Tag Archives: new

Practice Project Management at home

As a Mom, it is important to know exactly where everyone is at any given time, how long they are going to be there, and what they are doing while they are there.? Other than that, it’s pretty simple.

As a Project Manager, it is important to know exactly what task each project resource is working on?at any given time, how long they will be working on?that task?, what they are doing and why they are doing it.? Other than that, it’s pretty simple.

A Mom is?the “boss” of the house.? They make the rules as they go along and everyone just does what they are told.? If they decide to change the process, they don’t need to clear it with anyone, they just announce that expectations have changed, then everyone complies with the new rules.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this actually worked?? But, that is not the case.? A Mom/Project Manager must earn the respect of their team whether the team is their family at home or their colleagues at work.? The first step in earning respect is giving respect.? When you respect the team, they will respect you.

Flickr Attribution:  cambodia4kidsorg

Flickr Attribution: cambodia4kidsorg

When Mom decides to change the rules, she should get input from her team (the children) before imposing her new rules.? This doesn’t mean that the children get to make the rules, but by feeling that they are a part of the process, they will embrace the upcoming changes and they will be more willing to adhere to them.? Likewise, a Project Manager should seek input from their team before making any process changes.

Exactly how should a Project Manager introduce a process change?? First, they need to examine the existing process to determine where and if a change is actually needed.? Take the time to map out the current process and share it with the team.? If the process was not previously documented, the team may not have fully understood what was required of them.? This may solve the process issue at hand.

Once the process has been documented and shared with the team, ask for feedback on where the team feels there are inefficiencies or room for improvement.? The team may be doing more or less work than is required at any point in the process.? Understanding and following the now clarified process may solve the issue at hand.

When the current process has been documented, reviewed and discussed, try it for a few weeks before examining where changes should be implemented.

If a change is required, the next step is to brainstorm with the team on areas for improvement.? This will satisfy two requirements for change: 1) The team becomes engaged and ready to accept a change ; 2) The Project Manager is not on their own to create the new process.

In extreme cases, a Change Management consultant should be brought in to facilitate the process change.

We are operating in a world where change is the new normal.? To succeed, we need to manage change in a way that people who are adverse to it, will embrace it.

Fortunately for the Mom, children are very adapable and will readily accept of change; however, the Project Manager is usually dealing with adults who are not as open to following the “new” rules.? By soliciting input from the team, everyone will feel that they had a part in creating the new process thereby motivating them to embrace it.

Point and Shoot Project Management

My day job entails helping companies implement new project management software. Of all the companies I have worked with, including a number of household names, I would estimate that less than 5% of the managers I work with have any formal project management training. Most managers have project management training by experience in the trenches. Unfortunately, most never leave the trenches and get a better view and experience of project management. It is my experience that while there are many project managers, there are few excellent ones.

About ten years ago, I decided I wanted to learn to be a real photographer. I was tired of the point and shoot experience where more luck than skill was involved in the success of the picture. However, I quickly learned that becoming a serious photographer was quite the expensive undertaking. Besides the expense of upgrading to a professional camera, I was lacking training on how to actually use the machine. Not to mention, the cost of additional equipment ranging from lenses to tripods, and bags to filters. Lastly, the cost of film and development was high. These all became a large barrier to becoming the photographer I wanted to be. Being a college student at the time, I could not really afford to learn photography at a satisfactory pace.

However, over the past few years, new technology has largely reduced the barrier to entry and photography is now a hobby for the masses. In fact, my ability to take endless pictures without film and development costs along with the new built-in tools of my newest camera provides me the ability to progress rapidly. In many ways I can also make up for my mistakes using software and other photography tricks. I am no longer in the gloomy trenches of poor photography, but find encouragement and joy in my success.

