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September 2010 Archives

Strategic Project Portfolio Gives China a Competitive Edge

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The Shanghai Expo 2010 isn't just about putting on a great show for 180 days. It embodies a large-scale program, especially in terms of the economic and political synergy it created for a developing country.

Like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the expo is a collection of projects whose collective purpose benefited the nation and fulfilled the government's strategic objectives.
The expo and the Olympics were part of a national portfolio aimed at achieving countrywide political objectives for boosting the economy. Both were planned and executed with the intent to cultivate high-tech skills and knowledge aimed at ensuring growth and competitiveness in the future.

For example, the Chinese government required every contractor carrying out individual projects to employ Chinese workers, including certified project managers. This has ensured that enough skilled workers necessary for national development have been trained.

By the end of 2009, the number of PMI certified project managers in China was 29,414  -- the second-largest number in the world.
The physical legacy these programs left is also notable.

Unlike games or exhibitions hosted by developed countries, both the expo and the Olympics were accompanied by massive infrastructure developments -- and not just the renovation or improvement of existing facilities. The Shanghai Expo re-developed areas in decline, and brought infrastructure and facilities to previously undeveloped areas.

Apart from the huge venues, China built airports, restaurants, hotels and 11 high-speed railways. Development plans also incorporated expanding and improving the service industry of Shanghai.

These projects, combined with the outcome of other national programs and projects, help advance the government's goal of growing and developing the national economy.

"Projects produce deliverables; programs output benefits so as to sustain, advance or achieve organizational objectives; while portfolios ensure the alignment of the diverse objectives and independence of programs and projects to organizational strategic objectives," according to page six of The Standard for Portfolio Management.

And that's exactly what the Shanghai Expo 2010 did.

Where Project Management Rigor Meets Flexibility

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In my last post, I described the challenges of maintaining project management rigor in an environment where people are primarily in creative service roles. It appears I hit a chord. A few of you have commented and want to know how I've handled the situation.

Well, first I will say that I believe we will never reach 100 percent compliance with the project management standards you'd expect to find at NASA or a construction site. Creative work is not an exact science and it requires some very non-linear thought and approaches. It can be very hard to pin down a repeatable formula for executing these kinds of projects.   

If there are specific tasks you cannot predict or that don't fit into a prescribed methodology, people tend to simply operate by intuition. The first thing you need to do is to look for the wins. Where in the process can you continue to provide rigor and discipline to help keep the project within boundaries, while avoiding the appearance of overly constraining your teams?

We have done this by creating as flexible a methodology as we can. As a whole, it closely follows the tenets set forth in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). The software development life cycle serves as a foundation: planning, discovery, design, build, test, implement, support, rinse and repeat.
The difference comes in our application. For any given project -- whether it's a marketing e-mail, interactive web banners, mobile applications or full site development -- we have fundamental requirements that don't change. All projects must have a timeline, for instance. And all projects must have a scope, a set of requirements approved and reviewed throughout to ensure we're on target.

Beyond that, it's the diner's choice: Does a four-week e-mail project require a formal matrix of approvers? Probably not, though it would help to have a short list of final approvers. Does an interactive banner need a content matrix or a formal technical architecture? It all depends on what the team needs.

How has your organization tailored its project management approach to account for the unique needs of its project teams?

Should PMOs Come With an Expiration Date?

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Projects and programs aren't for life. So as the home for project managers, projects and programs, should we not consider the project management office (PMO) in the same light?

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)--Fourth Edition contrasts projects with operational work by stating, "operations are ongoing and repetitive."

Without an end goal, the PMO will become purely a home for operational activity. And if the PMO is only seen as the home of process (methodology) and the body of control (policing) then it will become as exciting as working in -- well, I better not be specific -- but I'm sure you understand what I'm getting at.

I'm not saying PMOs should only be around for a very short time. I'm merely suggesting that because of the nature of what they contain, PMOs must continue to evolve and ensure they're really creating value.

Anyone leading a PMO has a responsibility to consider the end game. We typically know what it is that we are trying to improve, resolve, correct and direct -- but I don't believe that this should be done in a way that creates a permanent need for the PMO.

What we must avoid is the deliberate removal of a subset of project management skills and the replacement of these skills within a permanent overhead community: a PMO. In other words, a PMO should not regularly take on any of the project management tasks. For example, PMO leaders shouldn't say, "We'll look after the risk management and you, project manager, deal with the rest of the project manager's tasks."

It is said that operations end when they stop delivering value, and projects end when they do deliver value. The PMO should aim to end when there is no longer a need for it to exist because it has delivered the value. And that lack of need should be engineered into its strategy.

What do you think? Are PMOs meant to last forever?

Unrealistic Detail Only Sets You Up for Failure

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It's impossible to accurately predict the future. Yet, many project managers continue to try. They create schedules that implicitly state a task will be completed at 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, in four months. Or they predict that the total cost of their project will be precisely $10,986,547.55.

