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I recently saw a presentation from an advertising agency that claimed it would be able to do what no other company had: It had figured out how to deliver complex projects (in comparison
to other digital advertising projects) inexpensively, on spec and faster than any other firm in the pitch.  It was more of a tag line, so there was little by way of explanation behind the claim.

I held my tongue during the formal pitch, but made a point to ask the presenter a few questions after the meeting. Primarily, I wanted to know if he had heard of the triple constraint. The "iron triangle" as some refer to it, defines three pillars: cost, scope and time. It asserts that you have to prioritize the three with an understanding that trying to have all of them at the same time compromises quality.

Some assert that several additional factors come into play when discussing a project's success. I agree with this, but I disagree with removing the triple constraint model from training, as I believe it's such an easy concept to teach, understand and enforce.

My confidence in the triple constraint made it hard for me to believe that anyone had truly convinced themselves they could beat what is, essentially, physics. But sure enough, I got a very firm response from the organization: "We are able to deliver this service because we take an agile approach in our production processes, making us more efficient and thus able to deliver more value for the customer."

Confused, I pressed a little further.

"As I understand it, agile as a methodology does not allow you to overcome the basic physics outlined in the triple constraint. Agile simply prioritizes the tradeoff as one of scope rather than time or quality," I said.

Of course, it wasn't a discussion I was going to win in this setting. Looking around, I saw that the speaker's entire management team had bought into the theory and were smiling proudly at their triumph. I let it go. But it struck me how much confusion still seems to be out there around the triple constraint and the ability of newer methodologies such as agile to overcome it.

How many of you have had your management tell you to explore agile as a way to get your current project work done faster without sacrificing any of the three pillars? And how many of you still use the triple constraint to help you explain the basics physics around project execution?

New to the Game? Go Back to the Basics

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I remember the first time I went to a supermarket in my new neighborhood. I felt a small sense of familiarity -- yet completely out of place. When I pushed forward to an aisle I assumed would have what I was looking for, I was shocked to find my product wasn't there. I was in a new world.
Many new project managers get the same feeling when they start on the job. You sit at your desk and wonder where to even begin. You've organized the office holiday party. You've planned the family vacation. Yet the scale of project management you're tasked with now is much more rigorous.

You've been here before in a sense, but not like this. Some of us had never been in leadership positions before the call to manage a project came along. Some of us have never managed other people or someone else's money. More than some of us have never formally run a project.
Project managers just starting out or with only a few years of experience may regularly feel out of place in this world of methodologies, frameworks and processes.

There are dozens of new terms to learn and discussion about which method is the best. The key is to not let the unfamiliarity overwhelm you. If you focus on what you know -- even in the face of all that you may not know -- you'll be on much surer footing as you move forward.

Go back to the basics: You know how to listen, observe and ask questions. You know how to speak to people. You know how to get information and keep that information handy and organized. You may not know what to plug into (BAC - EV) ÷ (BAC - AC) = TCPI or even what any of those letters mean. But until you find out, rely on what you do know.

Soon enough you'll be making your way around a project with ease and, in time, the unfamiliarity will start to fade. And you'll feel right at home in your new world.

Tools for Distributed Teams

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It's rare to find project teams that are collocated anymore, including agile teams. People are increasingly working from home, remote locations or overseas.

Traditional communication tools like teleconference or e-mail are often insufficient due to a lack of a sense of presence. But a new generation of tools offers better possibilities for teamwork. These new tools aim to provide effective communication and help remote agile teams by simulating a visual environment.

: Tools such as Sococo show the layout of an office floor and represent people by dots.  Each team member gets an office. When people visit each other in the same room, voice, audio as well as text messages are limited to that room to indicate who is speaking with whom. They can also share screens easily.

2.5-D: Some tools show static 3-D representations of a space. The pictures do not move, but participants feel like they are at a live event. They can navigate to rooms to attend events of interest and gather with people of similar interest in chat rooms. Unisfair and On24 are examples of this, and have been used effectively for trade shows.

3-D: The next class of tools uses an avatar of each team member in a 3-D space. But many have different features that allow different uses. Most use a stereo sound that fades with distance to highlight who is speaking by reducing the volume of their voice according to distance.

