The Project Notebook

Project Management and Joint Accountability

© 2013 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP

 

The Oz Principle was originally released around 1994, but the authors (Craig Hickman, Tom Smith and Roger Connors) felt an update was required in 2004 and also have a few sequel works that are much newer (Journey to the Emerald City, How Did That Happen?).  These books build on their original key principle – accountability.  In leadership roles such as Project Management, accountability is about assuming responsibility for actions and to be able to explain and be answerable for the resulting consequences.

This should sound familiar to project managers required to deliver project results.  Results can be achieved by looking within for cause, rather than in the actions of others. The authors suggest this is a great way to build leadership. The books are filled with great examples of how accepting accountability can pull us out of the “victim” thinking (e.g. it’s not my fault, I don’t know why this is happening to me, something or someone other than me and my actions made this happen) and achieve positive results. Some famous examples of leaders showing accountability include Jack Welch, Janet Reno, and Bill Clinton — embracing accountability helped them weather adversity and continue to get results.  Their past mistakes were left behind.

I had a recent example of this myself.  A “disruptive technology” solution was proposed by a client employee that could have diminished or even ended a long-time client relationship.  It would have been easy to “throw up my hands” and recommend going with what appeared to be an easy solution.  Instead, I looked at the problem from all angles, considered the client governance policies in place, and realized there were hidden costs in the proposed solution that would not have been discovered until the project was well down the wrong trail. I was able to put some talking points together for the client Project Director to successfully steer clear of the disruption.

To further show joint accountability, the client employee was invited to play a key role in a different approach.  There was no “blame”.  Everyone looked within and considered the best actions to create superior outcomes.

There is so much of importance in the Oz Principle for improving ourselves and our projects.  Accountability and project management complement each other. One immediate area that jumps off the page of the book is the notion of joint accountability. It’s the idea that in any team setting, when someone drops the ball, another team member is there to help put it in the goal. Many of the best practices we follow in project planning help contribute to creating an environment of joint accountability.

Pre-implementation Announcements and Messaging

Once the project charter is completed, it’s typical to get senior management to “stand up”, state some of the goals, and start the process of building the shared understanding of the work. Getting early and often messages out to the team members and other stake holders, almost like a public relations campaign, builds understanding. Where there is solid shared understanding, joint accountability can take place.

Implementation/Planning Meeting

This is the first time the identified project team is brought together as a whole to hear the objectives again and begin forming the initial project phases and requirements. Once again, clear and consistent communication about the goals and objectives brings everyone together.

Work Breakdown Structure

This is an area that many software, IT, or technology projects “skimp” with the belief it is too time consuming. This is an activity which builds capacity. Everyone works together to identify the work and understand how the work is building to meet the goals and objectives of the charter. More time spent in thinking through the work will assure all the tasks are identified and the team will know what needs to be done.

Other Planning Activities

Whether it is to develop a communications plan or a human resources plan, this is more team and capacity building activity. As common understanding of the project work emerges, the team is positioned for joint accountability.

Project Execution

Like the building crescendo of a symphony, project managers that spend time on the previous steps will have a bold and capable team. Everyone knows what needs to be done and is occupied by doing it.

The phrase “herding cats” refers to the impossibility of controlling a situation dominated by chaos. Rather than herding cats, the project manager is mentoring the team and helping with problem solving. Problem solving is not the same as moving from emergency-to-emergency (more chaos). With joint accountability, team members know what needs to be done, are doing it, and helping out others who are not helping the ball to the net. Sure there are sometimes “bumps” in the road, but the team works around them.

Creating an environment of joint accountability builds focus too — other peripheral tasks are now clearly second to meeting the promised deliverable. Now I’m sure many will scoff at the time these activities take. My assertion is that in the long run, these steps are very worthwhile. Taking some time on each will provide superior results in the long run.

It might be overly bold to say I never managed a project with lots of good planning that didn’t come in on time and on budget, but my record seems to speak for itself. So next time you are about to start a project, make sure you avoid herding cats and create an environment of joint accountability.

