3 Best Practices That Could Have Saved the Galactic Empire

September 4, 2013 Leave a comment

Great article from John Friscia that appealed to my teenage viewing preferences and inner nerd:

Accelerating IT Success – 03 Sept 2013″

May the [PMO] force be with you….

Batteries Not Included

April 25, 2012 Leave a comment

There’s nothing worse than waking up on Christmas morning, opening a shiny new toy but finding that you’re unable to play with it because your parents forgot to buy batteries for it?

Customers, supplier and managers are no different – they hate surprises. Customers want to know what they’ve purchased, when they’re going to get it, and how they’re going to use it. Any unexpected need for additional items leads to lower satisfaction.

Managers, Executives and Shareholders want to know the business forecast so that they can make the right investments in resources and deals. Deviating too far from the projections will cause heads to roll!

Suppliers and business partners also want predictability. This enables them to do their work or produce their goods on time and on budget; rush jobs, delays and rework all add unnecessary cost.

Preventing surprises means being able to do the same or similar activities in a repeatable manner such that the outcome is predictable. It doesn’t have to always be the same – stuff happens – just predictable. This predictability also has to be retained as the company grows, markets change or personnel rotate; It has to be sustainable.

Predictability, repeatability and sustainability all come from having a common approach or method to work performed, and supplying rapid access to the same information about the customer, product or market. The difference between having these capabilities and using these things is accountability.

A balance must also be struck between drivng consistent and repeatable work behaviors, and tolerating enough flexibility to allow the innovation that drives continual improvement. This requires a focus on what is produced rather than how it gets produced. Unfortunately all too often managers focus on the tasks and activities rather than the results.

My final point is to note that, just as batteries eventually run out and die, so do process improvement initiatives. New batteries must be installed – or at least recharged – at regular intervals in order to keep the machine operating well – unless it has a Permanent Means of Operating (PMO). Funny how that acronym keeps coming up in the context of sustainable results.


Climb That Mountain

September 6, 2011 1 comment

While I normally like to come up with my own observations on the parallels between service delivery and otherwise irrelevant or random activities, I thought the post by Chris Taylor at www.bpmforreal.com titled “Business Process without blisters” was a valuable reference from here. As a former mountain climber and hiker myself, it echoes my own thinking well.

I particularly liked Chris’ metaphors about the need for shared responsibility & ownership, having informed and invested workers, and creating technology-enabled environments. You can find it here. Enjoy!

Organizational Landscaping

February 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Spring is just around the corner here in the Carolinas, and like many Englishmen abroad, I take great pride in my “garden”. Gardening to me, of course, is not tending to a vegetable plot, but what is more commonly referred to as “yard work” here in the US (I’m bi-lingual these days). I also find great satisfaction in planning out what plants to use, where and when to plant them, and how to maintain them so that they remain healthy. Not so dissimilar to running an organization, really:


Picking the right flowers, shrubs or trees requires insight in to not only which ones look good, but which ones like the shade vs direct sunlight; which ones like dry sandy soil vs heavy clay; which ones are resistant to deer and rabbits who can eat all your hard work before breakfast. Every yard that I know has a combination of all these conditions. An otherwise good shrub or tree planted in the wrong place will die.

You also need to understand which plants will look good next to the others: It’s no good having a yard full of “show” pieces – they end up competing for your eye. Good landscape architecture requires the selection of a few strategically placed high-visibility items surrounded by less showy other plants that provide a foundation to frame the show pieces. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, having teams of all quarterbacks or all point guards will not win many games!

Anyone who has hired should see the parallels here: Selecting the right worker requires more than looking at just their job-specific qualifications. It requires consideration of how they would fit into the company culture and their ability to work with other staff. The same candidate may make a great SW development PM, but be abysmal in customer engagement situations. Someone with a history of work in a highly structured buttoned-down corporation may not do well in a shorts-and-Tevas startup.


