Posts Tagged ‘lessons learned’

Lessons on the Wrong Resource

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Here is a lesson I learned when doing a project review.  I guess I knew it all along but it was certainly brought home to me when I did the review.

A large public corporation had just finished a project.  It had been difficult to say the least.  It was well over budget and time.  The deliverables were not in line with the original scope statement and there was already talk of a “Stage Two”.  The project had been particularly political and I was brought in as an independent person to review the project and identify any lessons learned.

In preliminary discussions it was hinted strongly that the problem was the project manager.  He had not taken control of the project, and many things had not been done properly.  He set adventurous deadlines and did not manage the business staff well.  I kept an open mind but there was certainly a perception that the project manager was to blame.

I reviewed the project documentation before starting interviews and it did appear weak.  The risk assessment was only done once, and appeared superficial.  There was little follow up on mitigation strategies.  There was no documented process for managing variations.  The schedule updates seemed to be sporadic.  There was no Project Plan.  Some of the content you would expect to find in a project plan was scattered through a number of other documents and some just missing.  It was evident from the documentation project management was weak.

I interviewed the project manager and he was very defensive.  He pointed the finger at many people who had contributed to the problems.  He claimed lack of support, and lack of authority.  Decisions were taken without his knowledge and he was later informed.  One example was a major variation that was agreed without him being aware of the proposal.  He was told to just go do it.  Clearly he was not in control.

As we proceeded, I asked about his previous experience.  I was astonished to find that he had never undertaken a project this big.  In fact his biggest project would barely be a tenth the size of this project.  I asked him how it was that he came to run the project.  His answer was that it had been presented to him as a chance to prove his worth.  An opportunity to show people what he could do.  The break he had been looking for to advance his career.  He had no formal training.  He had carried out a few small projects but never been trained in project management.

Once I knew this, I could understand his perspective.  He found:

  • People were not cooperating as he expected them to
  • Verbal assurances were never honoured
  • Decisions of a critical nature were not being made with his input
  • The staff he was given were not up to the job requirements
  • The original estimates he was given were not realistic

The worse it got, the more he found people finding a way around him to run their own agenda.  He was not only out of his depth.  He was set up to fail.

So where did the blame lie?  Most people, including myself, have taken on a task and found it was much more complex than we imagined.  In some cases we have taken it on because we pushed to be there, and in other cases we were pushed into the situation.  In the former case , we may be able to lay some blame at the feet of the person who gave in to our demands to allow us to carry out the task but mostly, we have ourselves to blame.  In the latter case, the main person to blame is the person who pushed us into the situation then set us adrift.  The project manager was definitely the latter case.  He was pushed into the role, his reservations were smoothed over, and then he was set adrift.

My report identified this as the problem, and the person who was Sponsor was the person responsible.  What I couldn’t say in the report, much less prove, was that the poor guy was appointed because the Sponsor wanted someone he could dominate and who would not stand up to him over project issues.  I recommended the project manager be given proper training and continue working in that role but on smaller projects until he built up his experience.

A year later I had coffee with a person from the corporation and asked what had happened.  Unfortunately there was no fairy tale ending.  The project manager had resigned, or been forced to resign.  It was not clear.  The Sponsor had rubbished my report and said I would never work for them again.  Stage two of the project had been outsourced and was now causing bitter disputes within the organisation.

I did work for them again.  After about three years, the Sponsor had moved on, and I was approached to do some more work for the corporation.  Evidently someone had said to the CEO that they needed someone who would “tell it as it is” and I had proved I would three years previously.

The lesson to come from all this is that you need the right resources.  In this case it was the project manager but I have seen the same situation in every project role.  Not putting in place the right person will come back to bite the project somewhere down the track.  The other lesson is to make sure that you have the capability to do the job when it is offered to you.  There is an old saying “beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.  I think it refers to Trojan horses, but in the world of the GFC, it is just as appropriate today.

Lesson on Identifying the Outcome and the Problem.

Monday, March 12th, 2012

What is the problem the project is trying to solve?  Think about your current project.  Can you answer that question?  Why is it even important?