I have observed that project management as a whole has paralleled somewhat the changes we have witnessed in photography. Project management also has been a skill for the few, with the barrier to entry being quite high. However, people have still been required to manage projects. Now, similar to photography, we are seeing a boom in technology that is leveling the playing field and giving opportunities for the average manager to be an excellent manager. From new software that is principle based and collaborative to online blogs, courses, books, and other excellent resources, project management is more accessible than ever.

The key to this change from mediocrity to excellence is not simply technology, however. No technology is by itself enough to make a manager excellent. Like photography, the barrier to entry is lowered, but the effort to take advantage of it still requires an investment.

Point and shoot project management just isn?t sufficient. Project managers need to learn the basic principles and best practices for project management. Many, if not most, of these principles are methodology-independent and can be learned for free or low cost through online resources, books, or even courses. The project management tools now available do not require a degree in project management or a PMP. They do, however, require a basic understanding of project management.

Most managers have grown up learning point and shoot project management. Trial and error project management is far too expensive, but it continues to be the most dominant. Organizations and individuals need to put forth the investment to learn. The lower barrier to entry should encourage us all to take project management to the masses!

The New Face of pmStudent.com

There is a new design to pmStudent now in place.? As I type this post, I am getting people from all over the world who are interested in contributing to pmStudent on an “as I can” basis.

These are veterans, students, new project managers, business analysts, and everything in between.? My goal is to get as many people as possible, and most will only post one or a few times a month.? I plan to use a queuing system to structure the content from multiple authors in a consistent manner and have a reliable daily dose of pmStudent coming your way.

If you haven’t yet contacted me about writing for pmStudent, please do so now! My email address is [email protected]? Remember, I’m looking for students who have never written a blog post to veterans with decades of experience.? I hope this will turn into an educational community-driven blog where newbies throw out their theories, veterans share lessons learned, and all other types of interaction that will increase the zeitgeist of project management knowledge.

A snapshot of the new site design is below.? I will definitely be fine-tuning it as we move along, but I wanted to get it out there (I’m more of an iterative guy, anyway!)? I am using the Visionary WordPress theme and have migrated from the blogger hosted platform to hosting my own WordPress blog at midPhase.? (Excellent 1-click WordPress install!)? I really like the more visual layout and “landing page” style.? I hope you do too!

I have had a few issues with getting the domains pointed correctly, etc. so please bear with me if you’ve experienced any problems.? Thanks!


project management basics

Bringing Support Activity into Portfolio Management

In an article at [email protected], Tom Mochal discusses how enhancement work not directly related to a project should be added to the managed portfolio. This way, the business can ensure that the dollars are being spent in the most effective way on these non-project activities.

I agree with what Tom is saying. A point I’d like to add is that value judgment is in the eye of the beholder, and incentives are different for a portfolio manager than they are for a developer or department. The “enhancement” being worked on by a few individuals may take a lot of effort, but is the work being subjected to cost-benefit analysis beforehand? If it is not being managed with the rest of the portfolio, maybe not.

For instance, a developer may have a great idea about migrating an internal support application from one platform to another. There are many benefits of doing so, it will be faster and he can also make it look nicer while he’s at it.

But what if it works great just the way it is? What if the changes will create dissatisfaction for the users within the company? What if the business processes already have slack time for the application because the user is doing something else, and the increased speed will not result in overall improvement because it’s not the bottleneck in the first place?

These are questions a portfolio manager may want answered. A department head or manager may be more concerned about holding on to their budget than doing ROI analysis with all of these support activities. It’s all about incentives. The department head may be able to say we “doubled the application speed” and that looks great on a quarterly report.

Bringing some of these decisions into a portfolio with defined projects would certainly help ensure that the incentives of the decision-maker is more in line with the incentives of the business as a whole.


project management basics

Put Off Procrastination


The student syndrome is alive and well. I see it all around me, and I am no less guilty than any other.

Why do we put everything off until the last minute? Especially the important things?

I’ve recently read The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss, which has helped heighten my sensitivity to this phenomenon going on all around us.