Most plants look great when they’re first put in. They often have flowers and bright shiny leaves from their coddling at the nursery. Even after a year or so they should still look good as they mature. But there comes a time when they start over-growing the plants next to them, or getting so tall they obscure the view out of a window.

That’s when it’s time to prune the shrubs. All too often, however, the pruning is left too long and the large amount of plant to be cut off ends up leaving an ugly bare hole in the landscape for a season or two. It is far better to “nip” small amounts off at regular intervals before they get too big. One of the biggest compliments a gardener can receive is that it doesn’t look like their garden ever needs pruning. The secret is that it gets pruned regularly so that there are always other leaves or flowers left showing.

It is no different dealing with personnel issues, where bad behaviors or poor performance should be addressed quickly with small remedial actions rather than waiting for it to blow up and require something more drastic. This also applies at the group level, where teams need to be assessed and re-shaped regular intervals and not allowed to grow to the point where mass layoffs are required.

Training and Development

Very few plants can just be put in the ground and left to their own devices to grow. They need additional assistance, particularly to get them through their first full cycle of seasons. Water is required as a minimum. Adding fertilizer will accelerate growth, and disease or insect sprays will protect that growth.

Providing the time and resources for relevant and forward-looking training provides the fertilizer for organizations. Providing good pay and benefits helps protect it against loss.

At the same time, new plants should always be picked smaller than the required size and allowed to grow into place. It may take more time to get the desired effect, but the result will be worth it, especially if the new plant is surrounded by older established plants that can “carry the eye” until the new ones are ready. Think of it as succession planning for gardens!

Strategy vs Execution

Personally, I like shrubs. You can get them in all shapes, sizes, colors and textures. When established they take very little effort to maintain and look good year after year. This is unlike flowers – particularly those that die off each year and need to be dug out and replaced. This is too much effort for me! I want to be able to balance the time required to take care of the existing plants with the time to plan out what else I can do to enhance it.

Business leaders require a similar balance of Execution and Strategy. This is not easy to do, as leaders all too easily become so drained or distracted by the here-and-now that they neglect planning for the future.

So how green is your thumb?

Expect The Unexpected

December 8, 2010 Leave a comment

All plans will be wrong; the question is: by how much? – Claude Maley

Weather forecasts are notoriously wrong: 2 feet of show when they just called for a “dusting”, near drought conditions when they predicted high hurricane activity. Even record low temperatures despite knowledge of global “warming”.

The forecasters have become better in recent years, progressing from the basic Farmers’ Almanac to modern super-computer models. They have made particular progress with short-term forecasts based on radar and satellite data where the more variables and interactions they can model, the more data points they can capture, and the quicker they can recalculate and update the data, then the more dependable the forecast becomes.

Project plans are much the same. Even the best ones cannot hope to capture all the possible variables and future actions that could impact the plan, and the further out in time the plans go, the greater the chance for error. However that’s no excuse to start with a blank sheet of paper, or fit the entire 18-month plan on to a bar napkin, either. Good project planning eventually comes down to good knowledge management: To be able to create a complete plan without having to re-discover all the best practices and mistakes of the past.

Best practices should be universal, and mistakes should be unique

This requires maintaining and updating some form of template project plan that includes the cumulative learning from all earlier projects. Include all the facts that are known; when the answers aren’t known, include a checklist of questions to ask to determine the facts; and state all assumptions as facts that can then be verified or corrected. The more you can include, the less chance for misunderstanding or error.

But still be ready to discover new things that have not happened before and that nobody expected.

A good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan next weekGeorge S. Patton

There is, however, a trade-off to be made between spending large amounts of time capturing every activity in great detail and assessing as many possible risks and outcomes as possible, and getting the plan underway. Avoid trying to create a “prefect” plan. The law of diminishing returns rules those plans. Instead, recognize that your plan is going to be wrong in some way, and be ready to change the plan as you go along to accommodate those imperfections. Just remember to “pay it forward” and record those adaptations either as best practices or mistakes to be avoided.

