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.

Proactively Managing Project Expectations

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

All of us have expectations in life. Some are attainable without much effort. Others take considerable personal effort and a huge dose of good luck. Project owners, sponsors, customers and clients are no different in the diverse degrees of reality associated with their expectations for project outcomes. The project manager’s key to success in handling the expectations of others is to be proactive rather than waiting for an angry email, an escalated complaint, or nasty verbal abuse.

By now you may be thinking, “Anyone can be proactive as long as he/she is a mind reader.” Actually, the first step is to uncover the true goals (target accomplishments, not the solution) that each project owner, sponsor, customer and/or client has in mind. This step may be more challenging than it sounds. The documented goals may have been set prior to the project manager’s being assigned to the project. In this situation the goals may actually be solutions, not true goals. In any case the project manager needs to ask leading questions that will uncover the true expectations for the project.

Once the true goals have been uncovered, proactive expectation management can begin. For example, the project completion date is often hopelessly unrealistic. While it may not be politically expedient, the project manager needs to address this expectation early in the project life cycle. Some questions that need to be asked include these:
• What and who are driving the completion date?
• What really is expected to be accomplished by the stated completion date?
• What can be deferred to a later phase?
Once the project manager has this information, he/she knows the actions to take with regard to retaining or revising the completion date. The people who must be kept informed and whose continuing input must be solicited will also be apparent at this point.

Education of the project sponsors is critical. They may be used to working with project managers who always agree to their requests. I had one project sponsor who called me and said “I have a minor change that will only take 15 minutes of your team’s time.” He was used to project managers accepting his changes without question. However, he had never been made to realize the connection between his requests and the fact that projects he sponsored were never delivered on time. Rather than saying “no” immediately, I asked for an explanation of his request. I then walked him through the actual time (three weeks) and resource commitment, which included the involvement of his personnel. I also reminded him that he was on record as saying that the completion date could not be changed. Then I said, “What do you want to give up so that we can include this new request in the project plan?” He laughed, and we then identified activities that could be deleted so that his request could be accommodated. The next time that he called to request a change, he had already reviewed the plan and could tell me what work could be dropped. I also learned that he requested far fewer changes from me than from other project managers with whom he worked.

These are only a few examples of how project managers can manage expectations. While there may be a little “mind reading” involved, proactive expectation management encompasses identifying and dealing with the source(s) of the expectations rather than the symptoms.

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.

Strategic Thinking to Improve Expectations and Innovation

Much of project planning requires an ability to think strategically, yet this is a step often left out. It means we need to think not just about our immediately desired outcomes, but look at what some of the other options are going to be.
According to the Philadelphia based Center for Advanced Reasearch (CFAR), “Strategic thinking focuses on finding and developing unique opportunities to create value by enabling a provocative and creative dialogue among people who can affect a company’s
direction.”

There is an opportunity to substitute “project’s direction” for the last two words in this quote. After all, in a projectized company, the projects and products (which require projects for creation) are what contribute most to success. There are opportunities in planning to look at what all the possible solutions are.

Recently one of my client projects hit a significant challenge. It looked as though what the client wanted and what the product was able to do were 180 degrees apart. The last thing you want to do is drop communication with your client while you look at the alteratives. This will decrease their engagement in the project which would not be to your benefit. When you encounter such an obstacle, here are some concrete steps which will allow you to meet the client needs, set expectations which are appropriate, and then move ahead.

1) Determine what you CAN do with the project or product. Be sure you’ve thoroughly explored the client expectations from all angles as well as what is currently realistic. Show what that solution might look like, even if it doesn’t satisfy all the needs. Make this a concrete solution which could be demonstrated internally.

2) Without showing the “offending” solution to the client, frame additional questions to probe their needs and your solution. Show the solution to the product developers so they can see what the pros and cons are.

3) Identify any low hanging fruit. If there is a possiblity to move the client ahead with a part of the “as is” solution, start them down that path to keep up engagement. If not, you might evaluate the possibility of bringing the client into the process and identify an appropriate step.

4) Brainstorm all the possibilities without judging the solutions. These may not even involve the product, but you want to be sure you are looking at all the potential solutions which could benefit your customer. You want to explore the solution from both sides of the equation — what if I could change my client’s expectations and what if I could develop an alternative solution.

5) Quickly develop the top contenders one step further. Are they feasible? What would the costs be?

6) With all your ducks in a row, schedule your client review. Show them your initial solution and explain your dissatisfaction with it. Show them your top alternative(s) so they can see the difference. Get client feedback.

7) At this point, the process may become iterative. If the client immediately sees the benefits of your alternative, great! There may be some additional rounds of discussion to justify costs and clarify outcomes. More likely there will be more discussions of the alternatives and the client will review their expectations as well.

After a few iterations, you will hopefully have a clear path to move the project forward. You will have continued to engage your client, and will possibly identify an innovative solution which will benefit not just this client, but future clients as well.

Olympics: Eye on the Gold

The emergence of Project Management as a profession is attributed to public works projects in London after World War II. In 2012, we’ll have an opportunity to see London in action again. While the Bejing Olympic Torch was only lit last night, planning for the 2012 Olympics is well underway. In fact, according to the British Olympic Association’s (BOA) web site, the planning goes as far back as 1997 when the idea of an English Olympic bid first emerged. It was eight years later, in 2005, that the location was actually awarded.

The award actually comes after three unsuccessful bids by Birminham and Manchester. The BOA went into high gear and lobbied the voting members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). What they learned is an English bid wouldn’t be acceptable until they returned to the committee table with representation from London. Thus began this long term project, which including lobbying and public relations efforts to let the world know they were serious. Government backing was won in May 2003, but there would still be preparations and a presentation in Singapore in 2005 before the host city contract would be awarded.

The BOA efforts were true representation for the principles “if it is to be, it is up to me” and strategic planning. Too many companies abandon long term planning, citing an inability to see the business and marketplace landscape for more than a year out. Yet having a long term plan, with occasional mid-course corrections, may be a more effective way. They are, in a sense, creating their own future by envisioning it, living it, and making it happen.

I’ve been reading The Answer, the business version of The Secret, and this type of planning falls within their recommendations and principles, but I’ll save this for another week. In the meantime, enjoy watching the 2008 Summer Olympics in Bejing.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hvSRkY4eEfM]

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