Monthly Archives: July 2015

Project managers are never short of things to do, but the most successful – the ones that consistently bring in projects on time and on budget have mastered the art of executing by focusing on the few critical elements that make a difference. Here are five things to watch:

1. They Avoid Multi-tasking

Even though many people think multitasking is good, research shows just the opposite. It shows that dividing attention across multiple activities is taxing on the brain and often comes at the expense of real productivity. As much as a 40% loss. And it can also increase stress for the people multitasking.

In another way, multi-tasking adds work to your project because of task switching. For any task, there is a certain amount of time to setup – to begin doing the real work. For example, to re-start a task, I have to review the work I’ve done, determine where I left off, and then decide what to do next. The more complex the task, the longer this set up time takes.

The more complex a task, the longer the set up time is, causing even more delays. The more switching I do, the more additional work I must do, and the longer every project takes.

The successful project manager guards himself and his team from multitasking.

2. They Communicate Visually

At the ground level of the project, communicating information such as status, obstacles, priorities, and risk are a constant and never-ending challenge.

At the governance levels, program and portfolio owners are often faced with situations where they have either too little or too much information. The quality and timing of the information provided can be subjective, and is usually dependent on the person delivering it. So, if better execution is a goal, and effective communication is the top challenge in execution, it follows that improving communication will lead to improved execution and better business results.

By providing a visual representation of the work, the team develops a shared understanding of where they are and what needs to be done. This improves communication, because they share the same objective viewpoint. People spend less time reporting information like status, obstacles, priorities, and risk and more time on action.

Good project managers give the entire team a view of the playing field so they can act.

3. They Collaborate Intentionally

We know that in under-performing projects, issues are identified very late, and important communication is delayed. The right problem solvers are brought in too late to prevent the problems, and additional work—putting out fires—is then added to the workflow. Capacity runs short, the project is delayed, and costs go up.

Focus on face-to-face accountability – emphasizing what will be done, rather than what has been done.

Create a few simple rules to focus your team on what is to be done, not what has been done. History debates are for analysis, not collaborative execution. Establish guidelines and structure to bring the right people and good communication to the forefront to create action.

4. They Build a One Team, One Goal Approach

Most project teams consist of multiple disciplines from a variety of sources. Each of these team members are placed on the team to accomplish the project’s objective, yet, they bring with them the objective for their functional disciplines as well. Delivering the project is important, but not their main goal. In which case, we have people on the team whose goals do not match.

When functional goals are aligned, each member of the team is free to act in the best interest of the project, without being hindered by conflicting goals from other areas. This eliminates a major source of internal conflict, and speeds decision-making and action.

The savvy project manager pays attention to conflicting objectives among the team members and resolves conflicts between them.

5. They Control the Work in Progress

It seems like common sense: start sooner, you’ll finish sooner. The problem is that everyone starts sooner! Increasing volumes of work in progress increases confusion and conflict—and decreases real productivity. Having a lot of work does accomplish the objective of keeping people busy. However, while everyone is busy, the true picture of the overall project is obscured until deadlines approach, when the failure to complete the right tasks becomes all too visible.

To control work in process, managers establish and enforce pre-release criteria to match work releases with the rate of work completion and ensure no work is started that cannot be finished.

Keep the volume of work under control. Don’t overload the team with too much. Don’t start on projects just for the sake of starting. Successful project managers are focused on finishing.

Successful project managers don’t try to do everything, they focus on the few critical elements that make the difference between doing the work and delivering the work.

Learn more about what is working and what isn’t working in delivering projects. Read The State of Project Management Practice Research

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All over the world, promising projects quickly morph into unmanageable creatures, exceeding budgets and eating up time. In response, the collective finger of blame points to everyone’s favorite excuse: bad planning.

If poor planning is responsible for failure, then it would stand to reason that good planning should be the savior. So many of us believe that “a failure to plan is a plan to fail,” and we grow confident that successful planning leads to successful project delivery.