Timothy explains in the book (and I agree) how many people fill their days up with “busy work” that takes real effort and activity, but delivers little value. Part of this is postponing those things that really add value. Usually these are the difficult tasks, which is why they are put off. It’s like subconsciously sticking our heads in the sand of minutia and busy work.

I have a renewed focus on my goal to increase productivity. I have become pretty good at being organized, which has helped. This new insight from Ferriss has helped me see the benefit of elimination, which means cutting out all the busy work that doesn’t really add much value. Instead, I plan to focus on the 20% of activities that deliver 80% of the potential value I can provide.

The same goes with my project work and writing activities. When I take a look at 50 project deliverables due, I can start to see how only about 10 of them add 80% of the value. Thus, I should focus on those top 10 and leave the ones that provide less value for later. If bottom 10-value item doesn’t get done, it will likely be much less severe than a top 10-value item. (Note that there is no necessary correlation between the value added for a deliverable and the actual cost of completing it! Interesting….)

Thanks Timothy, for showing us again that almost everything applies to project management, and project management applies to almost everything.


project management basics

Valuing Time as a Business Resource – Interview with Curt Finch

All Your Money Won't Another Minute Buy

All Your Money Won

I recently read a new book by Curt Finch, CEO of Journyx, Inc. titled “All Your Money Won’t Another Minute Buy – Valuing Time as a Business Resource.” I have always been a student of time management, so I was delighted with the opportunity to interview Curt about the book. Please enjoy the interview below, and if you like what you see, feel free to purchase the book through the PM Bookstore.

Josh: In chapter 3, “Managing Project Risk”, you discuss time tracking as a tool for project risk management. To measure risk in terms of potential cost or schedule overruns, how can time tracking software most effectively be used for early detection of risk? How can the data be used to help formulate strategies to deal with the risks identified?

Curt: Well, the most obvious thing is that tracking time on projects (which is less common than you might

Curt Finch

Curt Finch

think in companies of all sizes) gives you an early warning system for when things are going to overrun. Projects are generally divided into phases or tasks, and if the early tasks are running longer than your initial estimates indicate they should, later phases will often run longer as well. It is very rare that people can “catch up” in the later phases; the idea of compressing later phases is usually wishful thinking. If you have a five phase project estimated at 100 hours per phase and the first phase runs to 150 hours, it’s time to go ahead and push out the schedule, add resources, or whatever else you need to do if on-time delivery is important.

Josh: In chapter 4, “Instituting a Vacation Policy”, you discuss the importance of managing PTO wisely. I agree on the points that (1) employees who leave shouldn’t be paid out accrued PTO and (2) PTO should and can be more generous when you are managing time well. What are your views on policies relating to how far in advance time off is scheduled, and the impact on projects/coverage?

Curt: You know, I don’t have a good answer for that. I’ve seen managers of critical projects demand that people take no vacation for a while until the project is hitting its stride again. In a world of knowledge workers where everyone is a volunteer because other employment options are available, this can cause your very best people to leave. Asking workers to voluntarily schedule vacation at least a month or two in advance – maybe asking that longer vacations require longer lead times – seems like a reasonable request that would enable better planning. Automated systems like those from Journyx can enable you to monitor or even enforce such behaviors.

People need time off. The company has needs too. I think that balance is required in this as in all things.

Josh: In chapter 7, “More with Less: The Build vs. Buy Decision”, you discuss this choice specifically in terms of choosing an accounting platform. A critical problem I see with many companies is one they don’t even know they have, that better time management can reveal and remedy. Setting the choice of software in this case aside, managers have to make build vs. buy decisions daily, and they err on the build side in my experience. Why? I think it’s because they don’t understand the value of their employees’ time enough to make an informed decision. People tend to underestimate the amount of work involved with new projects that are outside their core competencies. Please provide your thoughts on the application of good time management to the daily build vs. buy decisions being made by companies. A contrast between a real-world example of a company who is not managing their time well versus someone who is would be excellent.

