The Perfect Storm for The Project Economy

Perfect StormThe winds of change were strong before the COVID-19 pandemic. Driven by three macroeconomic trends, the need for projects and project managers was increasing. These three trends are:

1) Accelerating rates of technology adoption

2) The switch to alternative energy sources to maintain GDP and meet emissions targets

3) Infrastructure projects for population growth.

These movements occurring together were spawning an explosion of projects to turn ideas into reality. This increase in project demand was christened The Project Economy by PMI in 2019.

To be fair, these trends and strategies for handling them had already existed for more than a decade. Globalization and business transformation have been discussed extensively. Eric Ries documented his lean startup methodology in 2008 as a way for organizations to adapt and experiment with new ideas and perform market tests. It provided a framework for rapid adaptation and customer-centric design that is baked into many of today’s strategies.

 

COVID-19 Hits
Then COVID-19 changed how the world works, learns and communicates. The digital migration became a stampede as organizations were forced to work online or curtail collaborating and communicating. Digital transformation, an already hot market segment that moves traditional products and services online, was suddenly set on fire.

Organizations had to transform and go online or face losing market share to those that could. Online, non-contact shopping and direct business-to-consumer increased dramatically. Previously niche services such as universal home delivery providers became mainstream.

However, more importantly, digital consumerism became normal. No longer were just millennials using third-party services to arrange home delivery from traditional brick-and-mortar providers; now, Gen X and boomers are, too—the flood gates have opened.

 

A Brighter Future
Lockdown provided a glimpse of a clearer, brighter future. With commuting reduced, air quality in cities improved drastically. People in the state of Punjab saw the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas for the first time in 40 years. Compared to the past five years, March air pollution figures were down 29% in Los Angeles, 38% in Sydney and 46% in Paris. According to Environmental Protection Agency data for March, carbon monoxide emissions were down by 50% in New York.

Now people have seen what it would be like if there is less pollution; the transition to clean energy may accelerate also. It could already be happening. All the major auto manufacturers reported far fewer sales in Q1 and Q2 due to factory shutdowns and a lack of customers. However, the figures show a green skew. General Motors deliveries were down 34%, Toyota down 35% and Fiat Chrysler down 39% while Tesla sales dropped by only 4.8%.

The transition to alternative energies will likely speed up as nations use the COVID recovery as an opportunity to also reset and refocus for the future. Illuminated by a bolt of clarity, projects aimed at transitioning to renewable energy sources are also set to increase.

 

Population Growth and Technology Uptake
While extremely taxing on hospitals and medical practitioners, hopefully COVID-19 will do little to overall population counts. The population growth in Africa is expanding three times faster than other continents. The current population of 1.3 billion is expected to nearly double to 2.5 billion by 2050.

These additional 1.2 billion people work out at over 100,000 extra people each day for the next 30 years that will need homes, food and water. The housing may happen organically, but the infrastructure for transportation, power, water and hospitals all need projects to make them happen. This buildout to accommodate 40 million extra people every year represents a tsunami of infrastructure projects.

An increasing proportion of power for all these homes and facilities may well be solar and wind that, due to innovation, is now 90% cheaper to install than 10 years ago. Access to power and less expensive technology also brings connectivity. While 82% of the developed world has internet access, only half that figure (41%) of people in developing nations have access to the internet.

Expanding connectivity to those currently without internet access would bring an extra 3.2 billion people online. If visionary innovators and exceptional entrepreneurs are one in a million, we get an additional 3,200 of them today just by providing connectivity. As more people get connected and information becomes more freely available, innovation accelerates in a virtuous cycle.

 

The Perfect Storm of Disruption
The term “perfect storm” was coined by author and journalist Sebastian Junger in 1991 to describe the convergence of several weather systems that led to the creation of a hurricane off the coast of Atlantic Canada. It’s now a phrase often used to describe how converging trends—such as tech, population growth and alternative energy—can combine to create a powerful disruptive force.

COVID-19 caused digital transformation to surge. It also highlighted the potential for alternative energy that, as it becomes more popular and cheaper, helps connect an ever-growing population. Then, as more people come online, technical innovation will accelerate, and the forces magnify.

The Project Economy was christened to describe the demand for more projects and, therefore, project managers. Throwing the consequences of COVID-19 into the mix is akin to adding a powerful accelerant to a firestorm.

 

Impacts on Project Management
There will undoubtedly be a huge demand for projects, but technology and market evolution are changing the skill set needed to be successful:

  1. Less of the old —When I studied project management many years ago, I learned how to create work breakdown structures, plot network diagrams, and calculate slack and lag between tasks. With all the planning, estimation, risk management, and earned value tracking, there was a fair amount of math and admin involved.

These days, on the high-change digital projects I work on, applying math to shaky input data is rightly criticized. There are many fields where these techniques still apply, but when validating digital products, customer feedback on early prototypes is more helpful than precedence diagrams. Also, today’s project management tools calculate all of the familiar stats and tracking metrics automatically.

AI tools in project software can help suggest risk categories to evaluate and report emerging trends in data such as small delays before a project manager might have noticed them. The classic science and math-based project management skills are reducing (in digital products, at least) to free up more PM time for stakeholder collaboration and stewardship.

  1. More power skills In describing The Project Economy, PMI President and CEO Sunil Prashara talks about renaming “soft skills” to “power skills” since the term better describes their importance. With tools doing a lot of the calculating work, soft skills become more critical. Also, in a digital market, customers can choose their products from suppliers all over the world, so organizations must take a customer-centric view of building products or risk losing market share.

The new in-demand skills emerging include emotional intelligence, empathy, conflict resolution and consensus-building. While always valuable, they are now critical to retain a more mobile workforce and customer base.

  1. Technology Quotient (TQ) —Being tech-savvy and able to adopt new tools is vital to keep up with new ways to engage team members. An increased amount of remote work is here to stay, and graduates entering the workforce today grew up digital. They have little experience of paper-based communication or documentation. Collaboration and communication for them are primarily digital and phone-based.

Project managers must embrace these developments or risk becoming irrelevant and disconnected from a growing percentage of team contributors. Online tools and remote work just received a five year fast-forward thanks to lockdowns and work from home.

  1. Different LifecyclesDigital products such as websites and services are less “build then sustain” and more “ongoing evolution” in their nature. Handoffs from one team to the next risk too much information loss in the knowledge worker domain.

Digital-first organizations such as Amazon, Google and Tangerine use long-lived product management lifecycles with stable teams and incremental funding to deliver outcomes. These techniques are in contrast to projects with their temporary nature, upfront budgets, and team ramp-up then handover to support staffing models.  

As organizations undergo digital transformations, many are transitioning to product management lifecycles to fit the characteristics of digital products better. Project managers can still play a variety of crucial roles—but need to adapt to building stable teams and using incremental review and funding.

 

Summary
The Project Economy outlined in 2019 was driven from the convergence of tech, energy and infrastructure. COVID-19 forced a digital upskilling and appreciation for alternative energy that has accelerated the transition.

There will be many opportunities for project managers willing and able to adapt to the new roles offered. Likely, our tools will be smarter—and more of our time spent on stakeholder engagement. The lifecycles and titles used may change, but turning ideas into actions and then actions into results will be very much in demand.

 

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here.]


Estimating Agile Projects...Or Not

Estimate Features or FlowProject managers generally like plans and estimates so we can forecast when things should be done and how much they may cost. It helps manage client expectations and answer the type of questions they ask, such as "When will it be done?" and "How much will it cost?"

So, when project managers hear about ideas such as "let's stop estimating," it can trigger a knee-jerk reaction. It sounds lazy and avoiding the hard work of having to estimate. It can seem like people want to shirk their responsibility and accountability. First, those lazy agilists wanted to stop doing documentation; now they want to stop estimating too!

There has been a debate raging since 2012 about the use and value of estimates on agile projects. It has spawned the #NoEstimates hashtag, a website, a book and countless blog posts and conference presentations.

Like many radical ideas, when we dig into “no estimates” thinking, there are some good ideas, sound logic—and a whole heap of misunderstanding around it. This article sets out to unravel some of it.

My Exposure to NoEstimates
I should start by declaring which side of the debate I am on. Initially, I thought I was firmly on the side of estimates—but not the wasteful kind of detailed estimates that other people make when there is only limited information available. Instead, I aim to create reasonable predictions of the likely effort bounded by the uncertainty of the input data. Then communicate the estimates as a range to reflect the uncertainty and refine them as more information becomes available.

Then I discovered this is closely aligned with what the more reasonable NoEstimates advocates suggest doing anyway. It is just that they call them forecasts, not estimates. I can live with that; names are only labels that matter less than the meaning behind them. So then I felt conflicted.

NoEstimates Gets Started
In 2012, Woody Zuill wrote a blog post asking if getting better at estimating was the only way forward. He wondered if creating forecasts based on observations of completed work rates could be an alternative. The movement started, then more radical people got involved. They triggered more extreme counter-arguments against NoEstimates. However, let's de-escalate and look at some of the ideas that started the discussion. Then people can make up their minds based on their unique environment.

For software projects following an agile approach, the team is often asked to estimate the development effort for stories in the backlog. As the team starts work on these stories, they may discover some are more complex than initially anticipated and need splitting into multiple stories.  Others go as planned, and others get replaced by higher-priority changes and never get developed at all.

Throughput-Based Forecasts as an Alternative to Estimates
The effort and rigor of the estimation approach should be proportional to the quality of the input data. It would not be a good use of funds or people to apply time-consuming Monte Carlo analysis to a collection of guessed durations. So some NoEstimate enthusiasts classify over-analysis and more structure than the input data deserves as a form of waste.

We can argue even the act of estimating with imperfect input data is still valuable and gets the team discussing work that can uncover insights. Also, when spending other people's money, it is the responsible thing to do. However, let's follow the NoEstimates logic before making a judgment.

As an alternative to estimating all the stories for an upcoming iteration, NoEstimates supporters suggest a throughput-based forecasting approach. So, if the team completed 20 user stories last iteration, let's assume they will complete 20 this iteration also—and use the time that would have been spent on estimation work toward building new functionality.

It is easy to spot the flaw in this logic. What happens if these next 20 stories are much bigger or more complex than the 20 just completed? The answer is the team will not get through 20 of them, and the forecast will be wrong. However, before we dismiss this approach as unworkable, let's examine some of the things that can go wrong with traditional estimates on a software project.

We can spend a bunch of time estimating tasks, and they still turn out bigger than we expected or more complicated when we get into them. We can also spend time estimating work that gets deprioritized or swapped out with new work.

"The Same Poor Results, But with Much Less Effort"
Around 2006 at the agile conferences, I recall a presentation by Motorola on the effectiveness of using planning poker estimation compared to its previous, high-rigor approach. Motorola contained some CMMI Level 5 departments that conducted very detailed analysis and structured estimation sessions.

Part of being CMMI Level 5 is continuous improvement. So, in addition to rigorous estimation, teams investigated the root cause of any estimation errors to improve the process for the future. As an experiment, three teams substituted planning poker for their in-house estimation process. An additional three teams continued estimating as usual, producing detailed estimates with reviews, root cause analysis and ever more detailed estimating guidelines afterward.

The results showed that even the teams that followed the detailed in-house process were quite weak at estimation. Some items were overestimated, and many more were underestimated. Root cause analysis served to create ever longer checklists but did little to remove the variability of estimating work with human variation, uncertainty, complexity and risk.

The planning poker teams faired no better; they too were—at best—mediocre at estimating, often missing issues that created delays. The significant difference was that planning poker was much quicker than their existing estimation approach, and the team members enjoyed it much more. I still recall the presenter's summary that comparatively, planning poker provided "The same poor results, but with much less effort." Motorola was sold, and that department switched to planning poker.

Throughput-Based Forecasts
The NoEstimates camp takes this lesson one step further. They assert measuring throughput is as good (or more accurately, just as poor) a way of forecasting as estimating via hours or points—but crucially requires much less effort. When spending other people's money, should we focus on building valuable deliverables or creating estimates that, even with a costly rigorous process, are—at best—mediocre?

Of course, there are shades of grey. Some software is knowable and can be estimated reliably. Perhaps we should use estimation there. Some clients expect due diligence and evidence of planning rigor, and may want to know work is being estimated and not just started without due consideration.

I have worked with both types of forecasting. Each time throughput-based forecasting was used, the team had started forecasting with points. Then as the team became stable and trust was developed with the client, we found throughput metrics were reliable indicators of delivery dates and capacity.

Modern agile project management tools track when stories change state from, say, Ready for Development through Coding, Testing and Done. If this process is averaging five days per story and the product owner asks how long it would take to add some new high-priority feature, then—providing it is not too complex—probably about five days.

Likewise, if it took two months to complete the last 50 stories and there are 100 left in the backlog, then it will probably take four months to complete the project. No developers were interrupted to create those estimates.

Hybrid Options
Where I have used cycle time and throughput analysis to create forecasts, we have also tried to be smart about it. The team knows the process will only work if stories are sized appropriately. So they spend some time looking for anything that may be architecturally significant to investigate early via a spike. They also spend time splitting large stories—and sometimes tag stories with t-shirt sizes such as small, medium and large.

It can be argued that this is a form of estimation, and I would agree. But rapidly attributing small, medium or large to a story is quick and can be done by a senior developer not requiring (or gaining the wisdom) of the whole team.

Now we need to do some basic math with our forecasts. Small, medium and large should be relative, so a medium is two smalls, and a large is three smalls. Now the team can deliver 60 small stories or 30 medium stories or 20 large stories per iteration—or more likely, some combination such as five large, 10 medium and 35 small.

We have freed the team from estimating work (which even the best are not very good at), so it can focus on building products that hopefully it is better at. We can use throughput data that is provided free by our tracking software to forecast completion dates. Using these estimates multiplied by the team burn-rate (plus other costs), we can also generate cost estimates.

Downsides
I have only experienced throughput-driven forecasting working well with stable teams in high-trust environments. These teams had previously estimated their work and were very aware of their burn rate compared to budget and remaining work.

I fear teams not so aware of the need to deliver might work slower than if they had been through that experience first. Some environments and cultures find not estimating irresponsible. Also, some types of development can be estimated quite accurately, and so individual estimates could provide superior forecasts than tracking average throughput.

This article has described throughput-based alternatives to traditional task-based estimates. Some NoEstimates zealots deem that to be waste also, and believe teams should just work until done. However, I have yet to meet a sponsor not interested in evidence-based progress and completion forecasts.


Summary

Reducing or eliminating estimation can save considerable effort. When the last team I worked with made the switch, we saw the number of stories complete each week increase by 8% as more time was dedicated to development.

