Project problems can’t be solved with an operational focus

loves_distance__by_peggyopal-d41wf2f

loves distance by peggyopal

Straight from the Project Management Institute’s web site (and the PMBoK) is this definition of a Project

It’s a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.

And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies. 

 Unfortunately, very often, projects are assessed by using metrics that are not about identifying unique & temproary activities.  Rather, persistent, on-going measures such as average weekly costs or hours worked or material dollars spent are used to determine if a project is running as it should.

Unfortunately, these sort of measurements are more attuned to understanding operations because they establish linear costs over time.  Project have peaks and valleys, spikes and low points, periods of tremendous activity and periods when they have very little at all.  Whether or not they should is a different question – there’s certainly plenty of room for levelling out the workload in projects and avoiding these ups and downs on the individual person, however, there are still times in the life of a project when you  may have multiple people working simultaneously on different sub-projects, and times when only 1 or 2 activities need to be going on.

As such, run rates for a project are erratic, as they should be.  Attempting to smooth costs on the entire project is dangerous.  It leads to people lingering on the project with little to do, just to keep the expenses constant.  Individuals or the departments they report to in a matrix need to keep spending flat.  Projects, however, are characterized by their temporary nature, and the ramping up and down of expenses can be considered an indication of efficency, not inefficiency.

There is, of course, much merit to the argument that bouncing people on and off a team leads to a loss of learning, mometum and flow – so it is better to have folks on the team continue to add cost, even if there is little for them to do.  I agree – right up until they begin producing work just for the sake of producing it.  If there is nothing of value for them to contribute, but disassembling the team creates a long-term problem, then look for learning opportunies within the project.  Have people sit in on working sessions outside of their functional area.  You might find people are adaptable to lots of different tasks, and this type of cross-training is invaluable when you need a pinch-hitter for an unexpected crisis.

Nonetheless, even when analyzing the cost reports for these activities, be very aware of who is doing what, such that you can distinguish between time spent adding genuine value through the transformation of work products and time spent in learning & watching.  Doing so will prevent assessing projects as the outcome on-going costs and, instead, allow you to determine the specific costs that create specific results which, in turn, allows for investigations into better methods for producing the same results.

 

 

Why your PMP prep doesn’t feel like reality (and why it shouldn’t)

A Break in Reality

A Break in Reality by xetobyte

I am in the midst of a PMP prep examination these days, diving deeper into the project PMI’s methodology for project management than I ever have before.  Despite more than a decade of working on nothing but project & program teams, I’ve never gone after PMI certification.

True to my affinity for Lean thinking, I don’t put much stock in these type of certifications.  The class is bearing out that the intent is simply to pass the test, not build better project managers.  Everything is about the test, the test, the test – and there is very little about the development of the principles taught and how they came about.  Just. Pass. The. Test.  The test is also intentionally deceptive – minor turns of a phrase mean different things in “PMI Land” as the instructors like to call it.  A big part of passing the exam is tuning your eye to catch these clever little interpretations and usages – a skill which is useful for only 1 project: passing the test.

It is easy to understand why so many fellow students get frustrated and jokingly state that the exam does not reflect reality.  Unfortunately, what seems to get lost, is that it’s not supposed to.

What?

As I study the guidebooks for this class that are introducing us all to the PMI concepts, I am harking back to my Lean training and the years I’ve spent contemplating Operational Excellence through my writings on this blog.  In my mind are the oft-repeated Lean-thinking mantras: “Theory guides practice” and “There can be no improvement without a standard.”  Thank you, Dr. Deming and Mr. Shingo (and, please, OpEx gurus out there – correct me if I am quoting them wrong.)

I feel lucky to have the benefit of my time spent trying to understand the Lean paradigm because it is offering so much insight into what the PMI framework is trying to do.  It is establishing a standard.  It is offering a methodology for managing projects against which all other management styles, and outcomes, can be measured.  In a way, it depicts the ideal – if all projects, everywhere, operated in the way the PMI describes, then all projects would deliver on time, within budget, and with inputs from all stakeholders at every level of the organization – including customers.

Is that reality?  No.  Of course not.  If the standard was reality, there’d be no need to set up a test for it.  A standard is not meant to depict reality.  What it does do, however, is give us an ideal scenario against which to judge and measure the current state.  How far from this standard are we?  Did we make an intelligent deviation, based on detailed analyses of how our environment differs from that depicted in the standard, or did we simply throw up our hands and say, “But this is the way we’ve always done it?” (Or words to that effect, such as “I’ve never seen that” or “That just won’t work here.”)

When theory doesn’t match reality, there are 2 options:  Change the theory to match reality, or change reality to match the theory.  Those who argue the PMI framework just isn’t reality will be the ones trying to change theory in order to better align with their expectations – nearly all of which demonstrate a daunting tolerance for inefficiency & waste.  On the other hand, if you accept that the “theory” is really just a depiction of the ideal – you instantaneously give yourself something to work towards.  It is the “true north” of the program & project management world – to have a perfectly managed, documented, planned, monitored, tracked and executed set of activities that are completely understood and performed by all stakeholders.

My advice for those who are poo-pooing the PMI framework as nothing more than an academic exercise designed to pass a test (which, to some extent, it is), is to think of the methods provided within the framework a bit differently.  The tools and techniques they teach are not  a set of instructions on how to effectively manage projects.  Think of them, instead, as a depiction of a perfect universe – and use that depiction to begin thinking about the gaps between your current reality and the PMI’s idealized scenarios.

 

What to do when you don’t know the way to go

plot a course for home

plot a course for home by wildwinyan

My 3-year-old is following in his 7-year-old brother’s footsteps and taking an intense interest in Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer.  After a couple years of not having to listen to the theme song ad nauseum, we’re back into the thick of things.

