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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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.

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.

 

 

 

Choose your words carefully

be-sure-to-taste-your-wordsWe are often reminded that words should be deliberate, and that sometimes words can hurt. In project management, these are applicable. More importantly, we need to be very conscious of the image that our words present. New projects are often opportunities to deepen the customer relationship. If all project stakeholders aren’t careful about the language they use, the customer or team can get the wrong impression.

Project managers need to have a very clear picture of goals of the project, and the nature of the relationship. It is our job to set the tone of the project. This means if any language is being used that might derail the tone you are trying to set, it is critical for you identify it early, and reframe the conversation.

Many of my projects are data related, which means I spent a lot of time validating data and demonstrating our process to the business users to explain how we got from point A to point B. As we all know, users don’t like change so the introduction of a new system brings distrust until you can prove that you’ve done what was expected (specifically the data gets validated). It is not uncommon for me to hear “it’s wrong.” Probing into that phrase usually results in the business users conveying additional information that would change the methodology. “The data is wrong” in the context of a data project is never where you want to start the implementation. Sometimes I will find that there is an upstream issue that gets uncovered during the implementation. Yes, that is a problem that needs to be fixed. But had we not been in the middle of an implementation, you might not have realized you had the issue.

Another example is configurable software. Again, people are very caution of new software systems, especially ones that proclaim predictive or advanced functionality. The easiest way to convince people is to configure a test. However, too often, the response will be the “algorithm is wrong.” Is the algorithm really wrong? The output is exactly what the software tells it to do. So if a test was configured to “show the art of the possible” with limited information about the specific business or use case, there is a high probability that the outcomes will be unexpected.

“Unexpected” does not mean the same thing as “Wrong”

These words should not be used interchangeable. “Wrong” sets the tone with the business users that the system isn’t doing what it needs to do. This creates very negative emotions towards the project. “Unexpected” can be explained, adjusted and resolved. Working with your project team to resolve unexpected results can foster respect, and positive emotions towards the project and the software.

 

3 factors that contribute to products not delivering business value

A couple of weeks ago I explored the idea of when work is done. This week, I’d like to extend this idea to product management. We have all seen too many products where they promote they do X, but once you start using it you realize that it doesn’t quite do X, or X is so complicated to execute that it defeats the purpose. But how do we really get here? It’s unlikely that a product manager simply decided to push out a bad product. Or that the quality assurance team didn’t actually QA it.

Adobe-blog-product-meme-tell-me-more-extensive-testing-one-client

I think there are probably 3 contributing factors:

  1. Lack of customer feedback – Sometimes businesses truly are on the cutting edge in the development of something new and therefore there is no way to get the feedback needed on your new product (think iPod). However, this is usually not the case. We all need to make sure that we are engaging with customers and getting feedback on the products we are developing otherwise we pose serious risk to missing the mark.
  2. Misunderstanding of the business context – A common factor that occurs as a result of the lack of customer feedback is missing out on the customer context. You can think you know what problem you are trying to solve, and develop a product that solves that problem, but you’ll still have adoption issues if the workflow or functional assumptions don’t align to the business context of how the users will engage with it.
  3. Making assumptions about whether it will work without actually vetting the assumed changes – Too many times we get in trouble for being wrong based on an “I think” rather than an “I think, but I’ll verify and get back to you.” All products are built based on a set of assumptions. It’s usually these assumptions that drive how it gets QA’d. We can’t then assume that because the assumptions change (no matter how small they are), that all will work well. These new assumptions need to be vetted as well.

Product management and project management aren’t exact sciences. They do take a level of art and skill to be able to navigate the chaos and deliver on the business value. However, we can take steps to mitigate these factors, ultimately increasing our probability of success with our customers.

The alignment of my project methodology to the lean process

I’ve written before on the implementation methodology that I tend to follow when managing my integration projects. If you missed it, you can see it here. I’m taking a lean six sigma course from Simplilearn and was pleasantly surprised by how well our methodology aligned to the lean process.

lean-six-sigma-process-flowStep 1: Critical to both processes is identify the value. Why is the customer engaging in
the in this activity? what are they trying to accomplish? how is it measured?

