Jan 292012

A colleague dropped by my office for a visit the other day. I happened to be in the final stages of planning and locking down the baseline for a new project, so I didn’t really pay him much attention while he chatted [Yeah Right! – like you always give others your undivided attention!]. When I finally paused and explained to him what I was doing, he replied;

“What’s the use of planning! As soon as the plan is published it’s a work of fiction, totally unrelated to real life!”

Now there’s nothing quite like a statement of that nature to rub a project manager the wrong way. After all, at it’s core, it calls into disrepute the entire profession. Or does it? As with everything in life, there are many interpretations and perspectives. If you think about it, core to this perception is possibly the lack of a clear understanding of what a project manager actually does. Or at least what the good project managers are doing that is different to the mainstream.

At its core, project management may possibly best be described as “Getting things done” or better still “Coordinating team efforts and making sure things get done properly”. [There are obviously many more correct theoretical and institutional definitions that describe the full content of project management, but for the purposes of this discussion lets just say our definition here is sufficient]

“So what”, I hear you cry. “There are plenty of people in life who get things done by just climbing in and doing!” And this is true. You don’t have to be a certificated project manager to get things done. However, and I think this is key, many people don’t really have a handle on what a good project manager actually does in order to “Get things Done”.

Many people can climb in and achieve in a chaotic environment. The true game changers are those that take a bigger picture view and achieve in the chaos, all the while making improvements to process and tools so that next time the chaos is a little less and the quality of product and life is a little better, and the next better, and the next better …… ! This lessening of the chaos makes life better for the entire project team, improves quality of life, improves deliverables. The lone ranger is often seen as the hero, able to step into the chaos and fix [organisations with projects in trouble love them] but what are they doing to make life better for others? The real innovator, the real hero is the PM who can not only rescue the effort from the chaos, but is the one that improves life for the entire team the next time around as well.

Sure, there are the plans, the checklists, the Gantt charts, the reports, the processes. These are vital if the business of running projects is to succeed in it’s goals of sustainable profits, quality products and services and repeat business from satisfied clients. The average PM fills these out religiously and rests on his laurels, adding “Project Manager” to his resume. The good PM realises that these are a very small part of his daily life. They help guide the action. They help to reduce the daily chaos that could be the project. They help to standardise reporting and future-proof the organisation against “Chaos Heroes”. The good PM constantly acts, communicates, questions, taking a wider focus on innovation and improvement, making sure that the environment in which his project runs is being analysed and improved upon and pushing the limits of client satisfaction. 

There is a hint of truth in the sentiment that life is too unpredictable for planning, but I can’t agree with it as an absolute. Yes, the plan may not ultimately be achieved in every minute detail, but without a plan, a roadmap if you will, there is no measure of whether effort expended is going in the right direction. A good PM will spend time on putting a realistic plan in place. Then he will use that plan as a guide, not as the absolute truth, adjusting course and re-planning if necessary to achieve an outcome acceptable to the key stakeholders involved in the project.

Looking for samples, tools and templates to assist in the running of your projects. Try: PM Docs

For formal PM methodologies and Definitions what better place to look than: PMI or APM

Oct 042011

The radio news this morning had a piece on the recent violent storms and tornados of yesterday where one person was killed, numerous others injured and homes destroyed. Some politician, visiting the scene of the devastation is horrified to find that the RDP houses that collapsed were not built to code.

So here’s a guess at what happened.

Building contractor secures order to build houses, to code. Small, basic houses to be sure, but definitely to code. Houses are slapped together as fast and as cheaply as possible. What idiot specified double external walls anyway? The people need these houses yesterday and anyway, the Gravy on the Gravy-Train is damn expensive. Those new Range Rovers don’t pay for themselves you know.

While this is pure speculation on my part of course, it does however provide a fitting real-world example of the need for tight quality control on your projects. While not every sub-standard project deliverable may endanger lives at the end of the day, there is always an implied commitment to provide acceptable value to your stakeholders. If you cannot supply acceptable value and quality within the project Scope:Time:Cost framework then ethically you should probably decline to be involved.

Easier said than done I suppose, but food for thought nevertheless.

Jul 222011

We have a shortage of PM’s on the ground at the moment and so I’m interviewing candidates. This has raised several important questions – What makes a good PM? What does a PM’s career path look like? What should the corporate PM KPI’s be?

I interviewed a candidate the other day; more of an informal chat than an interview. When asked the question on why he wanted the PM role, the ultimate, between the lines answer was that it was a useful skill to have in his toolbox. For me, at this stage of my life, that’s an interesting aspect of most people’s lives – the belief in a career path. In the business world, with it’s dominant growth paradigm, it means that most people view their career paths as growth paths. Ask any corporate HR guy and they will strongly come across as advocating a well articulated 3 to 5 year plan. While there’s nothing wrong with growth I think the way the business world works puts an insidious and potentially dangerous spin on the traditional career path. If you don’t consciously analyse it it’s easy to fall into the growth at all costs trap, forsaking day-to-day happiness in the hope of some future pot of gold at the end of the career rainbow.