I teased the team members that this increase was because they were now making the stories smaller, and to determine if productivity had really gone up, could they please estimate the points of the recently complete stories so I could compare it to their old velocity figures. They saw the irony—but did not comply.

The NoEstimates debate could be recast as a discussion between bottom-up parametric estimating (team estimation via counting points) versus the heuristic estimation of throughput per iteration. Both approaches have their benefits and shortcomings. I realize this kind of simplification will anger members of both camps, but probably not the majority who are not vested.

Some organizations value the process and information brought about by bottom-up estimating. Others would rather redirect that effort toward development and use a different (even if inferior) heuristic estimation. Sponsors should always be asking, “How long will it take?” and “How much will it cost?” We have options to help answer those questions; ultimately, it should be the sponsoring group's decision about how it wants to see it happen.

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here.]


PMI-ACP Supported Self-Study Group with Mike Griffiths - September Start

Study Group 3
Following the great success of the pilot program, I will be launching another Supported Self-Study Group in September.

For more details and schedule of Zoom calls email me at SeptemberACP@gmail.com

Part book-club, part study-group, these sessions feature weekly live Zoom calls with me, Mike Griffiths and exclusive study materials. This small group, seven-week program, is a cost-effective alternative to full-blown training courses for people able to work through my book independently.

The program works as follows:

  1. Read a chapter of my PMI-ACP Exam Prep book each week and work through the exercises
  2. Join me for a 1-hour weekly Zoom call where we review the chapter and answer any questions
  3. Access a private LinkedIn Group to discuss topics and exam preparation tips with peers
  4. Gain access to exclusive domain mind-maps, extra sample exam questions and exam tips

Benefits

  • Keep your studying on track by committing to a group with a schedule of one chapter a week
  • Much more cost-effective than in-person training (online or face-to-face)
  • Process the chapter during the week at your own pace, not the speed of a common group. (This Inverted-Classroom model allows for people to independently learn at their own pace and come together for discussions and questions.)

New for this series

  • More sample exam questions
  • Exclusive study plan and exercise schedule
  • Additional LinkedIn group exercises and engagements
  • The first 25 people to signup will receive a free Kindle version of my book “Agile Illustrated: A Visual Learners Guide to Agility” that explains each of the PMI-ACP exam content outline domains and tasks.

PMI-ACP Supported Self-Study Group with Mike Griffiths

If you have considered getting your PMI-ACP or need a boost committing to an exam date, this is a great opportunity.

Email SeptemberACP@gmail.com for more details.


5 Tools for Team Conflict Resolution

Team ConflictIs infighting damaging your team morale and retention? Do you know what types of conflict are healthy and which are not? When you do intervene, do you have a strategy, or just ”wing it” and hope for the best?

People have different ideas; this diversity helps us overcome any individual shortcomings. It also means conflict is inevitable on projects. Whenever we have people contribute different opinions about a solution, there will be some level of conflict. Minor disagreement in the pursuit of a better solution is positive and welcome. Persistent bickering and personal attacks are destructive and need to be addressed. So how do we do that?

First, let's acknowledge conflict resolution approaches should be tailored to each unique situation. There is no single simple solution; otherwise, people would walk through the process themselves. Instead, we need to find our way based on the circumstances occurring.

So while there is no formula, it is helpful to have some strategies, some models to guide our thought process. This article outlines some basic models for conflict resolution to be aware of—and maybe incorporate if they help in your situation.

The first of the conflict models we will review helps us understand and characterize various levels of conflict. Intuitively, we know healthy debate helps us develop stronger solutions and is generally a good thing. At the other end of the scale, we know personal attacks and bullying cannot be tolerated and must be dealt with. Yet there is a whole spectrum between these extremes, each with triggers that can escalate the conflict and strategies to help de-escalate it, too.

1. Understand the Levels of Conflict

The “Five Levels of Conflict” model developed by Speed Leas shows the continuum:

5 Levels of Conflict

The model starts with level one “Problem to Solve” and goes all the way up to level five “World War.” One way to determine the level of conflict is to focus on the language the team is using and compare it to Leas's description of the five levels:

  • Level 1 (Problem to Solve) - The language is friendly and constructive. People use factual statements to justify their viewpoints. For example, team members may make statements such as, "Oh, I see what you are saying now. I still prefer the other approach, but I understand your suggestion."
  • Level 2 (Disagreement) - The language starts to include self-protection. For example, team members may make statements like, "I know you think my idea won't work as well, but we tried your approach last time, and there were a lot of problems."
  • Level 3 (Contest) - The team members start using distorted language, such as over-generalizations and magnified positions (such as "He always takes over the demo" and "If only she wasn't on the team…").
  • Level 4 (Crusade) -The conflict becomes more ideological and polarized, such as "They're just plain wrong" and "It’s not even worth talking to them.”
  • Level 5 (World War) - The language is fully combative. Opposing team members rarely speak directly to each other, instead speaking to those “on their side” and expressing sentiments like, “It’s us or them” and “We have to beat them!”

2. Recognize Healthy Conflict

Reading through the list reminds us of how bad things can get, so we should review why some conflict is okay and, in fact, necessary. For this, let’s examine Patrick Lencioni's “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” model. Taken from Pat’s book with the same name, it explains that problems start at the base of the pyramid and build on top of each other:

5 Dysfunctions of a Team

The first level, the base of the pyramid, is Level 1: an absence of trust. When there is an unwillingness to be open within the group (for example, admitting gaps in knowledge or mistakes), trust does not develop within the team. This leads to the next dysfunction, a fear of conflict where teams that lack trust do not engage in unfiltered debate. Instead, they just resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.

This fear propagates up the pyramid, triggering the other problems. When there is a fear of conflict, it leads to problem 3: lack of commitment. Without passionate debate, team members rarely (if ever) buy-in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings.

This is the heart of why healthy conflict is desirable. It allows for the robust testing of ideas that leads to a strong commitment to the final group decision. When we have a lack of trust and fear of conflict, teams do not commit; instead, they (at best) follow “the project plan,” but not their internally vetted approach (which is always more powerful and motivating).

The best teams I have worked with have ongoing conversations challenging each other's suggestions and decisions. They always seem to be engaged in good-natured argument. The goal is a non-attached understanding of the decision process, idea testing and consensus-building. These types of conflict are productive and desirable. So how do we recognize them?

The table below contrasts healthy and unhealthy types of debate:

Healthy and Unhealthy Conflict

A healthy argument is focused on the specific idea, the decision, the data. Unhealthy arguments make things personal or use generalizations to dismiss any thought or suggestions from the other party.

3. Learn How to De-Escalate

When we see these unhealthy signs of conflict, we can try some of the de-escalation strategies suggested in the original Five Levels model we examined. These are shown below.

Conflict Responses

So, for example, if we sense examples of Level 3 (contest-type) conflict, we could try negotiating and getting to the facts. This is an attempt to de-escalate and take it from personal to factual.

4. Protect Yourself and Others

How we try to resolve conflict brings us to our next model, the dual-concern grid by Langton and Sadri. This model describes conflict resolution modes plotted on an axis that shows “Concern for Ourself” (Y-axis) and “Concern for Others” (X-axis)

Dual Concern Conflict Resolution

There are many ways we can try to resolve conflict. We can use positional power and demand people stop arguing (graph top left: Use Force), but this is temporary and ineffective since it does not solve the problem. Alternatively, we could try to protect people by smoothing the problem instead and, say, do the work ourselves (graph bottom right: Accommodating). However, both of these approaches are sub-optimal.

Instead, we want to be in the upper-right quadrant of high concern for oneself and high concern for others. This is a collaborative mode of conflict resolution where we confront the issue and hopefully solve it. This all sounds good in theory, but how the heck do we face and collaboratively resolve conflict? This brings us to our last model.

5. Use the Confronting/Problem-Solving Steps

The “Three Steps for Managing Conflict Using a Confronting/Problem-Solving Approach” is a combination of various conflict-resolution models:

3 Steps for Managing Conflict

The three-step model starts with Step 1: defining the problem. This involves acknowledging the conflict, establishing common ground or goals (such as “we both want what is best for the organization”) and separating the problem from people. Next, Step 2 (explore and evaluate alternatives) is a “diverge” phase where many alternatives are explored and discussed. Finally, Step 3 (select best alternative) is the “converge” step where we agree on the best way forward.

As you can imagine, these tools are at best signposts on a tricky journey. They can help us navigate to a resolution, but they do not do the hard work of actively listening to both sides of the dispute and empathizing with people. That takes an investment of time and understanding. So too do the next steps of convincing people to let go of personal attachment to suggestions or opinions. Sometimes, people see things more objectively as they mature; sometimes they become more principled and entrenched in their thinking.

Conflicts are inevitable. At a healthy level, they are signs of a robust, vibrant team that is happy to test and improve their ideas and decisions. As conflict becomes personal, it also develops a damaging and counterproductive side. People disengage to distance and protect themselves. Then ideas are not tested so well, and blind spots and issues occur.

The solution is to care, to get involved, listen and try to diagnose the conflicts you see occurring. Do some reality testing by following up individually afterward: “You and Alisha seemed to be having a heated debate about the design. Did you come to an agreement you are okay with?"

Knowing when to let it go and when to step in is half the battle. Using these tools can help and provide some guidance when you do need to get involved.

 

Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Can We Still be Agile?

Can we still be agileHow does work from home impact our use of agile approaches? If co-location is no longer possible, can we still be agile?

Yes, of course we can, and in many ways, now we need to be more agile than ever as we try new approaches, learn and adapt how we work. However, let's address the co-location question and look at agile practices in remote work situations.

The Agile Manifesto and Agile Principles do not mention co-location. They do not say teams have to work together to be agile or effective. Instead, they say, "The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation" and "Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project."

Face-to-face (F2F) and daily business collaboration are certainly easier to arrange if people are co-located. However, most agile teams already had some remote workers before work-from-home instructions. The Digital.AI (formerly VersionOne) 2020 14th Annual State of Agile Survey reports 81% of respondents use agile approaches with remote team members (typically not the whole team, but a subset is remote).

Why F2F and Remote Alternatives
So, how do we do F2F remotely? The answer is with video. Instead of debating if video is F2F, let's look at where the F2F agile recommendation came from in the first place. Alistair Cockburn, an Agile Manifesto signatory, developed a popular graph to show various forms and levels of communication effectiveness. Later, Scott Ambler expanded the graph to show types of modeling and added video conversations.

The goal of the chart was to show how interactive, F2F discussions are more efficient in terms of data transfer per minute than traditional paper documentation and allow for questions and answers to clarify understanding. They also convey emotion through tone of voice and body language, so are richer forms of communication.  Here are the two graphs merged with F2F and video marked as points 1) and 2)…

Agile Communications

We can see both F2F 1) and Video conversation 2) are in the top right quadrant of the graph indicating high effectiveness and high richness (emotional temperature). Video is slightly lower on the curve than F2F conversation, but still significantly higher than working via email or documents. The highest form is working together at a whiteboard, where we also bring the benefits of visual collaboration.

I suspect there was not a lot of data behind the exact positioning of these communication forms. Instead, it is a visual to help discuss a continuum of information transfer formats. One conclusion is that if F2F is not possible, then video conferencing is our next best option, and it still allows us to get a feel for people's temperament and emotion about a topic. 

Other Agile Approaches
Rounding out our review of agile recommendations, the Scrum Guide does not mandate or even recommend co-location. It talks about teams working together to build a product. However, groups can work together on a product remotely. For instance, Jim could build the website while Rosa develops content. They are both working together on the product, just not physically together.

Extreme Programming (XP) includes the practice “Sit together” as one of its primary practices and notes “The more face time you have, the more humane and productive the project.” Remote teams fail to meet this practice recommendation and video face time is not the same as in-person face time. However, XP co-creator Kent Beck explains “sit together” is a goal and is not mandatory.

We should also remember when the agile principles were developed in 2001, video conferencing was not as straightforward or familiar as it is today. It was not until 2003 that Skype and other applications provided widely used and low-cost options for getting some face time.

Team Types
The image below shows different team composition types. First, Type-1 teams are fully collocated. According to agile surveys, these are the minority. The majority of agile teams are Type-2, which have a core of co-located team members, but also some remote team members. Finally, Type-3 teams are all remote, with everyone contributing from their own workplace.

Remote Team Types

During the COVID-19 response, many organizations have gone from Type-1 or Type-2 quickly to Type-3 due to work-from-home mandates. This change has brought about technology and work challenges, but also highlighted opportunities for the future.

A common problem with Type-2 teams is that there can be a division or communications gap between core co-located and remote team members. Some information may, unconsciously, not get shared with remote team members. Going all remote, Type-3, is a great leveler. Now everyone is in the same boat, and the need to communicate broadly is highlighted and universal.

Lessons from Experienced All-Remote Organizations
Many organizations have been successfully using Type-3, all-remote structures, for years. They deliberately chose this format and believe it offers many advantages.

Organizations like Automattic who build products including WordPress and Tumblr, employ over 1,100 people in 75 countries using an all-remote strategy. GitLab, makers of the code repository and development tools, has 1,295 team members spread across 67 countries using their all-remote work practices.

Automattic uses agile approaches to build its products. It created its own distributed team project management product called P2, that it uses to organize, communicate and build community. It also embodies some key aspirational goals in the Automattic Creed. These include:

  • Never stop learning
  • Do not just work on things assigned
  • There is no such thing as the status quo
  • Never pass up an opportunity to help a colleague
  • Communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company

The reference to oxygen in the communication concept is deliberate because too much oxygen can be fatal as well. As a group scales, it’s important to invest time from an editorial mindset making sure that the right information isn’t just published, but it’s heard and understood by those who need to.

GitLab also builds agile tools and uses agile approaches. It has a vast resource library about working remotely that any organization could learn a great deal from. Similar to the Agile Manifesto, Gitlab has its own published values and manifesto.

GitLab's six values are:

Collaboration
Results
Efficiency
Diversity
Inclusion & Belonging, Iteration
Transparency

…that together spell the “CREDIT” given each other by assuming good intent. Their remote manifesto reads:

  1. Hiring and working from all over the world instead of from a central location
  2. Flexible working hours over set working hours
  3. Writing down and recording knowledge over verbal explanations
  4. Written down processes over on-the-job training
  5. Public sharing of information over need-to-know access
  6. Opening up every document for editing by anyone over top-down control of documents
  7. Asynchronous communication over synchronous communication
  8. The results of work over the hours put in
  9. Formal communication channels over informal communication channels

Items 3, 4 and 9 favor written communications over verbal. In a remote setting, this is preferable so people can consume it wherever and whenever they please. Yet it is at odds with the Agile Manifesto that favors F2F communications with its immediate feedback and richer bandwidth. However, these remote organizations have an ace up the sleeve that likely more than makes up for any communication penalties.