If you can do all that, I predict you will have a bright future. Maybe.

Navigating Technology Change

January 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Everyone has their favorite GPS or “SatNav” story. It used to be a weekly occurrence, for example, to hear of large intercontinental trucks getting stuck down narrow country lanes in the south of England as European drivers used their SatNav systems to try to get to remote farms and businesses for the first time. This is the first Management of Change lesson for any IT department:

New technology used “blindly” out of the box without any practical guidance or best practices can often end up costing more than the old method.

In another example closer to home, I increasingly find myself at a loss when setting up informal meetings with potential vendors at local coffee shops or deli’s: Where I would normally assist with directions by providing instructions like “turn left and go for about half a mile. It’s on the right with the green and white awning”, I now end up having to supply the exact street name and number for the visitor to plug into their GPS device. More often than not, I don’t know those specifics and have to look them up or call. This brings up lesson #2:

New technology may make your life easier, but it may also incur additional effort or inconvenience for others.

The solution in both cases is to ensure that you consider the complete end-end business processes of not only the target organization, but also their internal and external partners, suppliers and customers. What is good for one organization may not be good for the broader relationship.

At the same time, organizations can also get so focused on the tool or technology itself that they forget about the need to also change the way in which the organization operates to take advantage of them. This brings me to lesson #3:

New technology used in old ways will rarely yield significant operational improvement.

This goes beyond providing training on the new technology. It requires a complete understanding of all contributions to the process and each organization’s business requirements. These requirements are often poorly defined or contradictory, and it becomes IT’s job to join the dots and fill in the gaps to create a consistent and holistic process that the new technology can support. In some cases, this may also require overcoming the internal politics of change with senior management.

New Technology release is relatively easy. Effective adoption is not. However, if the business process is allowed to lead the technology, and historical barriers from organization charts and governance models are removed, you will be able to map out the big improvements you’re looking for and reach the right destination.

Cheese on my Cheesburger

December 31, 2009 Leave a comment

I recently had lunch with relatives, including my young nephew. He ordered a “plain cheeseburger, please”. In doing so he thought he had asked for a cheeseburger without the usual fixings of lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, ketchup or mustard. Just a plain cheeseburger.

He was confused, then, when his order arrived. It had no lettuce, tomato, etc just as be had ordered. But it also had no cheese on it! When we questioned the waitress she quite straightforwardly said “oh, I’m sorry, I thought you wanted nothing on your burger”.

Both my nephew and the waitress had made different assumptions about what “plain” meant.

This is what Donald Rumsfeld would call dealing with the “unknown knowns” in the lunch contract; Items each party thought they knew, but had never confirmed. This failure to properly articulate all the facts about the order, and unwittingly leave some requirements unspoken or implied, is an amazingly frequent occurrence. Requirements, after all, form the foundation of any project and must be actively managed too.

In a separate incident, a cousin of my wife was renovating the master bathroom in his house. He found a reputable plumber to come in to move the toilet and install a new shower. Unfortunately he failed to specify that the shower should stay at the same temperature when the toilet was flushed. He assumed that was standard practice. As his partner’s screams of pain will attest, this was apparently not so in their area!

The most successful projects also occur when you know the most about the products, technology and environment in which the project is being conducted. This can be thought of as maximizing the known knowns (ie things you know that you know, aka The Facts). The more you know, the better your plans can be.

In order to do this, you also need to minimize those things you don’t know (you can never eliminate them, the world is too complex). Assumptions (the unknown knowns I described earlier) need to be brought out and explicitly stated as facts (“I want cheese on my cheesburger!” or even better: “I want cheddar cheese on my cheeseburger!”) or listed as questions (ie things that you know that you don’t know – the known unknowns). Either way, they need to be uncovered and addressed.

It can be just as important to state what you’re NOT going to do, as what you are. This keeps expectations of project deliverables in line as well as avoiding Scope Creep during project execution.

