Posts Tagged ‘project’

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.

Do Project Managers Need In-Depth Business or Industry Knowledge?

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

In order to be successful as a project manager it is questionable whether business knowledge is a help or a hindrance. Some organisations see it as a benefit but it can also prevent a project manager from seeing the “bigger picture” of a project.

Many people believe that for a project manager to be successful, they need to have not only good project management skills and experience but also previous experience of the business area or industry in which they are working. This view is probably so widespread because they have often, in the past, simply progressed from one role within an organisation into a project management role in the same company. Their previous experience is often seen as a bonus and they are just thrown in at the deep end of project management and have to quickly get up to speed with a relevant training course, or worse, no training at all.

But do project managers who have reached their current role in this way have any greater success than a formally trained professional? Or do they find it difficult to remove themselves from viewing the project at a detailed level because they understand the business in-depth but are then prevented from seeing the project from a wider perspective. It can actually be a disadvantage to get too involved in the detail of individual tasks and activities.

A professional project manager will have been trained in a wide range of skills that are transferable across businesses and will have built up enough practical experience to be able to gather the right amount of information about the business in order to understand the needs of the client. After all you wouldn’t expect other professionals such as lawyers or accountants to know everything about your business – they just need to understand enough to do their job properly.

It could be argued that there are some industries where detailed knowledge of that industry is a pre-requisite for a project manager and that may be the case in certain technical areas such as IT but it is not the case for the vast majority of projects being undertaken across a wide range of businesses. An understanding of building and motivating a team, planning and managing tasks, risk and change, and having the skills to interface effectively with a range of employees from senior managers and stakeholders right down to the most junior team member are far more important skills for a project manager to have.

So if you want to develop your career fully and have the confidence and freedom to move into new business areas, organisations or even industries then concentrate on developing your project management skills and don’t worry too much about your business or industry knowledge.

Ensure you have the confidence and ability to talk with business heads about defining the goals and objectives of a project, determining the expected benefits and the impact on the status quo, and where the project sits in terms of overall priority within the business. Assist with documenting the detailed business requirements and clearly describing the project by being an effective interface between the business heads and users and the project team who will deliver the end-product.

Then increase yours and the project team’s chance of success by ensuring you document who owns the project, who the stakeholders are and what criteria will define its success. And also ensure you establish a proper communication strategy and that you understand the reporting requirements.

Then you can actually get started with planning and running the project, assessing and managing the risks and establishing a solid change management process.

And, before you start, don’t forget to ensure that enough budget, time and people have been allocated so that the project is at least feasible at the outset.

When you consider all these project management skills that are required you wonder how a project manager would actually find the time to get closely involved with the detail of the tasks – even if he/she did have the relevant business knowledge. Far better to focus on developing yourself as a project professional and gaining transferable qualifications such as one of the APMP accreditations or a PMP Certification


5 Key Components of a Project That You Need to Get Right

Monday, January 30th, 2012

There are many factors that contribute to the final outcome of a project, whether it is large or small, simple or complex. But just a few of these factors will determine the ultimate success of your project.

Projects come in all shapes and sizes such as straightforward improvements to products or operations procedures through to new product research or major software development. But the key components that contribute to the success of a project are the same no matter how simple or complex the project is and whether it is being run in a small organisation without any formal project framework or in a large organisation as part of a well-established framework in an ongoing programme of projects and with the support of a project office.

The most important factors that will contribute to a project being completed successfully can be broadly broken down into the following 5 areas:

Strategic Planning

Understanding your marketplace, the wider industry and your competition is necessary so that the specific business objectives of the project can be well-defined and, more importantly, meet a genuine need, or anticipated need, within the market to which the end-product will be targeted. For simpler projects in small organisations the “marketplace” may, in fact, be a small internal team or department but the concept of understanding them and their objectives is still the same and still just as important.

Developing the Product

Any new product, process or service needs to be developed or established solely to meet the defined business goals, which need to be articulated and documented at the very beginning of the project. Where a project involves a new process, it is important to prevent it becoming an opportunity to add or change related processes where they do not add real business benefit and do not affect the final outcome or contribute to the overall business aims.


Focused marketing aimed at the right target audience is as vital for the simplest internal projects designed to change an existing operations process as it is to a new product with a global market. Of course, the realities of such marketing are quite different – internal projects are unlikely to have big-budget advertising campaigns for example – but it is still important to “sell” the product/process to those who will be buying or using it. In many internal projects involving major change to the status-quo the greatest challenge is to convince the end-users that they will be better off with the new process in the face of typical human reluctance to change.