Transition and Succession Planning for Project Managers

© 2013 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP

 

You arrive at work on Monday morning and find that your key software engineer did not show up.  You subsequently learn that he was arrested over the weekend for tax evasion for the past 8 years.  The week is tense and you hope you will get your key engineer back – after all, he should be able to make bail and get out of jail.

So he makes bail and returns for a week.  The following Monday he’s gone again.  This time you learn he fled to another country seeking asylum and abandoning his wife and children to avoid prosecution.  Looks like the key engineer won’t ever be available again! Your other engineers tell you he single handedly designed 60%+ of the system and they don’t really know what or how he did it. It’s going to take them months to figure it out.

This example was taken from a real-life. Project failure was imminent as several other major risks became issues.  What’s more, the failure led to a chain of events that effectively put the company involved out of business.

Compounding the issue is the low ranking resource risks typically get on projects.  Yet underlying almost every risk is the element of human behavior. And availability of required skills and talent accounts for a large portion of the human resources risks.  How can this be avoided?

The answer is transition and succession planning.  This human resources process, like budgeting, is often not a direct responsibility for the project manager.  As with budgeting, good project managers that want to deliver quality projects on time will keep an eye on the process.  This is especially important for longer, more complex projects.

Outside of the project environment, this might go by several names such as business continuity planning or professional development.  The key ideas are the same: you want the right people on your project, you want to be sure they are not irreplaceable, and you want to make sure that if a new resource comes on board, they hit the ground running.

The first step is to be sure your project team has clear roles and responsibilities.  For large complex projects, these need to be in writing and more detailed than a simple job description. Having this information is key to effective transition and succession planning.

Transition Planning

Think of transition planning as the on-boarding and exit process for your project team members. When a team member exits for any reason, you generally want to:

  • Make sure you understand the skills that need to be replaced
  • Understand the status of the work in progress and promised deliverables that need to be fulfilled
  • Discuss with the individual how their role may have changed over time
  • Update the roles and responsibilities as necessary
  • Collect any company property (these items should be on a checklist)
  • Get access to any passwords, codes, etc. (these items should be on a checklist as well) that may be needed to carry on work and have the remainder changed or deactivated
  • Depending on company customs, organize a departure gathering or celebration

Depending on how your company operates, you may or may not have an opportunity to participate in the hire or assignment of a new team member.  But when that new team member comes on board, you need to be able to:

  • Introduce them to the team; be sure they become an integral part of the team quickly
  • Describe their actual roles and responsibilities
  • Organize any training or professional development they may need to come up to speed
  • Be sure they have all the tools they need to perform their work (e.g. laptops, application access)
  • Set expectations for initial deliverables and timelines

Smooth transitions, along with scheduling techniques such as crashing (adding more resources) and fast tracking (doing more work in parallel) will help assure the timely and efficient delivery of your project.

Succession Planning

While succession planning at a corporate level can be complex, I like to think of the project version as having only two processes – talent evaluation and talent development. Let’s look at each of these individually.

Talent Evaluation

For project managers, this should not be your standard HR performance review, which can often be based on subjective measures.  The best measure to keep your project on track is based on deliverables.  For each role and responsibility on the project, you expect certain tasks to be completed.  Develop a check list of these tasks and check them off.

In the process, you should observe what other tasks the individual you are evaluating may be capable of completing.  Once a quarter, it will be helpful to sit down with each team member and discuss:

  • Your vision for the future of the project
  • Other roles this individual might be interested in exploring
  • What they hope to gain from the work
  •  Tasks they might complete to grow their capabilities

Completion of talent evaluation (and the identification of talents to develop, will lead you to the next step of the process.

Talent Development

To me, this is the best part of the job.  No matter what industry you work in or what type of work is performed, I’ve always noticed that the real high performing teams address the “what’s in it for me” question with personal and professional development.

As the project progresses, watch for opportunities to shift assignments that may build talents and satisfy needs. As new skills are required for successful project completion, consider carefully who will get that training.  And hopefully, you will network with other project and program managers in the company to see where opportunities for your team may lie.