Reusable templates and checklists are great ways to make sure that as many assumptions get confirmed and questions answered about a project as possible. Many PM tools also contain the ability to start or “seed” a new project plan from well maintained “gold standard” plans developed from the cumulative experience of other similar projects (see my previous post on “Project Vaccination”).

Unanswered questions and assumptions become the focus of the project Risk Plan, where strategies and tactics are developed and budgeted to address the impact according to the different possible answers. They should never be put off until later, as nobody likes to wait for another burger to be cooked. It just slows down how quickly everyone gets to the dessert.

I’ll discuss the fourth category of knowledge – and Rummy’s most quoted – the Unknown Unknowns in a later post. Right now I’m ready for my Waldorf salad: Hold the apples, celery and walnuts, and put the dressing on the side!

The Magic Number 7 (Plus or Minus 2)

November 30, 2009 Leave a comment

For years I wondered why so many things appeared in collections of 7 items. There are Snow White’s 7 Dwarfs, the 7 Deadly Sins, the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, and the 7 Seas.

Nearer to home, local phone numbers have 7 digits, standard vehicle license plates have combinations of 7 or less letters and numbers (this is also true for most countries in the world), and of course there are 7 days in every week and 7 NFL players must be in the line of scrimmage for a legal formation. I even grew up near a town in southern England called Sevenoaks.

Then I learned about the principle disclosed by George Miller in 1956 that a person’s short-term memory span is approximately 7 items. That number increases for common items such as letters and digits, and drops to nearer 5 for more complex items such as long or unfamiliar words. Any more than that, and a person’s ability to remember any of the items drops off dramatically. So if designers wanted people to easily remember a group of items – be they dwarfs’ names in a children’s story, or a number for self-dial telephones – they kept to that limit.

Project and Program Managers can also make use of this principle by organizing their teams into “right-sized” groups, each one having a clear focus and responsibility. The scrum agile software development method, for example, suggests a team size of 7 ± 2 for any given sprint. More generally a team structure can be created based on 5 or less distinct groups of participants, each group having a different role and requiring different communication content and frequency from the Project or Program Manager:

The Core Team: This should have no more than 7 ± 2 members. Any more and the tendency to seek consensus will slow down decision-making. This team typically contains the key solution architects and change agents that collectively make the key decisions and drive the project forward. Its members are typically full-time on the project and accountable for its success.

The Extended Team: Many projects and programs are of such complexity that the Core team alone cannot contain deep enough knowledge of all the subject matter required to achieve its goals. Consequently a cross-functional virtual team of Subject Matter Experts and advisers is required with representatives from all impacted departments. Members of this Extended Team are brought in as required for specific issues, key reviews and checkpoints. Unlike the Core team, the Extended team members will typically have other day-to-day duties outside of the Project or Program.

The Implementation Team(s): These are the developers, testers, production, installation and support teams that make the output of the project a reality. Each should have a point person responsible for liaising with the Core team. If the project is large, use appropriate hierarchical structures to keep the number of direct Core team connections below the magic 7 ± 2. Otherwise the span of control starts becoming unwieldy.

Sponsors & Stakeholders: This team is often neglected when creating a project resource plan, but is absolutely essential to the success of it before, during and after project execution. This team requires regular high-level status reports and an awareness of key issues that may require their intervention (eg project resources, mass communications, etc). A good project dashboard will contain no more than 7 ± 2 categories of items to report.

Users: Last but by no means least, the eventual users of the output from a project – whether it’s a new software solution, a revised operating process or procedure, an organizational change, or all three – require targeted “what does it mean for me” communications that explain the impact of the project in terms of their specific jobs and roles. The magic number is used here to make sure that sufficiently small groups of Users are addressed such that the messages are meaningful to their work, and that the messages are delivered frequently enough to reinforce the message, but not so frequently that they lose their impact.

One notable group of items that exceeds this short-term memory span rule is the Ten Commandments. Perhaps that’s why so many people seem to be forgetting them in modern times?

