Posts Tagged ‘project risk’

No prizes for guessing what this post is about! Yes, it’s about Planning … relentlessly. One of the most common mistakes that I have made in my past projects (and thankfully! learnt from them) is to mistake planning as a one-time activity. If that isn’t scary enough, here’s something else – I have seen many a projects actually not having a project plan. Now, I am not a subscriber of having a pretty Microsoft Project Plan for a 2 day engagement, but would you really want to build a bridge or a building that’s probably going to take more than a year & millions of dollars to build, without a plan? No, really, would you? That is not to say that it does not happen. I have seen projects whose estimated costs could easily be more than $1M, not having a project plan because of one or more of the following reasons:

  1. We are not ready to put a plan together.
  2. Why do I need a plan?
  3. I have my tasks list in the excel spreadsheet and everything’s fine.
  4. Sure. I’ve got the plan done – look at my task list.
  5. Putting a plan together is a waste of time.
  6. It’s fairly straightforward. We don’t need a plan.

Then, there is the mythical plan that contains just a list of tasks with no indication of who is doing the task (Resources – in Project Management speak) or for that matter how much work is involved (Effort – in Project Management speak) in getting the task done.

Why Plan at all?

Unless it’s a 2 day engagement where before you create a plan, the work is done – Create a plan. Here’s why:

  1. Clearly set Expectations: More likely (than not), the customer and the stakeholders would be interested in knowing what, when and how things will be delivered. The plan is the source of this information.
  2. Clearly measure Progress: What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get improved – is very true. A plan is what you use to measure progress against and chart alternate paths to ensure/restore productivity.
  3. Clear Recovery planning: Things usually seem to start off well. There’s plenty of excitement about the new project, lots of positivity and a lot of time to do what you got to do. Then you hit a snag and things start to fall apart… it’s hard to predict by how much and what it will take to recover, without a plan.
  4. Clearly specify Effort: Everyone is working too hard. Things seem to be getting done. But wait! Even with all the work and effort, we don’t see any results. What’s going on? Well, sure you’re going at a 100 miles/hour, the problem is … in the wrong direction.
  5. Clearly specify Roles & Responsibilities: “What do you mean I have not done it? No one told me I was going to do it. I thought s/he was going to do that.” There are no clear roles and responsibilities.
  6. Clear Schedules: This one’s my favorite. “I will get it done ASAP”. What the heck does ASAP mean, anyway? The beauty about the “ASAP” conversation is this. You talk to the folks who’ve had this conversation AFTER the fact, and ask them “So, when will this get done?”. The answer is each person’s interpretation of ASAP… which is usually, never one date. A plan helps take out the ASAP out of your plan.

Remember the first post about Kickass Kickoffs? The central theme was CLARITY. A plan does that. It gives clarity – to setting expectations (Once things are clear, you don’t get asked the same questions again, and again, and again – huge time saver and one of the tricks for PMs to avoid working overtime), measuring progress, ensuring fast recoveries (when things go wrong – and they do, all the time), avoiding “I didn’t know I was going to do it” type of questions.

Why Plan Relentlessly?

Let’s move on to the RPG part.

Planning, like measuring progress, is a relentless activity, until work gets done. Why? Because of our friend, “Change”!  which is the biggest constant. Yep, Mr. Change keeps messing with the plan, every month, every week, sometimes every day.

The Project Manager rues this. The Project Leader anticipates this.

The Project Manager wastes time thinking of the “Why it happened”? The Project Leader accepts it “As-is” quickly and goes “What next”?

The Project Manager goes in his shell. The Project Leader gets on with his RPG!

The Project Manager runs to the sidelines. The Project Leader grounds himself in the Baselines.

Get the drift? Well, either you do OR the drift gets you!

Next one up in the series – Courage and Stupidity!