For the wide variety of projects that take place in organisations year-round, the provision of a support mechanism both before and after implementation is another key component to the success of the project. Support might come in the form of IT support (providing the right hardware and software), Human Resources for recruiting and retaining the appropriate staff, facilities for providing the necessary offices or other building space and any number of other support services relevant to the project.


There are different categories of people involved in projects and they all have different and specific roles to play but they are all stakeholders with a vested interest in the project being a success:

  • Sponsor:- The sponsor(s) of a project is often a member of the senior management team of an organisation but can also be someone from outside the organisation if a strategic alliance has been set up. Their role is to define the business objectives that are the driving force behind the initiation of a project, to ensure that adequate resources are made available to complete the project and to influence the completion date of the project by defining priorities. They will tend to have a good overview of the project but not become involved in any of the detailed aspects.
  • Project Manager:- A professional project manager has the responsibility of creating a detailed project plan that meets the budget, schedule and scope determined by the sponsors. They advise, teach and motivate team members; resolve conflicts and issues with deliverables and deadlines and have a good understanding of all tasks required to complete the project. They also aim to manage and control risks and changes.
  • Team Member:– These can range from a subject-matter expert through to a recently hired novice but all team members will have a contribution to make towards the end-product. Each will be responsible for completing individual tasks to a deadline, including resolving issues that arise related to their tasks. More experienced members of the team should help the less-experienced members by answering questions and giving advice to maximise the ability of the whole team to deliver projects successfully.

So if you can get these 5 components right you will be able to do the following on your project:

  1. Clearly define the aims of the project
  2. Stay focussed only on those aims
  3. Successfully “sell” the project to the end-users
  4. Provide support for the whole project team as required
  5. Select a committed team that will work co-operatively

This will go a long way to ensuring that the final outcome of a project is a successful one. Of course, underlying all of these components and driving the project to success will be professionals who have gained on-the-job experience as well as completing project management training in a recognised methodology such as PMP or APMP.


What are the key factors in evaluating the success of a project?

Friday, January 20th, 2012

In the June 2011 edition of Project Manager Today magazine, I published an article called: “Complex, but not Complicated”, where I discussed how there are a number of generic parts/critical success factors whose influence on project success must be fully appreciated in order to achieve success.

So, what are the key success factors when evaluating the success of a project?  Or looking at it in a slightly different way, let’s think of this question as: “if we were to state that a project was as a success, what factors would we have looked at to come to this conclusion”?

Clearly, it depends on your definition or expectation of what success means. Remember that it is not within the scope of a project to realise the benefits resulting from the use of the produced outputs (some benefits maybe realised during the project, but most likely not all of them) – as a project can deliver its outputs on time, to cost, to quality but this is no guarantee that the benefits will manifest. I will add, however, that benefits realisation planning is one of the critical success factors of a project as if there is no view of how or whether the benefits can be realised, should the project start/continue? What I am saying is that the ‘physical act’ of realising the (majority of) benefits is not undertaken in the project.

Based on this, the correct project outputs need to be created – clearly – but is this all? Would you judge a project a success solely based on if it produced the required outputs? Think of it now in the situation where the project produced the desired outputs but the project plan was, how shall I put it, less than optimal. Success was achieved more from individual commitment than good project management.

Consider the following list. Would you consider these factors influence the success of a project?

  1. The organisational maturity in project management
  2. The robustness of the project governance structure
  3. An organisation’s consistent use of a project management method
  4. An organisation’s project management capability and capacity
  5. The organisational context in which the project operates
  6. An organisation’s culture
  7. The number of stakeholders impacted
  8. The number of stakeholders involved
  9. The degree of stakeholder commitment
  10. The value of the desired (potential) benefits (financial or otherwise)
  11. Whether an organisation has a ‘track record’ in this type of project
  12. The risk appetite of the organisation

I certainly do!

Success on a project is dependent on more than just producing the desired outputs. An organisation can deliver projects on time, to cost, to quality through individual commitment and, let’s be honest, luck. But luck runs out eventually.

For organisations to be consistently successful on projects a number of generic, non-technical factors need to be influenced also. In my experience, it is these success factors that are the critical ones.

Dr Ian Clarkson is Head of Project and Programme Management Product Development aQA -leading providers of Prince2 courses. His role provides business direction and ownership of QA’s portfolio, programme, project and risk management curriculum. Ian is an experienced lecturer, author, speaker and consultant, having delivered programmes and projects in all industry sectors.