People over Process
Accessing the best talent is the saving grace for remote teams. There have been many studies and speculation about the productivity differences between average and best-in-class workers. Some reports claim 2X, 3X and even 5X differences in software developers, but I suspect the data is shaky at best. Yet some classes of problems can either be solved or not. Working longer for someone unable to solve a problem is not going to help.

The argument for remote agile teams is that the efficiency penalty from sliding down the Communications Effectiveness graph from F2F to videoconference or documentation is more than made up for by having the best possible people. Also, because “work from wherever and whenever you like” offers great flexibility, the best talent is attracted and retained.

Remote Work and Agile Values
There are many parallels between all-remote work structures and agile principles.

  • Autonomy - For remote teams to function best, organizations adopt a results-oriented view of work. They trust their staff to work independently, collaborating and communicating as required to create the outcomes desired. They do not try to micro-manage or schedule tasks. Instead, they allow people to organize their work and operate with autonomy. This mindset closely mirrors “empowered teams” from agile approaches.
  • Transparency – People are encouraged and expected to communicate widely and frequently. Automattic’s “Communicate as much as possible” and GitHub’s “Formal communication channels over informal communication channels” emphasize communication. These ideas map to the agile and Kanban concepts about making work visible and Scrum’s Transparency pillar.
  • Challenge the Status Quo – People are expected to be curious and always looking for new markets and improvements. These concepts align well with the inspect and adapt ideas of retrospectives and continuous improvement in the agile mindset.
  • Iterate – Working iteratively is one of Gitlab’s core values and a central theme of agile approaches.
  • Valuing individuals – Recruiting globally and providing flexible work options, even if that means more written documentation, is an excellent example of living the agile value “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Summary
Remote teams can be agile. They do experience some disadvantages by not working together. All-remote, Type-3 organizations admit that onboarding can be a challenge, and communications take longer. However, access to the best talent, providing flexibility and autonomy offset these drawbacks.

When people value agile principles, they usually find a way to make it work no matter the circumstances. However, being agile is not the point; building an engaged, energetic workforce who support each other and create worthwhile outcomes is the real goal and measure of success. 

Useful Remote Work Resources

  1. GitLab “GitLab’s Guide to All-Remote”
  2. Automattic “On Working Remotely” 
  3. Stefan Walpers’ “Remote Agile Guide

 

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]

 


Returning to the (Electronic) Cottage

Electronic CottageThis is not a post about rich people now able to visit their second homes after the lockdown, instead, a revisit of the concepts of decentralized work being the new way of undertaking projects.

In 1980, Alvin Toffler’s book The Third Wave introduced the idea of “The Electronic Cottage” as the modern workplace where information technology allows more people to work from home or wherever they want. Toffler was a futurist and businessman who did not get the attention he deserved. Even though Accenture identified him as one of the most influential voices in business leaders (along with Bill Gates and Peter Drucker), we do not hear much about him.

When I was at university in the 1980s, we were required to read The Third Wave. At the time, I was more interested in learning about compiler design and database structures, but I read the book and the ideas stuck. Thinking back, The Third Wave, along with Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenace, are the only books from my entire degree that I still remember.

The First and Second Waves
The first wave was the agricultural revolution when hunter-gathers started farming and settled in villages.

The second wave was the industrial revolution, when cheap, non-renewable fossil fuel energy was used to leapfrog previous levels of productivity. This industrialization required mobility from the workforce, and people moved from villages into cities to work in mills and factories. This movement resulted in the end of the large multigenerational families rooted to the soil.

The “nuclear family” (of father, mother and a few children, with no burdening relatives) became the standard, socially approved model for industrial societies. Schools started emphasizing punctuality and rule-following to condition children for working in factories.

The Third Wave
The “third wave” is the information revolution. It is what Peter Drucker called the knowledge worker age. What set Toffler apart was his ability to see how the second industrial age must end and why the information age was inevitable in 1980, more than 10 years before the internet was invented (let alone became popular).

Toffler described factors that make the continuation of the second wave impossible, including: “The biosphere will no longer tolerate the industrial assault” and “Non-renewable energy sources are drying up (one of the hidden subsidies of the Second Wave).”

He went on to describe factors that made the third wave possible and inevitable. These included:

  • Cheaper electronics and computers: “If the auto industry had done what the computer industry has done in the last 30 years, a Rolls-Royce would cost $2.50 and get 2,000,000 miles to the gallon.” Computing is cheaper and more powerful than ever.
  • De-massification of the media: As the quantity of information available to people expands, they become less and less able to cope with it all. People fall back to paying attention to only what is important to them. We see a rise in the number of specialty channels appealing to narrow segments of the population.
  • An intelligent environment: Home computers networked together and notifying us of weather alerts, home security alarms, etc. What we now call the connected home and IoT.
  • A new social memory: Originally, human groups stored their shared memories in the minds of individuals (tribal elders, wise men, etc.). The second wave moved beyond memory by spreading mass literacy. Libraries and museums were built. By increasing the store of cumulative knowledge, it accelerated all the processes of innovation and social change. Now information is stored electronically and can be readily searched by all.

The fact these predictions came true show the credibility of Toffler’s forecasts for the electronic cottage. Our recent work-from-home mandate has accelerated the transition to the electronic cottage, and maybe some of Toffler’s other predictions about changes to work and society will come true also?

Here are a few things he said about this shift in working practices. The opening points are ideas from the book; the thoughts that follow are observations from today…

  1. IT makes it possible to work from home.Computers and electronic communications make it possible for many types of work to be done from home.

Observation from today: Recent work-from-home mandates have pushed even laggards of this technology to try it and work through the kinks. While everyone wishes for freedom to return, maybe we can capitalize on the positive aspects of working from home, or from a favorite café, or a pleasant, local co-working space?

  1. Commuting diminishes.Consider the cost incentives to companies. Commuting, which they indirectly subsidize, runs an average of 29 times as much as the installation of telecommunication equipment in a person’s home. Also, considerable savings in real estate costs, capital building investments, and building maintenance can be had. Staying at home will also reduce pollution and the cost of cleaning it up.

Observation from today: Most organizations do not need to pay for any additional equipment since many people have high-speed internet and their own computers. People may currently have less-than-ideal working conditions with children being home from school, but once they return, do you want to go back to commuting with the associated cost and time drains?

  1. Shorter work week:On the home side, as shorter workweeks become common, the higher ratio of commuting time to working time becomes more irrational, frustrating and absurd. Millions of jobs could shift out of the factories and office into which the second wave swept them and right back where they came from originally: the home. If this were to happen, every institution we know—from the family to the school and the corporation—would be transformed.

Observation from today: Our current glimpse of homework and closer family relationships is artificial and lacking many of the benefits of being able to escape to the company of friends when we want to. The FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early) has already seen people reduce the number of hours they work, consume less and spend less on nonessential items like expensive commuting options. Few people have been talking about impacts on family, but the nuclear family might become a relic of the past.

  1. Customization of products and in-home production:Most highly developed countries will concentrate on the creation of one-off and short-run manufactured goods depending on highly skilled labor and automated production systems. Customization will lead to the manufacture of one-of-a-kind products with items custom-made for individual users. This home-centered society will bring many changes:
  • Greater community stability due to less forced mobility, less stress on the individual, fewer transient human relationships, and a greater participation in community life.
  • Energy requirements will be reduced due to energy decentralization. Energy demand would be spread out, making it easier to use solar, wind and other alternative energy technologies.
  • The auto industry, oil companies and commercial real estate developers would be hurt.
  • The electronics industry, computer companies and the communications industries would flourish.
  • Increasingly, workers would own the means of production.

Observation from today: We are seeing these shifts already. As I sit typing this from home, a 3D printer next to me is producing something (incredibly slowly) that my wife designed. Increasingly, we can create and customize products from home or locally within the community.

  1. Radically changed corporations:The big corporation was the characteristic business organization of the industrial era. Just like families, the mass media and schools, corporations are facing drastic changes:
  • An accelerated economy: There is a drastic speed-up in the pace of business. An accelerating wave of change, pushed by the coming third wave, is causing disorientation, frustration and increased mistakes on the part of managers.
  • The de-massified society: Today, as the third wave strikes, the corporate manager finds all their old assumptions challenged... the marketplace and the labor market are beginning to break into smaller, more varied pieces. Second wave corporations are uncertain how to cope with this rising tide of diversity among their employees and customers.
  • Public anger at corporations: People are demanding a new definition of what corporations are and what they do. They want to see more responsibility and more accountability—not merely for its economic performance, but for its side effects on everything from air pollution to executive stress. The result will be corporations who attend to multiple bottom lines. Some examples are already happening as organizations are focusing attention on social impacts as well as economic results.

Observation from today: Incredibly, those words were written 40 years ago—they read like a modern description of emerging organizations. Just recently, PMI started talking about the triple bottom line (people, profit, planet). Organizations now revolve around the customer, and customer experience analysis is driving more diversification of products along with accelerating rates of change.

What this Means for Project Managers
The way we engage with teams is likely to be different in the future. For projects in the knowledge worker space (legal, marketing, sales, education, IT, research and development), having whole teams onsite will likely become a rarity. These roles can be done from the electronic cottage, whether that is someone’s home, a café or a community co-working center.

Work times for project work will likely relax, and family activities take a more influential focus. Industrial factories needed everyone in one location—at the same time—to function. Knowledge work does not; as project managers, we need to get used to that and accommodate for it. Maybe we need everyone to be available for core meetings, but outside of that, we let people work when they want to. As long as they meet their commitments, why does it matter when the work gets done?

The Future
Not all of Toffler’s predictions became true. He also suggested we would be growing a significant proportion of our food needs in the oceans. That might be possible, but we have not seen it happening yet.

The second wave of industrialization brought tremendous economic growth and technological development. Yet those brief 300 years were non-sustainable to the planet—and also ripped people from homes and family structures that had existed for 10,000 years previously. Nobody is suggesting we return to being farmers. Instead, do more creative work without the time and space constraints industrialized work demanded.

It seems the world of work is changing to meet Toffler’s predictions. Perhaps the social forecasts about a revival of putting down roots, staying in one place and returning to live with extended families will happen also. Recent events seem to be accelerating these trends, and I am optimistic about our future.

References

  1. The Third Wave Book
  2. The Third Wave Book Summary
  3. Alvin Toffler Wikipedia Bio

 

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]

 


My Work-From-Home Mistakes

“It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”
– Despair calendar quote

MistakesToday I am going to get some work done. I am because yesterday, to be honest, was not that productive. It started with the best intentions. Without a commute, I was at my computer by 7:30 a.m., earlier than my usual start time at the office. Pleased with my head start, I rewarded myself with a read through my news feeds.

I use a news aggregator to collect all my science, sports, local interest, photography and project management articles and announcements in one place. Most items I just scan in the aggregator platform, only clicking into the full articles for relevant or exciting topics.

Before I knew it, it is 8:40. Crap, there goes my early start…time to buckle down. Reading and replying to emails takes me to my first phone meeting. It is slow and lumbering, but mercifully finishes 10 minutes before the one hour allotted. I go and have a coffee with my wife.

The coffee was good, so was the toast and chocolate cookie. When I return, I have more emails, but I get through them and open up my “real” work. Having three monitors now is fantastic, but my new monitor has a higher resolution than the others so when I drag documents to it the text is too small. Maybe I should just set it to the same resolution as the other two? Thirty minutes later, I have all three monitors running updated video drivers at the same resolution and a fancy new screen saver that flows across all three monitors…sweet. But now my mouse is acting up.

It probably just needs a new battery. There should be one in this drawer. Wow, we need a good clear-out. None of this junk is used anymore; I am going to make a pile of things to keep and a pile of things to throw away. Hey look, an old digital camera…I wonder, what is on the memory card?

Wake up
That was an excerpt from my life five years ago when I first started working from home. It was ridiculous; I hardly got any work done. It was actually far worse than that because I had made the switch to work from home in part to live more simply. The idea was to spend more time with my family and enjoy the outdoors in the mountain town we had just moved to. So in addition to endless in-office distractions, I would also take two- to three-hour breaks to go trail running or mountain biking. As a result, I achieved almost nothing.

If you are struggling to get work done from home, do not feel bad. I am confident my procrastination, short attention span, and penchant for anything but work were as bad as it gets. Yet, now I am more productive than ever.

Last year I consulted at several organizations, taught training courses, wrote a book and 40 articles for ProjectManagement.com, developed courseware, presented at numerous conferences and—according to the GPS tracking website Strava—still managed to fit in 460 hours of mountain biking and running.

So, if you are having difficulty focusing while working from home, I think I can help. I know it is difficult with children to help home-school and more significant problems like a global pandemic, but what worked for me will likely work for you too, if you are ready to try it.

I was so frustrated at my lack of focus and inability to get work done that I treated researching the cause and solution as a project. I discovered my work hygiene was to blame. I created new habits, saw the results and now get my work done early. It was not comfortable, but better than the feeling I had of repeatedly achieving practically nothing all day.

Lose the distractions
Prolific writer Jon Morrow, tells us: “There is no such thing as focus. There is only an absence of distraction.” So, when we remove the distractions, there is nothing else to do but work. The trouble is that distractions come from many sources.

1. Close the door– I used to have an office off the kitchen. It was great for relaxed conversations, efficient for grabbing a quick coffee—also a nightmare for distractions. I moved my office downstairs and now close the door when I am working. The closed door means I am working. I do not want a coffee; I do not want to see a funny cat video. (I probably do, but I will not; instead, I am working.) Every hour I will come out, be friendly and chat, but when the door is closed, please no interruptions. It sounds harsh, but is nothing compared to what happens behind that closed door; things get much stricter.

2. Personal Pomodoro– When I do not have meetings, I work on a task for 45 minutes out of an hour. Then spend 15 minutes checking and responding to email, being social with the family, getting snacks and drinks, moving about, etc. For those 45 minutes, I eliminate rather than try to avoid distractions. So for me, this means no cellphone, no email, no internet, no music, no drinks, no snacks, nothing. Only the task and a countdown timer to tell me how much longer to work.

People with more self-control or better multi-tasking skills may not need to be so extreme, but I do. Fidget toys, squeezy balls, paper airplanes—anything that is more fun than a keyboard is banished.

The original Pomodoro technique uses a 25-minute mechanical timer. I tried that followed by a five-minute break two times per hour—but kept overrunning my five-minute breaks. So, I switched to 45 minutes focus, 15 minutes for interruptions and everything else. 

This ratio works for me, but something different might work better for you. The timing is less critical than being brutal and obsessive about the elimination of all distractions. After actually working for 45 minutes, I am happy to open my door, chat, mess about with my son, or whatever; now I am no longer anxious about underachieving. (I like the electronic Time Timer because it is quiet and the ticking of mechanical timers seemed enough to distract me too.)