What makes a good PM?
I suppose that depends, to a very large extent, on one’s personal view of the corporate world and life in general, but I suppose that it’s worth taking a stab anyway since there will be much common ground no matter the worldview.
If I had to summarise in a single sentence or paragraph it would be:

“The ability to get things done in a logical, clearly defined way”

Some further thoughts:
* Team building, facilitation and motivation towards a common project objective.
* A good understanding of the corporate environment in which the project must function and deliver.
* Ability to identify people’s sweet-spots and harness their strengths to advance project objectives
* Know and follow the rules enough to provide structure and repeatability but regularly explore the boundaries of the rules in order to constantly innovate and work in more effective ways
* Plain old hard work but effective hard work, not busyness.
* Technical subject matter knowledge, while not essential, certainly helps.
* The ability to create calm order from chaotic panic
* The ability to see and understand the big picture [corporate executive strategy] and, rather than being overwhelmed by the size and complexity, translate that into smaller achievable packages and getting those executed.

So if these are indeed true, the next trick is how to interview and extract this information without directly asking the questions. A direct and straight-forward question in an interview invariably solicits the answer which the candidate thinks you [in the corporate growth paradigm] want to hear.

The obvious ones are:
* Schedule against baseline
* Margin against baseline
* Effective scope management
* Acceptable quality
* Proactive risk and issues management
* Transparent and effective communications
* Stakeholder satisfaction

To answer this sufficiently well I think one has to delve into another question – “What makes a project successful?” While there may be some suitably generic answers, ultimately each project is unique with unique objectives, unique stakeholders and unique expectations. That means there is a danger in only defining PM performance by generic KPI’s. If the PM is doing things properly she would have capture the project’s “success factors” in the charter. Maybe the best measurement then is to measure whether the project has met the objectives stated in the charter. A further question to consider is “What makes a good PM?”, much of which is not directly and quantitatively measurable. One also must consider the corporate environment within which the project operates. For example, a non-profit NGO organisation will place different emphasis on margins than might a large multi-national looking to grow the bottom line. All of this makes it quite difficult to impose a generic KPI measurement system.

So, because we must, and in keeping with the ethos of simplicity and effectiveness, I think I would propose the following in my large multi-national corporate:
# Profitability = Effective cost management and EAC forecasting [measureable via PM system financial reporting]
# Stakeholder Satisfaction = Internal and client-side [measureable by survey – client, internal and peer review]
# Quality = Demonstrable adherence to QMS process [project audit]

Jun 022011

By: Sapa 1st June 2011 

The number of CVs recently received by the public works department “belies the myth of [a] total skills shortage”, Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde said on Wednesday……….

That may be so!?

It may also be that a piece of paper without aptitude, experience and the willingness to put in some hard work is acually meaningless!?

Apr 012011

I’ve long been on management’s case that projects need to be audited. The dashboards, metrics and communication tools that pop out the PM system need to be used, not just by the PM, but by management.

I don’t want to be the policeman! I want to help develop the tools and get them implemented. I want to assist my peers in using the tools. I want to engage with management and communicate on a regular basis using the tools. I want the tools to be used in order to:

  • Help the PM get his job done more easily
  • Communicate status to the client and management
  • Stimulate thought and focus attention to the 20% important tasks in a PM’s life.

So who checks? QMS Department. But here’s the challenge.

QMS don’t necessarily have engineering process knowledge, and even less so, project management process knowledge. Sure they may know about project management, but the really good PM’s are not running quality audits. They are out in the field delivering high value projects to our clients. Everyone agrees that quality is important, so the QMS crowd document the process and draw flow charts, create templates and make checklists. They hold workshops and meetings and forums, all in the name of engaging with people. In this process, everyone holds on for dear life to their own IP, pushing their stuff hard, not wanting to change. The end result – a documented process with procedures and checklists that everyone has ‘agreed’ with and that can be audited.

So here’s the problem. If you don’t know what I’m doing, then how can you audit me? An audit by a strong PM peer using the QMS system will be very valuable since that PM knows what it takes to deliver a quailty project. Lets say I don’t check a tickbox on a list, or heaven forbid, don’t use the prescribed template. But I explain that I have completed actions towards dealing with the issues that the tickbox represents. From a QMS perspective, I fail, get an NCR and have follow-up actions logged against my name. From a project quality perspective I have done what is needed to address the issue.

This is the challenge. Audits are required and it’s great to have another department tasked with being the quality police. An organisation needs to build support systems to enable consistent, quality project results. We don’t just want individuals who can deliver projects. We want organisational ability to deliver projects. But, just having a quality system does not mean you get this! Hopefully they understand this. Hopefully it’s not just about meeting departmental and personal KPI’s but rather about improving our ability, as an organisation, to deliver consistent quality solutions to our clients.