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March 2009 Archives

Lessons Learned

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Recently I had a team meeting to discuss lessons learned from a project and how we could document them to help reinforce the positive experiences and avoid the negative ones.

As expected, we had a template to document the lessons. We had one team in the room and other teams on a conference bridge and two hours to get it done. Of course, that came with pizza and drinks.

How do you manage to collect, assess, validate and populate data in a two-hour window? You have to have this data already present and entered into the system of some kind (whether it's electronic or paper), with such parameters as experience rating, failure points, links to deliverables each item refers to, impacts etc. And you have to have this information ready and available for this special meeting that simply reviews the results of what you've gathered over the course of the life of the project.

A system of lessons learned would include or require the following:

1.    Lessons learned as one of the deliverables of the project

2.    Method/forum for submitting lessons learned to the project management office or senior management overlooking the project or running the functional areas that require changes based on lessons learned

3.    Method or process for integrating those lessons into the organization

4.    Method of entering the information, such as electronic lessons learned system (web- or network-based) or collection of documents, spreadsheets etc.

5.    Method of accessing lessons learned information from past projects, relating to specific areas of the project or organization

6.    System to have these items as required components of milestones on the project plan

7.    Contribution to the lessons learned from issue reviews in a semi-automated way, so that at the end of the issue review or steering committee meeting you could use the data to post it to the lessons learned system

Success of a lessons learned system depends on a buy-in from the sponsor, the steering committee and the organization to all the items above.

Have you implemented a lessons learned system recently or participated in a lessons learned review? What was your experience?

The Joys of Project Management

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As I write this, I am looking out of my hotel window where I can see the majestic view of the Niagara Falls juxtaposed against its man-made surroundings. Since I am away from the daily hustle and bustle of project needs, I started to think about why I really love what I do.

Project management provides me with constant opportunities to learn and apply many different skills. And the experience is never the same. It is like being a kid in a candy store, sampling different flavors. Sometimes I am rewarded with sugary sweets, and other times I cringe at the sour-tasting flavors.  

I love being able to sit down with my customers to document their needs and list requirements for the project at hand. And I always look forward to brainstorming sessions with software architects and developers..

On any given day, I could be running from a schedule planning meeting one hour to a peer review session the next. I find it exhilarating to apply various problem-solving skills.

What do you love most about being a project manager?

In Search of Long-Term Value

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I am writing after having just finished conducting a seminar in Bahrain and am preparing to fly back to London tomorrow morning.

For the third year in a row, CIOs identified project alignment with the strategy as the number one management priority in a CIO magazine survey. And for the first time, CEOs rated "meeting other strategic objectives (e.g., reputation of your business, entering a new market, securing access to natural resources)" as more important than "maximizing financial or shareholder return" or "meeting or exceeding a specific financial return" (e.g., return on invested capital).

In most organizations, business heads select the majority of projects. Those projects are then submitted as part of an annual budget allocation process, with the selection often based on these functional managers' needs, not as a response to an aligned strategy.

Often these initial proposals have to be cut back when budgets are reduced. And because the current organizational focus is on short-term results, the projects that are cut are mostly those that would produce long-term results. But the recent economic downturn has brought into light the failure of the short-term financial profit approach and the need to look for longer-term sustainable value. Recent surveys show the interests of top management are shifting; increasing competitive advantage and the ability to adapt to change have become foremost in their priorities.

The key to delivering this value is in the development of an integrated portfolio-program-project approach supported by a sound governance system. Typically, executive stakeholders agree on the strategic objectives that will produce competitive advantage. At the program level, they are translated into business benefits. Project deliverables are then defined to produce new capabilities that will enable the realization of these benefits.

As project results are measured and benefits are assessed, the program and the strategy are modified to adapt to changing circumstances. This, in turn, gives the organization the necessary agility to stay competitive in a challenging environment and to realize value consistently.

Day by Day

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Managing everyday project tasks is not rocket science. But it is a function of good discipline, time management, prioritization and overall organization. (We are in the project management business after all.)

There are ways to organize our time and efforts on key project priorities and--as a result--get things done.

1.    View each day as another opportunity to get back on track or achieve more. Erase the shortcomings of yesterday and plan realistically for tomorrow.

2.    Accept that you can only handle so much in one day. Achieve your ultimate best by estimating how much and the type of work you can handle.

3.    Try to only take on assignments or project tasks that you know you can finish and be realistic when estimating your ability to do a given task within the committed period of time. Your goal is to under-promise, but never to under-deliver.

4.    Focus on delivering your tasks with highest quality and before the deadline. Approach each project task or activity as if you were to be audited.

