Project plans are your source of truth

It’s been a while since I last wrote about project plans, calling them living, breathing documents. As part of the recent series digging into the critical components of scope and estimates, project plans are the next logical discussion point. Project plans are the manifestation of the scope and estimates. It comes in the form of gantt charts, excel work breakdown structures, calendars, etc.

 

The project plan, in whatever form, is a combination of tasks (scope), timelines (schedule ), resources and cost (sometimes). They can be high-level or very detailed. They should show dependencies among tasks. However, I would caution you to make them too detailed, as they aren’t set in stone, and making them complicated means it can be painful to update. Give yourself and your project team enough information to see what needs to happen, when it will happen, and discussion points for scope changes, issues, etc.

Most project managers have their preferred tool. My preference is the simplest tool for the project team. In my cases, this is usually a work-breakdown chart in excel. Excel is something that most business professionals know how to use. You also have flexibility in how much detail you provide and it’s fairly easy to update.

Most important is for the project manager to be regularly reviewing and updating the project plan. Always accurately represent where you are in the project. This is something that you should be sending out to key stakeholders on a weekly, or semi-weekly basis. It really does become the point of reference for discussions. Stakeholders may not read it, but you can use it to guide discussions, and point to it as the single source of truth. This is key.

Estimates are just educated guestimates

In my last post, I introduced scope. I defined it, explained how it can go wrong, and discussed the key role of the project manager to manage it. This week, I’m going to dive into some thoughts on scope definition and estimates. With everything I said last week about scope needing constant supervision and management, how is it possible to effectively define project scope?

scope-creep-monsterThere is a reason that we refer to the assignment of hours to tasks in projects as estimates. They are rough calculation, or less eloquently referred to as guesses. There are too many unknowns in software or data integration projects to be 100% correct, 100% of the time. However, there are definitely tips and tricks that we can use to get us a point where we are right more often than wrong (although that is a relative number when you consider that scope creep or changes are to be expected).

So, where do we start? We start with gathering as much information you we can about the work to be done. In the sales process, there are usually some very high level swag timelines thrown out, with caveats (AKA assumptions) that point to the need to fine-tune the timeline as the sales process continues. The next steps is to think about those tasks as they relate to functions and tasks your organization has done before. While it may not be the exact scenario, you can usually assign a relatively good initial estimate.

A common error in estimating is trying to estimate a task that is too broadly defined. Make sure you create tangible component tasks.

If a requirement is totally new, or you are using new resources, or there are quite a bit of unknowns, you need to take that all into consideration. You should look at similar work and then apply some multiple of time to account for your unknowns. This is where documenting your assumptions becomes critical. Like the scope definition, estimates and their corresponding plans (work breakdown structures, project plans, etc) are all living, breathing documents. They need to be reviewed, updated and acknowledged regularly.

A separate issue in all of this is the alignment of scope to project cost/budget. This are two very different things. When you are scoping a project, it is in your best interest to scope it fully. Do not consider the customer or organization budget in that matter. It is a strategic decision by your organization (sales, executive, etc) to decide what is charged to the customer for what scope. Negotiation of fees and scope will happen. Your goal should still be to stay as close to budget and timelines as you can, but understand that there can be other circumstances in play.

The biggest take-away to all of this is, you have to start somewhere! Monitor your estimates, update and communicate regularly and then learn from it. Apply the learnings to the next estimates you need to do.

Trust that your scope will change

The Project Management Book of Knowledge defines scope as the project boundaries. I prefer this definition on TechTarget:

Project scope is the part of project planning that involves determining and documenting a list of specific project goals, deliverables, tasks, costs and deadlines.

From a practical project management perspective, what does this really mean? Who gets to define this? How do you manage? Let’s delve into the details of a scope.

A very simple evolution of a project is sales > implementation > support. Scope is relevant in each of these phases, however it may not mean the same thing to the stakeholders key to each phase. A company agrees to invest money in a project to solve a business problem. A salesperson has convinced the company that they have the solution. Here’s the first step of the process where scope can diverge. Can the corporate decision maker speak for all the business stakeholders? Do they really understand the details of the business problem that needs to be solved for each type of user? And how about the sales person? Do they really understand the software? Do they understand the business problems it can solve? Are more technical sales engineers involved in the sales process?