Curt: I have seen the same behaviors you mentioned. I think they are caused by several factors:

? Employees are seen as free. Employers think, “Well, I have these guys on staff and I’m paying them anyway so I’ll just make them build it.”
? Management massively underestimates the ongoing support and maintenance cost of automated systems. Software breaks all the time, even when you haven’t changed anything. Windows ships a patch that breaks you or a slight change in usage patterns reveals a bug that was always there. And the guy who wrote your in-house system has already moved on by then. In terms of cost, many also underestimate requirements gathering, testing, documentation, and to a lesser degree, the design and creation of the software in the first place.
? Budgets for people and budgets for software or SaaS solutions are separated and unmalleable in the managerial processes of many companies. People budgets are always much higher so, again, from a budgetary perspective employees are viewed as relatively free by a first or second line manager.
? Companies may have gotten screwed by software vendors in the past. Unfortunately, some vendors raise maintenance cost too rapidly or ship what amounts to shelfware. This is common and requires forethought in the contracts initially signed with the vendor – forethought that many people don’t get around to spending time on.
? Opportunity cost is ignored because the lack of a time tracking system leads to the lack of understanding of per-person per-project profitability. There is one most profitable thing that a particular employee can be doing right now for the company. Building an in-house time tracking, CRM or issue management system is almost certainly not it. If you haven’t been measuring costs (i.e. tracking time) you can’t possibly know where you’re profitable and where you’re not.

Imagine the mythical perfect manager who has employees allocate time accurately with all expenses and fully loaded costs to every project in his portfolio. He knows which products to invest in and which customers to fire. He knows where he is profitable and where he is not. His team estimates future work accurately due to excellent historical data. His employees are aimed at the most profitable or strategic work the company has in front of it. Everyone is focused on the core competencies of the company – the activities that enhance the company’s sustainable competitive advantage. This manager is a scientist who measures things but his strategy can still be artistic.

The more common manager works with “common sense” and “gut”. In the book “Blink” we see examples of people who can really trust their guts. These people, however, live in environments where they always have a feedback loop telling them whether their decisions were right or wrong. Over time they become experts and learn to trust their intuition. Managing companies is seldom like this. You rarely know for certain if a decision was optimal in the absence of measurement, but people fool themselves into believing they know in a variety of ways. “Gut” managers seem decisive and often rise in the organization, yet many organizations ultimately fail because of them.

Josh: How important is integration of a time management system with other systems like EVMS, performance reporting, etc.?

Curt: We have seen companies that have multiple time tracking systems for vacation, projects, billing and payroll that all employees have to use. One company actually had a time code for “filling out my timesheet.” That’s demoralizing. The best system provides a global collection point and distributes data in a master-slave relationship to systems that require it. SOA is helping to move things in this direction.

Josh: How important is the time period cycle? For instance, closing out payroll on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis? What’s best?

Curt: If you’re using the data for payroll, the time period should be tied to the pay cycle. Most companies are bi-weekly or semi-monthly. I think semi-monthly works best in most cases because monthly costs are more predictable. Dispensing payroll three times in some months and two times in others leads to cash flow prediction misunderstandings, in my opinion.

Josh: Discuss some of your thoughts on time sheet adjustment policies. How should/do adjustments flow through back into other systems (integration again with other systems)?

Curt: Boy, these are great questions. I’ve thought about this one quite a bit. The answer is actually obvious when you think about it. What do accounting systems do? Accounting systems have been dealing with this problem since they were invented by the Babylonians thousands of years ago and, as you might expect, they have it nailed by now. The answer is that you close periods and don’t change them again. If you do it’s a “big deal” (as it should be), like when publicly traded corporations restate prior period earnings and their stock tanks. Similarly, adjustments to closed time periods in a time tracking system should be added as separately maintained “corrections” that, if possible, inure to the current period for reporting so that history is not changed. Those changes should flow through to all the slave systems just like new time records do.