For those who are not familiar with the show, Dora frequently goes on adventures and isn’t certain which way to go.  In those situation, she calls upon her trusty map, which shows her the way.

If only we were all so well prepared.

In business and in life, we all need a map.  Too often, we move without thinking or jump in without looking.  We buy into the paradigm that says we ought to fail fast, but we don’t bother to ask, “Fail at what?”  Failing for the sake of failing isn’t the path to enlightenment, it’s just stupid.  Even if you’re prepared to accept failure – that failure needs to be leading in the direction of some intended destination, meandering as the path may be.  Otherwise, the exercise never ends and nothing is ever learned.  It’s just activity for the sake of activity.

Activity without planning at any level is just folly and entirely wasteful.  Planning is the result of consulting the map  –  we can see the current location, the destination, and the obstacles in between.  Without a destination in mind, and a plan for getting from here to there, all that results is misalignment of goals, fits and starts, lost momentum and, quite frequently, situations where people are more than happy to clear an entire forest just to deliver a toothpick.  The purpose, after all, was to show activity over and above the value of delivering the end product.

The guiding principles of an organization are what the people working within that organization turn to when they don’t know the way to go.  Those principles align people and, even if there is no certain way to go, will at least tell you which way you should not go.  In effect, they become your map.  They let you know where the terrain is flat and clear, or rocky and overgrown, and allows you to see all the other route options to help you adjust course and still reach your destination.

Any organization, regardless of size or complexity, needs to have guiding principles (see the Shingo Model for more elaboration on the impact of guiding principles).  When all else fails, adhering to these principles will offer assurance that people are still operating within the spirit of your organization.

Wiggle room – The no-panic guide to staff development

tight spot

Tight Spots... by Gatsusword on deviantart.com

You need to give your people opportunities to flounder.  Challenge them with the impossible.  Get them in over their heads.

You’re a senior person.  You’re supposed to know what can really hurt your business and what can’t.  If you don’t – then hurry up and figure it out.

If you do know what can hurt and what can’t, then you know you can give your people interesting projects that will help to benefit the business, but not destroy it as they struggle.

It’s as simple as having extra capacity on a bottle neck or schedule slack in your project – you have wiggle room…always.

This is where the cost containers get themselves in trouble – in the effort to contain cost they squeeze the life out of their organizations, suffocating it until it can’t breathe because there’s no room to catch a breath.  There has to be room to accommodate the unexpected.  Life happens.  Shit happens.  You will never predict it all – yes, you should try, because being prepared is better than reacting like a caffeinated cat all the time, but even the hyperactive feline needs room to hop around when necessary.

If you run every resource to its breaking point, the instant anything unpredictable happens – it breaks.

What if what’s in their best interest……doesn’t interest them?

salad

Salad by digitalminds on deviantart.com

A very good post appeared on the FastCompany site yesterday, in which author Ginny Whitelaw declared, “Empathy is the most powerful leadership tool.”

There’s not a lot to disagree with in the article.  It is, essentially, about Covey’s “seek first to understand” and represents both a practical, and I would say moralistic, way to approach your interactions with others.  Seeing things from their point of view is a good thing, of course.  It helps you to understand the other person better, so that you can align your message with their concerns.  It’s a practical exercise for influencing others in any walks of life where negotiation, compromise, and change are necessary.  It also indicates that you have a measure of respect for the other person’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs and opinions.

Unfortunately, there are times when people simply don’t act in a way that is consistent with what is in their best interests.  Especially not in the long term.  It’s as simple as David Meister’s Fat Smoker principle – you have to go through something difficult to get to something good, so change is hard and rarely happens.

Short-term thinking has a psychological basis.  Ronald Riggio wrote a post on his blog last year, linking the economic crisis to “short-termism:”

There is considerable evidence that short-term thinking in business, and in regard to the economy, is disastrous. It is our search for immediate gratification that fuels short-term thinking. Much of the economic meltdown was related to the pursuit of immediate rewards – whether it was the lenders trying to reap profits from questionable loans, or the homeowners who were buying property that was beyond their means.

Here are the danger signs that you are falling prey to short-term thinking.

1. No plan. Companies that don’t engage in long-term planning are prone to failure.

2. Trying for the quick score. Fads and trends come and go, and many businesses and investors that cashed in on the quick score are often gone because they don’t plan for what to do when the fad is gone.

3. Lack of analysis. All too often, what seemed like a good idea at the time, will only turn out to be a bad idea through careful analysis. A lot of terrific business ideas and inventions aren’t successful because the originator didn’t analyze how to get the product made, marketed, and/or delivered.

 

Having done the planning, analyzing and monitoring of budgets for initiatives at one level or another in my career, I have seen each of those three things occur all too often.

Analytics necessitate patience – they require that you take a little longer and examine a feel-good situation to make sure it’s not a long-term disaster in the making.  Unfortunately, we tend to be fat smokers when it comes to planning.  We want the rush of the good stuff first, only to (and often quite intentionally) push the messy, difficult stuff to some later point in time.  Essentially, we want dessert first and we push the broccoli and cauliflower to the end of the meal.  Of course, that just leaves a bad taste in our mouths when we’re done.

So, what can we do to overcome the problem?  I think it’s simple – just as a person who needs to eat better and exercise more will find a way to mix in a little bit of the things they don’t like with the things that they do, so must a business.  Both must learn a simply, but not easy, habit:  saying no.

Saying no to the slice of apple crisp and walking away from the table is much like saying no to what seems like a great investment, but hasn’t been analyzed.  Give yourself time to contemplate and reflect upon the consequences of what you are about to do.  If you are bad at doing that for yourself, put people in place around you who are specifically selected for their ability to disagree with you and make sure you make healthy choices and focus on the longer-term.