Step 2: In six sigma, the next step is to map the value stream. This step is about getting to the goals & requirements. In our integration methodology, this encompasses steps 2 through 8 and is the core of the nitty gritty details. Since most of my projects relate to data integration, I need to know:

  • where’s the data coming from?
  • what’s the source of record?
  • who owns it?
  • what’s the data format(s)?
  • how is the data accessed?
  • how does the data need to be transformed?
  • what’s the frequency of exchange?
  • what’s the trigger?
  • are there software requirements or limitations?
  • have yo closed the loop? do you need to?

Step 3: The process of defining and discovering the requirements and goals leads naturally into the development of whatever flow(s) you need. This is true from a data, development and dependencies perspective. This process also helps identify gaps, complexities, inefficiencies and bottlenecks.

Step 4: In lean, like in data integration projects, you must discuss and determine push versus pull. Lean is seeking out the most efficient solution, generating the least amount of waste. While that is the ideal in data integration projects as well, you’re often at the whim of the technology, or other decisions.

Step 5: Seek perfection in all things! In lean, this means developing a system without waste. In my data integration projects, this means developing the process that will deliver the cleanest, simplest, consistent, and reliable system. And for that you need to be vigilant in your measurement, and you can’t forget or forgo testing and validation. This is not a one-time endeavor. With data (and more and more processes (if not all) are driven by data these days), things can change. The importance of closed feedback loops, regular use and validation, the process and data become stale.

As the project manager for data integration projects, I believe that that we should all be looking for ways to simplify and streamline what we are doing to reduce errors and ultimately become more efficient. As we all know, there is a lot we can not control in project management (and in life). We need to be constantly re-evaluating our state and making incremental improvements. This is the core to both lean six sigma and my integration methodology.

For more information and case studies on lean six sigma, check out this “Learn Lean Six Sigma Part 1” article by Mohamed Elgendy.

 

 

When are you done?

it-compiles-ship-itAs a paranoid project manager, I will conduct my own validation before communicating to customers. There have been too many times where I have not done this extra validation and sent it to the customer who immediately identified obvious issues. That doesn’t help anyone during a project implementation. And actually, it can cause serious credibility issues with the stakeholders.

For me, a task is done when I can demonstrate that the requirements are met or the issue is resolved. I’m not talking about the detailed nuances that are found the stakeholder does their deep dive into the solution. I’m also not talking about the scenarios where we have set the foundation early on that the validation would be collaborative in nature. However, I’m finding that the ability to follow through and conduct basic validation before communicating it’s done is a skill. And it’s one definitely not found in my teenage daughters and in many adults. I’ll walk through two quick examples, before I set some guidelines.

My husband pays my teenage daughter, Cayla, to do his laundry. Every week, I over-hear the same conversation. “Is my laundry done?” from Carson to Cayla. Once Cayla confirms, the follow up is either “so why don’t I have any socks (or whatever)?” or “then where is my basket (as it hasn’t been returned to our room)?” For the most part, Cayla has done the majority of the work, she just didn’t fully follow through. This could mean the laundry has been washed, folded and put away but the baskets not returned; or just washed and in a pile downstairs; or some other variation on an incomplete status.

In the workplace, I’ve seen lots of examples of this. A project team member will hand over what is supposed to be a complete deliverable, but I can’t get it to run, or it doesn’t meet the basic requirements. I’ve heard all sorts of excuses as justification throughout the years: “it’s done but not complete”; “it compiled so I thought it would work”, “I installed it but didn’t configure it”, “I finished one piece of it”, “it works if you do x, y and z  (even if that’s not the logical use)”

So, when are you done? I think there a few critical components that project team members should be consider before marking something as complete.

  • Available – The solution must be available in a form to distribute to the business user. Even if it’s something you are developing and installing on their behalf, there should be a tangible output to show for it.
  • Configured – Having a solution installed is often not enough. Is the solution configured as required to meet the customer needs? or in a state where the customer can configure it themselves?
  • Validated – Have you followed the steps the user would use to interact with the solution? Have you ensured the workflow makes sense, the solution does what it needs to and produces output that is as correct as you can determine (sometimes it is just doing a gut check on the output or making sure the user interface works for the inputs).

This is one of the most frustrating components of projects from a customer perspective. We all need to take ownership of the work we do and make sure we are doing some form of validation against the requirements and against basic usability. Does your solution do what the requirements define it should. I understand that not everyone has the business context, but own the functional requirements of whatever you’re developing.