The Project Notebook

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.

The Perils of Being a Good Project Manager

 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.

What could possibly be wrong with being a good project manager? Project managers often take courses to continue to improve their project management skills. They may observe other project managers in order to determine what works and what does not work in successfully managing projects. The following article addresses some of the challenges when projects actually do finish on time, on budget, and meet performance criteria.

“This Can’t Be True”

Sometimes project stakeholders, even the project sponsor, do not want the project to succeed. I was involved in a situation in which the top executive of an organization had reluctantly agreed to initiate a major project that would impact the entire company. However, he never missed an opportunity to question positive reports about the project’s progress. Recognizing his strong inclination to undermine the project, I led off a steering committee meeting by saying that the project was meeting its goals and was on time and on budget. This executive grumbled, “If that’s true, it’s the only project in the company that is on track”. He then proceeded to pick at every statement that was made to see if there were any miniscule areas that had problems. While it was not a comfortable situation, I reminded myself that he really wanted the project to fail and that his doubts would continue throughout the project. Fortunately, the other key people in the organization knew that the project was critical to the growth of the company and did everything that they could to ensure the success of the project. I met separately with those individuals on a continuing basis to address the actions that needed to be taken to overcome the negative attitude of the sponsor.

“You Won’t Mind Losing A Few People, Dollars, Etc.”

For some unexplained reason organizations may feel that a project that is proceeding successfully is “fair game” to be “raided”. By this statement I mean that a good project manager may find that his/her project is subject to losing people, budget, or other project resources. Sadly, some project managers operate perpetually in a crisis mode. They are always out of money, need more people, or are faced with “insurmountable” obstacles. Rather than recognizing that these individuals are poor project managers that should be removed from the projects, some organizations rally to the cause of these people. Project managers whose projects are progressing successfully may have requests to transfer key people from their teams to these struggling projects. They may have to defend keeping their assigned budget rather than “baling out” mismanaged projects. In these types of situations it is crucial to have strong justification for all planned resources in order to fend off panic raiding of successful projects.

“We Never Hear Anything About Your Project”

At one point in my career I managed several successful projects for an organization in which other projects were perpetually behind schedule, over budget and never met expectations. Shortly before I left this organization for a more positive environment, another project manager said to me, “We never heard anything about your projects”. She continued by explaining that my projects did not have angry people and that the projects concluded on time and within budget. Therefore, she said that no one ever “made a fuss” about the projects. I had to agree that while my projects had major visibility, they were never subject to scrutiny due to negative outcomes. I often felt that it was a source of embarrassment to the organization that projects could be effectively managed. For years the prevailing attitude had been that no project could possibly succeed. Once it had been demonstrated that projects could be well managed, this organization could not accept success.

In conclusion, good project managers cannot be complacent. While it would appear that successful project management should be a treasured target accomplishment, there are always those people who cannot fathom that projects can actually accomplish what they are intended to do. After all, various sources state that as many as 60% to more than 80% of all projects fail. Therefore, when a project succeeds, it must be a “fluke” or “something must be wrong”. Good project managers must be proactive in addressing threats to their project’s success.

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.

Finding the “Silver Lining”

 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.

Often a project manager and his/her team only hear criticism about the level of effectiveness of their work. It’s always easy to criticize. There are media personalities who make quite comfortable salaries filling the air waves with nasty remarks, sarcasm, and cynicism. Seldom, if ever, do these same people offer constructive, realistic solutions or even provide alternatives. After listening to so much negative chatter, we can find our own mental attitudes going sharply into a slump. The same is true for project managers and project team members who may feel that they are constantly under attack at every turn.

What can project managers do to promote a realistic sense of perspective about how projects are proceeding? The first step is to focus on the goals for the project outcomes. For example, if one of the goals was to improve the design of an existing product, what specific improvements have been achieved? If it’s early in the project and the improvements are not yet evident, perhaps there has been demonstrated progress with major customers in regard to innovative design strategies.

A second step is to recognize that many projects are lengthy. “Planning successes” in the form of small, tangible deliverables at appropriate intervals can provide positive focus for team members. This technique also aids the project manager in monitoring overall performance in order to take corrective action before major disasters occur.

Finally, it’s perfectably acceptable to let people know that progress is being made. Team members can get buried in details and deadlines. They may need to be reminded that the project is actually making strong progress. Those outside of the project also need to be informed of progress in terms that they will understand. The board of directors may not be excited that a “deliverable” has been accomplished, but they will take notice of what the project is doing to promote stockholder confidence. The project manager can translate the accomplishment of a deliverable into more understandable, non-project terms.

It is important to remember that there needs to be a balance between positive and negative project “news”. We’ve all seen projects that had much fanfare and seemingly no problems but actually ended in disaster once the clouds of euphoria disintegrated. Much has been written about the need to plan project parties and to always provide food and drink at project meetings in order to bolster morale. However, most team members recognize these tactics as superficial and meaningless if the team is not proud of the project’s progress and achievements. If there truly is little “good news” on a project, it may be time to either substantially modify the project goals and/or the approach or terminate the project before its planned completion. However, before taking such drastic measures the project manager should assess the accomplishments in contrast to the problems in order to make an informed decision.

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 committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

 

When Risks Become Reality

 By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2012, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

There continue to be an number of disasters around the world, both natural and person-made. Often after a disaster occurs, there is much analysis, second guessing, and finger pointing in an effort to determine what should have been done in advance. A part of the activities needs to focus on the entire project management process of risk identification and assessment to more effectively address other situations in the future.

What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

There are many organizations that do not conduct risk activities at any time during projects. There is a tendency to believe that even thinking about potential risks is a time-wasting process that ties up resources and costs more money that it is worth. Project managers who emphasize risk assessment may be viewed as negative and may be told to “lighten up”. Some organizations believe that merely listing a number of risks is sufficient. Others may set aside the list of risks for the future “just in case something happens”. Many risks can be mitigated or entirely avoided with proactive actions. However, organizations often put contingency plans in place without even considering that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

An All-Encompassing Approach

Traditionally, those organizations that practiced limited risk assessment focused their efforts on the identification and prioritization of risks. This approach was founded on the attitude that only the most important risks, those with the highest probability, were worth consideration. Virtually every project has more risks than can ever be addressed. However, there needs to be more effort in the overall assessment activity to specify the true magnitude of risks that have been identified. There are many risks that have such a low probability of occurrence that they would “fall off the radar screen” in a traditional risk assessment process. In order to obtain a more comprehensive perspective on risks, both the probability and the impact need to be identified. Addressing a low probability risk may seem to require a great deal of resources, both human and financial. But — the cost of disaster recovery is phenomenal compared to the upfront prevention costs.

The Domino Effect

Another aspect of risk that is often ignored is that risks seldom happen individually. If one risk occurs, it often triggers the occurrence of other risks. For example, a vendor’s default also impacts the project budget as well as quality of the substitute materials and even the total project outcome. This interrelationship means that even if one risk has both a low probability and low impact, the risk in combination with others may have disastrous impact.

Proactive risk management is a challenging responsibility for project managers. While it often requires strong leadership techniques, risk management is a critical component of successful projects.

 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 committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

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