Venuegen is designed to get people running quickly and to show body language through common gestures. A variety of settings can be chosen, ranging from an office, war-room, classroom or trade floor. Each contains screens to show presentations, web pages, documents, video and images.  

Teleplace extends this model by allowing team members to post notes on the wall, display documents, and also to co-edit spreadsheets simultaneously in 3-D breakout rooms. This platform is popular with government teams for training and simulation. Teleplace and graphically rich environments based on the Unity3d toolkit allow importing of professionally created models and settings.
3-D programmable:  some platforms allow users to create custom objects with easier modeling tools, or even script interactive behavior. Opensim based environments are popular with universities, and platforms such as the Unity3d toolkit support more advanced programming.

No matter which tool agile teams use, many of these platforms create engaging venues for training and collaboration. Seeing visual representations of yourself, others, documents and data allows new ways to erase the distance between today's dispersed teams.

Pictured: A sample screenshot from the Sococo tool.

The views expressed within the PMI Voices on Project Management blog are contributed from external sources and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of PMI.

Beyond Superficial Networking

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In a previous post, I wrote about sincere questions as the most powerful tool for learning about a person. Oftentimes, we stop asking questions too soon. After a few superficial inquiries, we don't start seeing the affinities, so we don't dig deeper. This is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Think in terms of layers. The most superficial questions are in the first layer: Where are you from? Where do you work? Where do you live?
First-layer questions aren't usually enough to help you find the leads to uncover a real likeness. It's the follow-up questions that allow you to penetrate the next layer. I've found that if you can "mine" a line of questioning down about six layers deep, you will surely strike gold.

If you ask someone where they're from, for example, and they say, "Little Rock, Arkansas, USA," you might think, "I have never been there, so we have nothing in common." You might then move on to another superficial question or end the conversation completely.

Or, you could reply, "Isn't former U.S. president Bill Clinton from Little Rock?" This might induce a response like, "Actually, he moved there after he became attorney general, but I recently saw him speak at the PMI® Global Congress." Ah ha! You've struck gold. Now you can ask more questions. "You were at the PMI congress? So was I. What did you think of former President Clinton as a speaker? Did you see any other presentations you liked?"
By eliciting the simple fact that this person had been at congress, you opened up many more possibilities for deeper questioning. Any of these could be a potential source of further questions.

Try it. With practice, you'll start to notice a spectacular phenomenon. You will become quite skilled at sensing where the "gold" lies. And you'll begin to discover you have affinities with practically everybody.

Making the Right Call

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Making decisions is a central part of any project management role, but some decisions are tougher to make than others.

Problems have one right answer that can be reached by analyzing the information you have.

Dilemmas don't have one right answer. Any solution will be at least partially wrong, unfair or harmful to some stakeholders. But not making a decision will be harmful to all stakeholders. The challenge is to minimize the damage and, occasionally, to optimize the benefit.

Mysteries are often hidden within too much information. Understanding them is closely aligned to the ideas contained in complexity theory and risk management. Accepting your inability to know the answer to a mystery is critical: Make the best decision based on the limited information available while staying prepared for surprises.

Puzzles can often be resolved through measurement and research. Gather the right information and skills, and you reduce a puzzle to a problem and can then calculate the optimum answer. If there's insufficient time to gather and analyze all of the necessary information, though, you may be forced to deal with the decision as a mystery,

When confronted with a difficult decision, recognize the differences between the types of possible decisions and then use the best approach to reach your conclusion. Many issues around decision making stem from a false hope that we just need a little more information to reduce a complex decision to a problem with just one right answer. Yet in many cases, this is just not possible.

All project managers make decisions. The difference between good project managers and great ones is the percentage of decisions they get right.

Lessons Learned: The Key to Project Success

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What lessons do we learn from projects? What do we look for from the lessons, both as individuals and organizations? What value do lessons learned deliver in future projects?

Lessons that we choose to learn from our projects are based on the purpose that is set for the project. Purpose is the key. In the project postmortem review, we need to focus on what was or wasn't met as a goal. What worked or didn't work in the use of the methodology and resources? What worked and didn't work within the project team and its members?