3. Start Earlier– By going to bed earlier and getting up earlier, I gain an hour of quiet time in the mornings before everyone else gets up. I no longer waste it reading news feeds, I plan or complete an extra 45-minute work period while there are few distractions.

I check my calendar, plan when I will do my 45-minute chunks based around the meetings I have and readjust to do say a 20-minute session if I have only a 30-minute time slot.

4. Evolve– My original plan was to be very strict with the no distractions rule until I caught up on my backlog of work. Then I might reintroduce having my phone with me so that I could reply to text messages, or maybe the radio on, or a collaboration website open.

However, my productivity went up so much that I would hate to lose it again. Finally, I get to finish work earlier and get more free time. I just wish I’d discovered 30 years ago how easily I am distracted, how poorly I multi-task and the actual cost of task-switching. For me at least, they are significant.

Different Strokes for Different Folks
Your work-from-home situation is different from mine. Your schedule, personal distractions and options for isolation will be unique. However, I expect you can relate to some of the challenges I encountered when I started working from home five years ago. I hope some of the approaches I adopted to solve my productivity problems will help you, too.

 

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Announcing Supported Study Groups

PMI-ACP Mike Griffiths

I am piloting a new program for anyone wanting to study for and obtain their PMI-ACP credential.

It is a small group, 8-week online book-club / self-study program.

  • Read one chapter of my PMI-ACP Exam Prep book each week
  • Join me for a one-hour Zoom call to review topics and ask any questions you may have
  • Get access to a private LinkedIn group where you can ask additional questions and discuss topics with peers
  • Get exclusive chapter summaries, mindmaps, additional sample exam questions, and extra resources

At the end of the 8-week program, we will have covered all the material, and you should be ready to take the exam.

This new public program is a pilot. I am currently running a similar program for a group of agile coaches, and feedback so far has been excellent. To make sure everyone has an opportunity to ask questions, I will cap each group at 20-25 people.

I want to offer a more affordable option than online training for people who are willing to self-study. This option allows people to clarify topics with me and interact with others who are also preparing for their PMI-ACP exam.

Introductory price $99.

This price includes the weekly Q&A Zoom calls, LinkedIn support group, and exclusive resources (summaries, mindmaps, extra sample exam questions, etc)

If you would like to participate or learn more, please send me an email:  

Mike <at> LeadingAnswers.com

Logistics: I plan on running several groups concurrently with the weekly Zoom calls at different times, so we should be able to accommodate different time zones.


Reset, Refocus: 2 Concepts and 8 Tips for Making Progress During the Pandemic

Ideas to tryIt is a dilemma. We need to move forward. Not just to make progress on projects, but also to give people something else to focus on beyond the tragedy and fear filling the news.

At the same time, we need to be sensitive to how people have been impacted. We need to demonstrate support and empathy. We need to be available to listen and help wherever we can. We need to step up and be professionals.

Context
More than ever, context is king. How to respond and lead in your environment will depend on how your project and stakeholders have been impacted. There is no universal best response. All I can do is offer some tips for consideration. You can then decide if they apply—and how to implement them for your environment.

Concept 1: Demonstrate Empathy – Cut people some slack. Be there for them, listen and empathize with them. Maybe they have lost family members or are worried about elderly and at-risk family members. Perhaps their work-from-home environment is challenging with children needing help, poor internet service, and less-than-ideal work set-up.

So, provide some emotional support, and demonstrate empathy and active listening. Now is not the time to be a stickler on schedule or tasks. Now is the time to show compassion and build a stronger foundation of understanding and trust for future performance.

Concept 2: Take an economic view of decision-making – Social distancing and work-from-home policies have likely blown away your original project plans. We now need to determine what can be done and what should be done first. There will be some tasks that can still proceed, and some opportunity or threat responses than can be pursued…but how do we decide the sequence?

Taking an economic view of decision-making helps with sorting through the options. After reviewing what is possible, ask “Where is the next best dollar spent?” We can then start to prioritize work and match it to availability. The goal is to deliver as much value and make as much progress toward the desired business outcomes as possible.

So, if Activity A has a projected ROI of $15K, Activity B will save $18K in maintenance and Activity C has a 50% chance of returning $32K, prioritize them B, C, A. Share these ideas with the team; we need everyone to adapt and prioritize their time toward the high-value activities.

8 Tips for Reprioritizing

1. Check-in with your sponsors. Explain how you plan to continue working toward the intended business outcomes despite the changes. If appropriate, ask them if there are any new, higher-priority initiatives the team can be helping with. You do not want to be the project still making door handles when the rest of the organization has switched from building cars to ventilators.

2. Scan your WBS or backlog. Can any items of work be pulled forward and worked on remotely? Can some portions of future work be done now and remotely? Usually, we avoid partially completed work as it raises WIP, but these are extraordinary times. If it will need doing and can be done now, it might be the next-best-dollar-spent thing to do.

3. Revisit the vision and business case. Look for untapped opportunities and benefits. Perhaps there are objectives that were not immediately scheduled because they were a lower priority or required skills in short supply back then. Maybe we can find useful activities or different paths to the same goals that might now be viable?

4. Review the risks. Review the risk log to determine if any opportunities can be exploited, shared or enhanced at this time. Do the same with the threats and ask if any could be avoided, reduced or transferred by action that could be done remotely.

5. Communicate to your stakeholders what work can go ahead and what is not happening right now. Keep your communications short; stakeholders likely have plenty of extra work of their own that they are trying to get through. However, provide links to where they can find more information should they want it. So, short announcements and emails, with “more details” links so people can pull more information if necessary.

6. Put it to the team. Do not try and solve everything yourself. Your team members likely have some great ideas, too. Engaging them in finding ways to move forward recognizes their expertise and also demonstrates the desired behavior of asking for input and help.

Ask them what we can be working on. What are the highest value activities that they could be doing right now? Invite them to review the WBS/backlog and risk lists also. Ask about useful maintenance work and new product ideas. How can we use some extra thinking time to emerge stronger?

7. Contact suppliers, vendors and partners. Ask them how they are coping. Maybe there are some easy things we could do to help them. Or, an early heads-up on insolvency is better than learning about it when we need them for something.

Also, ask them for ideas. They likely know aspects of your project very well. Perhaps they can identify valuable work that could be done early. Check their suggestions for validity and self-interest bias. Ordering that flux capacitor jetpack might help them, but does it really help your project and organization right now?

8. Upskill. Use work-from-home time to gain new skills and undertake training. As a minimum, make sure everyone completes their compliance training, which includes working through all the mandatory health, safety and respectful workplace modules. That way, when people return to work, they will not be taking time out to complete these activities later. Then encourage professional development. What new skills, roles or tools would be helpful to learn?

These are challenging times. They are also opportunities to demonstrate desired behaviors. Being compassionate, helpful and understanding in times of stress and hardship are critical. So too is keeping a cool head, being flexible to change and open to help.

The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
― Albert Einstein

Thanks for reading, and please share other ideas for us to consider.

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Regaining Trust: The Winners and Losers of a More Cautious Tomorrow

Future ProjectsPeople are smart, resourceful and inventive. We are also dumb and irrational. This combination makes forecasting nearly impossible.

People build cities, express themselves through art, and push forward our understanding of the world through science and logic. At the same time, they exhibit cognitive bias and often behave in ways that defy this same science and reasoning.

The simultaneous application of logic and defiance of logic is part of what makes humanity rich and complex. It is also why predicting how the world will change after the COVID-19 pandemic contains much uncertainty. Some effects will be the sensible results of events and reactions. Others will be nonsensical reactions (like hoarding toilet paper) due to cognitive bias. These factors will intermingle and interact with new yet unknown events to create a tomorrow that is impossible to calculate.

So, while nobody knows how our future will be different, we do have some ideas to help make an educated guess.

(Y)Our Thinking is Flawed
Before following the conclusions to their impacts on project management, such as more remote work and an aversion to collocated workplaces, let’s review why this logic will be proved wrong. People do not behave rationally. Instead, we exhibit many illogical behaviors called cognitive biases. There are several informative lists and pretty maps of cognitive biases, but some that apply in predicting life after COVID-19 include:

1. Loss aversion – The feeling that it is better to avoid a loss than acquire an equivalent gain. In experiments that ask people how much they would need to win to risk losing $100 on the flip of a coin, the answer is always over $200, which has financial parity. We genuinely do not like losing things.

Evolution has taught us to be cautious. When prehistoric man hunted for survival, seeing something in the grass that could be a deer or a lion, it was best to consider it a lion and live to hunt another day. The gain (food) is much less than the potential loss (death). All the people with a more optimistic viewpoint were soon eaten and did not get to further contribute toward our evolution.

2. Availability bias – The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events with greater “availability” in our memory, which is influenced by how recent the memories are or how emotionally charged they may be. People are not going to forget COVID-19 for a long time, and will likely behave disproportionally to the risk of a similar event.

In 2013, my home town of Canmore, Canada experienced a freak weather event when three storm systems became stuck in place for days, creating unprecedented rain and flooding. Scientists estimated that the likelihood of it ever happening again is tiny. However, because it happened once—and it was recent and unpleasant—all kinds of flood mitigation and debris-capture dams were justified and built.

Logical and Flawed Forecasts for Project Managers
The logical and illogical ramifications of the pandemic will change how we work in large and small ways. At a macroeconomic level, the business case for many projects will change. Entire industries will flounder while others flourish. Project managers should expect to see a shift in project types as investments change.

Industry Changes
The cruise ship business may take a generation to recover as the vivid reporting of confinement and concern will be hard to shake off. Air travel industries and support services could be severely reduced for a couple of reasons:

  1. First, more people have now tried remote collaboration and worked through the kinks and learning process. People will question if all meetings in the future have to be face to face. A switch to just, say, alternating remote with F2F would be a 50% reduction.
  2. Second, the pandemic accelerated through air travel and people were stranded in foreign countries away from their family. People will think of travel differently in the future and be more reluctant to go.

On the upside, remote work tools, health care, personal protection equipment and a host of other industries will see increased investment and growth. Online products and services and business-to-consumer retail sales will likely stay in high demand as people get used to cutting out the middle man and saving money. Project managers would be well served to learn about cloud-based platforms and remote collaboration tools as their adoption has been rapidly accelerated.

Project and Personal Changes
At the project level, what might change? We often want what we cannot have; as people are told to work from home and stay indoors, they naturally want to go out. Yet, once the restrictions are lifted, I think more people will want to work from home when they realize the savings in commuting costs and time.

Do we really have to drive for 45 minutes to sit at a desk and do knowledge work we could do from home? Yes, F2F meetings are superior for communication, but perhaps just two or three days a week in the office is enough, the rest from home. Many organizations had work-from-home and entire remote work structures before the pandemic. What may change is the broader adoption of these ideas. Hot desking can save organizations billions of dollars in office space reductions alone.

What about open-plan offices, high-fives and shaking hands? Open-plan offices favored by agile teams were criticized as “germ factories” long before COVID-19. We often see people wearing headphones to counteract noise pollution (and undermine some of the reasons for having an open space)…might we see face masks, too? When people start pushing back with legitimate health and safety concerns, HR departments might be nervous to support project manager requests for team colocation.

Will people still want to attend project management conferences and in-person training courses packed into hotel ballrooms with communal buffets? Or will lower-cost and more time-efficient virtual conferences become the norm?

Project Managers Have an Advantage
Projects are all about change. We are always building some new product or service, or enhancing something and then working with people to facilitate its introduction. As such, project managers instigate and deal with change in our everyday lives. We have access to organizational change models that explain when people resist change and when we welcome change. We know about stages of loss, building support for change, and confidence assessment models.

This knowledge makes us uniquely equipped to deal with a new tomorrow. Once we realize it will be a weird combination of logical and irrational behavior, we can use our skills to embrace it and move with the changes. It’s the slower-moving industries I feel sorry for, like auditors, tax accountants and lawyers…they may all be in for a wake-up!

 

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


New Trends in Online Learning

New Trends in Online Learning SmallFinished Netflix? Done with “doom-scrolling” social media? Maybe it’s time to gain those skills you have been putting off.

The expansion of online learning was booming before COVID-19 emerged. Now, with the rise of work from home and homeschooling, the switch to online study has been massively accelerated.

However, before enrolling in some uninspired port of traditional course content to an online platform, let's see what else is out there. What are the emerging trends and good practices? What can we look forward to seeing in the world of online learning for project managers?

Increased Focus on the Learner Experience
Work-from-home orders aside, organizations typically struggle to get staff motivated to learn, whether for new skills acquisition or compliance training (safety, HR policies, etc.). At the same time, training platforms are competing to win market share by creating the most engaging frameworks and enjoyable learning experiences.

The period from 2005 to 2010 brought YouTube, Twitter and iPhones. Searching for content and consuming videos would never be the same again. LMS (learning management systems) evolved to become LXP (learning experience platforms). These new platforms focus on content discovery, content recommendations, career paths, skills mapping and, in some cases, self-published content with automatic content indexing.

We will look at some project management-based examples shortly, but first, let's examine how these systems differ from old training platforms. What do people want from a modern learning experience?

  • Mobile-first: Content must be formatted to work on mobile devices such as phones and tablets, as well as larger computer screens. Research[1] from over 700 organizations indicates that employees typically only have 24 minutes a week for “formal learning.” Using a mobile device enables more learning opportunities.
  • Streamlined, reduced time to find content: Searching skills catalogs and competency frameworks is a drag. People want curated playlists, channels, and “top-rated”/“others enjoyed” smart content suggestions that we see on YouTube, Netflix and Amazon.
  • Personalized recommendations: Extending the easy-to-find concept, people want tailored recommendations based on their learning goals, career paths and current progress. These can be extended by AI-based suggestions and people's history of consumption.
  • Video-centric content: Organizations used to be worried about video-based content. Would people learn anything? Is just watching active enough? The popularity of YouTube how-to videos is living proof of the format. From wiring a socket to rebuilding an engine, videos provide a rich, high-bandwidth learning experience. 
  • Micro-learning: Just enough, just in time. Our brains do not learn over long continuous periods; instead, we learn incrementally. Often, the best motivation for learning is having an immediate problem to solve. Microlearning uses short-form modules of four minutes or less, often with a video component, to answer an “I need help now” problem. It also drops a lot of the preamble and “why” background to focus on the “how.”
  • Micro-credentialing: Online assessment allows for awarding micro-credentials. These are smaller achievements, such as electronic badges that recognize achieving minor learning goals. Frequent small rewards closely linked to recent performance is more motivating than less-frequent large rewards. Computerized tests and credentials are cheaper to administer and reward than physical ones so that they can occur more frequently. Many people are motivated by collecting badges and can display them on portals like ProjectManagement.com and LinkedIn.
  • Gamification: Micro-credentials tap into gamification, which is the neuroscience of rewards, motivation and psychology to encourage learning by making it more enjoyable. Other strategies include “keep the streak going” reminders, points, leaderboards and community features.
  • Interactive: Watching videos, listening to audio and reading text is a one-way flow of information with a decreasing information-retention rate over time. Productive learning environments punctuate this flow with interactive exercises to reset our focus and hit the “save” button on content. The best platforms mix in visual and text-based activities to break up content delivery, test understanding beyond regurgitation, and reset our focus.
  • Repetition and reinforcement: Unfortunately, our memory is weak, and retention fades over time. Studies on spaced learning and skills acquisition show we need to review content multiple times and apply it in various settings to retain it. Language learning platforms such as DuoLingo does this well, requiring repetition and reinforcement in different contexts to ensure we master content.
  • VR/AR: Some platforms use virtual reality and augmented reality to make training more relevant. For instance, oil rig workers can practice evacuation drills wearing headsets to show what they would see when navigating an emergency. Likewise, engineers can use augmented reality to identify aircraft parts and show torque settings and service recommendations using AR-equipped glasses.