Josh: Are there any rules of thumb you use to determine at what level it is prudent to track time on a project? Capturing too much detail is likely to cause a revolt among workers, and too little will render the whole process worthless. I’m specifically interested in any guidelines in terms of length of work packages, deliverables, etc.

Curt: If somebody has more than 20 or 30 choices on their time entry screen, they will provide inaccurate data. Our technology provides several mechanisms for making sure people see only what they need to see on the entry screen: groups, dependencies, frequent use lists, etc. If you want data accurate to the day you need to enforce entry every hour. If to the week, every day. Nobody remembers what they did last week. So if one person is going to be working on a project for 1000 hours (6 months) he should have no more than 10 to 20 phases associated with it. Often project managers want to do a lot more than that by pushing MS Project files into Journyx Timesheet, and this creates a level of detail that is unmanageable for the front line worker.

Balance is perhaps the hardest thing to achieve in life, and this extends to time tracking as well.

Critical Chain Benefits From Traditional PM


Today I was trying to think of ways to integrate some of the methods and benefits of Critical Chain project management into the traditional PM methodology most companies use. I wanted to pick out one element of CC that would potentially yield the most benefit without much, if any, additional overhead to the project manager. Perhaps this has been written of before, but I haven’t come across it. Most of the CC proponents I’ve come across have an all-or-nothing mentality, so they wouldn’t normally write about this kind of hybrid approach. Here’s what I came up with.

Parkinson’s Law

One of the deadliest risks for slipping on schedule is Parkinson’s Law, “Work expands to fill (and often exceed) the time allowed”. I don’t believe that people on the project are lying around doing nothing because they think they have so much time (like a student might). Instead, people may be doing extra analysis and working on some ideas that might yield truly useful features. Having worked as a developer in a project environment, I can say with honesty that my co-workers and I did this a lot. We were well-intentioned, and we did good work. However, I can also safely say that many of the things we worked on didn’t address a specific customer requirement. They were nice little experiments, and developers love experiments.

The difficulty in managing projects is related to finite resources, time, and budget. Effort which addresses stakeholder requirements directly yield the most value, in that they are fulfilling what you promised. Those deliverables should be addressed first and foremost. If you have time left over, then I’d say it might be OK to work on nice little experiments that may add value.

How can you ensure resources are working on the ‘meat’ before they spend time on desert? I don’t suggest micro-management. That is self-defeating, demoralizing to the staff, and time-consuming.

The Method

Instead, let’s inject a critical chain technique into how you manage this project. Estimates on tasks are usually inflated to allow for slack time in the eye of the estimator. Let’s take the CC method of removing slack and creating a buffer, and apply it to only the lower levels, either on individual tasks or series of tasks. Take the scheduled time and chop off the last 20% of it. (I wouldn’t bother with anything less than 40 hours in duration) This is now your deadline, and the time afterwards until the “official” deadline is the management buffer. Keep communication with the team open and honest, let them know what you are doing. Their goal now is to get the task done by the new due date. If they are done by then, they can spend some time doing “Google-ish” creative brainstorming and experimentation. If not, that’s when the project manager becomes more heavily involved than normal, helping to remove roadblocks and provide more resources. Of course, the PM should be doing this all along, but now is the time to redouble your efforts. It’s important to let the team know that if they go over this deadline, it’s not the end of the world. It shouldn’t even be a negative thing. It’s just an early alert system, and everyone should know ahead of time that there’s just as much chance of going over this deadline as their is hitting it on time or early. Keep the critical path in mind with your decisions, you may have to let a non-critical path task slide to address a critical one.

By managing the tasks this way, resources are compelled to knock out the things that lead to a specified deliverable first, and add the most value. It doesn’t require adjusting the official schedules, or introduce paperwork overhead. This is simply a management technique.