Yet these pseudo-accurate estimates based on detailed calculations are no more accurate than estimates made in more general terms and covered with an appropriate range indicator. Achieving a detailed estimate for an $11 million-plus project to within -5 percent to +10 percent indicates a very careful estimating process in a stable, well-understood environment.

Attaching a precise number calculated to the nearest cent only raises stakeholder expectations about the degree of accuracy possible. And that leads to perceived "failure" when the stakeholder's unrealistic expectations are not realized.

Similar problems arise if a project is scheduled in hours, and the work extends for more than a few days. Planning a project over several months on an hourly basis produces a mass of inaccurate data once you get beyond the first few days. And again, when the project fails to achieve the degree of control over the future implied by the excessively detailed schedule, it will seem like it failed.

Pragmatic estimating at an appropriate level of detail sets realistic expectations. But beware: Your stakeholders may already have unrealistic expectations of what is possible from previous projects that "failed."

Dealing with this issue requires skills in managing upward -- a topic for a future post.

I Wish I Had

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It's embarrassing how easily we slip back into former (bad) habits and how quickly we lose sight of our firmest resolutions. Perhaps if I go public once again with my resolutions, I can shame myself into adhering to them a little more faithfully.

Last March, I blogged about career success and mentioned some resolutions I had made after I had been laid off more than a year previously. I revealed having written a page of resolutions called, "I Wish I Had." Many people asked for a copy, so here it is, along with my renewed commitment to all it says.

I Wish I Had

I worked for my employer for exactly 24 years and 5 months when I was told that I was being laid off.   

My departure date was originally set for February 26. This was extended until June 30.
On June 30, I left as planned, signing the papers at 5:30 pm. At 8:30 pm, a different division obtained the final approvals they needed to offer me a job. They made the offer the following morning. I accepted.
From the time I was notified until the time when I actually departed, I had time to reflect. Often I thought,  "I wish I had done some things differently." 
Well, now I have that opportunity. I've decided to put those things in writing and I have resolved to do them, now that I have been given another chance.  
Therefore, I resolve to (more or less in order of priority): 
1.  Schedule time for my wife and kids as a first priority, not something I do when I get a free moment.
2.  Take better care of my health and fitness as a first priority.
3.  Take greater advantage of employment benefits.
4.  Create greater separation between work and personal life. 

  • Work more regular hours  
  • Protect meal times with the family  
  • Focus better so that I can do what I need to within reasonable hours
  • Keep work and personal stuff completely separate on my computers 

5.  Go to my employer's local facility more regularly to keep up with colleagues here.
6.  Back up my data frequently.
7.  Be better prepared to leave if this ever happens again
  • Cultivate my non-work network more carefully, especially in the Charlotte area.    
  • Have a very crisp resume that is always current. 
  • Keep my contacts lists (work-related and personal) current and complete. 

8.  Be more selective in what activities I agree to do outside of work.
9.  Be more selective in what extracurricular assignments I take on at work.
10.  Be more proactive in finding "my next job."
11.  Have some real mentors who take a genuine interest in my career.
12.  Have mentors outside of work.
13.  Care a lot about work, but not too much.
14.  Be very proactive in my employer's career development process.
15.  Blog. 

A Project Manager's Call to Action

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Apart from the challenge of letting go of my 18-year-old "baby," I was thrilled and proud to bring my son to the Rochester Institute of Technology, a university in Rochester, New York, USA last week. At orientation for first year students, James Miller, PhD, senior vice president for career services, invited the 2,650 new students gathered there to create an education and a life that included three critical elements: balance, passion and making a difference.

What better message could there be for these young people, and for the rest of us as well?

Ultimately, project managers are committed to making a difference. It doesn't matter whether the project is solving a problem or filling a need, building a bridge, or creating new software that will do a job better, faster and easier. The goal of project management is always to make things work and work well. And that makes a difference -- in people's lives, communities, schools and environment.

Passion is another element that we love to see in our profession. Who among us wouldn't prefer to work on a team with people who won't stop until things get done and get done right? These are the people who are profoundly connected to, and engaged in, the outcome of the project. They keep the big picture in mind, too, and know that what they do is valued, important and worthwhile.

And then there's balance, the ultimate key to self-actualization and satisfaction in life and in work. Giving back -- when many of us have so much -- is a key part of a balanced existence. I love the way more and more organizations in the United States are excusing their people from work to do community service. I'm also inspired by the way many project managers serve as mentors to those entering the profession or in the process of earning a Project Management Professional (PMP®) credential.

Balance, passion and making a difference. These three elements can and should be a project manager's call to action. What we wake up for, what we see as our purpose in life, and what we keep in front of us as a guidepost will continually challenge and inspire us -- as well as those around us. I hope my son will learn this as his first academic lesson. And may it last a lifetime.

