Voices on Project Management

To reach a global audience of project professionals, Voices on Project Management presents a blog post every month translated into Brazilian Portuguese, Simplified Chinese and Spanish. 

This month's post by Kevin Korterud explores four warning signs that you may need to slow down and stop a project.

Read it in your language of preference and share your thoughts in the comments box below.

7 Steps to Project Planning Acceleration

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What's a reasonable amount of time to devote to planning a project? I use this rule of thumb: If it is a low-uncertainty project (i.e., we've completed another with similar conditions in the past, with known technology and firm assumptions), devote at least 10 percent of the expected duration of the project to planning it. If it's perceived as a high-uncertainty project (i.e., one with new technology, new approach, uncertain conditions), devote at least 20 percent.

But let's face it. Often, organizational pressure will not allow us to devote that much time to planning. So is there an approach that lets us reduce planning time but still do good work and come up with a complete, useful plan? 

Many organizations I've worked with use a project planning acceleration workshop (PPAW). This is an organized, closed-door, multiday session with the whole project team to focus exclusively on producing the project plan -- something that usually takes several weeks, completed in a few days' time. There are different ways of organizing such an event, but I usually follow these seven steps:

1. Plan the plan. Share with team members all of the project's background information. Send invitations with enough lead time and clearly state the session's sole objective, which is to produce a solid project plan. I often kick off the session stating that once we are finished, we will have a project plan that is roughly 75 to 85 percent complete -- and that we are going to accomplish this in a very short period of time. Therefore, total commitment is required from all participants.

2. Set the stage. What you want is an environment conducive to teamwork without distractions. Secure a room to host the workshop, preferably outside of the office. And don't forget to include a lot of food and beverages for the duration of the workshop. When people are tired, food helps!

3. Define the agenda. Depending on the complexity of the project, different workshop durations will be required, but three days is adequate for most projects. I often use an agenda that looks like this:

  • First day: Devote the morning only to the human elements of the project -- for example, for introductions and team integration activities. It'll set the stage for the rest of the workshop. In the afternoon, analyze the project background and produce a thorough project charter that includes scope statement, time and cost constraints, major deliverables, key stakeholders, expected benefits, restrictions and assumptions.
  • Second day: In the morning, develop the work breakdown structure (WBS). Make the whole team work on defining the major deliverables and then break into smaller groups to further decompose these major deliverables. Produce the project's schedule in the afternoon.
  • Third day: The planning elements needed for your project might vary, but I usually devote this day to producing the budget, a roles and responsibilities matrix (mapping the team members to work packages on the WBS), a key resources plan and a risk management plan. 
4. Use collaborative working techniques. Don't just project steps on a screen; make team members work together. When producing the WBS or the project schedule, use the participatory cards on the wall (COW) technique. For the risk management plan, brainstorm together to identify risks and ask participants to pin different risks on color-coded charts according to their assessment of probability and impact. 

5. Document everything. Assign someone in the team to document everything produced. You may use Post-its to draft the WBS or the schedule, but these elements need to be recorded formally for when the project starts. 

6. Assign tasks for completion. After the workshop is finished, the project plan won't be completely finalized. Usually certain parts need more research or analysis. Assign specific team members to complete outstanding pieces and establish a deadline for completing these elements that were initiated at the PPAW.

7. Kick off the project. Once the project plan is deemed completed, host one more session to make a final review of all the elements, especially those that needed further research. Combine this activity with a formal project kick-off meeting -- the end of PPAW and the beginning of your project.

In my experience, when a team is co-located and completely focused for a specific period of time to create a plan, it yields better results.

Have you ever run a PPAW? How has it improved your project?

Adjusting to Team Time Warps

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Have you ever wondered why one person is always late for meetings while another one is always early?

Chances are you're dealing with people who see time differently. For some, time flows from the future into the present and on to the past at a steady rate of 60 minutes every hour. Others see time as a river carrying them forward to an uncertain future. And while everyone is aware of the three elements of time -- the past, the present and the future -- cultures see these in different ways.

Western European cultures tend to have a strong future focus -- what's happening in the present is focused on securing a good future outcome. The past is relatively unimportant, since "you can't change history."

Cultures with a present focus let go of the past, don't worry about the future and fully enjoy the experience of the present. This focus can be a wonderfully relaxing experience, but it can also lead to the need for immediate gratification and short-term payoffs -- traits of many "youth" cultures. 

More traditional societies -- for example, those found in Africa, Asia and southern Europe -- tend to have a past focus, looking to preserve their history and respect family and society elders. For them, the present is a continuation of the past, and there's not much point in doing too much planning for an uncertain future. In these societies, the Western view of time as a strictly linear function of seconds, minutes, hours and days is seen as very limiting.

Understanding these different perspectives can help you in a project environment. For example, someone with a strong present focus will see the discussion they're currently engaged in as important and consider it inappropriate to cut it off just to be on time for a meeting. But if that meeting is organized by a forward-looking person with a strong time focus, there will be problems.

One way to decipher where you and your team members are in the "time warp" is to use U.S. psychologist Thomas J. Cottle's Circle Test. Grab a sheet of paper and draw three circles on the page, arranging them in the way that best shows how you feel about the relationship between the past, present and future. Use different size circles to indicate relative importance and separate or overlap the circles depending on how much influence each one has on the others. 

Here are two examples that illustrate the different ways people view time:


The purple circles represent a strong future focus with the present feeding into achieving future outcomes. There's little connection to the past. This is typical for a lot of time-conscious project managers focused on planning their projects (a future focus) and then implementing the plans (a present focus).

The blue circles show a strong present focus firmly grounded in past experiences and traditions. The present is a bit more important than the past, but the future is not really connected to the present and of lesser importance. Don't expect someone with this perspective to be very interested in planning for an uncertain future or being on time for meetings. Their view of success is built on the strength of existing relationships and systems. 

The Western/project management focus on time can be effective, but it can also be dangerous, particularly in cross-cultural teams and when dealing with clients with a different time focus. The stress of missing an impending deadline can affect people's health, cause then to sacrifice their relationships and lead to shortcuts in quality and missed opportunities. Is it really worth destroying value by de-scoping a project just to achieve a deadline (especially if it's artificial)? A more balanced view may be that while the deadline is missed, there are opportunities to deliver 100 percent of the scope, identify additional hidden value, and maintain a healthier and happier project team. The optimum answer depends on the circumstances of the project and the time focus of key stakeholders.

What's your time orientation and how does it fit with the rest of your team and other stakeholders?

About This Blog

Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with — or even disagree with — leave a comment.

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