Project Management Examples
Today, we can see instances of these new learning trends in products such as PMI's Snippets and the training elements of StandardsPlus. These tools offer short-format, video-first, micro-learning options on project management topics. They are focused on explaining how-to content and incorporate some of the gamification and content curation features described.

Learning Cycles and Choices
Micro-learning modules can seem fragmented to people used to full-length textbooks and traditional multi-day training courses. Like perpetually snacking instead of having proper meals, it may feel unorganized, trivial and too random. However, we need to remember that before COVID-19, employees often only experienced minimal periods for their on-the-job training.

Micro-learning fits the time-pressured need, but there is still the market for longer macro-learning. Traditionally, this was at the beginning of careers or new roles and then supplemented by micro-learning while on the job (as pictured below):

Traditional Learning Cycle

Now, with a work-from-home reset for many of us, maybe it’s an excellent time to insert some new opportunistic macro-learning as well as micro-learning (perhaps to learn about program management, Kanban or leadership—whatever you have hoped to achieve).

New Opportunity Learning Cycle

Macro-learning is the longer format, more focused training that often comes to mind when we think about learning a new skill. It includes multi-day courses and in-depth study with practice.

However, this does not mean giving up on the learner experience trends discussed earlier. Options such as LinkedIn Learning uses many of these learning experience concepts and bundles micro-learning modules into more extensive courses and more substantial credentials.

Other offerings in the macro-learning space include EdX, Coursera, Udemy, Udacity and NovoEd. Like most platforms, they contain some great content taught by experts—and some not-so-great content. However, with the option to read reviews, sort by top-rated courses and try free samples, much of the risk of choosing a poor curriculum can be avoided.

So, if you have some time to gain new skills, do not settle for old LMS platforms with tired and uninspiring learning experiences. Lifelong learning should be fun and rewarding. Explore some of the latest offerings. Maybe the new formats, gamification or social aspects will be just what you need to stay focused and get more out of the process.

References

  1. Learning in the Flow of Work by Josh Bersin

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Available For Remote Work

  • Mike Griffiths Remote WorkDo you need relevant, high-quality articles for your corporate website?
  • Are you looking for an expert in leadership, agile, or project management?
  • Maybe you require some training materials, exam preparation support, or remote coaching?

I am available for remote work. If you like the ideas on this site or in my books, please get in touch, I would love to discuss opportunities to work together.

Details

Long before the COVID-19 crisis, I reduced traveling for consulting and training due to family health issues. I have worked mainly from home for the last five years and have been fortunate to stay busy. Now, because of COVID-19, a couple of my regular clients have suspended operations, and I have some spare capacity.

Please get in touch to discuss consulting, mentoring, courseware development, and writing opportunities. My email is Mike <at> LeadingAnswers.com


Playing in the Gray of Hybrid

Playing in the Gray of HybridGray areas occupy the transition from one world to the next. Neither black nor white, predictive nor agile, project managers are increasingly finding themselves in the gray area of hybrid project management. This can make us feel uncomfortable since we are neither faithfully following either approach—instead living a compromise between seemingly different value systems.

We could get uncomfortable, guarded and hesitant to embrace the reality we face. Or, we could welcome it, use it to our advantage and share the benefits/trade-offs with anyone willing to listen. This second option of embracing, using and sharing is “playing in the gray area,” a term I learned at a recent workshop I was giving. It nicely summarizes the idea of accepting and making the most of our reality rather than uncomfortably accommodating it and mainly keeping it to ourselves.

Hybrid Environments
Let’s talk about what hybrid environments are and why we might find ourselves operating in one. A hybrid is a combination of two (or more) different systems. Hybrid cars can use internal combustion engines (ICE) and electric batteries, or ICE and hydrogen fuel cells. Both combinations are considered hybrids.

In project environments, the use of both predictive approaches and agile approaches results in a hybrid approach. There are several reasons why both approaches might be used. Some common causes include:

  1. Agile is not entirely suitable – Agile approaches are applicable for high-change, uncertain, technically risky project work. They offer many great tools for engaging and empowering team members. They allow teams to go fast by streamlining communications and documentation. I am a strong advocate for using them where they work well. At the same time, I am a realist and understand they are not a panacea or silver bullet.

Highly regulated industries require lots of documentation. Well-understood technology can be applied without the need for experiments and proof of concepts. Stable designs can be planned and executed with few change requests. Often, projects combine work that is well suited for predictive approaches and work that can benefit from agile approaches. Here it makes sense to use a hybrid approach overall.

We can execute the predictive work using predictive approaches and the adaptive work using agile approaches. For example, a project I worked on to develop and roll out a custom GPS routing solution for truck drivers used an agile approach for the software development—and a largely predictive approach for scheduling the equipment install in the trucks and training the drivers. We use the appropriate tools for the job at hand; it is neither rocket science or anything to be ashamed of.

  1. Operating in a predictive organization – Some organizations operate with upfront requirements analysis, scope sign-off and funding. We can try to educate stakeholders on why a more adaptive approach toward these operations might be beneficial, but maybe this is beyond our circle of influence—or maybe we inherited a project with a scope and budget already in place.

Either way, sometimes we do not get to do everything by the book and we have to work with what we are given. This is not to say we should give up and not try to make improvements. Instead, accept that not everything will be ideal and that we need to choose our battles wisely. We might be asked/told to be the bridge between agile teams and not-so-agile organizational groups.

  1. Transitioning to agile incrementally – Large organizations rarely transition to agile approaches overnight. Some executives and training companies try a “sheep-dip” approach, immersing everyone in agile training and mandating a whole scale switch. However, these initiatives often fail. How big does the sheep-dip have to be? Does it include finance, HR and sales? How about procurement and suppliers? Usually, there are groups the team or supporting project managers still have to work with that have not transitioned to agile.

Whenever an agile team works with a predictive entity, there is some mapping, interfacing and translating that needs to occur. This work often falls on the team lead or project manager (if one is in place). As depicted in Figure 1, these interfaces could be between our project and other projects (1), between an agile department and other non-agile departments (2) or from our department to the broader organization (3):

Hybrid interfaces and buffering

Figure 1: Interactions that require hybrid interfaces and buffering

These scenarios are of course simplifications. Typically, organizational adoption of any idea, not just agile approaches, is fragmented and not uniform. Team leads and project managers often find themselves translating terminology, progress reports and plans to different stakeholders within the same meeting.

Embrace and Own It
The flipside of uncertainty is being able to explain topics and help people learn. Anyone who can bridge between two worlds, two sets of concepts and two slightly different vocabularies is extremely valuable. Whether as a project manager, BA, product owner or executive, organizations benefit more from people willing and able to talk about the similarities, differences and problem areas than pure converted zealots. These interpreters and linkers can help other people make the transition.

So, if asked “When will your agile project be done?”, rather than giving an eye roll for being asked such an uninformed question for an agile project—or mumbling, hand-waving or resorting to exotic terms about points, velocity and burn charts—instead, own it. This is an opportunity to talk about the gray area of hybrid metrics. So, a better response might be something along the lines of:

“Great question!, I ask this myself daily. Over the last four months, we have developed and gained business acceptance on about half of the features in the backlog (our total list of work), so that suggests we need another four months to finish. We have spent 45% of our budget, so we look on track for a Q4 completion within budget.”

Likewise, actively combine predictive and agile components. Work with your team and product owner on getting your risk register responses correctly prioritized in the backlog. What are the opportunities we should exploit, and which threat avoidance and mitigation actions should we do first? With the shared goal of successful projects and happy stakeholders, there are many synergies to be found.

The term “playing in the gray” has a couple of meanings. The first interpretation of “playing” addresses where we operate, our playing field (which these days is increasingly hybrid). The second meaning of playing is to enjoy things. Anyone bridging two environments has an opportunity to be useful, help people learn and add lots of value. It is a rewarding place to work, so own it and enjoy it.

 

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]

Copyright © 2020 Mike Griffiths, Leading Answers Inc.


How to Adapt and Flourish in the New World of Project Management

How to adapt and flourish in the new world of project managementDo you wonder how to stay current in your PM role? 

Is your industry evolving so quickly that one day you might no longer be required? 

With the rise of AI, agile, and empowered teams, are project managers even needed anymore? Maybe, but not for the reasons you might expect.

As we enter a new decade, it’s an excellent time to reflect on how project management has changed and where it is going in the future. Professional project managers need to stay current and adapt to change to thrive. We all want to remain valuable to our organizations and teams. Tips include:

Focus Wisely

You might be expecting to hear about the usual list of topics: big data, IoT, and artificial intelligence. These are undoubtedly happening, but project managers have little influence over them. Instead, I suggest that project managers focus on people skills. 

People originate projects, people undertake projects, and people consume the results of these projects. These characteristics are not changing anytime soon. However, what is happening is a massive mobilization of talent and services. These changes will have a profound impact on the way we work and how to retain the best people.

As the saying goes, The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” We have seen the war for talent driving demand for skilled professionals in places like Silicon Valley, Bangalore, and Beijing. Organizations are now looking further afield for workers, and technology is making remote work more accessible. So as project managers, we should be getting familiar with online collaboration tools and how to facilitate geographically dispersed teams.  

Choose Your Attitude

Attitudes are changing too. People do not appreciate being treated as interchangeable resources. Instead, they want to be inspired, led and valued, especially younger workers who may not have been through economic downturns with job scarcity. 

These new expectations present a problem for traditional organizations with their human resource departments and standardized job roles. The high demand for top talent,  growth in online collaboration tools, the gig-economy, and access to online job sites make moving roles easier than ever. 

‘Sedimentation’ is a term used to describe organizations where all the best and brightest have moved on, leaving behind those that cannot find other jobs or choose not to. People move because they did not feel valued or lacked inclusion/influence in decision making. Like with ponds, too much sedimentation creates a toxic environment where nothing grows or flourishes. 

How to Keep Your Best Team Members

Employees don’t leave companies; they leave managers – Don’t be one of those managers!

A Gallup poll1 of more than 1 million workers concluded that the number one reason people left their jobs was a bad boss or immediate supervisor. Also, 75% of workers who voluntarily left their jobs did so because of their manager and not the role itself. Despite how good a job is, people will leave if their relationship with their project manager is unhealthy.

Solutions exist to make people feel valued and reduce sedimentation. Project managers who demonstrate compassion and understanding can use empowerment to create environments where people want to stay, even if the organization is not the best in class.

The PMI 2020 Jobs Report2 explained, “Showing empathy is fast emerging as a leadership superpower. Fostering an empathetic culture can lead to stronger collaboration, less stress, fewer conflicts and faster recovery from burnout.” Project managers who create these environments get noticed by executives and are highly valued. 

Furthermore, 91% of CEOs believe that empathy is directly related to a company’s financial performance3. So, what does that mean for project managers?

The Magical Es

Exploration, Empowerment, Empathy – they all sound good, but how do we achieve them? Let’s look at some concrete examples for each.

Exploration – keep an open and growth-oriented mindset. Learn about the new tools for team collaboration and managing geographically dispersed teams. You never know, you might be in a  meeting where questions arise about this and being able to offer an insightful solution could land you a new opportunity.

In 2010 a team developing software for a large trucking company was also responsible for developing training materials. Ashley, a junior team member, lamented whenever she wanted to learn something she just looked on YouTube. This was before microlearning became an established approach.  

However, the team acknowledged short videos would be a great way to teach drivers about the new system. Ashley set up a web portal allowing drivers to access training videos on-demand and also tracked their viewings. Ashley studied the emerging field of microlearning, created the videos, and took a much more senior role out of IT in corporate training. Her interest, research and delivery on in a field of interest served her and the organization well.

Empowerment – people are hard-wired to get an endorphin boost from problem-solving. So bring teams problems and challenges, not task-lists. Allowing teams to choose how they work and solve problems is a more empowering and engaging way to work. Team members who have a say in defining their way of working are more committed to their success and happier in their jobs.

Within the bounds of what is acceptable in your organization, empower teams to make as many local decisions as possible. What time should we have stand-up? What tool should we use for prototyping? How are we going to solve the nose-cone problem? Whatever the question, asking the team for a solution brings many benefits:

  • By asking the team for an answer, we gain consensus for the proposal. – the team has vetted it internally already.
  • We are accessing a broader knowledge of the facts – the team members are closer to the technical detail.
  • When consulted, people work hard to generate good ideas – it shows we care and value their input. People recognize this and respond. Seeking ideas models desired behavior – it shows it is good to ask for insights and help.

Empathy – make the time to get to know your team members and take an interest in their wellbeing and aspirations. Truly listen to what they are telling you, and not discussing with you. Empathy is a core building block of emotional intelligence. Only when we demonstrate we understand how others feel, do our messages begin to gain credibility. In other words, project managers are not trusted until they show authentic care for their teams.

I worked on a project where a team member explained he had just received a call from his wife, who was sick. He wanted to go home to see her. I could have just said: “Sure, no problem, go home and see her”. However, because I knew he walked to his nearest train station and took the train to get into the office, I asked if I could drive him home. He was very appreciative, he saved 30 minutes on his journey home, and I was back in the office in under an hour.

It was no big deal to me; the team was very self-sufficient, and I was glad to assist. However, he did not forget that simple gesture, it helped strengthen our work relationship and was repaid many times over.

