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February 2011 Archives

Can Project Management Maturity Fuel Great Ideas?

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My last post discussed how project portfolio management helps organizations achieve their objectives. Now I want to discuss how such success is possible.

Achieving project management objectives relies on the maturity of project management understanding within an organization. It's not about the skills of the individual project manager. Rather it's about the organization's understanding of what is possible with project management.

Apple is one organization making effective use of such maturity. The company has a reputation for delivering quality products by combining superior design with technology -- not focusing solely on innovation.

With the iPhone and other iOS products, Apple gained a larger share of the market -- not by sacrificing its distinction as an organization, but by transforming it.

Apple's product designers balance technology with humanity. While designers are both rewarded and pushed into continually brainstorming, researching and testing new ideas, the focus is on usability and simplicity.

Apple's project teams worked out a way to "make the magic happen" through project management maturity.

Organizational project management coupled with Apple's creative environment paved the way for achieving project successes and organizational objectives.
The project to develop the iPhone grew from the iPod; the App Store grew out of the opportunities the iPhone provided. Their maturity was not only due to Apple's management skills, but grew from developing its own project management methods.

Apple's strategy, fueled by its maturity, allowed these and other projects in the company's portfolio, to be managed with a greater chance of success than its competitors.

As with all well-run organizations, project management maturity facilitates the implementation of ideas.

What do you think? Does project management maturity spark great creativity?

Editor's note: See more on project management maturity.

Passive Versus Active Learning

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Most project management training is based primarily on passive learning: listening to an instructor, looking at slides or reading, for example. This kind of traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning.
Active learning, on the other hand, puts the responsibility on the student. Whether in class discussions or written exercises, they're compelled to read, speak, listen and think.

One of the most powerful active learning models is experiential learning. Participants find meaning in experience -- learning through reflection and doing. As ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius once said: "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand."

Let's say you want to teach the importance of planning before executing, for example. Instead of just explaining it, try this lesson in experiential learning. Give a bag of LEGO parts -- the toy building bricks --  to a group of students and ask them to build a car in five minutes. When the time is up, show a slide with the project phases: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing. Then ask them to identify which phase applied to which part of building the car.
I challenge you to consider experiential learning programs for project managers. They observe and evaluate the effects of a situation as they participate -- and then apply this learning on actual projects.
Have you tried experiential learning? What are the pros and cons over passive learning?

Is Your Project Among the Best of the Best?

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There's no shortage of project failures in the news. So it's especially important to recognize the excellence, innovation and hard work that go into completing a successful project. There's no better way to do so than by nominating your project for the coveted PMI Project of the Year Award.

Established in 1989, the award is among the most prestigious honors in the project management profession. But you must act quickly -- nominations for the 2011 PMI Project of the Year must be received by Tuesday, 1 March 2011.

PMI encourages nominations for projects from around the world, regardless of size or industry. The winner will be announced in October at PMI® Global Congress 2011--North America in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA.

Last year The National Ignition Facility Project submitted by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, USA, took top honors. The finalists included the Dallas Cowboys Stadium Project, built for the U.S. football team in Texas and the Norton Brownsboro Hospital Project in Kentucky, USA.

Receiving a professional award will enhance your résumé or CV and your career prospects. And Project of the Year is just one of many ways to showcase your successes -- you can also join in the bid for other 2011 PMI Professional Awards.

Excellence in project management can't be celebrated without your help. All of the awards require your nominations for a person, project, organization, training product or literature.

The nomination deadline for other PMI Professional Awards is 1 April 2011. Submissions for the 2011 PMI Eric Jenett Project Management Excellence Award and the PMI Distinguished Project Award are accepted throughout the year.

Have you submitted your nomination for a PMI award yet?

Should Failure Be Part of Your Career Plan?

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Failure is a hard word.

But we really can't know our limits if we don't sometimes test them.

So how do we reconcile the fact that we may "fail" sometimes and still be successful practitioners?

