have the idea to build the boat; your job is not to build the boat; in fact, your most important job is not even directing the boat. You must keep the pigs from eating the boat.

  • Lou Russell, author, adapted from her article published in The Cutter Consortium.

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