That simple example involving just the corporate decision maker and the sales person is indicative of how scope can rapidly become a problem in a project.

Scope must be managed throughout the entire project. 

Over the course of my career, I have had different levels of involvement in the sales process. Some I was involved from the first demo/sales call with the customer, others I help with preparing estimates and potential timelines, others I inherit after the contract is signed and others I inherit long after the implementation. It doesn’t matter at what point I become involved in a project, my first action is to receive a copy of all project artifacts. And yes, I do read that contract. I want and need to know what was committed.

Unfortunately, I’m not done there. I take the details I can find in the contract and communicate those out as often as I can. If this is a large project with multiple business teams, I will review the scope with each team. This is the opportunity for your customer, and more specifically the business users, to vocalize their agreement (or not). Either is fine, but it is imperative to align expectations. If there is disagreement, it is the responsibility of the project manager to sound the alarm to the corporate decision makers, and the services and sales organizations. Misaligned scope results in 1) unhappy customers, 2) stalemate of customer and company or 3) mutual agreement to realign scope. Note: The scope doesn’t necessarily have to be immediately changed. It is sufficient for the new work to be phased in after the initial scope implementation.

This is definitely a rinse and repeat process. Business are changing on a daily business, and implementing data and software projects means your environment is constantly changing. Time doesn’t stand still during implementation projects. This means new inquiries and requests come up constantly. Each time, you need to figure out how it fits into the work you are already doing. Some requests can be easily accommodated, but others need a deliberate approach to determine how it impacts existing goals, timelines, budgets, and overall commitments.

Do not fear the scope. The scope is your friend. It provides guiding principles for the work you are doing, and the goals you are accomplishing.


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To POC or not…

POCs or proof of concepts are project initiatives to test drive a product to ensure it works for your business needs, and functions in the way it is promoted. From the perspective of the evaluator making the decision on what software application to invest in, they can make a lot of sense. It can also make a fair amount of sense to do a POC if you are the enterprise software service provider. This is a “simple” way to have the customer use the system and gives the software provider opportunities to engage the end users and create stickiness in key business functions.realty-check

There are several considerations that the customer and the provider need to make before deciding whether a proof of concept is the right approach.

  1. What’s the goal? Can a POC be created to cover the key requirements with reasonable effort, cost and time commitments of business users and the software provider? For software providers, on boarding a customer to specific functionality for a POC is no different than on-boarding that customer in a full implementation. There may be an additional level of involvement of both the business users and the software provider to make the business use case successful. Are all sides ready for this level of commitment?
  2. Is the scope small enough that it’s not cost prohibitive, but large enough that the solution covers the critical requirements for you to make a long term decision?
  3. What defines success and/or failure? Are you looking for specific outcomes (i.e. replacement of a specific system, improved performance, reduced costs, etc) for a set of business processes? Are there broader use cases that these component functionalities are only a small part of?
  4. Is everyone on board? Software POCs need customer decision makers, customer business users, and customer IT resources sometimes. They also need some combination of sales, developers, analysts, integrators, dev ops and project managers from the service provider. Does everyone understand the POC? Are they committed to the process? the goals? the fact that this is a POC and not a full implementation?

POCs can be quite successful. They can be a great way to quickly spin up a core set of functionality to enable customers to get in and experience what you have to offer. It works best when the scope is limited, and fully understood.

All that said, I think it’s still important to express what a POC is not. A POC is not a replacement for a full software implementation. The breadth and depth of enterprise software is way to complex to showcase, and hone all the business processes in a “small” POC. It is also not a trick to get development and integration components done before the actual project begins.

To POC or not is up to you, your company culture (and tolerance for these types of projects), and that of the software provider you are working with.