Future Challenges and Changes

Shifting demographics, work attitudes, and technology adoption will transform entire industries. A trifecta of factors are impacting organizations: 

  1. More millennials and Gen Y workers entering the workplace with high expectations for inclusion and influence in how they work,
  2. Increased acceptance of changing jobs, the rise of the gig-economy and fewer people treating organizations as life-long employers,
  3. Technology and websites that facilitate remote working, finding new work, and sharing experiences which make changing jobs more tempting than ever.

Savvy project managers will be of great value as organizations grapple with responding to these factors and try to retain the best employees to help them be successful. 

While technology trends such as artificial intelligence, IoT, and big data will undoubtedly impact business, organizations will become more reliant on retaining and directing collaborative teams to deliver their transformations. Project managers who can understand and navigate the emerging world of work will be more valuable than ever.

To prepare for these changes, project managers should be building their capabilities in new collaboration tools, empowering their teams, and developing genuine empathy to increase team member satisfaction and retention. As we move into a new decade, project managers should double-down on what they can control and what makes project teams great – the people and their operating environment.

References:

  1. Gallop Poll – State of the American Manager
  2. PMI 2020 Jobs Report – Empathy Amplified
  3. State of Workplace Empathy, Businesssolver, 2019

Problem Solving: Using Visualization

Some people say we cannot manage what we cannot measure. I say we cannot solve what we cannot see, or at least visualize somehow.

Projects are problem-solving exercises. The entire project is one big problem. We might be building a new product; that's a problem to solve. Or we might be trying to create something well understood but within a challenging amount of time, to a tight budget, and demanding specification. Or we could be moving our organization forward through a change initiative. These are familiar project environments that are puzzles or problems to solve.

Visual Problem Solving for Project Managers Mike Griffiths 1

Then within this large problem environments, we have hundreds of everyday challenges to answer, too. "How are we going to manage without the installer today?" or "The pilot group has requested 400 changes, now what do we do?"

Once we see projects as puzzles with more puzzles within them, we realize the importance of practical problem-solving.

Visual Problem Solving for Project Managers Mike Griffiths 2

Rarely do project managers have all the answers or the best answers. So we need to share the problem and collaborate on developing a solution. This is why being able to visualize problems is so important.

Visualizing a problem helps us understand it ourselves and then gain consensus with others on it. It also allows us to determine if we are all seeing it in the same way. Drawing something also lays it out spatially, allowing people to see relations, sequence and connections, or whatever we want to depict.

Here is the structure of this article as a list of bullet points:

  • Introduction
  • Why visualizing is helpful
  • An example from a real project
  • Ways in which we can visualize
  • Wrap up and recommendations

Here is the same information as an image:

Visual Problem Solving for Project Managers Mike Griffiths 3

Research into visual thinking by David Hyerle, creator of Thinking Maps methodology, reports that 90% of the information entering the brain is visual.

Visual Problem Solving for Project Managers Mike Griffiths 4

Also, 40% of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are for the retina, and a full 20% of the entire cerebral cortex is for vision, so let's use it.

Creating a visual helps us to tackle a problem in steps. Having a spatial reference allows us to park some elements until later. We can say: "Yes we still need to solve the atmosphere re-entry problem, that's shown over here; but right now we are tackling the launch problem." Separating components in this way allows us to focus on one element at a time.

A Real-Life Example

I once took over a struggling project that was using a complex combination of proprietary hardware, software and vendor products. It mixed in-house developed software and cloud-based services—and was difficult for me to comprehend. I went through all the documentation but struggled to see how the elements worked together. To get up to speed, I knew I had to draw it all out to understand it.

I met with stakeholders, asked about how their part worked and drew it out with them. They provided lots of corrections and additions. I then showed the whole thing to the team, and they found even more omissions, which I filled in. I felt like they were humoring me, helping me get my little project manager brain around the complex system they had spent years developing. However, then they announced they had never seen it all mapped out in a single (very large) image before.

We ended up using the diagram repeatedly going forward within the team to discuss issues and to onboard new members. I also used simplified versions and zoomed-in portions for explaining elements of the project to the steering committee.

If you are missing a big picture view of your domain, you probably need to make one. It is a great way to surface misunderstandings and gain alignment on thinking.

Luckily, we do not need to be artists—or even competent at drawing. Stick figures, boxes and lines are all we need. Yes, it is pleasing to have a well-drawn vision of strategy poster, but for most instances, basic drawings are just fine. If we need a professional looking image, there are always graphic artists we can engage. Here is how I show some of the roles of a PM:

Visual Problem Solving for Project Managers Mike Griffiths 5

The images are not well-formed or accurate, but convey more meaning than words would alone.

Books such as Visual Collaboration walk readers through the drawing process. They show how to create simple but powerful graphics to help direct meetings, ask powerful questions, and create clear strategies.

Using images sounds like a luxury, right? "I do not have time for that!" Maybe, but are your messages getting through?

Using images helps people retain information. Most people only remember 10% of what they heard three days ago. Add an image to the message, and this figure jumps to 65%.

Visual Problem Solving for Project Managers Mike Griffiths 6

So, if we are going to the trouble of interrupting people from their work, we owe it to everyone to make it worth their time. Better to spend the extra time and create a visual than disrupt them six times with the same message to achieve similar retention.

In a team setting, we can use images when capturing opportunities and threats. The sailboat exercise allows people to record and place threats, opportunities and issues on an image with sticky notes:

Visual Problem Solving for Project Managers Mike Griffiths 7

We use anchors for threats that could impede progress and depict opportunities as the wind in the sails to propel us forward. Cheesy? Yes, but providing spatial separation and getting people up on their feet, contributing and generating an image they are more likely to remember is worth the cheesiness.

Finally, hand-drawn and group-generated images are more personal, more human and more uniting. They are ours; we created them, and we are more invested in achieving their goals than outcomes shown with generic Gantt charts or schedules. Involvement increases commitment, and human is more approachable than automated.

Visual Problem Solving for Project Managers Mike Griffiths 8

Final Recommendations
Here are some tips for problem-solving with visuals:

  • Find ways to visualize the overall project problem; this allows people to see the big picture.
  • Break down the interim puzzle pieces to show relationships, sequence and solution alternatives. Use these visuals to encourage collaboration and build support for group-generated solutions.
  • Don't be shy about your amateur art. Your chicken-scratch stick people demonstrate a vulnerability that increases empathy and encourages others to have a go. Starting with a fancy image may inhibit people from contributing as they do not want to spoil your picture.

While rough-and-ready visuals are suitable for working sessions, there are times when you will want to invest more time and effort. Externally facing artifacts such as plans, roadmaps and product visions will benefit from the best images you can create.

I sometimes create project milestone posters for stakeholders to recognize their contributions and the obstacles we have overcome together. These work well for thank-you cards and foam-board plaques. Here are a couple of examples:

Visual Problem Solving for Project Managers Mike Griffiths 9


Visual Problem Solving for Project Managers Mike Griffiths 10

I like to embed insider jokes and references to some of the issues we faced.

Projects are adventurous journeys we share with our stakeholders. Just as we would use maps and take photos on physical trips, we can do the same for our project endeavors to recognize and remember the venture. So be brave and get visual!

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here.]

Copyright © 2020 Mike Griffiths, Leading Answers Inc.

 

 


WBS and Product Backlog: Siblings or Distant Cousins?

WBSandPBIt’s easy to believe that work breakdown structures (WBS) have been around since the pyramids were built in Egypt, and that product backlogs are new inventions by youngsters in too much of a hurry to plan correctly. However, like most things, the truth is more complicated.

In 1957, the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) approach was created by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and described organizing tasks into product-oriented categories. However, they did not use the term “work breakdown structure” or WBS until 1962 when DoD, NASA and the aerospace industry published a document about PERT that described the WBS approach.

Meanwhile, in 1960, Tom Gilb described his Evolutionary Value Delivery approach (or Evo for short) that is widely accepted to be a forerunner of agile approaches. Evo contains principles such as:

  • E1: Decompose by performance results and stakeholders –  Break down the work into small (weekly) value delivery steps
  • E2: Do high-risk steps early – Prioritize the work based on risk
  • E3: Focus on improving your most valuable objectives first – Also prioritize the work based on business value

These ideas became the concepts embodied in backlogs by today’s agile approaches and frameworks.

So, we can trace each approach back to around the same time and also be confident these ideas were firmly established long before that. Building the pyramids and Roman cities required multiple levels of planning, work decomposition and task coordination. There is little point in arguing whether WBSs or backlogs came first since it was clearly lots of other things.

These days, the PMI Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures defines a WBS as “…a hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work to be carried out by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the desired deliverables.” The Scrum Guide defines a product backlog as “an ordered list of everything that is known to be needed in the product.

Are they really so different? They both help with forming an agreement on scope. Yet, due to how they are often used, they are viewed as quite different by many people…a viewpoint I would like to change.

WBS and Backlog

WBS and Backlog Similarities and Differences
Work breakdown structures are often defined upfront and supported with a WBS dictionary. They can be used to form statements of work and contracts. If these deliverables are useful for your projects, then great, create them. However, understand we could create the same deliverables from a product backlog also.

Yet, on agile projects, we typically do not because these environments tend to be more dynamic so these deliverables would soon be out of date. Instead, we create iteration plans, release roadmaps and work from the top of the backlog while the product owner manages the backlog with evolving priorities and change requests. These deliverables are easier to update as changes occur. The differences we see in action stem more from the characteristics of the work environment than the WBS or backlog tool in use. Both help us define and discuss scope.

Visual Benefits
Both are visual and allow us to point at items as we talk about them. This is critically important. Visual depictions of work allow us to collaborate more effectively. When two people face a task board or WBS diagram, they can collaborate with less contention. Visualizations help us build shared understandings and avoid confusions such as having two similar items being considered the same thing or assuming one solution fits two scenarios when it does not.

Depicting scope visually also allows us to shade and color items to indicate type, ownership, risk and completion status.  Visualizing work is a major component of lean thinking. When we visualize something, we also process information using more of our brain—and much more quickly compared to reading and interpreting written information. This is one reason we have road signs with images and not descriptions to read. It is the difference between decoding and understanding meaning in 150 microseconds (roads signs) versus 6,000 microseconds for reading:

Signpost

Product Backlogs as a form of WBS
The third edition of the Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures talks about backlogs as a form of WBS. Many people think only tree structures of boxes and lines are work breakdown structures, but they can actually take on many forms including tabular backlogs or even mind maps.

I can imagine some purists shouting “No, that’s not a WBS!” as I type this, but go check it out for yourself if you do not believe me. The Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures WBS is a free download for PMI members. 

I participated as a reviewer for the standard and was pleased to see its coverage of agile scope decomposition using epics, features, user stories and tasks as candidate WBS elements. One thing that puzzled me that I am hoping a reader of this article can help me with is the inclusion of sprints or iterations as potential WBS elements.

My confusion stems from the logical definition of work in section 2.1 that says “… work refers to outputs, work products, or deliverables that are the results of effort, not the effort itself.” – that makes sense. Then in section 2.3.1.1 on WBS rules it says “WBS elements do not account for time or sequence.” Again, that seems reasonable.

However, the examples for agile projects include a WBS with level 2 items showing “Iteration 1,” “Iteration 2,” etc. containing work. This seems to violate the deliverables versus effort definition of “work and no-time” rule. We would not have a WBS element called “September,” so why call out some arbitrary time box? Iterations are just time constructs, and you might choose to use them or work without them as a continuous pull of features from the backlog.

Likely I am interpreting the work, deliverables and no-time rules too literally and, like debating which approach came first,  it probably does not matter. If having iterations shown helps you share your plans and have meaningful conversations about scope, then go for it. I would imagine it would result in having to refactor the WBS frequently as stories get shifted between iterations as priorities change and throughput varies, but maybe not.

The more important idea is that we visualize and discuss project scope with a wide variety of stakeholders to surface and correct misunderstandings. The good news is that product backlogs are a legitimate form of WBS and more of a sibling than a distant cousin. A couple of great quotes from the WBS Practice Standard reiterates the value and applies equally well to backlogs and release roadmaps:

The WBS provides the foundation for a visual representation of the scope of work…Research demonstrates that communication is one of the project management disciplines with the highest impact on project success. The WBS serves as a critical project communication mechanism that helps convey the scope of the project through its graphical depiction.

So let’s get graphical and keep communicating.

 

[Note: This article first appeared on ProjectManagement.com here. For more articles from Mike Griffiths check his blog www.LeadingAnswers.com]


Career Development in Overdrive

OverdriveIn his best-selling book Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us, Dan Pink explains three attributes (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose) that people need to feel satisfied and motivated at work. It is a great book, but we can do more. Drive only gets us started. As project managers, we can do more to help the people on the projects we manage.

Remember, Nobody Wants to Be Managed
It’s important to remember that PMs manage projects, not the people working on the projects. Rarely can anyone effectively manage people, and rarer still are the people who want to be managed.

Instead, “We manage property and lead people; if we try to manage people\e, they will feel like property.” Over the long-term, people are more satisfied when they have control or input into how they undertake their work. Using our own skills, insights and decision-making process is more rewarding than blindly following instructions.

Yet there are a few instances when we want to be told what to do. These include emergency situations or a scenario that is totally foreign—such as a temporary volunteer role. However, they are not common, and satisfaction at work requires freedom of choice in how to work—and an opportunity to bring our skills to bear on a problem.

This freedom and skill opportunity make up the “autonomy” and “mastery” components of Dan Pink’s motivation triad (which also includes purpose). Pink explains what people want to feel satisfied and fulfilled. Here’s the recap…

What People Do Want Instead
When we can provide freedom of choice (autonomy) with an ability to apply and learn new skills (mastery) in an environment that pursues a worthwhile goal (purpose), the magic happens. Now people are motivated. Then our role as leaders and managers of projects is to channel and coordinate these driven contributors in their pursuit of that goal.

If that sounds unrealistically optimistic, maybe you have never felt or seen true motivation. Maybe YourGreedyCorp’s reason for being (max profits for owner and shareholders) lacks any sense of purpose for its employees?

Unfortunately, organizations with uniting and worthwhile missions are scarce. We cannot all work for companies like PatagoniaTesla or Buurtzorg, so how can we support people working in more traditional organizations?

If we cannot influence the purpose of our organization, we can try to find the compelling purpose for our project and create as much autonomy and opportunities for mastery as possible. Then we can see what other motivational factors people desire.

Beyond “Drive” Enablers – Into “Overdrive”
A recent Entrepreneur article about seven basic human needs provides great insights into a holistic set of motivational/satisfaction ideas we can bring to teams. Let’s review them:

  1. Safety/security: - Without it, we feel anxious.” Creating a psychologically safe environment is critical for experimentation and learning. People need to feel it is not only okay for them to extend themselves and try new things, but are positively encouraged to do so.