Most planning is based on a “controls” model that makes it possible to estimate costs and identify the details needed to complete the project. But the granular level of detail that works nicely for accounting or a supply chain or in other contexts is not so good for project managers during execution. Secondly, many plans assume that everything will go according to plan, and that there will be no variation. “Planning for success” is what one manager called it.

Peter Drucker said, “…the word ‘controls’ is not the plural of the word ‘control’”. He’s right. Making a detailed plan doesn’t give real control; it gives the illusion of control. What provides control is having an understanding of the interdependencies of the work and having the flexibility to respond when the real world presents the team with the unexpected.

Planning for control is what we’ve been doing for the last fifty years: driving down to the details, identifying the tasks to accomplish and the resources that will complete them, time phasing them, etc. These complex and comprehensive plans are based on a premise of control: “comparing actual results with desired results and deciding whether to revise objectives or methods of execution.”

This is most people’s idea of control. They watch what happens, compare the events to what was expected, then change things to bring reality into line with their expectations. If too many things fail to match their picture of reality, even if that picture is only in their heads, they must add more detail to the plan. In this way, they can watch all the details (we have software!) and make adjustments when things go

These details are probably important to someone, and they should be. However, when managers have all that detail, it imposes additional complexity and volume on the task of managing delivery. All the minutiae, the various connections and the sheer volume of items involved in projects—and by extension, portfolios—exceed any single manager’s span of control.

What’s needed are plans that are built for execution; plans that can be executed. To reduce the complexity and enable action, our plan(s) must be tailored to our span of control. Those plans will then be used to respond to risks, and will drive behavior during execution.

Here are 5 things you can do to boil down the plan to action:

Match the level of detail in the plan to the direct accountability of the person managing it. That means that a typical project execution plan will be no more than 500 elements. That doesn’t mean that your project only has that many elements, you may need sub-projects that are managed by subordinates.

The project plan represents what will be done, not what should be done. Your plan for execution is not a wish list. Hope is a poor strategy for success. What goes in the plan is what you will actually do, not necessarily the standard operating procedure.

Every planned task describes a physical deliverable. Think about your plan in terms of a relay race. What get’s handed off is a baton. Don’t put the steps to make the baton in your plan, that’s what comments are for.

Each task is owned by a person. You won’t have accountability for results unless a person’s name is on the task. Departments or suppliers are not accountable, but people can be.

Finish to Start dependencies only. Again, like the relay racer, defining finish to start task dependencies forces you to clearly define when something is done. This prevents over-processing, a wasteful and time consuming activity.

Planning is only meant to do one thing; enable good execution. It’s a map for your team, not a box to be checked. For getting to your destination fast, the best maps are not the most detailed, but the most directed to your goal. Your project plan should do the same.

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The services segment of the economy is changing, and the business processes that make those sectors run, including how projects are managed, are changing with it. Macro trends of globalization and increased competition in the services sector are forcing services firms to become more efficient. In most advanced economies, GNP from services exceeds that from physical goods.

Coupled with changing consumer expectations for a more personalized experience and increase consumer reliance on technology, firms are pushed to innovate faster to hold on to those customers. The internet has disrupted nearly every industry; services are no exception.

Now, more than ever, managers of projects are pushed out of their comfort zones – forced to up their game; applying best practices, becoming more disciplined in their approach to delivering projects. Some executives realize that most of their work is a project. For example, we can look to the IT services industry. It is miles ahead of others in the services sector adopting (and creating) project management practices and technology.

Here are three significant trends I see:

Increased PM Maturity

There will be more opportunity and demand for best project management practices. More managers will realize that traditional project management skills are the same one that can streamline their new service offerings and improve their customer experience. Overall technical project management skills will improve.

New Specialties

As the practices mature, differences will emerge. Every sub-section of the service economy will have its own PM specialty. We’re seeing this now in the IT and legal sectors, so expect it to continue into other areas such as media and financial services.

Technology Enhances Collaboration

As technology changes, the need for better, more streamlined collaboration tools will change the face of the tools project managers use. Watch for tools that move beyond task lists and document sharing to tools that support genuine collaboration in problem solving, task completions and ideation.

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