It really isn’t all about the numbers

Sitting at the intersection of business and technology means that I can interact with both groups. As a project manager who specializes in data projects, this often means diving into the analysis of the data, for validation, or understanding requirements, or more importantly to help craft a story, preferably around project success. Companies are becoming more data savvy, hiring Chief Data Officers and data scientists, and focusing on numbers to drive business decisions. I am very supportive of this, but we need to be careful to remember that it’s not just about the numbers.

numbers

More important is how we use these numbers to tell our stories. If your customer presents you with a problem, and a set of data that supports their conclusions, you need to look at it end to end to determine how to approach your story. Here’s a few thoughts on how you might approach it.

  • What were the assumptions made? In lieu of other information, we start with a core set of assumptions. It’s good to recognize and document these assumptions. It’s also good to challenge the assumptions if you have information not previously considered.
  • Evaluate your inputs end to end. Start at the beginning of the process and evaluate each step to understand the decisions made, and how those decisions impacted the outcomes.
  • Evaluate the outputs. There are so many opportunities to introduce uncertainty and inaccuracies into human process (data or otherwise). Was the data entry manual? Is there evidence of irregularities? Does the output make sense in relation to the logic of it’s corresponding process? Systematic logic is still at the whims of the people who write it.
  • Challenge the conclusion. While it’s important not to be defensive here, you do need to consider the “foregone conclusion”  and make sure it withstands probing and prodding. This is where perspective and point of view comes in. Make a conscious determination of the story you are telling based not the facts.
  • Communicate the deficiencies. If you go from one extreme to another extreme, swapping the entire frame of reference, it raises questions and credibility issues. As you are diving in and crafting your story, make sure to highlight deficiencies and inefficiencies of all components. Try to be balanced in your analysis, taking into account the work your customer took before it came to you.

There are lots of methodologies being used for diving in to real root causes (i.e. 5 whys, fishbone, etc). In data projects, it’s about being able to understand what the data is telling you and being able to convey that in a coherent and concise manner. Please don’t give me a bunch of facts, without an explanation of how you got there. This is the story. Understanding that data needs explanations, in the form of stories,  is why I do so well in managing my data projects.

How do food adventures relate to project management?

For the past two weeks, my family and I have been visiting Amsterdam, Antwerp and Paris. This was the first time my girls had been outside the country. Out of shear necessity, this also meant that we were exposing them to lots of new cuisine. Ultimately, trying all the new foods became a highlight of our trip. My girls learned a lot about themselves along the way. And I learned that managing people’s food preferences is a lot like managing stakeholders (yes, I had to tie it in to project management).

Our trip started a bit on the precarious side on day one in Amsterdam when the younger daughter was tired and hungry and offered up pizza or pasta as the only options for dinner. Since neither of those were of interest to anyone else, I suggested a Spanish tapas place. I figured I would be able to find at least one dish that everyone liked. We had prawns in lemon butter sauce, abondigas (Spanish meatballs), a potato and egg frittata, grilled octopus and several other dishes. I knew it was a winner about half-way through when Ana asked if I could make the potato and egg frittata at home. Cayla decided that grilled octopus was pretty tasty.

 Amsterdam is known for Indonesian food, and since the girls were being adventurous, we tried it. We did the traditional Indonesian rice table, where we were served a variety of dishes of chicken, lamb, beef, fish and shrimp, all covered in a different sauce. The experience was unique and Cayla declared this her favorite new food of the trip.

In Antwerp, we had traditional Belgian food including waffles and fries. Here we learned about the inclination to use mayonnaise and unexpected sauces on everything. Sadly, we ordered mussels before it was explained that you never eat mussels in months that don’t have an “r”.

We spent the last couple of days in Paris. Our first dinner we ordered both frogs legs and escargot to continue the culinary exploration. Frog legs were a favorite to eat, but the experience of eating the escargot was a highlight. We also learned that Parisians use dark chocolate in their ice cream. We ended our trip at our hotel restaurant, a very nice restaurant that showcased a 7 course chef’s tasting menu. The food adventure stopped short for the girls for this one, so we had to order regular menu items. We did make them try the amusebuch. This did not rank high up for the girls, but Carson and I enjoyed it.

Through all that, what did we learn?