The Breakfast Club

November 1, 2009 Leave a comment

Most people have heard of the adage regarding the breakfast ingredients bacon and eggs, where “the chicken is involved; the pig is committed”. Fewer have perhaps considered its relevance to project service delivery.

A few months ago I had a very pleasant lunch with a representative from a local law firm who was trying to find new ways to attract business from small companies and entrepreneurs. It quickly became apparent that the major hurdle was how his firm – like most other law firms – insisted on charging only by billable hours x hourly rate. In this “cost plus” method, all the risk of overruns is bourn by the client. There is also little incentive – beyond the potential impact on repeat business – for the law firm to become more efficient in its work. It was clear that they supplied eggs.

A few weeks later I had another discussion with a local utility company. Their challenge was the opposite – in order to ensure predictability in costs, the utility required many of its suppliers to provide long-term, fixed price, contracts. Many of you are no doubt already ahead of me on this: They required total commitment; they required bacon.

Of course, just as bacon contains a lot of fat, so do these fixed price contracts: The suppliers have to allow for a lot of worst case scenarios in their pricing to make sure they don’t lose money during delivery. In some engagements these won’t happen. In some they will. On average both companies should make their target margins. Unlike the law firm there is a direct incentive for the supplier to become more efficient in its deliveries, but less incentive for the customer to do the same.

There is clearly a large middle ground between these extremes, where the customer and supplier come together to agree on an initial baseline or “fair sailing” estimate. When changes occur, Change Orders are created to cover any difference. Even in these cases, however, there is an incremental cost in time and money preparing and negotiating the Change Order itself. There is no free lunch (or breakfast!). The trick is to get the right balance between covering the costs of the project as it evolves, and generating the goodwill required to sustain a long-term mutually successful relationship beyond the immediate project.

A good project delivery environment will not only have a good knowledge base from which to create the initial plan to proactively anticipate & mitigate the risks that cause changes, but also the right cultural balance and value system to know how and when to apply changes.

Most nutritionists recognize breakfast as the most important meal of the day, providing the right foundation for having sustained energy. Project Service Delivery organizations would be well served to do the same.

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Project Vaccination

October 20, 2009 2 comments

“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger”
Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th Century philosopher

It’s flu season here in North America, time for many people to get their annual precautionary flu shots. Vaccination, of course, allows the body to “learn” from other infections and to build its own defenses in anticipation of being attacked by the real thing.

Projects can be treated in the same way, improving their resistance to risks and allowing them to perform more consistently and at a higher level.

The vaccine in this case is first-hand feedback on the successes and failures experienced with other projects: How the addition of a new customer checkpoint allowed them to be better prepared for delivery; how rearranging a sequence of tasks reduced the overall project schedule; how rescheduling user training helped reduce help desk calls; etc. etc. Capturing these Best Practices and re-using them in subsequent projects avoids re-inventing the wheel or repeating past mistakes (mistakes will still happen, but hopefully they will become unique!)

Repeatable and consistent project delivery across the portfolio has benefits beyond the success of any particular project: it leads to more accurate forecasts of overall income and resources, which then feeds a virtuous cycle of more stable investment and employment, which in turn leads to more engaged employees using their cumulative knowledge to further improve delivery performance.

At the same time, capturing project feedback also creates an environment of continuous improvement and adaptation resulting from real-world experiences and trends in the market.

Informal project feedback can work in small teams, where word of mouth spreads easily and individual reputation provides natural selection for the best practices. However, this does not scale up well for larger enterprises, where the number of staff makes individual learning haphazard at best. Instead, more formalized collaboration networks must be formed, with owners assigned to capture and filter the Best Practices into standard checklists, templates and boilerplate documents that then form the starting point for all new project plans or proposals.

It all sounds simple and obvious. Yet, despite their well-publicized benefits, it’s amazing how each year so many people skip getting a flu shot.