Every project is trying to solve a problem.  The problem may be:

  • We cannot cross a river
  • There is an opportunity to claim a niche market
  • Our software is no longer supported

If the problem is identified, the outcome can be identified.  It is not the solution.  There is a difference.  Taking the first example, the outcome is that we need to cross the river.  The solution may be a tunnel, a bridge or a ferry.  We might select a bridge as the solution, but it may not necessarily be the only or even best solution.  A business case needs to be developed to look at how we can achieve our outcome and nominate the most suitable solution.

Too many people focus on the solution rather than the outcome. In the second example we might say let’s build a new product to meet a niche market.  Perhaps the solution could be to have someone else build the product, or to patent the solution and sell the patent.

This particular lesson came from a review of a project in crisis.  A stockbroking firm were building a new client information and transaction system.  They had employed a company to build a web based solution.  There had been numerous prototypes built but they could not settle on the final product.  The CIO called me in to try and resolve the situation.  My assignment was to last a week.  I was gone in two days – very poor form for a consultant.  This is how it happened.

My first interview was with The Financial Manager.  They were providing the funding and were co-sponsors of the project.  I asked what outcome they were trying to achieve.  The response was that they were trying to provide better customer service and retain their client base.  In fact I think they were trying to keep up with their competitors rather than surpass them.  In order to do this for the minimum cost, as things were tight financially, the solution was to develop a simple interface that allowed customers to undertake basic transactions and see core information.

My next interview was with the other co-sponsor, the Marketing Director.  I started by asking the same question.  His outcome was a bit broader than the Financial Manager.  He also wanted to provide better customer service but also wanted to attract new customers from his competitors.  In order to do this, his solution was to build the best, most sophisticated customer interface in the industry.

In the afternoon I spoke to the company building the system.  It took a while to get to the truth but the crux of it was they built prototype A and showed it to the Marketing Director.  Add more bells and whistles said the Marketing Director.  They did and showed prototype B to the Financial Manager.  Take out the bells and whistles said the Financial Manager.  We can’t afford them.  Back and forward they went from one to the other adding and removing features.  It was a bit more subtle than how I explained it but the software developer was happy.  They were being paid by the day so variations were all paying work.

By the end of the first day I went back to the CEO and said this.

“The problem may be that you risk loosing existing customers.  In this case the outcome may be to improve services to existing customers.  The problem may also be that you need additional customers to build the business.  One solution may be to attract customers away from your competitors by offering more attractive services.  Both have a potentially different solution so until you decide the problem and outcome, you cannot set the path forward. “

Day two started with a meeting between the CEO, Financial Manager and Marketing Director.  The two co-sponsors explained their perceived problems and desired outcome independently.  There was considerable discussion on which problem was relevant, and it was decided that for this project, we only wanted to look at the problem relating to retaining existing customers.  We then matched where the outcomes were the same and highlighted where the outcomes were different.  Different included outcomes where only one of the co-sponsors had a desired outcome.  It took several hours of debate, and a few directions from the CEO before they had an agreed, common outcome.  That outcome did not include stealing customers from their competitors.  We then worked on the best solution, and by lunch time we had an agreed solution which formed the scope of the work required.  We invited the development team in, and matched their work to the scope statement.  By the end of the day, a conceptual prototype was agreed.  It was in fact a stripped down version of the most recent prototype.

Ready to go home at the end of the second day, I was drawn aside by the Marketing Director.  He asked “If we have another project, and the outcome is to attract our competitor’s customers, what would be the solution?”  I had to point out that there were many solutions.  He had to identify the solutions and evaluate which of those had the best business case.  It may be to enhance the basic customer information system or it may be a new product to attract those investors.  I think the lights finally came on.  He got it.

I did hear from him a few months later when he asked me to facilitate a meeting of his key managers.

“We want to talk about outcomes” he said.  “I want my team to brainstorm solutions and then we can go away and develop business cases for them.”

I asked him how the new customer information system was going.  It was in place, and getting good feedback from the existing clients.  He said he couldn’t understand how it had taken so long to get started.  Sometimes you think you have broken through and then the person confirms there is still some way to go.

Lesson on Managing Variations

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

A lesson I learned many years ago from a very experienced project manager related to managing the changes in a project.