I can't say that every project I've ever managed has been a complete success. Not all of them have been delivered to full scope, on time and within budget. Nevertheless, I'm happy with my career and believe I'm a successful project manager.

Clearly, there's more to career success than simply stringing together a run of successful projects.  I don't know anyone who has done so. (And if I did, I would wonder if they might consider taking on a more challenging project next time.)

There's a component of success that has to do with achievement and pushing ourselves beyond personal limitations. Not everyone is so forgiving of our project failures, but we must see the failures in the context of personal growth and our overall career.

Career success is in the eye of the beholder.

Whether or not we consider ourselves successful has to do in part with how we react when our projects fall short of complete success.

 If we emerge from project failure smarter, wiser, stronger, better -- or just humbler from the experience -- we are prepared to achieve a greater level of success.

It's scary, but I think in the end we will judge ourselves more harshly if we don't explore and extend our limits than if we stay comfortably within them.

Net: Fail to succeed.

What do you think? Can failure eventually lend itself to career success?

WBS and Schedule Network Diagrams: Unsung Heroes of Project Management

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If I asked you how to bake a cake, you'd probably tell me to mix the ingredients in a bowl, pour the batter into a tin and bake until golden brown. But that's a deceptively simple answer for what is actually a multi-tiered process.

In project management, you must detail every step needed to get the project done and the precise order in which to complete them.

New project managers may not be used to doing things this way. Work breakdown structures (WBS) and schedule network diagrams can help them in forming a project management plan.

A WBS illustrates all of the work that needs to get done to accomplish the objectives of the project, in order of importance. To create a WBS, you subdivide project elements into manageable components and keep breaking them down until you reach the work package level.

A schedule network diagram visually depicts of how all the tasks in your schedule string together. While the WBS shows you how many tasks you have to accomplish, the schedule network diagram shows the order those tasks need to happen.

Most tasks people perform on a daily basis aren't explicitly dependent on the order in which they occur. And when order does matter, we usually engage in that activity naturally.

Our natural ability to skip details and abridge processes can save us time in everyday life. But this "normal" behavior could lead to disaster on a project where some tasks must precede or succeed others. Project managers might lose an opportunity to shorten schedules or see which tasks can run in parallel, for example.
Do you use a WBS or schedule network diagram in your projects?

An Agile Team's Recipe for Success

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In my experience coaching teams, I've found that some stand out in terms of productivity.

Cathy Baker, PMP, is the certified ScrumMaster for one of my favorite agile teams. She has managed projects for 11 years, currently in the healthcare industry. Her team is a good example of a group that has learned from practical experience.

I interviewed Ms. Baker to get her take on how her team improved efficiency and quality.

Your team seems to really 'get' agile. What do you feel are the key success factors for your team?  

Ms. Baker: Strict adherence was certainly one. Rather than trying to bend the rules we were learning, we followed the practices by the book at first. We are gatekeepers of the process with each other. It is not me, the ScrumMaster, doing it. The whole team monitors the process. They challenge each other with questions like, "Is that what we should be doing?"

So you didn't stray from the agile books?

Ms. Baker: After we became fluent in agile, we changed our stand-up meeting to go task by task instead of person by person. Good retrospectives were also a key factor. Creative ideas helped us take agile beyond where we started and made it a custom fit for our team.

So your team didn't start out as agile experts?
Ms. Baker: Oh, no. They weren't born that way. They were tried and true waterfall folks. They were used to heavy plans that left little flexibility for change. Most of them had 15-plus years experience each using waterfall methodologies.

What prompted you to go agile?
Ms. Baker: Management wanted development to go faster and to produce more in less time.

Was there resistance to agile at first?

Ms. Baker: Yes. We heard "This is not going to work," "We'll be back to waterfall in six months," "Why are they making us do this?" "This is just a fad that's going to pass."

What benefits do you find using agile?