As a related matter, also ask what roadblocks you can remove and make them more productive.

At one point in my career, I was faced with the challenge of managing a group that was perceived to be underperforming, unmotivated, and a major obstacle in the engineering process.  In less than a year, I was able to affect a complete turnaround, building a highly effective work team and culture, by the following:

  • Identifying roles and responsibilities
  • Identifying key behavioral ground rules for internal and external interactions
  • Forming a team vision with the help of the team
  • Reigning in chaos, but not to the point where innovation was stifled
  • Letting the team know their promotion was a goal
  • Identifying and removing road blocks and speed bumps (inefficiencies)
  • Providing essential professional development opportunities
  • Building work objectives that grew both the individual and the team
  • Cross-training the team – every critical skill had a backup

In less than a year:

  • Team efficiency increased many times, and it was noticed by those we worked with
  • Multiple cost savings were identified and enacted
  • One individual was promoted to another group
  • Everyone loved to come to work every day

References:

PMBOK® Guide, Fifth Edition; PMI 2013
A Diagnostic Approach to Organizational Behavior (Fourth Edition); Gordon; Allyn and Bacon 1993
Identifying & Managing Project Risk (2nd Edition); Kendrick; AMACOM 2009

 

About the Author:

Ray W. Frohnhoefer is a hands-on executive with strong project, program, and portfolio management skills; a methodologist; and a creative inventor and “intrapreneur”. His leadership qualities have enabled him to save companies millions of dollars by efficiently making complex decisions, solving complex problems, and getting things done, even under pressure. Ray is currently EDmin’s Senior Program Manager for the Student Success Dashboard, a Project Management Instructor at UCSD Extension and a member of PMI’s Chapter Member Advisory Group. As a PMI affiliate, Ray makes project management indispensible for business results. You can contact him at RayF123@aol.com.

A Plan for Success OR A Recipe for Failure?

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2013, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

 This article focuses on factors that need to be addressed early in the project life cycle in order to avoid later problems.  Many times, these critical considerations are either overlooked or deferred.  If an issue seems particularly loaded with political maneuvering and ramifications, someone is bound to say, “We can worry about that later”.  Typically, the project manager will be the one who then has to deal with the deferred issues, which always get worse over time.  Let’s look at a few of those considerations that need to be addressed “now” rather than “later”.

Executive Support

Generally, a least a few senior people in an organization can be persuaded to appear at a “kickoff” event, say a few words, and then depart.  The “troops”, who have been through this scenario many times, are then left wondering if they will ever see these people again during the project.  Executive support comes in many forms, so an astute project manager defines what types of support and timing are necessary to provide the true demonstration of belief in the project.  Appearance at kickoff sessions is valuable, but both the team and all people who will ultimately be impacted by the project implementation need to see executives at important points in the project’s progress.  Examples of executive support include visible recognition of completion of interim project deliverables, occasional appearances at team meetings, and reinforcement of project goals with middle management personnel.  When a project manager guides executives through the types of support that are needed, he/she also ensures that the executives will not engage in activities that could actually harm a project.

“We Don’t Need Goals — We Need Solutions”

Goal setting is viewed by some as a real waste of time, particularly if a project has an aggressive timetable.  “We’ve all agreed on the solution, so we must agree on the goals” is a common statement made to cover the fact that there is actually much hidden discord.  Early in a project the “solution” is often framed in vague terms that lead to multiple interpretations.  For example, an organization may undertake a project to build a new corporate headquarters.  While the “solution” is a building, there are many types of structures that could conceivably fulfill that definition.  The goal that the organization really has to determine at the beginning of the initiation phase is “What do we want to accomplish with a corporate headquarters?”  Depending on the goals that are defined, the actual solution could range from not building anything to building a multi-million dollar “state-of-the-art” facility.  A common statement is “the devil is in the details”.  That statement really highlights that people have not agreed on the goals, so they will never be able to agree on the means (“the details”) to achieve disparate, undefined goals.

