reflections & resources
Over 6 years ago, I watched a world shatter and a family face the unimaginable task of picking up the pieces of a life that would never be the same. Everyone grieves in different ways, and for me, I spent a long while reflecting on how to make a difference. I wish I could say that it was the only moment my life was touched by such events, but sadly this has not been the case.
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Globally over 800,000 people die each year in acts of self harm. These tragic losses are accompanied by a staggering 16,000,000 unsuccessful attempts annually. I am passionate about making a difference in this area and was recently the recipient of a small grant from The Pollination Project to support some user research into an online platform idea I have to support first responder and military personnel, their families, and communities in coping with and overcoming occupational stress injury. As many as 70,000 Canadian first responders are affected by, or coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Suicide is now surpassing line of duty deaths and the time for community to draw together to solve this problem has come.
I sincerely hope that you will consider contributing to our research or passing this survey along to someone you care about.
This blog is the second part of a three part series. If you haven't read about Establishing a Project Culture, start here. So, you are succeeding at delivering some projects, sometimes you aren't sure how you pull them off, but everyone works really hard and somehow it all works out in the end. Right? There's lots of lessons learned, you have even succeeded at integrating feedback from these into your next few projects. Now the roadblock is pace. We want to achieve more projects, we have so many things waiting and we can't deliver them all fast enough. Sound familiar? Read on to level up your Projects.
Symptom #1: The Project Pipeline is Too Full!
We just have too many projects! It's ok. Being a victim of your own success is a manageable problem. A pipeline with too many projects in it, just means you are getting good at noticing projects and labeling them as such.
Solution: Prioritize Projects that Align with Strategic Objectives and Maximize Value
There are a lot of ways to prioritize projects. If your organization has a business or strategic plan, examine its objectives carefully and choose projects that deliver high value outcomes that are strongly aligned with your business goals.
For some organizations, particularly service based businesses, long-range strategy may be harder to visualize. In this case, put together a small team that reviews and evaluates project proposals to assign priorities. Projects can be scored on value delivered, the scale of investment needed, the resource intensity and the risks associated with the project. The team should develop a total project score threshold establishing which projects move forward and which projects remain in the parking lot. If capacity re-appears, the remaining projects can be re-evaluated and high scores can be added to the project pipeline.
To realize this part of a good Project Management system you'll need:
Symptom #2: We've Lost Track of All our Projects!
As the number of projects being simultaneously executed grows, it can feel chaotic. With each project being managed by different teams, finding a way to clearly communicate project status can be difficult. The boots on the ground are probably working on more than one project and it can get confusing keeping track of all your work packages and milestones. This also makes it tough to ensure value is still going out the door.
Solution: Standardized Tools & Reports
It's probably time to invest in a project management toolset. This could be one or more software products and document templates that the team uses to stay on top of projects. It is best if the tools have some ability to visualize many projects at once, but this may or may not be relevant, depending on if you have one, or many project sponsors within your organization.
At a minimum your Project Management system needs:
At this stage, I also highly recommend organizations implement a project management software tool. What software we choose should be selected on a case by case basis for each organization's needs and scale, but there are many to choose from and several good, free, options exist.
Symptom #3: We Could Do More Projects if Only We Had More Resources.
Ah, if money only grew on trees. It is true that you might be at full capacity with respect to resources that can be devoted to projects. The more likely reality though, is that you aren't helping those resources focus on their needed tasks because you haven't planned resource utilization as well as you can.
Solution: Resource Planning
Most small organizations share resources across projects. Rarely do we actually plan a schedule for when these resources are being used by each project. We often leave it up to the resource itself to determine which things should be priorities at any given time. When deciding to take on new projects, we establish timelines and commitments without examining resource availability to make sure projects can be delivered. Stop this. Invest in a tool for resource planning and share it broadly across your organization. There are a number of online software products that focus on resource planning, some of which can be had for very nominal costs. You can even just use a spreadsheet, although this may take some skill to set up wisely. A little planning will go a long way towards maximizing the efficiency of your resources and reducing project churn.
Symptom #4: Project Failures & Exploding Costs
Undoubtedly if your organization is struggling with the above symptoms, it is only a matter of time before you'll fail at one project or another. Failures teach us valuable lessons if we have the right attitude. But the truth is, to really capitalize on your failures, you need experts who can identify and fill the gaps. It's time to use your lifeline friends!
Solution: Get Credentialed.
Remember, how, to start with we cultivated expertise? This has worked well, and no doubt along the way a few shiny stars have risen to the top. Encourage these folks to seek a project management certification. Alternately, create a Senior Project Manager position, or a Director of Projects role to oversee your project execution. This person should possess a Project Management Professional or similar designation. At this point, there is no substitute for expertise. You might not need this senior position forever, but they will provide valuable insight at this stage and contribute to continuing the maturing of your organization with respect to projects.