The project was nearing completion but was over budget and over time.  I was not managing the project.  It was being managed by a colleague from the same company I was working with at the time.  He was asked to attend a board meeting to discuss the project.  He suspected it was an ambush.  The CEO was going to try and put the blame on the project manager and possibly fire him.

The project manager seemed unconcerned.  He told me that it was all under control and no action would be taken against him by the board.  I did not understand his proposed defence but he was adamant that he could convince the board of the quality of his project management.  He was one of the best project managers I had ever encountered so asked what my role would be.


The meeting unfolded as expected.  The CEO spent some time outlining the cost and time overruns.  He detailed how the board had approved the appointment of the project manager but the project had now run out of control.  As CEO he pointed out he had many responsibilities and had not had the time to become intimately involved in every detail.  He had sought reassurance from the steering committee that in spite of what had seemed warning signs, all was well.  They had assured him it was.  Finally he had heeded those warning signs, stepped in and found the situation worse than expected.  The budget to complete the project was some 50% over, and it was running several months late.  Our company should be called to account and made to share the cost of the failing project.

There was one board member who knew the project manager well from a previous engagement.  He had in fact recommended this person lead the project.  During the tirade by the CEO, the board member was looking curiously at the project manager as if to say

“Aren’t you going to defend your actions?  Surely this cannot be true.”

I must admit I was feeling uncomfortable but the project manager looked calm and relaxed.  Finally he was asked to respond.  The response went something like this.

“You guys run a tough company.  It is hard to get recognition for a success.  Yes we are 50% over the original budget and yes we are three months over the original schedule.  If you look at the papers I have here you will see that every variation has been estimated in time and cost, and approved by the Steering Committee and CEO.  In fact if you add them all up, you will see we have added 60% to the original budget in terms of cost, and four months to the schedule.  I am actually under the revised budget, and ahead on delivery.

I also have a file of rejected variations that would have put the project another 50% over budget.  Every change is costed, evaluated, considered by the steering committee and approved or rejected.  Nothing that will impact the original scope is undertaken without approval.”

He sat down.  To say there was silence would be an understatement.  It was beyond silence.  It lasted about a minute.  The only sound was the wheels turning in the head of the CEO as he tried vainly to find a way to dig himself out of the hole.

Finally the friendly board member spoke.  He said to the CEO.

“So how is it you were not aware of the cumulative impact of the changes?”

Much stuttering and stammering followed.  In the end the project manager was congratulated by the board for the process and control he brought to the project.  The CEO was reprimanded for wasting the time of the board, and not being across details he should have known.

The lesson I took away from this was that every variation needs to be quantified and submitted for approval.  More importantly there needs to be a strict process in place for this to happen.  It is always easy for the project manager to say yes.  Nobody will thank you for saying yes when the fan takes on a brownish hue.

Lesson on Managing Issues

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Here is another lesson I learned from a real life project.  This one relates to managing issues.  On one occasion I was called in to look at a struggling project.  The project had about 100 staff but seemed to be going around in circles.  Progress had slowed if not stopped.

The first task was to get to grips with why.  The problem turned out to be many problems.  Almost every aspect of the project was bogged down in problems that were causing the wheels to grind to a halt.

The project was to implement SAP in a manufacturing organisation.  The team doing the data conversion were waiting on the team doing the database design before they could proceed with the conversion testing.  The team doing database design were waiting on feedback from SAP in Germany regarding some customisation before they could finalise their design.  The team in Germany were waiting on input from the manufacturing as to how they wanted to handle component specifications.  This was just one example.

All the problems had been raised as issues and were being considered but had been delayed because everyone seemed to be reliant on someone else making a decision.  Schedules were constantly being revised.  Just getting all the relevant people into a room seemed impossible.  A sub group would write up a proposal which would be circulated for agreement, and usually the proposal would not work for another sub group.  Decisions were taking weeks.

The problem was there was too much activity and not enough action.  My proposal was to stop the project for two weeks and solve all the problems.  The typical response was:

“We can’t stop the project.  We are too far behind now!”

Finally sense prevailed.  We actually identified about 30 major issues.  Some were related to others and some unrelated.  For each issue we identified the core problem.  Where did it all start?  What was the thing we needed to solve to enable subsequent decisions to be made?

