Fostering a Project Along

February 11, 2007 by
Filed under: Project management, Teamwork 

I was working with a team in a technology company this week, going over some of the soft skills and hard practices of project management. This is a team from a variety of disciplines that works together on projects. They had recently completed a project that people in the organization characterized as a ‘train wreck’. On the surface, one would think there would be opportunities to improve on their performance.

There was a reluctance to discuss that last project, except to say that someone who is no longer with the company handed down the decision that ended up scuttling any hopes of success. With a little digging, it turns out that the issue that burned them in that past project still remains unresolved, and is one of the greatest risks to success on their current project. This current project is already late, only a third of the way through the original schedule, again because of apparently external circumstances.

I sensed a pattern developing here.

What really threw me for a loop, though, was a comment made in response to the variety of techniques recommended for keeping a project on schedule: “But that’s all theoretical stuff…”

I would say I agree, only in that these remain theoretical practices until actually applied to a real project situation. Often, when that happens, people are surprised to find that these practices actually make a difference. Ann Landers once said “Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don’t recognize them.”

Managing a project well requires a unique combination of creativity, communication, paranoia and diligence, leveraged with a strong understanding of how to apply all that ‘theoretical stuff’.

First and foremost is the need to understand all the stakeholders involved in the project. This includes those who use the product, those who build the product, and those who influence how and when the product can be built and used. All these communities, both internal and external, need to be heard and represented on the project. The communication starts here, and must continue throughout the entire lifecycle. Strong relationships go a long way towards solving problems.

Next, when putting together an initial intent of how the project will unfold, we bring in creativity and paranoia.

On almost any project, the first network of activities we put together will typically be at least 50% longer than the time we have available, sometimes two or three times as long. Rather than arbitrarily reducing our estimates of duration to make the activities fit (which is a sure prescription for failure), or cutting features to squeeze things in (which is a sure prescription for disappointment), look for creative approaches to making the paths more concurrent. Break up the bottlenecks into smaller chunks, re-balance resources to optimize your approach, even consider consciously relaxing the quality standards if that is a reasonable option. It is often the case that a project schedule can be reworked to reduce the duration dramatically from that initial network that is laid out.

Lean on the paranoia by recognizing that most of the issues on projects arise at the interfaces, and that there is a critical path that will allow you to focus contingency on a narrow slice of the overall network of activities. Whenever there is something needed from a stakeholder outside of the project team, add a buffer that is sized according to the likelihood of that external group delivering on time. History will show for most projects that failing to buffer here inevitably leads to trouble.

For all the internally driven activities, buffer at the end of the critical paths as a separate entity before project-level milestones, again based on the risk associated with the tasks along the path before it. Guard this contingency with your life as a project manager, as one person noted recently “only to be released on the provision of a fine single-malt”. Never buffer against individual activities, as this padding will almost always be consumed.

Even with all these buffers at various points, creativity in constructing your network will often allow you to fit within your constraints, without having to resort to cutting features or whittling away at the original estimates. You can produce an aggressive schedule, while remaining conservative at the same time.

We all know, though, that schedules are obsolete by the time they are posted, and this is where the diligence comes in. The project has to be carefully monitored, particularly along the critical path, along those other paths that may expand to become critical themselves, and to ensure that expectations from externals can be met. There will often be times when the group needs to get together to resolve problems, and creativity continues here to provide novel ways around these challenges.

Well-run projects will have a very different but well articulated path that has led to success. Poorly run projects often have that original intended, now obsolete path, then an amorphous cloud of stuff that was done along the way in an unmanageable fashion, possibly resulting in something, often a disappointment, coming out the end.

Performed well, far more projects can be built and managed to deliver on original expectations than currently do. It requires ongoing effort, to be sure, but is well worth it for all stakeholders involved.

Projects can’t be brought home successfully on sheer willpower, they need to be thoughtfully managed and coddled to closure. A good understanding of all that ‘theoretical stuff’ can go a long way to helping you understand where and how to apply your efforts.– JB

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