“Somehow Everything Will Get Done”

Project managers often are coerced to accept unrealistic project schedules, inadequate personnel, and/or insufficient budget.  They grimly dive into these types of projects knowing that the outcomes will not meet expectations.  Yet they feel that somehow miracles will happen.  If a project manager perceives that one or more of the three constraints (time, budget, and quality) is not being adequately addressed at project initiation, he/she needs to determine how the constraints can be modified upfront.  Once a project is underway, there is a perception that the constraints are not issues.  A project manager is in a far better position to address the constraints in the initiation phase with solutions than to march bravely into defeat knowing that the obstacles are insurmountable.  Upfront negotiation beats last minute wailing every time.

The bottom line to these examples is that project problems identified early in the life cycle don’t “go away”.  They need to be addressed proactively, or they will explode at some unforeseen point later in the project.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia.  She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices.  Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States.  She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San   Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum advisory committee.  She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

Predicting the Future: A Thankless Job

 By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2013, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever
without written permission of the author.

There probably aren’t any job descriptions for project manager positions that contain the requirement “Must possess keen ability to accurately predict the future”. However, that skill is necessary in order to be an effective project manager who is both proactive in averting project disasters, and who plans contingencies wisely. Those who possess this skill may not realize that it is employed in a variety of situations. I had an information technology project student who was embroiled in a highly controversial system development effort for his company. One evening after class he told me that he was being summoned the next morning to a high-level meeting regarding his project. Without even thinking, I said to him, ” I bet that they’re planning to move up the completion date”. My voicemail messages the next day included one from this student. His message said, “How did you know? They did exactly what you said that they would do!” He subsequently told other students in his class as well as those enrolled in future project classes that they should ask me if they ever wanted to know in advance what would happen on their projects. There actually are advance indicators of future events that project managers can recognize. This article discusses a few of those early warning signals.

“Reading the tea leaves”

One of my clients often talks about people who can “read the tea leaves”. By this statement she means that people look at what’s in front of them and recognize deeper meanings. For example, it may be easy to ignore internal organizational conditions that are external to a project. After all, a company’s inability to meet customer deliveries on time and within budget may not appear relevant to a project manager who is assessing the feasibility for a new information system. When it comes time to actually recommend a solution, a proactive project manager will have identified both the optimum recommendation as well as a “fallback” alternative recommendation. Obviously, the alternative will not be as effective as the optimum solution. However, by “reading the tea leaves” in advance and having an alternative, the project manager will be spared the devastation of having his/her optimum recommendation ripped to pieces by senior managers who are focused on the company’s overall declining financial position due to loss of sales.

Ignoring reality

So many project plans are developed without allowing for any problems or deviations. These plans are based on consistent availability of talented resources, all of whom have no other company responsibilities except to work on one project. Another fallacy that is often applied in project planning is that there is adequate time to complete every activity entirely as planned. While the project sponsor may insist that there be no slack time nor contingency planning for common project challenges, an “omniscient” project manager knows that the plan has to provide for situations that commonly occur. For example, even if specific resources are fully allocated to a single project, there is a high probability that there will be absences. Illness, vacations, and company-sponsored training are all common situations that impact even the most committed of resources. Failure to take these occurrences into account in the project plan can only lead to late project completion.

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (Ben Franklin)

Reviewing other projects, even if they are dissimilar, can be of assistance in determining what issues have a high probability for reoccurrence. An example of the need for this review occurs when an organization has a practice of continually shifting people from one project team to another. A “forward thinking” project manager will address this condition in the planning and executing phases. Activities and tasks can be defined in smaller timeframes. Cross-training can be included for critical activities. In this manner the loss of personnel is minimized since the work is being completed in smaller increments. Also, the loss of a key team member can be less devastating since there is a backup person in place to continue critical assignments.

Few people outside of other project managers will praise or reward those who can “predict the future” and can successfully plan for it. However, it’s a skill that needs to be a part of an effective project manager’s skill set. As you polish your crystal ball and rearrange the tea leaves, may you be able to deal positively with the challenges of project management.

 Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She is a Faculty Scholar and Certified Advanced Facilitator at the University of Phoenix. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP