The Project Notebook

Which One Came First — The Solution or the Problem?

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

Let’s say that you’re faced with a complex problem, and there appears to be no answer.  Then someone comes along and gives you an answer to the problem.  Is this a miracle or what?  Actually, this situation is a trap that ensnares many project managers and at the worst can be the “kiss of death” to their project management careers.

 Answers do not equal solutions.  Many project managers are assigned to projects and told to implement a pre-determined “answer” to a problem.  For example, an organization decides to install an enterprise-wide software package.  Does anybody ask why the organization has chosen this answer?  And even more remarkably, does anybody ask what the problem is that generated this answer?  Another situation occurs when a company decides that it needs to relocate one of its facilities.  Does anybody dare to ask why this decision is necessary?

 Organizations are perpetually in a rush to make decisions.  Information (good, bad and not relevant) is available somewhere in cyberspace for the asking.  The media is crammed with “30-second sound bite fixes” to any problem that troubles this planet.  As project managers we face these challenges every time that we begin a project.  Everyone has an answer, but few have a solution.  The following sample situations outline some techniques to use in determining whether your project will actually address the problem.

 Let’s start with the software implementation situation.  So often, installing a software package is deemed to be a quick answer to improve productivity, enhance customer service, or reduce labor costs.  A project manager assigned to manage the software installation needs to ask these questions in the initiation phase:

  • What is the true problem that is being addressed?  Beware of symptoms that masquerade as problems.
  • What viable alternatives exist that do address the problem?
  • How does this particular software package address this problem?

 Let’s move to the relocation situation.  It is critical that companies know what is motivating them to move facilities.  Cost reduction is typically a major reason that is given.  However, if the same ineffective management philosophies and operational processes are also being relocated, all that has possibly been reduced is the facility cost.  Some questions to ask in this situation are the following:

  • What are the true causes and forces that are mandating the relocation?
  • Does relocation truly address the problems that have been identified?
  • What (processes, job skills, etc.) needs to be eliminated or modified before the relocation?

 As young children we all asked those questions that frustrate every parent and teacher:  why?  what?  how?  As project managers we need to continue not only to ask the questions but to look beneath the surface of the answers to find the true solutions.

 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.

If Only We Had Known

By: Susan Peterson, MBA PMP
Copyright 2008, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

There are at least three separate groups of analysts who are assessing the current global economic situation.
• One group is convinced that they “saw this coming a long time ago.”
• The second group admits to being “blindsided.”
• The third group includes those who may have seen something dire coming but didn’t think that there would be a monumental catastrophe.
Project managers know that they must always be in the first group in order to make adequate contingency plans, to mitigate problems, or to avoid catastrophes completely. This month’s column is the first in a series that will focus on indicators that can alert project managers to take preventive actions or to make contingency plans in order to avert disasters.

“Who needs goals?”
Some people think that project goals are actually defined by the final deliverable or target milestone. If the project purpose is to install a new software package, some project stakeholders will perceive that the project goal is successful software implementation. However, the goal of the project is its target accomplishment. In this example as in many others, the project goals need to be determined before the final deliverable (solution) is defined. If the organization actually wants to improve its processes (a potential project goal), there may be many final deliverables other than software implementation that would be better solutions. Specifying a solution in advance of or in place of project goal definition and agreement often leads to projects that are declared failures. Project managers must emphasize the necessity of determining goals in order to provide focus and direction for the project. Specifying the solution without identifying the problem to be addressed is akin to providing an answer without first asking a question. The process involved in goal setting also serves to involve stakeholders from the beginning and to resolve any areas of significant disagreement early in the project activities.

“We don’t know where we’re going, but we have to get there quickly.”
Planning is another classic project activity that can be perceived as a waste of time. “We used to plan, but no one followed the plan” or “How can we plan what we don’t know?” are common reasons given to justify the avoidance of project plan development. While there may have been past bad experiences with planning, no project proceeds smoothly unless there is an effective plan that is followed. Involving all stakeholders in the planning process can be effective in overcoming resistance to planning. This involvement builds an appreciation among stakeholders of the types of activities and related human resources that will be necessary to accomplish the project goals. It can also aid understanding across diverse stakeholders of the responsibilities of the entire team.

“It’s not wise to take only what you’re given.”
Even in the best of times project managers may find themselves in intense competition with each other for money, human resources, and capital assets that are often in scarce supply in organizations. In the interest of the enterprise perspective rather than a single project, it’s not expedient to declare a “winner take all” contest to identify the one project that receives the most and the best of everything. However, project managers need to work with each other throughout their projects to determine what is needed, when it is needed, and what degree of flexibility is appropriate.

Using this practice can result in a more coordinated allocation across current and future projects. It promotes cooperation that results in more effective execution of all projects and reduces or eliminates the time-consuming competition that can occur among projects. The practice can also uncover that the organization is attempting to accomplish too many concurrent projects and that it needs to defer or re-plan one or more efforts.

Project managers know that they have to remain alert and responsive to indicators of potential problems.

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; select “Resources” then “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.

Developing Formal Policies and Procedures


Is it just me, or is there an aversion to writing things down (project plans, installation directions) in the modern workplace? The manual I received with my BlackBerry barely covered how to turn it on. Getting the BlackBerry Integration Server and BlackBerry Enterprise Server to work became my responsibility. Some of it I easily figured out on my own, but some of it required me to search BlackBerry Forums for multiple partial answers, figure out which part of each was actually correct or applicable for me, and then put together a solution. It was very time consuming.

Coincidentally, I’ve been developing a presentation on operating Project Management Institute communities. The question of when to write down formal policies and procedures came up. It seems like the answer I derived would be valuable for project managers to apply, especially for long term projects or operations.

First, I had to examine why I would want to write something formal. Writing down formal policies and procedures simplifies governance. Operations are carried out in a consistent and repeatable manner (sounds like maturity, doesn’t it?) and team members are provided with guidance when someone with critical skills or knowledge is unavailable. Formal written policies and procedures also keep teams from re-inventing the wheel. Maturity is built and the control of internal processes is strengthened. Work is done more effectively and efficiently as the act of writing strengthens and enhances memory.

Now I’m not saying that for a small project, volumes need to be written. Start off with a basic set (project charter, basic plans) and build as you progress. Project risk management should help identify areas which could benefit from written policies and procedures. Perhaps you are an operation bound by Sarbanes-Oxley. As you move between project phases and re-examine your risk assessment plan, more documentation may come to mind.

Think about how my BlackBerry experience might have been different if there was a more comprehensive guide. The setup and initial use might have been more productive. I would save time by knowing what to do. I would probably learn more and use more features, which could lead to positive outcomes such as more software sales, discovery of other time saving features, or an ability to share knowledge with others. So next time you start a project, think about what would be useful to write down and follow. And if you are managing operations and not projects, then it may be even more important to efficiency and internal controls to write some minimal policies and procedures.

Projects Through Triangular Lenses

The triangle is one of the simplest plane figures — only three sides. As one side changes length, the others respond by growing longer or shorter to remain connected and encapsulate the area within. I like to think of the equilateral triangle (three equal sides) as representing a healthy tension. Change too much of one side and the others need to respond and the sides become unequal.

Of course as readers you are familiar with the triple constraints triangle of cost, time, and quality, enclosing the scope of a project. As I reflected on the shape and behavior, I realized there are many triangular relationships which can help govern our projects. We need to seek balance for these triangles as well to keep our projects healthy. Let’s take a look at some other triangular relationships to see what I mean.

Stepping out of the project domain and into education for a moment, one of my clients looks at enrollment, attendance, and academic progress as a means to increase high school graduation rates. The focus is enrolling students into their program, making sure they attend, and making sure they get a solid education. But they need to invest their energy equally to make sure operations stay in balance. If they invest only in enrollment, for example, they won’t be able to guarantee students attend or progress.

Perhaps as well known in the project world as the triple constraints is the triangle representing the balance of responsibility, accountability, and authority. We need this balance to maintain our position as project manager, however if this triangle isn’t in place and balanced, the project work may not get done. Team members who aren’t held accountable and responsible, or given the authority to carry out their tasks have little or no incentive to complete project work in an environment which has many competing tasks to complete. They will turn to the work they know best, the work that provides personal rewards or interest, or use other criteria to determine what to complete. This may or may not be the work needed to successfully complete the project.

While at GE, we had a triangular relationship that governed not just our project work, but the entire division. It was the relationship between revenue, quality, and client satisfaction. This relationship led to project and operational excellence. We had the metrics to prove it! As quality defects rose, the number of dissatisfied clients increased, and revenue decreased. One year I remember in particular, this got very out of balance. The number of high level defects were small, but the number of low level defects rose to three times their normal level. The quantity of these seemingly trivial defects became annoying to clients. We stopped project work and undertook a few months of repair work to bring this back into balance. As the low level defects decreased over the months, client satisfaction and revenue rose. Did I mention this triangular relationship was important to everyone — it factored prominently into how compensation was decided. So even if the responsibility, authority, and accountability got out of balance, everyone was motivated to stay on track.

So next time you think about your project, regardless of the project life cycle phase, you may want to stop and look through your triangular lenses to make sure there is a healthy balance in key areas. It will help you make sure the project is successful since these other triangular relationships will ultimately impact your ability to control cost, time, and performance.

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