As a solo developer or on a team, I think it would be great to “eat our frogs first” and then either start the next task early, or have a few days to brainstorm about what we can do to add even more value. Working with a team for a short time with a blank canvas, you can pool the skills and do some great team building while generating some really creative stuff. You could also do additional testing and debugging, or start looking at the next task early and brainstorm about the best way to go about it. Or, a little of everything. Let the ones who like engineering do things to fix bugs, enhance the documentation, and make it scale better. Let the prototypers do their thing.

Summary

  • Understand CC buffer management and the benefits of it (links below)
  • Get your team on board by showing them the WIIFM (what’s in it for me?)
  • Keep the critical path tasks in mind for decision making
  • For tasks 40 hours or longer:
    • Create a CC deadline by chopping off the last 20% of time from a scheduled task
    • The last 20% is now a management buffer
    • Check status at the CC deadline
      • Not complete: Focus support efforts on the task
      • Complete: Start the next task early, or have a “Google day”!

For some background on Critical Chain and it’s benefits, here are some references for you. Specifically, you need to understand why you’re doing this well enough to get your team to believe in it too. This probably won’t work well with totalitarian rule.

The PM Podcast Episode #57
Focused Performance
The Critical Chain Yahoo Group
Critical Chain and the Design Process – MIT
CC whitepaper from Boeing
More case studies
Yet another case study

Planning For Change

One thing that never changes is the constancy of change. That seems like a self-evident truth, doesn’t it? So why do we plan as if change will not happen?

People in general are fairly good at managing change, but of course we vary widely in those abilities among individuals. As a result, I believe most of the time when in the planning process, we assume that we will “figure it out when it happens”.

I’m not advocating that we try to cover every scenario in our planning. I am talking about setting up systems and structures which are able to scale by design and flexible enough to not create massive overhead when dealing with change during execution. Some examples:

  • When planning an application, consider building it in such a way that customization and modifications are easy, and can be performed by administrators. Many companies do not do this. Instead, any little modification requires a new project for a new release. At least make a list of the most likely items users will want to customize, and make it so.
  • When setting up a schedule and/or performance measurement system, you can hard-code resource and task names, or you can use a scheme whereby identifiers in the plan have histories. Resource R23 might start out as Joe Smith, but if he is promoted or leaves the project, you may replace him with Amber Jones. With a separate history for R23, you just update the attributes outside of the schedule. Your schedule requires no update.

Now, for these things to work, you must invest more time in the beginning. With the first example, it requires more planning and programming. With the second, it’s a little more planning and a way to mesh the schedule information with the resource attributes on the fly. The data still needs to be as useful and presentable.

You can probably think of objections to what I said above. Heck, I have objections in my head already. But what if….is the cost justified….

My hope here is just to get you to think about what can be done during project planning to anticipate likely changes and make them less painless when they happen.

What do you do to plan for change?

Are you a Star Project Manager?

I came across this interesting video presentation today and wanted to share. It’s only about 2 minutes long, and is methodcorp.com’s identification of key milestones on the road to a successful project management career.

I especially like milestone 5, which is the silver lining side of when most fairly experienced project managers start complaining that they are being asked to come into the middle of a troubled project. Stop whining, you reached a milestone in your career! 🙂

From the long hiatus

My apologies, everyone, for going so long between posts. I’m not blog-fading though. I think finals in conjunction with all the parental duties during the holiday season really had be bogged down.

This week, I’m the guest blogger for the University of California Extension, Santa Cruz and their “The Art of Project Management” blog. I will be doing a “Best of PM Network 2007” series, as a year in review for the publication with my commentary on each topic area. You can check “The Art of Project Management” at http://www.svprojectmanagement.net.

Some of the blogs are going to be extensions of posts I’ve made here throughout the year, and some will be new.

Happy New Year everyone! I hope to have many new blogs coming your way soon.