Ms. Baker: Agile is definitely more fun because we are so self-organized. We are more efficient and have moderately increased our quality of projects. We have such high buy-in among the team now; people get more and more out of the process as time goes on.

I notice you use a physical taskboard to track tasks?
Ms. Baker: It works. It's clear. 'If it isn't broke, don't fix it.' Of course, the taskboard has been a handicap with the one team member who meets with us by phone, but she can see a related spreadsheet.
I do feel like one of our reasons for success is because all but one of us are located in the same place. Most members have worked on the same team together and average eight years of experience. There is a lot of respect.

Thanks, Cathy for sharing your recipes for success: adherence, retrospectives, taskboards and self-organization.

Successful Project Review Meetings

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I recently attended one of the most focused and efficient project review meetings I've ever been to. It was conducted as a workshop to review the project recommendations proposed to the team. I wanted to share why I thought it worked so well.

Picture this: There was a workshop organizer, who facilitated the meeting. We sat in a large room that could seat about 10-12 people. There were representatives from various suppliers. It was quiet and we were the only ones generating conversations in that space. No cell phones were allowed.

The rules for the review, which were developed and distributed beforehand by the organizer, outlined how we would share our ideas, record decisions and deal with issues that arose outside of the agenda. All participants were reminded that on-the-spot decision-making was required.

The purpose and the goal of the review were clarified. All participants had to either agree or disagree with each decision. If there was a disagreement, a discussion took place to clarify the requirements and bridge the gap to reach a final decision.

Having senior decision-makers present allowed us to get through all the points with velocity. We were able to not only review the proposed changes, but also make policy decisions on the spot and discuss relevant details without doubts or assumptions. We recorded anything that needed further work, like the identified gaps, as actions.

Project teams spend many hours in project meetings, especially when teams are not well connected in purpose, goals and operating as a group. As a result, these teams end up having multiple meetings before generating decisions. When sub teams within a project have their own meetings to work out their portion of a solution in a vacuum, for example, it's easy to spend a portion of a project time unproductively, without reaching important decisions.

In general, I find that many meetings are often not as productive as they could ultimately be. They take place more frequently than this type of a focused workshop. What can you take away from this? Before the meeting or workshop consider setting expectations, be clear on the rules and format, and have each participant agree on how the meeting or workshop is going to be structured and what is expected from each and every one of the participants.

What do you think is essential for a successful project solution or review meeting?

Editor's Note: Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, Daniel Poneman, also discusses a successful approach to project review meetings in the final portion of his February 2011 podcast for PM Network® magazine.

What Elevators Can Teach Us About Project Management

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People in elevators fall into two broad groups: One group walks into the car, pushes the button and waits for the control system to do its job. The second group has what I call Advanced Button Pushing Syndrome (ABPS). They believe that the more they push the buttons, the faster the elevator will move.

Of course, second and subsequent button pushes add no value at all, but when an elevator arrives after someone pushed the button six times, they truly believe it made a difference. Some people need to feel in control, even if they aren't.

ABPS can be found in the workplace, too.

When a project is running behind schedule or over budget, it's the equivalent of a slow responding elevator.

Project managers with ABPS may demand additional meetings or more frequent reports from the project team. Time and money could be better spent working on the project deliverables, but these resources are diverted to placate the manager's need for control --to the detriment of the project.  

Unfortunately, when the project is eventually delivered, the project manager believes all of the extra reports and meetings helped achieve the outcome. But correlation is not the same as causation. Unfortunately, there is no easy way of measuring how much sooner the project would have finished if the resources had not been diverted by the manager's ABPS.

This isn't a clear-cut situation. It's easy to go from requesting useful information that will help inform decisions to a situation where the requested reports and meetings are actually counterproductive.

The next time you are considering requesting more reports or extra meetings, think about ABPS. Will the diversion from the project's work be constructive or detrimental?

Do you know of project managers who suffer from ABPS in the workplace? How did it affect the project outcome?

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