We treated the issue resolution as a project running two weeks.  By identifying the resources we needed to solve each issue, we were able to schedule multiple workshops and ensure everyone who needed to attend was present.  For those not participating in the exercise, we had them working in a support role.

  • When decisions were made they could work on the implementation of the decision.
  • They were involved in gathering information to allow the decisions to be made and tested.
  • Some work could proceed regardless of the issue roadblocks.

One problem we did encounter was the logistics of having enough meeting spaces.  Fortunately there was a nearby hotel that had conference facilities we could use.  We also had to involve people on the other side of the world in teleconferences so we basically ran workshops for 18 hours a day in some cases.

The workshops ran from half an hour to a few days.  Yes, one did get resolved in half an hour.  It was just a matter of getting the right people in the room at the same time.  Timing was unpredictable and we were constantly shuffling timings of meetings.  In fact we ended up publishing a new timetable twice a day.

All meetings were facilitated.  An independent person ran the meeting to focus the group and ensure all views were considered.  They were typically non experts who had nothing but common sense to contribute to a solution.  Because they were not experts they could ask the basic questions that sometimes removed the complication.  I remember one issue which related to catering for multiple overtime rates for different groups of people.  The differences were minor.  The facilitator asked if anyone had costed the expense of managing the rates versus the cost of a single rate.  Another group did the exercise and found it was cheaper to have a single rate at the higher level than lots of minor rates.

At the end of the first week, we were down to about ten significant issues.  Some people were able to get back to project work as roadblocks had been cleared.  After two weeks we were down to about two or three issues that were still being worked on.

What we learned was that sometimes it is best to stop.  If things are getting out of control remember the old adage.  When you have dug yourself into a hole, stop digging.  The project team had a much different view on resolving issues.  As the project proceeded, they gave much more importance to fixing problems.  If an issue came up, the Sponsor made sure everyone who was involved made themselves available to resolve the issue as soon as possible.  The Sponsor required all significant issues be escalated to him, and the impact of the issue on the project had to be stated as part of that escalation process.

Another lesson was that all experienced project managers know there should be a proper issue resolution and escalation process in place but business leaders may only pay lip service to such a process.  It is only when things start to go pear shaped that they see the value in the process.  Just because it is documented some where, does not mean it will be accepted or followed.  Occasionally a bit of pain is needed to teach people the value of a project process.

Lesson on Risk Management

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Having been in project management for many years, there are lots of examples of how applying the right approach has proven successful.  Here is one relating to risk management.

In a major company wide project to implement a new system, we spent several weeks doing the planning.  It was evident there were about six key personnel who would need to guide us through the configuration and customisation of the software.  We worked closely with them to develop the plan for the project.

During the planning we did a risk workshop.  An obvious risk was that over the 15 months the project would take, we might loose one or more of the six key participants.  As a mitigation action we decided that each of the six would have an understudy.  They would select a knowledgeable colleague and ensure they were across all relevant aspects of the project.  They would attend key meetings and participate in decision making activities.  It was an overhead in terms of cost and time but one we thought was worth doing.

A few months into the project, one key player announced she was pregnant.  She would be leaving the project at a critical stage.  Fortunately, because of our risk planning, we had a back up in place.  The girl later told me that she was in fact pregnant when appointed to the project but had decided not to make it public until the first trimester had passed as she had problems previously with pregnancies.  She said she was torn for a week between participation and revealing her pregnancy.  When we did the risk assessment she could see the damage caused by her leaving the project had been alleviated.  A weight had been lifted.  She focused on ensuring her understudy was fully prepared.

She did have further complications and a few months later had to give up full time work.  Fortunately the pregnancy went full term and she delivered a healthy baby.  The impact of her leaving the project was minimised.  We brought forward key decisions and these were made before she left, and her replacement carried on her work.

I have heard people say risk management is a waste of time.  The risks never eventuated.  It is only when a risk does eventuate that the value of the exercise is illustrated.  We have probably all seen the situation where the impact of a risk is minimised.  We should have the stories ready to roll out when we do strike opposition to a proper risk management program.  Experience is a great teacher.