Kanban Creates Buzz Among Agile Crowd

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Like its predecessors, the Agile 2010 conference will go down as a key event in agile project management. This year, I and 1,400 other attendees learned about everything from innovation to Kanban. The conference was held in Orlando, Florida, USA from 9-13 August.

Several sessions were particularly notable. Kenny Rubin, Laurie Williams and Mike Cohn shared the Comparative Agility assessment. Using data from 1,600 teams, users can see how their team's agility compares with others.

Ron Jeffries and Chet Hendrickson, famous as original extreme programmer proponents, made a case for a less dogmatic approach to methodologies and suggested using the hybrid best suited to your needs and circumstance.

For me, the most striking part of the conference was the large interest in Kanban, a project management methodology from Japan that emphasizes cycle time instead of utilization of resources. There were seven presentations on it -- all standing room only and overflowing into the halls.

In Kanban, work is purposefully limited so teams are forced to finish items to high quality before moving on. This can yield the same or more output, but reduces the risk that too many half-done items in progress won't get done. Work is tracked on a board with a few simple columns, such as waiting, working and testing done. Each item, or "ticket," is moved from column to column to reflect its state.  

Have you ever used Kanban methodology? 

Go In With a Game Plan

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You and your team must have a project objective in mind at all times. Everything should revolve around it: all the team's activities, status reports, meetings, impromptu discussions, research and engagements of other outside resources.

Having a clear and focused game plan can help. It's not a forced management plan that dictates the rules, but an agreement between all the members on how the team will work together. The plan is like glue that keeps the team together, focused on the key objectives of the project and makes the environment workable and pleasant.

The game plan is therefore an agreement between the team members on how they will maintain such alignment through:

Communication: The team agrees on the basics: method, frequency, media and levels of urgency. How will they update one another with the latest status? What upcoming milestones, changes or issues may affect the progress of the project? Are there any interpersonal issues team members may encounter?

Goal setting: The team defines the goals of the plan, whether it is being customer-centric or meeting deadlines. Having these goals at the forefront keeps the team focused throughout the project as a commitment to the team. The customer gets the added value due to the enhanced quality of the project delivery, and by extension, this leads to the overall success of the project completion.

Team play: This is the actual method of alignment, making sure the team has agreed on the parameters of the game and understands how it will relate to their day-to-day activities.

We're often put on a team based on our experience and technical expertise, rather than soft skills. We are simply expected to be professional and do what we can to work well together.

Having a game plan is simply a tool for all team members to reach an agreement on overall goals, without making assumptions or trying to force an outcome. It adds the missing layer that strengthens the team and adds assurance of alignment among all the team members.

When working in teams, what approach or method have you used as a contributing factor to reaching agreements and working well together?

Project Management in Nontraditional Environments

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Some people see advertising as primarily a creative business -- antithetical to the rigor and disciplines of project management. But the complexities of today's marketing mix are changing that perception.
Agencies and clients who spent the past century perfecting project management functions around print, broadcast and direct mail are being forced to readjust systems to the complexities and rapid-fire change of digital marketing.

Two worlds are colliding.

Digital teams view process as an essential science. The project manager is the team lead that everyone depends on for risk management, communication, client management, profitability and ultimate success.
But traditional advertising teams tend to see process in a different light. They look to their account and creative directors as the team leads. The project manager, while important, often takes on a more administrative role, ensuring resources are in place, schedules are communicated to vendors and paperwork is complete.

When I took on my first role as a manager of a project management office (PMO) for a large ad agency two years ago, the difference between these two worlds became vividly clear to me in a conversation with one of our creative directors:

Me: We need to translate the client brief into a statement of work so we have a specific record of what we'll be delivering.

Creative Director: We don't know what we'll be delivering yet.

Me: Then we should meet with the client to understand business requirements and document them for sign-off.

Creative Director: I know what the client wants, but I'm going to tell them what they need.

Me: Then how do I budget resources, document our success metrics and track the progress of the project?

Creative Director: That's your problem. We'll let you know when we get there.

It was an eye-opener, to be sure. But eventually I was able to adjust my view of what the team was trying to achieve. I set a baseline process to create a flexible methodology that would allow us to pull in elements that were appropriate, and not commit time to requirements that didn't lend a lot of value.

Some of these changes included a flexible, scalable methodology that allowed teams to pull in elements relevant to their process. This allowed them to:

  • Maintain efficiency while ensuring consistency across the agency
  • Reinforce the "triangle of truth" (good, fast, cheap) in the scoping process to ensure profitability
  • Implement grassroots efforts to reinforce the importance of maintaining rigor in the process through tactics like "Lunch and Learn" sessions to discuss our process and the risks inherent in not following it.
Have you ever been in a situation like this? What have you done to maintain rigor in your environment when the project at hand did not readily lend itself to the traditional project management processes?

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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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