With these principles in mind, try the following system--and implement it now, not later:
1.    Clear Your Inbox
•    Process all e-mails in your inbox and listen to voicemails today, instead of putting them off for tomorrow.
•    Create tasks from e-mails and then archive, rather than keeping them in your inbox. These tasks can be prioritized by date. Link them to a specific project or project tasks. Anything not relating to your current project should be either delegated or redirected to other resources.
2.    Create and Maintain a One-Page To-Do List
•    Choose a system that will be your central depository of all of your "to-do's". It can be via e-mail, notebook or a stack of sticky notes, whatever works for you.
•    List all of your tasks, prioritized by either the due date, importance or ease of completion. Anything that must be attended to that week must be on this one-page list. If you're putting on more than that, you simply won't achieve it. Anything else goes to next week's list or on a "later" list.
3.    Set Your Number One Goal for Tomorrow
•    This is the one thing you will complete or will considerably contribute to. It's your highest priority.
•    Go ahead and set aside an appropriate chunk of time for the next day when you will focus specifically on this task.
Any tasks and meetings that aren't contributing to the project you are involved in or the items above should be cleared from your schedule. Avoid noise and time-wasters and you'll get things done.

Our Biggest Unused Weapon

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The primary capital ship of most blue-water navies is the aircraft carrier. According to Rob Stern, in U.S. Battleships in Action, Part 2 a pair of aircraft carriers can deliver around 35 tons to a target in one hour. A United States Iowa-class battleship can do the same job in 90 seconds.

The U.S. Navy has four of these battleships, but, fortunately for enemies of the United States, only one is in the reserve fleet, while the others have been converted to museums.

Why is such a clearly effective weapon not in use? It may be because of the relative ease with which aircraft carriers sank battleships during World War II, leading to the conclusion that the carriers were superior naval vessels in all respects.

In the epic struggle to advance project management capability within our organizations, I think it's important to recognize that we are in competition with other management approaches and information streams. And in this competition, we may be failing to use the most powerful weapon in our arsenal: the capability of an Earned Value Management System (EVMS) to predict the future.

Accurate prediction of the future is obviously a very useful capability. In the project management world, the key pieces of future information include: How much will this project end up costing, and how long will it take?

These twin brass rings of project management information are hotly pursued in a variety of ways--most of them incorrectly, in my opinion. The most common approach is to re-estimate the remaining costs and duration of an on-going project, and to then add that amount to cumulative costs or duration.

This method, despite being notoriously inaccurate and injecting hundreds (if not thousands) of purely subjective data elements into the mix, is often defended as the only appropriate approach.

Conversely, the best approach--calculating the estimate at completion (EAC)--is commonly derided by so-called project managers, even though it's faster, easier and demonstrably more accurate than its re-baselining counterparts.

The most familiar EAC formula, the Budget at Completion (BAC) divided by the Cost Performance Index (CPI), can be algebraically reduced to dividing the cumulative actual costs by the project's percent complete. This formula works with durations as well: Divide the cumulative duration by the percent complete, and you have an accurate idea of how long a given task will take.

With such an easy, simple and powerful weapon in our arsenal, why aren't we using it more?

Gaining Acceptance

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Every project has an acceptance criteria defined for deliverables but I wonder how many of us get the explicit acceptance from our stakeholders. In a long-running project we keep delivering to the client but rarely bother to get a formal approval on the delivery--which may create problems at the end of the project. I've experienced problems in a couple of projects because of no formal acceptance of the delivery.

Ideally, for each delivery you should ask for explicit acceptance from the authorized stakeholder and communicate that authorization through weekly status reports. This will help you in the final acceptance of the project and initiating the maintenance phase, which would be a billable effort. Then the project team should follow up with the client to get a sign-off on specification, design, code, etc.

Am I alone with this problem or is it something others have faced as well?

General Motor's PMO

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As director of the enterprise program management office at General Motors (GM), Paul Checkowsky oversees program management offices around the world in different functionary areas like sales, manufacturing and supply chain. He took some time to answer a couple of questions about the state of the project management office (PMO) at the auto giant and throughout the world.

How has the economic downturn affected the PMO at GM?
From an economic standpoint, we've got to be a lot more careful about getting the most value for our money. A couple of examples:
   In the past, we've focused a lot on quality assurance of the process--making sure that people are following all of the steps. That's very time-consuming and can be expensive. Now we've built the quality-assurance process into the steps. We no longer have checkers checking peoples' work. We basically built the quality into the process, so that at the end, we don't need to perform a final quality review.
   We are also doing more backward planning rather than forward planning. We are making timing and content commitments to our business community at the beginning of the year and we are holding the project teams to those commitments. We then plan backward to determine what and when we have to do to achieve the commitments. Many project teams are not comfortable with this approach but it does force teams to get off to a fast start and forces them to resolve issues in a timely and efficient manner.   
   The other thing we've been doing is instead of being a policing organization, [the PMO] is now much more involved with mentoring upfront-- making sure the project teams are aware of the processes and helping them know where they might encounter bumps in the road.

Do you think more organizations are realizing the value of the PMO?
They are.
   Actually, in the last six to 12 months, I've [received] a lot of feedback from individuals saying that this new approach--where the PMOs are actually part of the teams doing the work--is very effective.
   [Organizations] themselves are finding ways to leverage these PMO capabilities and this expertise especially helping to identify and resolve integration issues, mentoring of enabling processes and eliminating deployment roadblocks. So I think it's been very positive, and I think it's here to stay.

