The Project Notebook

A Fresh Start for an Old Project

 By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2014, 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.

As we ring in a brand new year full of promise, we may feel the incentive to make resolutions to improve our lives in a variety of ways. Just as the calendar gives us an “excuse” to start anew in our personal lives, it can also give us the impetus to re-think the current projects with which we are involved. It’s easy, particularly with a lengthy project, to feel trapped in a rut. The meetings all sound alike, the progress is miniscule, and the personality conflicts abound. Or perhaps the project is progressing as planned, but people seem to be sleepwalking through their tasks. While keeping the goals of a project intact, there are some easy actions that can revitalize a “tired” project.

A good place to start with a fresh approach is the actual project work to be accomplished. A quick, high-level overview of what’s progressing, what’s lagging, and what doesn’t seem to be moving at all can often pinpoint tasks that can be dropped or at least modified. Generally, at the beginning of a project there is a tendency to list every possible task in order to ensure that nothing will be missed. As the project progresses, at least some of these tasks become superfluous, redundant, or meaningless. Since other tasks surface as the project progresses, the team members as well as the project manager can experience a sense of being overwhelmed. The overview can identify tasks that can be dropped, leaving everyone with a sense of relief.

A common challenge on project teams is that there is little or no “cross pollinization” among team members with regard to activities and responsibilities. The start of a new year is a good time to make some changes in who is doing what. The team can provide input with regard to new assignments so that the project manager is not faced with merely rearranging the Gantt chart resource allocations. While there are some people who would not willingly accept a different assignment even if it meant a 50% raise, the majority will welcome some change that they have controlled. New perspectives are bound to surface.

What would a project be without meetings? Now is a great time to look at the actual purpose of each scheduled periodic meeting that is connected with the project. Consider the following questions:

1) What is actually getting accomplished in each of these meetings?

2) Are the meetings poorly attended?

3) Is the attendee list growing while the output is dwindling?

4) Are the same things being re-hashed at every session?

If the answer to #1 is “very little” or “nothing” and at least one of the remaining questions can be answered with a loud “yes”, it’s time to revamp the meeting, eliminate it, or use a more effective method of communication.

Now that everyone is back from the holidays, it’s a good time to re-energize projects by capitalizing on the renewed energies of the manager and the team. A little overhauling can produce major positive results.

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.

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.

Managing Multiple Projects: The True Test of Project Management

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2010, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

It’s that time of year again when those of us who celebrate year-end holidays find ourselves behind schedule, over budget and not meeting performance expectations. Most project managers do manage concurrent projects throughout the entire year. Ironically, many project management textbooks only address the management of one project at a time. That’s a luxury that few of us ever enjoy. Whether it’s a few weeks of “holiday compression” or an ongoing state of affairs in a work environment, there are a few techniques that can be effective in managing multiple projects.

Different Projects/Similar Activities.
Even though each project may have different goals and tangible deliverables, there are tasks that lend themselves to consolidation across projects. For example, there is often a period of time when vendors or subcontractors are being assessed prior to making final selections. The tasks associated with this activity can include such things as Internet research, request for proposal (RFP) development, and reference verification. In many cases the same vendors and subcontractors are used by an organization in multiple projects. Therefore, it makes sense to group these tasks and assign them to one or more individuals to conduct for all of the projects.

Split Activities.
The typical Gantt chart display has tasks grouped into activities that are completed in full before other dependent activities begin. However, the actual accomplishment of all tasks within an activity in a linear fashion may not be feasible for a number of reasons, such as subcontractor delays, customer/client change requests, etc. Project managers of single projects often find that they have to defer parts of activities to another time within the project schedule. This technique can also be used across multiple concurrent projects. Obviously, dependencies still need to be taken into consideration in re-arranging tasks. Use of this technique can assist in leveling resource demands and can be a factor in consolidating tasks as mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

