Friday, July 01, 2016

Try Softer

Trying too hard to achieve something will usually end in disaster.  I've always had an interest in why projects fail and one of the common reasons is project managers who drive themselves and their project teams into the ground by trying to achieve the impossible.   

I once received some excellent advice from a ski coach.  He said that I should try softer rather than trying harder.  “Imagine that the handles of the ski poles are little canaries in your hands”.  Several dead canaries later I finally stopped trying so hard and it worked!  Of course I immediately got very excited at my success, crossed my skis and had a spectacular crash!  The way is not always without a sense of humor.  

Project managers who drive themselves and their team seem to think that they will be admired for their efforts, in fact they are often laughed at.  People who tell you how good they are and how hard they work are likely to be insecure.  People who try and impress you with the demands and complexities of their job are probably confused by it themselves.  

The Way  
Now consider the opposites.  People who don’t try too hard will usually achieve what they are working for because they are working within the limit of their competence.  People who admit that they are always learning from what they do are the ones with the real knowledge.  People who make things seem simple and easy to understand are the ones who really know what they are talking about.  

The Tao  
Lao Tzu tells us:  

The sage acts without motive,  
Teaches with no words of doctrine.  
The ten thousand things arise and fall,  
But he has no claim of ownership,  
Meritorious work done, then forgotten.  
Therefore it lasts forever.  

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Way

So to get back to the Way, let's look at how this all fits with the Tao:

Establish the Current Status
We need to become silent and listen with our inner selves. The wise project manager stays in the present. The past is over and done with, there's no point in thinking about what might have been.Likewise there's no point in trying to second guess the future, it will be what it will be.

Grasp the strangeness which is Tao.  
Mindful of what exists now.  
Knowing the ancient beginning,  
Is the essence of wisdom.  

Establish the Objectives
All projects begin with a basic idea about something that could be changed or done differently. But at that time very little is known about the project, it is just the beginning. From this beginning many things will unfold and happen, these things will make up the project. At the beginning there will be darkness but, hopefully, out of that darkness we will begin to know how things happen for this is the way of the project manager. 

The Way that can be told is not the eternal Way.  
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.  
The nameless is the beginning of Heaven and Earth.  
With a name the mother of the ten thousand things.  

Develop the Plan 
As a project manager I always tried to keep things simple.  Yes I had a detailed project schedule for myself but I create a simplified high-level version for the project stakeholders.  Keeping things simple means they are easy to follow. The good project manager stays with the single principle and understands the team process.  He keeps away from chaos and conflicts.  

Hold the great image,  
All under heaven will come.  
They come without harm,  
In happiness and peace.  

Carry It Out
The wise project manager concentrates on making sure the project team have what they need to create the project deliverables and protects them from external interference.  The wise project manager is concerned that the team functions well and that what they do is effective.  This is simple wisdom, for this is the way of the project manager.  

The sage would lead by:
Emptying people’s minds,
And filling their stomachs.

So once again, good luck and enjoy the journey,
John (a.k.a. P M Blogger)

Friday, June 10, 2016


Over the past four blogs I've set out what I believe we can do to make sure our projects don't fail. But, as I said last week, implementing it will be a major project or even program in its own right. So what are the steps in this process?

Establish the Current Status
Before you can start planning where you want to get to it is critical to understand where you are today. The easiest way of doing this is by establishing the project management capability maturity of the organisation using the CMMI capability maturity model, which is an excellent tool.

Establish the Objectives
Once you have a full understanding of where the organisation is currently you can begin to define where you want to get to. The SMART acronym comes in handy here, although I use my own version of it: 

Strategic: the objective must address a strategic business need, if it isn't important to the business, then it just won't happen.

Measurable: if the objective doesn't include some form of metrics, then you will never know when you have achieved it.

Agreed: if the objectives are not agreed by all the stakeholders (the business, the project managers, the implementation team,suppliers and customers) the project will fail.

Realistic: if the objectives are not realistic, the project will fail.

Timed: if it's not time-bounded, the project will never be completed.

Develop the Plan 
Once you have a set of realistic objectives, agreed by all concerned, then you can develop the plan of how you are going to achieve it. If you are using the capability maturity model, then the plan should be to move up one level at a time, this suggests a series of projects, hence a program may be the best route to take. The steps, if you are starting out at level 1 are:

Define and document sound project management processes (involving the organisation’s project managers) and establish a project office to coordinate and support the processes. That takes you to level 2.

If you are running programs as well as projects, then define and document sound program management processes (involving the organisation’s project and program managers) and establish a program office (or develop the project office into a project and program office) to coordinate and support the processes. That takes you to level 3.

Introduce a peer review (gateway) process for all projects and programs (involving the organisation’s project and program managers) and charge the project and program office with coordinating and supporting the process.That takes you to level 4, which is as high as many organisations want to go, but the greatest pay off comes from the final step.

Implement portfolio management at the highest level in the organisation and establish a portfolio office (or develop the project and program office into a project, program and portfolio office) to co-ordinate and support the process. That takes you to level 5.

This will take some time to achieve but it is achievable and I have done it in a number of organisations (it is also set out in detail in “Project Program and Portfolio Management in easy steps”. But I would like to leave you with two final tips to consider:

Involve all your project and program managers in the process. They are key stakeholders and you want them all on-side.

Without the full commitment of your organisation (and that means support from your very top management) it just won’t happen. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to produce a high-level plan for what you want to achieve, then sell the benefits to your project managers and top management. 