   Mr. Checkowsky says it's hard to say what is going to happen with GM's EPMO in light of the economic situation. At the time of this interview, news headlines speculated the organization's possible bankruptcy.
   Overall, however, he says that "people are going to expect more with less. That's not going to change. We're going to have to do a lot more with fewer people, less money and less time."
    Despite the challenges, however, he says there are exciting opportunities out there. "Because of the conditions that we're facing, this is really an opportunity for us to put some changes in place that we've considered in the past.
   "Before, there wasn't a burning platform. Now, there is. So people are much more open to changes and new ideas--where in the past, they'd be, "This has worked for us all of these years. Why change?" Now people are realizing they do need to change. It's actually an opportunity to put some of these new approaches in place. We've just got to make sure that they're effective."


The Power of Acknowledgment

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When the University of Maryland University College Graduate School of Management & Technology e-Business and Project Management Program adopted my book, The Power of Acknowledgment, for one of their courses, I began leading live, interactive online seminars once a semester. Several students sent me discussion questions ahead of time. These questions from these adult learners in critical jobs have been very thought provoking, and I wanted to share my thoughts on one of them. Others to follow...

Question: "How do I handle a supervisor that doesn't give acknowledgments?  ... It has gotten so bad, that I'm happy when he doesn't come to work and I have to deal with his supervisor who has a totally different management style.  I think you may have some ideas that I can use."

And I do:

•    Create a culture of appreciation in your organization. You personally can be a champion of change in your team's or department's or your company's culture. I know this sounds difficult, but you can start the process by making sure to acknowledge both your peers and the people who report to you in a heartfelt and authentic way. Your example will start generating a desire to "pay it forward" and after a time your manager won't be able to ignore the shift he or she is seeing around him or her.  

•    Acknowledge upwards! I believe our managers or bosses are among the most under-acknowledged people in the workplace. And even a boss who doesn't give acknowledgment can see and feel the impact of being acknowledged truthfully and in a heartfelt manner. And yes, you may have to really search for that acknowledgment but I promise you, something worthy of being acknowledged for is there.

•    Speak as off the record as possible to your "grand-boss." (i.e. your manager's manager.) There is some risk here of word getting back to your manager but it depends on how desperate you are, in order to see if this approach makes sense.

•    Know how much you can take. If the lack of acknowledgment and appreciation is too devastating for you, you may have to request a transfer to another department or even leave the company. This is not an action to consider except as a last resort.

   E-mail me your questions about establishing a culture of appreciation throughout your organization, and about using the power of acknowledgment to create miracles on project teams, in your departments and throughout your organization. You will be amazed at the results once you start using the power of acknowledgment.

Editor's Note: Judy Umlas is author of The Power of Acknowledgment, published by International Institute for Learning Inc. through IIL Publishing, New York.

Projects and (Organizational) Culture

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There's limited time today to implement projects. And even when we set a target timeline, we are challenged to deliver results faster and at a lower cost, while still meeting--or exceeding--the same quality standards.
    It's been my observation that the success of organizations with this depends on how well they connect their project management processes with their business delivery teams. I also think, however, organizations need to pay more attention to how they connect their project management processes with their organizational culture.
    Here are some key principles to keep in mind:
1.    Define and sign off on project parameters. This must be done by the organization's key decision-makers on the financial and operational sides.

2.    Define project teams and stakeholders early on. Without this step you will end up going in circles to figure out who has what authority and influence.

3.    Identify the structure of the organization and where project team members fit in. This is critical to understanding the influencing factors behind the decision-making affecting your project.

4.    Understand that a project team is a microorganism of an organization. It feeds the organization with the required inputs that make it viable for the project team to deliver requested solutions.

5.    Establish strong leadership and a clear, single path direction from the project manager, with adequate support and authority levels to perform tasks.

6.    Personality, management style and values have to be similar or complementary among all project participants. In other words, the core project team interacts not only with itself, but project participants from other functional areas. The choice of individuals to connect to the project will either make or break the total project team.

7.    The project team has to be in sync with other team members provided by the functional teams, in a way that project resources can utilize existing organizational processes, systems and information to deliver project results without having to reinvent these same processes within the context of the project.

Handling the Mess Ups

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Picture yourself coming to work one morning only to find a scathing e-mail from a client, supervisor or stakeholder, detailing in painful, angry detail how you messed up. What do you do?
    First, keep calm. Then, consider these points:

1. Control your emotions: Chances are that emotion is at an all-time high so your natural instinct is fight or flight. But that will only make things worse. Fighting would be like adding fuel to a burning fire. Withdrawing would make the other party more frustrated at the situation--forcing them to act on emotion rather than logic. Instead, apologize as your opening response; this is a tool for diffusing the emotion and for keeping all parties sane.
2. Establish rapport: Clarify what misconception or misunderstanding your customer may have about your role as anything other than an advocate for them.
3. Express understanding: While it may be impossible to predict the future, provide a plan on what you will do to help mitigate surprises. Even though this time your only option may be to offer an apology, it still signals that someone cares.  
4. Ensure success: Promise what you will do and do what you promise. Nothing reassures your customer more than seeing for herself that you follow through on your plan--even if this means lots of caffeine, late nights and weekends.  
    Good luck!

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