PM Links for 4/28/2013

  • A Dangerous Bias: action over thinking – A caution that it is easy to run into action but there is value in the upfront initiation processes and that they can help guarantee project success. 
  • Averages Without Variances are Meaningless – Or Worse Misleading – A good reminder in light of the revelations on Reinhart/Rogoff that statistics are important and we should be careful in choosing and testing our tools.
  • When and Why Does Total Quality Management Work, and Why Isn’t It Still Prevalent? – Another story of a good technique, miss-used, implemented poorly and as a result looked down on and phased out. Give it another 5 years and I suspect TQM will be re-invented under a different name. 
  • Basics Reminder: The First Essential of Project Management: Benefits
  • Opportunity v Threats (again) – Discussion itself is worth being reminded of, but there is one item worth calling out – a tool vs technique distinction is drawn. This distinction I feel is key to a lot of project management. Because of the state of PM education, tools end up dictating process instead of the other way around. We need to always be on the lookout for these situations!
  • The PMBOK Approach to EVM – “It was clear to me, as a result of these encounters, that EVM is not well understood and that the cost / benefit aspects of utilizing it are not properly grasped by a large number of PMs.” I’m a big fan of EVM, but if I only had the information I had to learn for the PMP exam I’d probably have a very different opinion.
  • Self Help for the Week: How to accept a compliment – Accepting a compliment can be challenging for many people – the scripts given near the end should take the anxiety away. 
  • Video for the Week: Statistics Before Calculus [via John Goodpasture] –

Fine Print: While article recommendations are welcome, I avoid articles that overtly try to sell a book or service. 

Project Managers give Project Management a bad name

If you present people with the 5 immutable facets of project management, you get a positive response:

  • What does ‘done’ look like?
  • How will we get to ‘done’
  • Do we have the resources to get to ‘done’
  • What obstacles will we encounter on the way?
  • How do we know we’re making progress?

People want the answers, yet when you start talking about Project Management the room goes cold. Why? Where is the disconnect between information people want and the tool (Project Management) to obtain it?

The problem in my mind comes from bad project managers and the problems they cause. There are a number of common sins –

  • Incomplete project management
  • Schedule inflexibility
  • Methodology mis-match

These are far too common and the problem is compounded by the fact that most management can’t easily tell the difference between these problems and shortcomings of project management in general. Without understanding of good project management or project managers by both management and team members, it is easier to blame the discipline instead of the individuals.

While each of these sins could use a post on their own, there are a few specific recommendations –

  • Improved training of project managers. A certification is not enough, there needs to be continuing education and improvement.
  • Training of managers in what good project management looks like. Either in the form of basic project management training or a course specifically for project sponsors, managers everywhere need to know what they need from project management and what they should be looking for.
  • Include project management in retrospectives and project goals. Identify issues with project management and make improving it a part of the next project.

Project management can be a force for good, making teams more effective and improving project success rates, but only if we confront project manager shortcomings, not just project failures.

Report on NASA’s Project Management Challenges

The US Government is a great source of Project Management resources and while I plan on giving an overview of what is available for free in the near future, I stumbled across an item from NASA’s “ask” that I just had to share.  The US Inspector General released a report recently attempting to answer why NASA projects so often seem to cost more and take longer than originally planned.

While the full report weighs in at 72 pages, I’d recommend everyone interested in Project Management to read at least the overview. Where the rest of the document is interesting in its deep exploration of the current operating environment at NASA, the overview gives a good introduction to the four major factors limiting project success:

  • NASA’s culture of optimism.
  • Underestimating technical complexity increases cost and schedule risk.
  • Funding instability can lead to inefficient management practices.
  • Limited opportunities for project managers’ development.

These issues are far from specific to NASA and serve as a great reminder to constantly review trends in your own projects’ success and examine ways to improve.

What is Project Management?

While I’d have loved to start with something juicier, I find myself out of the habit of narrative writing. As a result, to get back into the habit I’m making things easier on myself by writing more straightforward posts to get things going.

There is a surprising amount of ambiguity when people say ‘project management’ given how long the discipline has existed. Part of the problem sits with the variety of ways companies use the title ‘Project Manager’ – from team lead type roles to designated nagging managers through full-blown classic project managers and scrum masters. This post aims to cut through the confusion and hopefully make people realize that just because there is a person with the title ‘Project Manager’ doesn’t mean they are doing project management.

The best high-level description of project management I’ve found captures the base motivation:

“Project management is how grown-ups manage risk and uncertainty.”

New undertakings always have things that can go wrong and things which aren’t known at the start. At a certain point the cost of failure becomes great enough that some process needs to be put in place to make sure that a project completes or failures are detected as early as possible and avoided where possible. To get to an actual project management definition, we need to add a concept of what we need to do to achieve the goal.

Gren B. Alleman, who blogs at Herding Cats, provides the best breakdown of what needs to be done in order to be considered ‘doing project management,’ phrased in terms of 5 questions that must be answered:

  1. What does ‘done’ look like?
  2. How do we get to ‘done’?
  3. Do we have the resources to get to ‘done’?
  4. What obstacles may we encounter on our path to ‘done’?
  5. How do we know we’re making progress?

These ‘Immutable Priciples” are not aspects of any particular project management methodology (e.g. Agile, PRINCE2, APM, PMI/PMBOK) but are rather features and questions that any methodology needs to cover. Glen goes into great depth describing each of these at his site, so I won’t duplicate his efforts here. The answers may take different forms depending on the methodology and may (or may not) be backed up by data and analytical tools – that they are being answered is what is important. One major point note – these are living questions and while they are most obviously asked at the start of a project they also need to continuously re-answered as things change.

Early in my project management training I heard two key ideas which have stuck with me and I feel contribute to a working definition of Project Management:

  • “Everything will be known, it is just a question of when.”
  • “Never let your project live a lie”

Combined, these speak directly to applying the 5 questions with integrity. Project management is largely an attempt to learn things as early as possible, such as obstacles that may be encountered. If we’re not actively keeping our answers to the five questions fresh, our project may be headed for an issue we’re unprepared for or miss its schedule. As is often said, “hope is not a plan” so lets make sure we’re being proactive about evolving our plans and hunting out issues rather then keep our fingers crossed that things don’t take a turn for the worse.

Just asking the 5 questions regularly I believe helps even the least formally organized project meet its goals. One would think then that given the wealth of additional techniques and methods that exist projects should be like clockwork, yet frustrations abound. While I’ve hinted at what goes wrong, I’ll cover it in depth in my next post – “Project Management is good, Project Managers commonly aren’t.” (hopefully I’ll come up with a catchier title…)

Upcoming Posts:

  • Project Management is good, Project Managers commonly aren’t
  • Bad useful tools

Blogging on Project Management incoming!

During the day, I work as a Project Manager and I love it.

I’ve always been a process person, making it a great fit for me. I spend a lot of time thinking about project management as a discipline and a process along with the challenges I regularly face and really want to share. As a result, pm blogging will commence shortly!

It may not be as exciting as discussions on sensing soil moisture levels, but hopefully everyone will learn something in the process.