Lastly, persevere. This stage of growth and project chaos is only temporary. If you can keep your head about you, and implement the solutions above, you'll pass through this stage and level up your project delivery. Don't take it out on your teams, and don't give up. Build a system that works for you and iterate on it by making tiny tweaks each time you collect lessons learned. This attitude and effort lays a solid foundation for the final Phase, Playbooks.
Businesses that can get good at delivering value through projects are likely to succeed. In today's world, with the pace of change in the marketplace, projects are a good strategy to quickly and effectively deliver the value you need to secure and sustain your customers. The better you are at delivering projects, the faster that value is delivered to market and the greater your competitiveness becomes. How can you ensure that your organization reaps these rewards? Follow these steps.
1. Call a Spade a Spade.
Find, recognize, and call out your projects. In many organizations it can be easy for projects to slip into an operational rhythm. The people managing the projects are just doing their assigned work. The resources contributing to those projects just view the project as their day to day routine. Nobody notices when a project starts or ends. No one knows when a project is delivered. Sound familiar?
A project is a discrete, time bound initiative that will deliver value to your organization.
Everything that has a beginning and an end date should be examined as to whether it should be called a project. In most cases it should. In addition to starting and stopping, it should be known why a project is starting, and what its outcome will be. If you know all of these things, the work should be called a project and will become part of your project revolution.
2. Establish Project Roles.
Team members who are contributing to the work you have now called projects should occupy known and understood roles. Fundamentally, there are three roles your organization needs to understand to authorize and execute projects effectively.
Know who occupies each role for each project. Look out for role overlaps and competing projects. Get these people together for each project. Help your project leads communicate with each other. Ensure that project sponsors are engaged and receiving regular reports about project progress.
3. Deliver with Consistency.
Once you know who your project teams are, and what projects they are executing, you can look for common pain points that, once addressed, will accelerate team effectiveness. Since projects operate inside of your organization, each organization will have areas that create project constraints. Here are some ideas about common places to start creating consistency.
4. Embrace Feedback.
Establish and promote an open project culture. Ensure project leads and team members are empowered to escalate concerns to engaged sponsors or through other channels. Help project teams identify and disclose risks. Evaluate and mitigate these risks together. Conduct consistent project retrospectives and document lessons learned alongside other project closeout documentation. Ensure lessons learned have a pathway to effect action on future projects.
5. Cultivate Expertise.
Grow, develop, hire, acquire, consult with and sustain project expertise. The people who will execute your projects the best are people who understand your projects the best, and people who can align with project vision. Help project teams that work well together perform projects together often. Over time, these teams can establish ad hoc practices that lay a powerful foundation for your organization's next steps in project maturity. Invest in valuable project team members and leaders by supporting formal project knowledge acquisition. Celebrate project teams that succeed and reward effective project delivery.
Creating a mature project organization takes time and effort but the rewards can be substantial. If the above steps seem like things your organization is already doing, watch for our posts on the next steps in project maturity for your organization including Processes and Playbooks.
What is a Contingency?
A contingency is a provision for a possible event or circumstance that is known. In the land of projects these can take many forms.
Which contingencies should I have and how much do I need?
Fundamentally, contingencies are a method of mitigating risk. To identify contingencies you need, you must first identify project risks. Next project risks need to be scored so that the team agrees on and understands how likely the risks are to occur and how severe their impact will be if they do. Once project risks are identified and scored, the team can discuss risk mitigation. Contingencies might be a risk mitigation strategy. Here's an example:
A software delivery team is working on custom software development. The project timeline has been set and the team has identified that a new library for one aspect of the software will be released. Release notes for the new library note a needed feature that is being improved. The team are unclear on whether it will be necessary to upgrade to the new library to ensure the feature can be implemented as needed prior to the software delivery. The team indicates that if the upgrade is required it will cause the team to need to adjust the library version and add some testing to ensure all other functionalities are working as intended. They expect that this will require an extra week of work.
In the example scenario above the project team has a number of contingency options that could be selected. If the project delivery window is beyond the expected project schedule then the opportunity to add a schedule contingency of one week to address the identified library risk exists. If the project delivery window is not beyond the expected project schedule then the cost of adding resources for one additional week's worth of work within the existing project plan should be added as a cost contingency.
Choose the contingencies that best address identified risks and the expected occurrence of these risks.
When can I use my contingency?
Remember, contingencies are strategies for mitigating risks on a project. Contingency reserves should be maintained for as long as possible as the project progresses as this means they are available to manage project risks as they occur. It might be appropriate to consider using a project contingency when all of the following conditions are met:
Contingencies are not a means to address new scope, except where a management reserve may exist. It is a common mistake, particularly in projects with a fixed budget, to consume a contingency to address emerging or added scope. Resist this temptation, except where a management reserve has been allocated. Ensure that new or emerging scope has been prioritized and assessed against the original project plan. Ensure that a risk analysis on the new or emerging scope has been conducted and does not require contingencies to be added to the project. Push back on scope creep that introduces contingency risks.
Good contingency planning and management will help you deliver projects on time and on budget.