Good luck and enjoy the journey,
John (a.k.a. P M Blogger)

Friday, June 03, 2016

Project Review

So step one was to consider if the project manager has the necessary skills to manage projects. Step two was to consider the needs of the organisation. Step three was to make sure that only projects that are critical to the business take place and that the projects that do take place are measured on the actual benefits they deliver to the business at the end of the project. Most organisations are still failing in these last two areas. But step four is also critical to ensuring project success:

Project Review
The final step is to make sure that all projects are reviewed at set times in the project life-cycle. This way projects that are going wrong or getting into difficulties get fixed or stopped before they can have a serious impact on the business. Sometimes this is a hard bullet to bite for the project manager and business but struggling on with a disastrous project would be even worse for both the project manager and the business.

A peer review process is ideal for this as it spreads good practice across the organisation. It needs to use some sort of standard check-list so nothing gets overlooked. The optimum time to review a project is usually at the end of each project stage and this is sometimes referred to as a gateway review process. This is a typical series of end stage reviews:

Initiation Stage: confirm that there is a sound business case for the project and an agreed understanding of how the business objectives will be delivered. Confirm that the stakeholders have been identified, risk management is in place and the project is ready to move onto the next stage.

Strategy Stage: confirm that the business requirements have been specified and agreed together with the delivery approach. Confirm the business case is still valid, plans are in place for risk management and the project is ready to move onto the next stage.

Analysis Stage: confirm that the proposed solution meets the business needs and can be implemented. Confirm the business case is still valid, risk and issue management plans are up to date and the project is ready to move onto the next stage.

Design & Build Stage: confirm that solution to meet the business requirements has been developed and is ready for service. Confirm the business case is still valid, risk and issue management plans are up to date and the project is ready to move onto the next stage.

Implementation Stage: confirm if the business benefits have been realised and that the users are satisfied with the operational service. 

These are the four steps that every organisation can take to stop projects failing and start moving towards excellence in project management. However putting them all into practice will require a fairly major project (or a program) in its own right. So I will have a look at that next week.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Chose the Right Projects

Continuing the theme of what we can do to prevent projects failing: Step one was to consider if the project manager has the necessary skills to manage projects; Step two was to consider the needs of the organisation. Step three is to chose the right projects.

Picking the Right Projects
We need to make sure that only projects that are critical to the business take place. We also need to make sure that the projects that do take place are measured on the actual benefits they deliver to the business at the end of the project. Most organisations are currently failing in both of these areas. So what can we do about it? 

These decisions need to be made at the highest level in the organisation and portfolio management provides the ideal mechanism for this. 

Portfolio selection: by putting all projects (other than very small ones) through the portfolio selection process we ensure that only projects that are critical to the business are carried out. By regular review of the portfolio, we can ensure that only projects that remain critical to the business continue. 

Benefits Management: ensures that we recognise the actual business benefits delivered by every project.

Portfolio Management also addresses prioritisation, planning, risk management and stakeholder management, which also deliver benefits to the organisation. Organisations that have implemented portfolio management have a much higher rate of project success and far fewer project failures.

Next week I will look at the fourth vital step.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Organisation

So having established that our project managers have the basic ability to manage projects, and planned any development they need, the next step is to consider the needs of the organisation itself.

Project Focus
Business today needs to be agile and able to change and adapt quickly, if not it will fail. Because of this the business environment today is becoming more and more project driven, which means the business must have a project focus. That means embedding project management into the business strategy and making sure the organization understands and supports it. 

Then if we are going to do projects we need to do them right and that begins with putting our best people into the project management role (not just anyone who is available). In a project-focused organisation the selection and development of project managers should be a key part of management development and planning. 

The next step is to make sure we select the right projects and I will be taking a look at that next week.

Friday, May 13, 2016

What We Can Do

Just to re-cap, I am taking a deeper look into what we can do to prevent projects going wrong. But let's start with the reason why projects fail.

Why Projects Fail
covered this in a post in June 2015 but I need to add one bit of clarification on project failure. Stopping a project that is in danger of going badly wrong or failing is not a project failure, it is good project management. Allowing a project go wrong and fail is poor project management. I hope you can see the distinction.

Now projects may fail for a number of different reasons but all of these reasons can be addressed by a good project manager. If a project fails it is due to one thing alone: poor project management. So having addressed that, let's look at what we can do about it. I originally proposed four steps or areas we need to consider (I simplified it down to three steps in the white paper but will expand it back to four areas now) and these are: (1) the project managers, (2) the business, (3) the projects, and (4) project reviews. So this week let's look at our project managers.

Project Managers
In my experience an awful lot of project managers get thrown into it with little or no training, often because they are available and can be spared by the business. Now ask yourself if these people are likely to make good project managers. Surely if they were any good they would already be critical to the business and not available for running projects!

So we need to take a good look at all our project managers and identify whether or not they have the necessary skill set and basic ability to run projects. This means carrying out a thorough appraisal by someone who knows and understands what project management is all about, a good project manager, and that might not be the project manager's current line manager (we will address this when we look at the business next week). 

If we can establish that the project manager does probably have the basic ability to run a project, then we can identify any development needs and provide them with the required training. But more importantly we can assign them a mentor, who of necessity must be a wise (and therefore successful) project manager themselves. 

If on the other hand the project manager doesn’t have the basic ability to manage projects, then we need to move them to somewhere else in the organisation where they can do less harm. Sounds brutal but they should never have been moved into a project management position in the first place if they didn't have the basic ability. 

In a nutshell a successful project manager needs to have good planning, organisational, leadership and communication skills. These can be developed through training but they need to have the basic ability in the first place.

Next week we will look at the business and what it can do to make all this happen.