  • You don’t have to like it, you just have to try it
  • Often food is about the image of it in your mind, rather than it’s reality
  • You really can find at least 1 thing on any menu you can enjoy for a meal
  • You don’t need to travel hundreds of miles across the ocean to start your food adventure

What does any of this have to do with project management? Actually, a whole lot more than you think.

  • This whole trip was about managing stakeholders; acknowledging preferences and balancing motivation (hunger, tiredness, etc)
  • Trying something new shouldn’t be under-estimated. If it doesn’t work, you can try something else.
  • Timetables and schedules are important even when not. We were on vacation so didn’t have a set schedule. We all had an idea of what we wanted to do and see, but exactly when or how were flexible. Despite all this, we still needed to manage to a schedule for food, relaxation and bed. It was clear when we made the wrong decision, or were pushing each other to our max.

Being more zen in your project management approach

For the last year and half, I’ve been doing yoga as my primary form of exercise. Before that, I had been attending a once a week intensive yoga class for about a year. I set a goal for myself to go at least twice during the work week, and then on weekends, I attend my regular Saturday and Sunday classes. Various classes are run throughout the day, with the earliest starting at 6am. I don’t go to those very often. My rule of thumb is that I will go if I am already up (i.e. after early morning airport drop-offs), or if I wake up naturally in time and it is still early enough to go after I try to go back to sleep.

This morning, I woke up, couldn’t go back to sleep so motivated myself to go to morning yoga. Maybe it was the early morning or the post workout coffee, but I started thinking about how yoga principles carryover to project management. And I’m not the only one. If the topic interests you, you can also read posts by Alison Sigmon, Workfront, Julie Miller,  and Katy Martucci.

  • Find your base – During most yoga practices, you spend the first few minutes centering yourself and setting your intention. Additionally, many yoga practices require an engagement of your core and grounding in focusing on your breath. In project management, you base is your foundation/methodology. It is the thing that helps you set the projection of the project, and you revisit as the project progresses.
  • `Everybody can fly – This picture was taken at a 4 hour acro-yoga workshop during the time when I was only attending 1 yoga class a week. Our instructor, Ginny Loving, is holding the base of my super woman, but it is my core strength and balance allowing me to fly. Similar principles apply in project management. With a strong foundation, anyone can manage a project. The more you strengthen the core, the longer you can hold the pose, the easier it will be to get in and out of it. Each project you run provides that experience you need to manage the next one. The more projects you manage, the larger initiatives you can undertake, and the easier it will be to navigate the ebs and flows of the project.
  • The devil is in the details – There are lots of different types of yoga. It’s important to consider the positions, chanting, intensity, heat, etc before you will find the one you enjoy (and this may change day to day). There are many different nuances to managing projects. You need to consider project goals, stakeholders & team management, risks, issues, self-imposed and external timelines, etc (and these too may change day to day).

This is just a fun, little example of how project management is truly related to most things. Where have you made connections between your hobbies and your job?

If you find project management boring, you might be doing something wrong!

 I saw a recent survey that concluded that project managers are the most bored at work second only to legal professionals. I had a similar conversation with my cousin a couple years ago. And similarly, I had another person tell me they found data analysis boring. On one hand, to each their own. Just because I enjoy something doesn’t mean others do as well. However, as I dug into each of these conversations, I realized there was a big difference between the work they were describing and the work that I perform under these same descriptors.

What is it that makes my kind of project management fun?

  • I get to solve real business problems – As an implementation project manager, I get to make sure that the solution implemented meets the business goal, and delivers customer value. I am the facilitator of change in the organization. Yes, there are some tedious tasks that may come with this, like daily status calls, project status documents, task management. But these are small components, compared to the larger component of bridging the gap between the stakeholders, and ensuring the business users get their needs met.
  • Big picture, small details – I get to do both. On one hand, it is my job to understand the big picture of my customer, of my company and then figuring out how to align all the small details to meet everyone’s goals. I am an advocate for the customer, and a feedback collector for my company. To deliver customer value, you really do need to be operating at both levels.
  • I get to be the playmaker – Related to the first bullet, I get to drive us to the end goal. I have to figure out the different puzzle pieces, and figure out how to organize them, in order to create the beautiful picture at the end. Since this is a work in progress from the moment the contract is signed, some times I have draw and cut out the puzzles pieces on my own; other times I’m given a couple of boxes of mismatched pieces and told to sort it all out.