As leaders, we can help by modeling the desired behavior and talking about our own learnings and failures. For example, “I made a mistake on the status report I am sending it again” or “I heard my presentation to the steering committee was too technical; I would like your help explaining it in simpler terms.

This second example also demonstrates vulnerability by asking for help. It turns out vulnerability in leaders is less a sign of weakness and more a bridge to building stronger relations with team members. Creating a safe environment and being human produces a better working environment.

People join companies because of the opportunities and leave them because of the managers they encounter there. Don’t be one of those managers.

 

  1. Variability/challenge: - Without it, we are bored.” Our brains are wired to seek new experiences and solve problems. It releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates the pleasure circuits in the brain. It is likely to reward exploration and learning, which is critical for our evolution.

We can take advantage of the motivation circuits everyone comes wired with by presenting work as problems, not tasks. Outline the problem, let the team tell you how it intends to solve it. This will usually be how you would have structured work tasks, but it might be a better plan. Then, providing it is legal and appropriate, let the team execute its plan. Now the team members have ownership of the approach and are much more invested in ensuring its success.

It’s not rocket science, it’s neuroscience—and very well worth the extra steps of framing new work as problems and vetting proposed solutions.

 

  1. Status/significance: - “Without it, we feel undervalued.” We need to recognize the role and significance people play on projects—and not just at the end of them. That is too little, too late. Instead, we need to find ways to acknowledge and explain the contributions people are making on a regular (say weekly) basis.

It does not have to be much, but it does have to be something. People working without recognition can slide into doing the minimum tolerated. Instead, people who know their work is recognized will be more likely to try and do it well.

Yes, making sure we talk to everyone about their work each week takes time and effort. However, it is much easier than explaining lackluster performance to executives or recruiting new team members because someone quit or was fired for underperforming.

People need momentum to push past the obstacles they will inevitably face on projects. Regular recognition of their work creates and builds that momentum.

 

  1. Love/connection: - “Without it, we are lonely.” We spend a large proportion of our waking hours at work. As social creatures, we crave some connection—but the depth varies from person to person. For some, it is enough to be recognized and have your name remembered. For others, they want to learn about their teammates and share their interests and dreams.

HR departments can get justifiably concerned about inappropriate friendliness, and so often tend to err on the transactional side of interactions—e.g., “Bill, here is the marketing report you asked for.” However, this misses the opportunity to connect. “Hey Bill, there you are…here’s that marketing report. How did Wendy do at her first basketball game?

Having someone that cares enough to ask how you are—and also learn whatever aspects you want to share—is significant. We should try to learn what our team members like to do in their spare time, what causes and activities they enjoy.

People make terrible interchangeable cogs in a machine. They are inconsistent, unreliable and malleable, always changing shape. However, they make fantastic flowers in a garden. Some like shade, some like the sun; once we learn more about them, we can help them flourish.

 

  1. Self-expression: - “Without it, we can’t express our personality.” We need to let people show us who they are. Let them customize their work environment appropriately. If working the front desk of a fancy hotel, that might not be much visually; but in other environments, it could be considerable.

Dress, music, work time flexibility to go rock climbing or see the new Star Wars movie all show we recognize what is important to people. We hire people for who they are and their ability to contribute. Let’s not forget who they are, or they will forget to contribute.

 

  1. Growth/knowledge: - “Without it, we feel stuck.” This is the “mastery” component of Dan Pink’s three motivators. People want to improve their skills. They want to get better at the craft they chose as a career. Providing training, access to education and conferences improves job performance, employee satisfaction, and retention.

Education and training not only improve people’s sense of job worth, but it also improves their self-worth. People recognize and remember that.

 

  1. Contribution: - “Without it, we don’t have the satisfaction of helping someone.” This is the “purpose” component from Pink’s Drive book. People seek meaning, a purpose, an opportunity to help build a valuable legacy.

Connect work to a worthy goal. People do not want to spend a day pushing keyboard buttons. They want to know they helped people get access to healthcare or education, or book a fun night out with friends.

 

Putting the Seven Human Needs to Work
Great leaders and the best project managers do all of these things instinctively. They weave and blend the concepts into every interaction and conversation they have each day. The rest of us likely need some coaching until we feel natural—and then they become habits to us.

There is nothing wrong with creating a checklist of people to go talk with each day. We do not want to use the same questions, but instead develop interest, appreciation, and opportunities for growth.

Demonstrate the desired behavior, admit your failings and concerns. Ask questions, be upbeat, seek connections and knowledge. Everyone in a leadership role is being watched and judged, whether they like it or not. So, behave as if every action—seen or unseen—is being scored. Integrity and transparency remove the need for remembering the story for this situation, or what you told who.

When outlining work, start and end with the problem. Let people decide how best to solve it, and invite their ideas. Providing the solutions are legal and efficient, let them run with them. Check-in frequently to see how things are going. Investigate failures calmly. What can we learn? What can we do differently next time?

It takes time, but it gets easier. Then people start helping you when they see you are not a total jerk. Then things get much easier, and it is tempting to think you are hot stuff and become a jerk. Stay humble, stay thankful and always be learning.

Summary
Dan Pink’s Drive motivators of autonomy, mastery, and purpose are critical in ensuring motivation at work. However, they are a subset of the seven universal human needs we all seek to feel satisfied.

As we manage our projects and lead our teams, we should check to see how many of them we can engage every day.

[An earlier version of this article first appeared on ProjectManagement.com here]

(See www.LeadingAnswers.com for the full list of articles from Mike Griffiths)


Agile Illustrated – Sample #3

Agile Illustrated - Cover smallThis is the third sample from my new Kindle book “Agile Illustrated: A Visual Learner’s Guide to Agility”. The book is a graphical introduction to the agile mindset and servant leadership behaviors for working with agile teams. If you missed the first two samples you can find them here and here.

Also, just in time for Christmas, Agile Illustrated is now available as a physical paperback book. So if you prefer to hold a physical book rather than read a Kindle book you can now get your hands on a copy. Or, if you would like to give a copy to a manager or executive who is unlikely to read a normal length book on the agile mindset and how to support agile teams then buy them a copy as a gift.

Agile Illustrated New Physical BookAt just 88 pages and mainly pictures it is a quick read that explains the agile values, principles and servant leadership behaviors needed to support agile teams. Available from your local Amazon online store, the US link is here.

Today we will review Team Performance. The Team Performance domain includes Team Formation, Team Empowerment, and Team Collaboration activities. (Anyone taking the PMI-ACP exam should expect to see 18-20 questions on this topic.)

Here is a mindmap showing all the tasks, we will then review them one at a time.

Domain_04_d (1)

 Team Formation

D41
 
Task 1 – Jointly create team norms

Learn how people want to work and agree on how things should be done and how issues should be handled.

As a group, develop the group rules that will be followed. By being involved in the creation of the team norms, people are much more likely to feel ownership and commitments towards them. Telling people how we should work is much less empowering than engaging those people in jointly developing their own framework.

 

D42

Task 2 – Help develop technical and interpersonal skills

Encourage the development of technical and people skills so everyone is equipped to work effectively.

Knowledge work requires two sets of skills. The first is to do the technical work as a subject matter expert (SME), the second is to work productively with other SMEs and stakeholders, including the business and customer. The job of learning and honing these skills is never done, and we should always be improving our technical and collaboration skills.

 

Team Empowerment

D43

Task 3 – Encourage generalizing specialists

Encourage people to have a broad range of skills, not only deep, narrow ones, so that as workload varies people can help other team members out.

The concept of “T” shaped people rather than “I” shaped people captures the idea of having skills in surrounding fields of work, in addition to a specialization. To maximize the value delivered we want global rather than local optimization. This means focusing on overall throughput of value over people-utilization efficiencies. T-shaped people are valuable for optimizing value since they allow us to share work to reduce bottlenecks.

 

D44
 
Task 4 – Empower team members

Encourage people to step up for new roles. Allow them to make their own decisions. Put them in charge of many elements of their job.

We want people to take ownership of their work and start to make their own improvements. So encourage people to look for opportunities for improvements and take initiative to make them happen. These are forms of emergent and shared leadership. Subject matter experts know their domains best, so empower them to manage complexity and create solutions to the problems they face.

 

D45

Task 5 – Proactively manage morale

Learn what motivates people and provide that motivation in their workplace.

Frequently observe and ask team members about what motivates them individually and as part of a team. Also, learn what demotivates or upsets them. Then try to find ways to improve the work environment to foster happiness, productivity, and satisfaction.

 

Team Collaboration and Commitment

D46

Task 6 – Encourage ongoing communications

Encourage dialog and technology that helps share information.

Usually, the best way to help communications is to physically co-locate with the people you need to communicate with. Nothing beats seeing them and talking with them. It allows for the richest exchange of information accompanied by body language and emotion.

When colocation is not possible, provide the best tools you can to keep people in communication. Monitor communications and look for ways to reduce miscommunication or address missing communication. This helps reduce costly and wasteful rework caused by miscommunication.

 

D47

Task 7 – Protect team from distractions

Shield the team from interruptions.

Distractions and low-priority interruptions can come from many sources. They might be requests from superfluous sources or demands for low-priority admin work. Even quick interruptions cause task-switching and interrupting flow.

Special-ops and Skunkworks teams have been effective and highly productive in part because they were separated and shielded from interruptions.

 

D48
Task 8 – (Re)communicate the vision to align the goal

Show the end goal and how people’s contributions help get us there.

People should understand how their work contributes to the end goal. So we need to align the team goals with the product or project goal and show the connections and steps along the way to our final destination.

 

D49

Task 9 – Measure performance to help forecasting

Encourage people to measure and share their performance so we can get better at forecasting at a high level.

In order to improve our ability to forecast, we need to track how things actually turned out. If we keep making estimates without checking actual performance, we will keep making the same estimation errors. Tracking velocity and work delivered helps create a more accurate view of the team’s true capacity for future work.

I hope you enjoyed these samples from my most recent book. It was a fun project for me and my wish is that people find it an easy introduction to agile values.


5 Major Changes Coming to the PMP Exam

5 ChangesSome fundamental changes are coming to the PMP® exam. Currently slated for January 2021, the content and composition of the exam will be completely revamped. As described in the new PMP Exam Content Outline, PMI commissioned a research study into trends in the project management profession. This study, called the Global Practice Analysis, investigated which job tasks and approaches people frequently use.

The job task analysis identified the knowledge and skills required to function as a project management practitioner. Now the PMP is changing to better reflect these practices; here are some of the major changes:  

New Focus1. New focus– Switching from the previous domains (initiating, planning, executing, etc.), the new exam will be based on three new domains: people, process and business environment. These new domains align more closely with the PMI Talent Triangle®sections of leadership, technical project management, and business and strategic work.

Since project management occurs in a variety of industries, the business environment domain only tests universal concepts and does not get into any specifics around project types. The split of questions between these domains is:

  • People: 42%
  • Process: 50%
  • Business Environment: 8%

New Content2. New content– The job task analysis revealed that many project managers are using agile approaches, or some agile concepts in hybrid life cycles. To reflect this, the new exam covers the complete value delivery spectrum including predictive, hybrid and agile approaches.

The inclusion of agile concepts and increased emphasis on the people aspects of projects represent a big shift. Concepts like servant leadership, conflict resolution and retrospectives were previously the domain of the PMI-ACP® exam, but will now be featured more frequently on the PMP exam (although not in so much depth or frequency).

New Question Types3. New question types– A change announced by PMI at the recent PMI Global Conference in Philadelphia was the introduction of some new question types. PMI will be introducing question types that depart from the tradition multiple-choice format of four options and one correct answer.

The new format questions include drag-and-drop and clicking on a graphic region. These new question types allow questions such as asking the test taker to select the graph/chart that best fits a described scenario, or identify what part of an image applies to a described situation.

Crossword and coloring-in based questions will be added later (just kidding). Personally, I applaud the incorporation of visual questions; a large component of effective communication involves interpreting and creating graphs and charts, so any way to assess this capability is welcome.

Move Away from PMBOK4. Moving away from the PMBOK® Guide – The PMP exam is not a test of the PMBOK Guide.

This concept is so fundamental—yet so universally misunderstood—that I feel the need to repeat it: The PMP exam is not a test about or on the PMBOK Guide. This misunderstanding may have arisen because the domains in the old PMP Exam Content Outline matched the process groups in the PMBOK Guide. This was a logical (but flawed) assumption.

When question writers develop questions, they must reference at least two source documents for each question. This is to make sure the question is based on agreed-to sources and not just their belief or recommendation. Previously, the PMBOK Guide was frequently used as one of the sources, but it was always accompanied by at least one non-PMBOK source.

Since the Global Practice Analysis and job task analysis identified more people-based skills and agile approaches, then increasingly, the sources referenced will not include the PMBOK Guide. By structuring the PMP Exam Content Outline around people, process and business domains, PMI is further signaling the departure from PMBOK-focused topics. The list of new source materials is available here.

The takeaway for PMP aspirants is to base their studies on understanding and applying the concepts described in the domains, tasks, and enablers listed in the exam content outline.

Education Evolution5. Education evolution– These radical changes were planned to be implemented in December 2019. However, perhaps in part to questions from the training community, the changes have now been deferred until July 2020.

No doubt it will be a big change for Registered Education Providers (REPs) as they update their materials. Many PMP preparation courses followed the knowledge areas and domains of the old exam content outline. Now, with more of a focus on people and the decision to embrace the entire value delivery spectrum, training materials should be changed to better reflect the new exam content outline. This will take time but will result in a more practical exam.

Conclusion
I welcome the change to make the exam more realistic and better aligned with how projects operate. The increased emphasis on the people aspects of projects more closely reflects where project managers spend the bulk of their time and attention. While the process groups and knowledge areas were useful buckets for organizing content, they did not really map how the project management activities integrate across multiple domains simultaneously.

There will be an adjustment period as training companies adjust their materials. However, the end result will be an exam that better matches day-to-day work—which ultimately is where the exam should be moving to so that it’s a relevant assessment of project management activities.

[This post first appeared without the list of source materials on projectmanagement.com here]


Organizational Structures that Support Faster Innovation and Evolution

Organizational agility is the ability of an enterprise to change direction, realign and succeed in volatile, uncertain business environments. It requires sensing emerging trends and actively listening to customer requests, then acting on this information and making the changes required to position the organization for where it needs to be in the future.

Small organizations can change direction quickly because they have fewer people or processes to change. Most medium to large-scale organizations have considerable mindset inertia in the form of strategies, multi-year plans, in-flight programs, and projects, etc. When fundamental change is required, it can be difficult to turn these large elements that have gathered their own momentum through the day-to-day behaviors of staff.

