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.

Being the Biggest Loser of Service Delivery

October 14, 2009 Leave a comment

As I sat and watched the Biggest Loser with my wife last night, it occurred to me that a lot of the lessons being taught on the show were also relevant to service delivery and ownership.

Contestants learn the importance of proper diet and exercise, and how just starving yourself and exercising 24×7 are not sufficient to lose weight in a healthy, sustainable, way. Instead, precise calorie counting and controlled exercise programs compatible with each contestant’s physical condition are the staples.

The same is true for service delivery where instead of calories, accurate and consistent performance data on the human, physical and financial resources consumed (ie the service inputs) are monitored. Matching that level of consumption with the expected activities is then required for optimum performance to occur without burnout.

Just as the contestants go from struggling to walk up a flight of stairs to running marathons, successful delivery of a service also increases its long-term potential. As customers make the service an indispensable part of their everyday needs they begin to look for more ways to use it, request more capabilities, or simply tell others about the benefits of the service. Each activity grows the service capacity.

The unexpected part for many competitors, however, comes in a third ingredient to the menu. That is, the trainers’ role in understanding the emotional reasons why the contestants became overweight in the first place. “How did you get to be over 400 pounds?” a contestant is asked. “One mouthful at a time” they seem to reply. So it is with service delivery, which often loses its performance one incident at a time until a culture exists that poor performance is the norm and that the service has such insurmountable obstacles that it is not worth improving.

Without addressing this underlying culture, any bloated, slow or unhealthy service is only going to achieve short-term improvements (think crash diets or New Year’s resolutions).

It is the job of the two trainers to guide the contestants to making the right choices in their diet, push them outside of their normal exercise comfort zones, change the value systems that lead them to becoming overweight in the first place, and take personal ownership and accountability for their recovery.

I wonder if Bob and Gillian would make good Service Owners?

The Jell-O cup PMO

October 12, 2009 Leave a comment

Have you ever got frustrated at the kids opening a pack of Jell-O cups just enough to extract one item, then struggling to tear back the pack a little more a day or so later for the next one? Or how about eating the last granola bar and leaving the empty box on the shelf so no-one knows to buy more? I know every parent turns off at least one light switch a day in the playroom or garage.

Process Transparency

As parents we often take on the responsibility of cleaning up these little items by taking the 30 seconds it requires to toss the boxes in the trash and add it to the grocery list, or by tearing the complete Jell-O package apart and placing all the cups loose back in the fridge. It makes life easier for everyone. However, if done properly, no-one realizes it’s being done – they just go right ahead and get the Jell-O or granola bar.

It’s part of our make-up as parents. Just like driving the family on vacation, or cleaning out the Guest Bedroom before Grandma comes to stay.

So it is with an effective PMO – the tools, processes and procedures it puts in place should be transparent to the normal operation of the organization. If they’re too “heavyweight” they will burden the core activities being performed. Too lightweight and they will leave too much to chance and never achieve their goals.

Getting a process wrong will also – at best – be wasteful of everyone’s time and energy, never a good thing in today’s resource constrained business environment. At worst it will cause people to find workarounds or avoid doing certain process steps at all, which creates inconsistency and variation in execution – the single biggest cause in operational waste according to disciples of Six Sigma.

It takes more than education

There also comes a point in any parent’s life when they decide it’s time to educate the rest of the family on proper refrigerator etiquette or energy saving. So we sit everyone down and explain. Younger ones nod. Teenagers roll their eyes. Everyone agrees to try to do better. However, several days later – weeks if you’re lucky – you’ll feel the need to sit them down again because it just didn’t seem to stick. And so it goes on over a lifetime until those kids have houses, mortgages and grocery bills of their own.

Only then do parents become smart.

On occasion, though, parents get a break: Consider when someone (probably a parent) at a soda can producer looked at how people use and store their products and discovered that if they laid the cans down in a box on their side rather than on end, and provided a tear-off corner for the box, they could create a little bit of storage excellence for families – the Refrigerator Pack.

Embedded Tools & Documentation

The lesson here for effective PMOs is that you can’t rely on process education alone. People forget, particularly if they use the tool or process infrequently. Instead, any tool has to be embedded completely in the process such that the task is made easier by its use and that it can’t be completed without it.

Process Documentation also has to be inherent in the tool or process itself, both at an overview and step-specific details. This can be done by using on-line Workflow maps which guide the user through key steps and provide easy access to specific Best Practice examples and how-to’s, or by building reusable templates and check lists that form the basis of the required project plans, process activities or data collection.

Just like the Refrigerator Pack, the PMO infrastructure needs to provide easy visibility to people’s use of it including the status of each item and overall flow through each process, and creates enough structure to ensure proper usage, yet enough flexibility to allow innovation and improvement in the process as the environment grows and changes.

Hopefully that’s some more Food for Thought (all be it Jell-O and Granola bars) to consider when creating your PMO.

Similarly Different

October 12, 2009 1 comment

“One ship drives east, and another west,
With the self-same winds that blow;
‘Tis the set of the sails and not the gales,
That decides the way to go.

Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate,
As they voyage along through life;
‘Tis the will of the soul that decides the goal,
And not the calm or the strife.”

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

I’ve had that quote on a plaque in my office for many, many, years to remind me that even given the same exact environment, different people – or teams of people – can produce significantly different results based on the way they read the environment, make adjustments, and coordinate the resources at their disposal.

The delivery of projects is no different.

And that’s what I hope to contribute with this blog:  To look at the delivery of projects as a holistic service is potentially quite similar to many other contributions to the industry. This one, however, is hopefully a little different in its focus on the environment supporting the projects, rather than the project delivery per se.  ie The Process of Projects.  Similarly Different.

At the same time, I’ve always been charmed by metaphors and analogies that help illuminate complex topics by shining a light on them from an unconventional direction. I hope that my posts will do the same. Time will tell!