Over the past year I have moved around a lot and along the way a few things have become apparent to me. One of these, hits close to the heart - as it turns out, a lot of organizations don't appear to understand what a project manager does for your organization, let alone, how this can further organizational objectives and/or innovation. I once was asked in an interview, whether I thought the proposed project I would be managing would be a success. I told the interviewer that I felt confident that he was taking the first critical step towards success in hiring a project manager. Project managers, I said, dramatically helped to ensure a project was able to be executed and that implementation was done in an efficient manner - hopefully ensuring that the valuable funding dollars for the project were spent wisely. I stand by this statement today.
What is a Project Manager?
This is a surprisingly heterogeneous answer. Some definitions involve a component of leadership and overall responsibility. Most definitions agree there is a responsibility for planning and for execution of tasks related to a given effort. Some definitions talk about a timeline of responsibility from inception to completion of a given initiative. Some definitions even went so far as to comment on the responsibility for success of the initiative (and this is a big stretch...projects do fail and so do project managers).
The vagueness of project manager expectations across the organizations I have worked for is understandable given the above. But before we talk about what a project manager is, let's talk about who a project manager is. I'm a strong advocate for my professional body, the Project Management Institute (PMI), and they describe a project manager as follows:
They are organized, passionate and goal-oriented who understand what projects have in common, and their strategic role in how organizations succeed, learn and change.
They go on to describe project managers as change agents, people who work well in high pressure environments with high levels of complexity, people who are both able to see the big picture and at the same time be detail attentive, and team builders who foster trust and facilitate communication. And, since 1969, they have been right.
The reality is, that when you hire a project manager, you hire someone who is disruptive, who has a passion for things that at times might seem unimportant to everyone else in the organization, someone who flies at a high elevation in your organization but is oddly obsessive about minutiae your executives won't care about, someone who lives and breathes risk assessment, evaluation and mitigation for breakfast, someone who thinks unlike most of the rest of your organization and ultimately specializes in delivering the activities and tasks you haven't yet fully thought out. Project managers bring an outside perspective to the intimate inner workings of your company and this should be refreshing, but can also be threatening. Lastly, project managers are the get things done agents in your departments, divisions, and product lines - people who inspire others to complete activities at a ferocious pace typically not seen in your organization otherwise and for many organizations, this pace will seem intimidating.
Now that you know the cowboy you are looking for, what will they do for you?
What is Project Management?
Project management is a mix of science and art. As mentioned above, project managers study the things projects have in common, and we build out an extensive toolkit of things that work to address these commonalities. For the rest, we sprinkle around our secret sauce of "expert judgement" - our artistic license, and arguably, our most valuable commodity.
The act of project management is the carrying out of various activities associated with the delivery of a unique outcome. This outcome might be a new product, a new service, a new process, a new system, a new strategic direction and/or many other things. However, all projects have a few fundamental things in common.
1) They are temporary. All projects occur over a defined period of time after which they end.
2) They are not routine. All projects involve something new or different for the organization(s) involved, hence the role of the project manager as an organizational change agent.
Now we understand the work the cowboy will be undertaking, let's understand our return on investment.
What does Project Management do for your organization?
Besides increasing your chance of successful outcomes, and having someone to hold accountable for success or failure, project management realizes some other very important organizational benefits.
A project manager is going to hone in on a good justification for the project before it is initiated. This means the project manager is going to ask you some tough questions about what you are doing and why. Many organizations are taken aback by these questions. Don't be. A key to project success is clear project scope and scope is the "project what". We ask why you are doing a project so that we can understand what metrics should be used to measure project success. This means that when you reach the end of your project you will know that you have delivered what you intended.
2) Do the Right Things
A project manager helps you define the path from A to B. A project manager will help to take an idea and define a series of executable steps to deliver the idea. We specialize in seeing pathways that might not be visible to others. We practice seeing the obstacles along the way and we carry a backpack full of solutions to help us pass by these obstacles. We will tell you what we think are the right things to do and we will help you do them in the right way. Probably this will be different than you expected. You will need to trust us to deliver the improbable.
3) Learning Along the Way
Project managers are trained to examine successes and failures objectively and to document these lessons learned for future reference. When a project is completed, project managers will spend some time conducting a post-mortem. Don't underestimate this value towards your future projects and business.
4) Inspire you Forward
Project managers bring passion to an organization. This passion is infectious and can inspire your teams to be more productive than was ever thought possible. Goal-oriented is probably a bit polite. We are relentless in our drive to improve and to deliver. We inspire others with this attitude and overall morale, quality, and effort are improved as a result.
5) Aren't Like the Next Guy
Project managers bring their special sauce to your organization, and if we are successful in your organization, this uniqueness becomes a key competitive ingredient. No two project managers think the same, or execute in the same manner, and if you are lucky enough to find someone who realizes the above benefits and can hang onto them, your organization will clamber over its competition with ease. To realize this benefit as an organization you have to value the diverse thinking and unique approach that your project manager(s) bring to each project.
So when you advertise for a project manager position, and hire someone remember this:
Now that you know, go forth willingly into the unknown and don't be afraid. Success is before you, of that you are assured.