To me, project management is only as boring as you allow it to be. I thrive on figuring out the challenges.

Why is it important to put process first?

…Or if not first, than pretty close to the top. The reality is that the focus is on implementation of the new system, not necessarily on the business process or workflows that make that system successful. It is a known fact among business owners that businesses need defined process to scale, and it is this scalability that allows for long term success. This is true in software implementation projects as well.

https://strativa.com/new-business-processes-and-new-systems/

https://strativa.com/new-business-processes-and-new-systems/

Let’s explore why that’s important.

  • Without process there’s no definition and no roles – In lieu of no direction, nobody has responsibilities and nobody knows what to do. This leads to two issues: 1) everyone doing the same as what they did before the implementation and 2) people trying to be helpful by throwing everything over the fence to the next person (i.e. asking every person who has a remote possibility of understanding what to do), and hoping for a handoff. This just results in frustration all the way around.
  • How do you implement the system workflows if you don’t understand the process? Many software systems (CRM, ticketing, ERM, BPM, etc) have workflows that need to get defined. If you don’t understand what the process is, or what you need it to be, how can you implement the workflows? While many of these workflows are changeable, it becomes more difficult to unravel once you starting using them.
  • Reconciling buy-in – How do you reconcile buy-in from all the different stakeholders if you haven’t figured out what the process is, and therefore don’t know all the people it will touch.

I realize every day how hard it is to put process first. I often get caught up in the minutia of implementation, or other tasks at hand, rather than focusing on the big picture. Process needs to be a part of a project implementation as the software integration itself. Consider this from the beginning of the project and you’ll save yourself and your stakeholders a lot of grief.

When change doesn’t go your way

There are always opportunities for improvement…”harder, better, faster, stronger.” That said, everything you try isn’t going to work out. Cliche, I know but still true. I had an experience outside the corporate environment recently that is having me to reflect on what went wrong, what i would change (or not) and how to recover quickly.

change-all-thingsI have been leading an external effort with a big goal. My team is composed of many volunteers all working towards the same goal. As part of this initiative, we just completed a multi-faceted online/offline marketing initiative. There was a solid group of volunteers working on these initiatives and they really did a good job. Logistically, we pulled off a larger initiative that in previous years. Unfortunately, despite the hard work of the volunteers, the outcomes were not what was expected or hoped for. As I was getting real-time updates during the execution phase, I started to realize that we might not see the results we had projected. We reacted quickly and made adjustments to the execution plan. Even so, the results were underwhelming.

What now? While I was saddened by the results, all I can do, and all I can encourage my project team to do is learn from the experience and move on. Here’s how I’ll approach this post mortem:

Remember that people put effort and emotion into executing change. It’s very important to remember not to point blame. This should be treated as a learning opportunity for everyone. 

  • Determination of too much or too little – This is the evaluation of the prep & execution plans to determine whether you did too much or not enough.
  • Support – Did you get the support you needed across the organization? Did everyone buy in? Did everyone do their part? Where did the breakdown occur? How could more support have been provided.
  • Eliminate technical issues as a cause – This involves checking each and every one of technical component (software, hardware, etc) that could have had issues. To the best of our knowledge, are they in working order now? were they in working order at the time of execution? “Working order” encompasses both the physical “did it work” and “did it perform its function?”
  • External factors – Were there external factors that could have impacted your plan? Common ones might be weather, mergers and acquisitions, politics, etc. Some times these do just get in the way. The goal is to identify the ones that impacted you this time, and review those risks the next time
  • Get up again – Ok, so this plan didn’t work out. It has no bearing on the next plan, or even the continuation of the current plan. We take what we’ve learned and apply it to the next round.

The success or failure of a project isn’t solely in the hands of the project team members. The entire project team, including the direct and indirect stakeholders have responsibility to provide the support needed. Further, it is the broader stakeholders that need to help pick the team back up and give them the leeway they need to make improvements the next time around.