To understand what can be improved on a project, it's essential to always look at the original goal or objective, the initial assumptions and the project management plan. Looking solely at the end result with a narrow view of the cause-and-effect elements can lead to a long report with no actionable improvements to positively impact the organization's future.

A lessons-learned review is effective based on the questions asked about the project results, the purpose for the postmortem and the implementation of the review findings into the organization. An effectual review could be the key factor to the success of future projects and organizational improvements.

How do you successfully use a lessons-learned review?

PMOs Aren't Just for Project Managers

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The project management office (PMO) is one of the fastest-growing concepts in project management today, but it's not the only answer.

The PMO was born to aid the project manager. Surely then, the PMO (and, as a direct result, you) would benefit if there were a parallel organization for the technical managers, consultants, architects, design specialists, gurus of the world of application configuration and so on.

The PMO is not and should not be an isolated body talking only to the project managers. It should be one of many business units leading the delivery of company strategy.

Align the PMO to a single technical body, no matter what it is, and then align the two through a common process or methodology.

Think about your own in-house project methodology for a moment. Is it just for project managers or does it extend to integrate the technical tasks? Does it recognize the non-project management roles and responsibilities? Does it involve the technical deliveries and control mechanisms? It should.

If you have a common method, have you trained each team in a way that they both respect and understand each other's skills and duties? Have you done so in a way that ensures that the highest level of communication? You should.

When your business assesses the value, benefit and simply whether a new project should go ahead at all, it won't just be the project manager's view that gets the budget approved, will it? So align the technical gurus and the project gurus as one to ensure that the lowest risk and highest ROI projects are commissioned.

Perhaps the future is the perfect pairing of a PMO with a TMO -- a technical management office. It may be that the TMO is formed as a separate entity but closely works alongside the existing PMO -- or even that the PMO embraces and includes the TMO function.

The specifics of how a PMO or TMO relationship would take shape depend on what's best for your own organization, but perhaps it is the future.

What do you think?

In Celebration of Project Managers

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One of the attendees at the Fifth PMI National Congress held recently in Brazil said something that really resonated with me: "I want people on my team who truly believe in the project." That statement is so simple and yet so elegant. It made me think of the project that my company is working on now: International Project Management Day 2010.

A senior consultant at IIL, Frank P. Saladis, PMP, created the idea for this day of recognition and acknowledgment of project managers worldwide.

Now in its seventh year, the event brings together project management thought-leaders in a virtual conference accessible to anyone and everyone around the world.

Gregory Balestrero, president and CEO of PMI, and Harold Kerzner, PhD, will each deliver a keynote address. The event launches on 4 November, and attendees can earn up to 11 free professional development units (PDUs) for participating. There will also be a virtual recognition booth where you can name people you think are great project managers.

This project is a joy, but often a challenge, for all of us to pull together and make it happen. We do it to help realize the goal and intention of the special day: to make sure that all of you are being celebrated. It's certainly a project that every one of us truly believes in and is proud to be a part of.

Head over now -- it's not too late for you to join in the celebration. If you can't make it, the content will be up for three months and you can still earn those precious (and price-less) PDUs.

Can Agile Work in a Consulting Structure?

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I recently attended my first PMI global congress and was struck by how many of the ideas presented confirmed my current thinking. I also learned new techniques and angles to consider for the issues I face daily in a non-traditional project management environment.

In John Stenbeck's session, "Agile PM Mastery in 60 Minutes, Guaranteed!" he had a fantastic way of boiling down the essentials and explaining them in a way that traditionally trained project managers easily understand. 

Many agile proponents will tell you that the methodology will work within almost any environment that traditional waterfall methodologies will fit. In fact, there's one comment on my previous post suggesting that the issues that I've described -- like needing faster time to market and the ability to address fluid requirement -- would be addressed by implementing agile.
I see a big gap, though: staffing. Agile works best when you have a dedicated team for the life of the project -- or at least the sprint.
But many "consulting-structured" organizations rely on their ability to maximize cost benefits by pooling resources. This means assigning one person to two or more projects at a time. That strikes me as a big issue for an agile team structure.

So, in a non-traditional environment with team members who aren't always dedicated to one project, what are your options in terms of attempting to implement agile?  

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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