Chaos and Complexity #4: Push on or Regroup?

by Gary Monti on October 5, 2010

One of the most brutal forms of punishment is solitary confinement. At the other end of the spectrum is multitasking. Stating the obvious, what works best is finding a balance point. This means keeping it simple, something that sounds nice but can be quite challenging. Why? A hallmark of a complex environment is unpredictability. In other words, one doesn’t know where things are leading. In fact, they aren’t leading anywhere – that’s why the situation is called “complex” or, worse yet, “chaotic.” (We will look at the similarities and differences between these two terms in a later blog.)

This creates an interesting conundrum: Where does one place their focus when the environment provides no clues as to whether it is best to push on or regroup? Let’s explore.

Pay Attention

A really short answer to dealing with this situation is, “Just look and decide.” Okay. Given that, where do you look and what do you decide? The answers lie within the team. Determining just how far the team can go sets the limits in the situation. The specific concern in working within those limits is seeing whether the team should experiment (regroup) or continue with what is in place (push on). The goal is working in a predictable situation, one where a schedule can be developed.

Success and Failure

An honest appreciation of the possibility of failure is essential. Now, this isn’t something to dwell upon. In fact, the project manager’s challenge is paying attention to how close to the edge of the cliff the project is but then having the courage to stay focused on working effectively to back away from that cliff and stabilize the situation.

Achieving that stabilization usually requires some experimentation. This goes beyond best practice where alternatives are present. Rather, the experimentation is the team making calculated stabs at what they think might work and accepting that some of those experiments may fail but still yield good information.

For example, a common contributor to complexity is lack of clear requirements. This puts an unfair burden on the team since they are probably being held to an end date and maybe a budget. So, what do you do? Some experimentation is needed where the PM and team create what they believe the requirements to be and then offer this up for approval. Now, the odds of this working the very first time are usually small since stakeholders are probably pulling the project in different directions. If this weren’t true there would be clear requirements to begin with. So, the team must think of alternatives and have more than one arrow in their quiver.

Professional Gambling

With a sense of the team’s limits the project manager will do best being a professional gambler. The gamble is this: Can the team come up more than one set of requirements and can the PM push to get one set, or a variant, accepted. This means allocating time for the team to go out to the edge, almost being a little bit wild, and come up with options as to what might work, e.g., looking at what the best that could happen is, what the worst is, what could be expected, etc.. It is up to the PM to decide how to play the politics and push for acceptance of some realistic set of requirements. This is a very fluid situation requiring focus and discipline.

Come Back From the Edge

The PM’s main goal is to get to some set of requirements allowing the team to move, at the very minimum, to a best practice situation where they can choose from several realistic options how best to proceed with the project in a linear fashion, i.e., creation of a realistic schedule. In other words, the team needs to get to a spot where they can start predicting outcomes based on a given set of requirements. Without this a schedule is impossible and the situation will collapse.

Let’s recap. We see that a certain amount of time is spent trying to establish order from the bottom up and getting buy-in from power brokers and senior managers so that top-down support is established. Unified commitment from senior management is what is needed.

The PM must subtract the time the team spends experimenting plus the time the PM spends politicking from whatever time is left in the schedule.

The PM and team then need to regroup and determine how much of the approved scope can be accomplished in the remaining time. This leads to another potentially difficult decision point.


Typically, what happens is by the time senior management gets behind the scope of work there is insufficient time left. The PM is then faced with the distasteful task of offering some combination of the following options:

  • Cut scope;
  • Ask for more resources but not so many that the project is pushed into confusion;
  • Extend the schedule, and;
  • Worst case, cancel or delay the project

The PM has to watch and not get caught in the middle, i.e., potential team burn-out on one hand and senior management having unrealistic expectations on the other.

A Solution

The best way I known of to handle such situations is simply working to avoid them. The odds of successfully avoiding a train wreck of a project go up when the above realities are applied at project inception. Ask the question, “Why shouldn’t I believe this is a complex project?” If there’s insufficient information to create a network diagram then the situation is complex and the team is going to have to go to the edge and do the experimentation mentioned. The PM does best by staying with that reality. It’s not a good formula for winning a popularity contest but it does help develop the reputation for being honest about what the organization can do under the circumstances.  In the long run working this way in a respectful manner is what brings about the most growth possible under the circumstances.