Different Projects/Shared Human Resources.
Within any organization there are a handful of people who seem to get assigned to virtually every project. These simultaneous and consistent assignments may be due to the person’s functional responsibilities, technical expertise, political clout, or any of a myriad of logical or illogical reasons. Each person who is in demand is often worth two or more “ordinary people” in terms of talent and work performance. An effective method for addressing the challenge of shared resources is to develop a profile of total commitment for each of the most critical shared resources. These profiles should include the fluctuations in percentages of involvement and the related timing both for each project and for all relevant projects in total. In many cases the profiles can readily identify periods of intense effort as contrasted with those of minimal involvement for each individual. The individuals can then be assigned to activities in multiple projects based on true availability.

Managing multiple projects, whether for business or for personal reasons, requires a different perspective with regard to planning and resource utilization. By using the techniques outlined in this column, project managers can maintain a sense of balance in facing a most difficult challenge. Happy Holidays!

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 as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

Learning From “Lessons Learned”

By Susan Peterson, MBA, PMP
Copyright 2007, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

The recent terrible fires in southern California are yet another reminder of the ongoing battle of human beings against the elements. Every part of the planet has its challenges with the ravages of nature. Whether it be flood, fire, severe storms, or other disasters, each human response effort to these events is a project. In some situations responses have been planned well in advance of an actual disaster. However, others are hastily developed under pressure in crisis mode. Regardless of the level of planning, all such responses include “after the fact” scrutiny from a variety of sources. This column focuses on “lessons learned” an effective process rather than only a hunt for the guilty followed by punishment.

“We must have done something right.”
So often the practice of reviewing a project after its closure dwells only on those things that went wrong. While organizations want to utilize best practices in their functional operations, they often do not identify best practices that are employed in managing projects. Some areas where effective project management techniques can be identified include addressing risks proactively, sharing resources across projects, outsourcing management, and vendor analysis. For example, capturing how resources were shared by merging schedules of two projects and adjusting deliverables is an invaluable practice that can be reused for virtually any future project. Correlating vendor performance with specific tangible deliverables is another technique that can benefit a wide variety of upcoming projects. In any case the first emphasis in assessing lessons learned should be to highlight the practices that were effective and to determine how those practices can be communicated to other project managers and can be documented for ready access in the future.

“When all else fails, blame the project manager.”
It is true that responsibility for addressing project problems rests with the project manager. However, in some situations the project manager is doomed to failure by causes beyond his/her control. While there are any number of project problem causes, let’s focus on those caused by an organization’s project culture and attitude. There are far too many organizations that believe that there is no such thing as a “successful” project. The prevailing attitude is that projects never accomplish anything, always run over budget, and never finish on time. Yet the causes often are rooted in the organization and its actions. If projects do not have documented and approved goals, it is impossible to know if they achieve success. If they are funded before they are planned, then the budgets are meaningless. Likewise, a project that has a completion date set before it is planned can seldom successfully meet that date. The “lesson to be learned” in this type of situation is that the organization must assess what it needs to do in order to provide and environment where projects have a “fighting chance” to succeed. If an organization does not support effective project management methodology, then the majority of its projects will fail.

“No pain, no gain.”
Even if lessons learned from project problems and mistakes are well documented, the real benefit is derived only if the true causes are proactively addressed. Instead, many organizations wait for the next project to experience the same problems before recognizing that aggressive action should have been taken well in advance. It takes tremendous strength and courage to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles, such as a lengthy sign off process, that can thwart effective and timely project management. Addressing the political aspects, such as lack of sponsor support or mid-project budget cuts, takes much perseverance to uncover and effectively identify means to keep these actions from occurring on future projects. The entire lessons learned process is wasted unless problem causes are eliminated or mitigated.

Our thoughts are with all of the people who have been impacted by the recent firestorms. It is a long process to deal with the many aspects of recovery. We can only hope that the lessons learned are effectively applied in advance of the next disaster that inevitably will occur.

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. An overview of her program and project specialties is available at http://www.pmi-sd.org/Consultants. 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 committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

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