Momentum is mass in motion. Think of a thousand people all moving toward a common goal—and their organizational structures and processes to get there. Now imagine the goal has shifted; we want to get to somewhere else. We need to shift all those minds - and likely much of the org structure and processes, this is a bigger ask requiring more energy.

The Efficiency vs. Adaptability Trade-off
There is a growing trend. As rates of change increase, organizations are trading off efficiency for adaptability. Large-scale processes, specialized resources, and large batch sizes are optimized for maximum efficiency (the lowest cost per widget, the highest productivity rates per worker). From a cost-per-unit perspective, it’s hard to beat the scale, hierarchies, and specialization that are the lifeblood of efficient systems.

Unfortunately, optimizing for efficiency decreases adaptability. A huge stamping press used for producing car door shells is great for fast, cheap output until someone wants a new car door design. Likewise, organizations created to optimize efficiency have a similar structure and process momentum toward a single fixed goal. This momentum is an obstacle if that goal moves or becomes a collection of separate moving goals.

The Diversity and Evolution of Organizations
Fortunately, because there are no fixed ways of structuring a company (or operating one), we can learn from all the forms that have been tried and been successful—along with those that failed, too.

Throughout history and alive today, we can find examples of organizations that exhibit varying degrees of structure/efficiency versus flexibility/adaptability. We have a rich gene pool of organizational diversity to study.

Looking at organizations that do well in times of uncertainty can help us determine what qualities are required to thrive in high rates of uncertainty and complexity. Of course, we need to be careful with this natural selection approach, as good companies fail for a variety of reasons. But there are useful lessons and trends to observe.

An Autonomy Spectrum
In the book Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux describes the evolution of organizations from primitive gangs ruled by fear, to sophisticated organizations that distribute power and decision making to local branches. The book is a fascinating read that assigns colors to each level of evolution and discusses many different attributes.

However, for this article, I just want to focus on the structure/efficiency vs flexibility/adaptability element.

Red Org

Red Organizations
The most basic organizations impose pyramid-shaped command-and-control structures around the “Who?”, “What?” and “How?” aspects of work. Strict organizations like the Mafia or Catholic Church have a lot of structure around the who—only certain people get to make some decisions, and it is not questioned. Likewise, there is hierarchical control over what gets done and how it is done.

Amber Org

Amber Organizations
The next level of evolution describes most traditional organizations. Here there is some flexibility on the who. Anyone should be able to rise to a position of power, but there is still a pyramid structure controlling what should be done—and standards and process for exactly how it should be achieved.

Examples include government agencies and charter schools.

Orange Org

Orange Organizations
Orange organization make up the bulk of modern, profit-oriented enterprises. There is still a pyramid structure and control on what the company is focusing on, but freedom on how the results are obtained. Now people are empowered and encouraged to solve problems and achieve results.

Examples include banks and retail organizations.

Green Org

Green Organizations
These are today’s modern organizations that encourage empowered teams. Within traditional pyramid structures, there is as much freedom as possible with whowhat and how goals are accomplished. People are supported to own, define and improve how they work, so they improve not only the product, but the production process in which they work.

Examples include Southwest Airlines, and W.L. Gore and Associates.

Teal Org

Teal Organizations
Teal organizations break free from the pyramid structure and instead behave more like towns or organisms. Rather than try to funnel decision making and policy through a single hub, they spin-off and give authority to local groups. So local branches define new products, hire people, decide on pay rates, etc. Freed from a central, governing body, they are more autonomous and flexible.

Examples include Buurtzorg Nursing and Morningstar.

Laloux is careful to explain that this evolutionary progression is not necessarily from bad to good, or from worst to best. Instead, they just reflect different levels of consciousness and values within the organization. Also, different levels can exist within the same organization, nested like Russian dolls. For instance, a predominantly green organization can have an amber or red department within it where things are still very fixed with little flexibility.

From Control and Efficiency to Autonomy and Adaptation

Org Agility Spectrum

The model is useful for showing the progression from a control and efficiency focus to one of autonomy and adaptation. In high-change environments, having a single hub for decision making slows the process down. Shoals of fish can change direction, split or merge to avoid prey in an instant. They do not take orders from a single source. Moving decision-making powers to those navigating improves responsiveness—but may lose out on efficiency and economies of scale.

Organizations looking to improve their agility can examine where they are on the autonomy spectrum and determine what the next logical step for them would be if they want to be more adaptable (but potentially less efficient.) It is a trade-off; there is no single best organizational structure; it depends on the environment in which you operate.

Some organizations spin-off start-ups to explore new product streams. These start-ups can be nimbler and operate unencumbered from the large pyramid structures and processes of the parent. Other organizations use Skunk Works groups to explore new ideas. Again, free from some of the normal scrutiny and controls that aim for efficiency, these insulated groups can innovate quicker.

Please Innovate While We Micromanage You!
Organizations that demand innovation in highly controlled environments designed for process efficiency are likely in for a rude awakening. Organizations seem either structured for efficiency with strict controls on the who, what and how; or structured for flexibility, innovation, and adaptation.

Much has changed since Laloux first published Reinventing Organizations in 2014 and many of the organizations he featured have gone on to evolve yet newer structures. However, the efficiency-adaptability spectrum remains a useful tool for understanding the type of organization we work in and for discussing the characteristics and challenges associated with organizational agility.

[This article first appeared on projectmanagement.com Here]


Agile Illustrated - Sample #2

Here is the second sample from my new Kindle book “Agile Illustrated: A Visual Learner’s Guide to Agility”. The book is a graphical introduction to the agile mindset and servant leadership behaviors for working with agile teams. If you missed the first sample on the Agile Manifesto, you can find it here.

Today we will revisit the Declaration of Interdependence. A lesser-known cousin to the Agile Manifesto, the Declaration of Interdependence was created in a few years after the Agile Manifesto to describe how to achieve an Agile Mindset in product and project leadership. It describes six principles essential to agile project teams. We will review them one by one.

 

DOI1

 

 1 – We increase return on investment by making a continuous flow of value our focus.

Amaze your customers; keep giving them what they ask for!

Concentrate on developing features the business asks for: This is how we can get the best benefits for the business and support for the process. Projects are hard to cancel or deny requests from when they consistently deliver business results.

 

DOI2

 2 – We deliver reliable results by engaging customers in frequent interactions and shared ownership.

When planning interaction with the business, try to be more like the good neighbor you see frequently and can easily call upon rather than the intrusive relative who moves in for a while and then disappears for a year. We want regular and engaging business interaction, not a huge, upfront requirements-gathering phase followed by nothing until delivery. Frequently show how the system is evolving and make it clear the business drives the design by listening to and acting on feedback.

 

DOI3

3 – We expect uncertainty and manage for it through iterations, anticipation, and adaptation.

Software functionality is hard to describe, technology changes quickly and so too do business needs. Software projects typically have lots of unanticipated changes. Rather than trying to create and follow a rigid plan that is likely to break, it is better to plan and develop in short chunks (iterations / sprints) and adapt to changing requirements.

 

DOI4

4 – We unleash creativity and innovation by recognizing that individuals are the ultimate source of value, and creating an environment where they can make a difference.

We manage property and lead people; if you try to manage people they feel like property.

Projects are completed by living, breathing people, not tools or processes. To get the best out of our team we must treat them as individuals, provide for their needs and support them in the job. Paying a wage might guarantee that people show up, but how they contribute once they are there is governed by a wide variety of factors. If you want the best results, provide the best environment you can.

 

DOI5

5 – We boost performance through group accountability for results and shared responsibility for team effectiveness.

Everyone needs to share responsibility for making the project, and the team as a whole, successful. We can help by empowering the team to make their own decisions. When people are more engaged in a process, they are more committed to its outcome and success. In short, people care more about things they had a hand in creating than things given to them or imposed upon them.

 

DOI6

6 – We improve effectiveness and reliability through situationally specific strategies, processes, and practices.

Real projects are complex and messy. Rarely do all the ideal conditions for agile development present themselves. Instead, we have to interpret the situation and make the best use of the techniques, people, and tools available to us. There is no single cookbook for how to run successful projects; instead, we need to adjust to best fit the project ingredients and project environment we are presented with.

 

The next post will feature another random excerpt from the book “Agile Illustrated: A Visual Learner’s Guide to Agility”. If you liked this sample please consider buying the Kindle book available on your local Kindle store – here’s a link to the Amazon.com store.


Agile Illustrated – Sample #1

Cover v2Over the next few weeks, I will be featuring samples from my new Kindle book “Agile Illustrated: A Visual Learner’s Guide to Agility”. The book is a graphical introduction to the agile mindset and servant leadership behaviors for supporting agile teams.

Let’s start with the Agile Manifesto:

The Agile Manifesto was created during a meeting in February 2001 that brought together a number of software and methodology experts who were at the forefront of the emerging agile methods. Let’s look at the values one by one.

 

M1 - sample

Value 1 – Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools

While processes and tools will likely be necessary, we should try to focus attention on the individuals and interactions involved. This is because work is undertaken by people, not tools, and problems get solved by people, not processes. Likewise, products are accepted by people, scope is debated by people, and the definition of a successfully “done” project is negotiated by people.

What will help set up a project for success is an early focus on developing the individuals involved and an emphasis on productive and effective interactions. Processes and tools can help, yet projects are ultimately about people. So, to be successful, we need to spend the majority of our time in what may be the less comfortable, messy, and unpredictable world of people.

 

M2 - sample

Value 2 – Working software over comprehensive documentation

This value speaks to the need to deliver. It reminds us to focus on the purpose or business value we’re trying to deliver, rather than on paperwork.

Many developers are detail-oriented and process-driven. While these characteristics are often highly beneficial, they can also mean the developer’s focus is easily distracted from the real reason they are undertaking software projects—to write valuable software. So, this emphasis on valuing working software over comprehensive documentation acts as a useful reminder of why these projects are commissioned in the first place—to build something useful. Documentation by itself, or at the expense of working software, is not useful.

 

M3 - sample

Value 3 – Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

We need to be flexible and accommodating rather than fixed and uncooperative. This involves tradeoffs between the development team and business rather than reverting back to contracts and statements of work. We could build the product exactly as originally specified, but if the customer’s preferences or priorities change, it would be better to be flexible and work toward the new goal.

It is difficult to define an up-front, unchanging view of what should be built. This challenge stems from the dynamic nature of knowledge work products, especially software systems. Software is intangible and difficult to reference: companies rarely build the same systems twice, business needs change quickly, and technology changes rapidly.

We should recognize at the start that things are going to change, and we’ll need to work with the customer throughout the project to reach a shared definition of “done.” This requires a more trusting relationship and more flexible contract models than we often see on projects.

 

M4 - sample

Value 4 – Responding to change over following a plan

The quote from scholar Alfred Korzybski, “The map is not the territory,” warns us not to follow maps if they do not match the surroundings. Instead, trust what you see and act accordingly.

In modern, complex projects, we know our initial plans will likely be inadequate. They are based on insufficient information about what it will take to complete the project.

Agile projects have highly visible queues of work and plans in the form of release maps, backlogs, and task boards. The intent of this value is to broaden the number of people who can be readily engaged in the planning process by adjusting the plans and discussing the impact of changes.

 

The next post will feature another random excerpt from the book “Agile Illustrated: A Visual Learner’s Guide to Agility”. If you liked the sample, consider buying the Kindle book available on your local Kindle store – here’s a link to the Amazon.com store.


"Agile Illustrated" - Update

Confirm business participationThanks to everyone who downloaded my new eBook “Agile Illustrated: A Visual Learner's Guide to Agility” you made it #1 Amazon Hot New Releases for “Technical Project Management”, along with #1 Amazon Best Seller in “Computers and Technology Short Reads”, and even #1 Amazon Best Seller in “PMP Exam” - which is odd because it is not even about the PMP exam.

Amazon sales stats

Manage risk proactivelyA couple of people have reported “not available in this region” messages and I am working with Amazon to fix these. The issue seems associated with the large file size due to all the illustrations. It should be available soon, I appreciate your patience.


Help develop technical and interpersonal skillsPeople have also requested a physical version. On-demand color printing increases costs but if it can be made available, still at an affordable cost, I will and let you know here.

Thanks again for the support and great feedback.

Encourage generalizing specialists


Announcing "Agile Illustrated" Book

Agile Illustrated - Cover small

I am excited to announce a new eBook “Agile Illustrated: A Visual Learners Guide to Agility”.

It is a short, graphical overview of agile and agile team leadership published as an Amazon Kindle eBook.

 

Using mind-maps, cartoons, and short summaries it covers the agile manifesto, the declaration of interdependence for agile project management, and each of the 7 Domains and 60 Tasks covered in the PMI-ACP exam.

Gain concensus on acceptance criteria

It is short and light read but a powerful study aid for anyone preparing for the PMI-ACP exam. It also serves as a great executive summary for instilling an agile mindset and teaching the leadership behaviors to serve agile teams. With over 70 illustrations, mind-maps and cartoons it engages spatial and visual memory making the points easier to recall and explain to others.

If you think in pictures and like to see how ideas fit together this will be a valuable resource.

Tailor process to environment

This book is ready now and readers of this blog can get special pre-release pricing of $4.99 for just 1 week (normally 8.99) here. Please let me know what you think of it and create an Amazon review, that really helps promote the eBook within Amazon search results.

Agile Manifesto - Agile Illustrated


PMI Organizational Agility Presentation

PMI Organizational Agility Conference

Please join me on Thursday, September 12th for the PMI Organizational Agility Conference. This free, online event for PMI members awards viewers PDUs. I will be presenting on the topic of becoming a Change Resilient Professional.

 

As rates of change increase, building strategies and skills for adapting to change are becoming more important than ever. We will explore beyond agile models and the power of a “Yes, and…” mindset. I will be profiling the increasing pace of change and what the best organizations are doing to keep up with it, drive it forward, and future proof their employees.

 

There is a great lineup of presentations scheduled for the day. Check out the full program and register here.

OrgAgility19_792x200

 


Innovation: Running Experiments and Learning

Experiment DesignIn my last article on Incubating Innovation, we explored the culture and mindset of accountable experimentation. This article focuses on actionable tools and approaches.

Within agile frameworks, the team retrospective is the primary workshop for planning and evaluating experiments. Yet most team retrospectives I see are broken.

Teams spend too much time recording viewpoints and information—but not enough time reviewing or planning experiments. It is common to see the majority of the time spent gathering what went well, what did not go well, and appreciations. Yet where’s the focus on experiments, the learning process and trials for the next iteration?

To make things worse, some teams do not take the retrospective seriously. Maybe after the potential stress of the sprint review, the largely internal retrospective is a relief. A chance to chill out, maybe share some food, and pat each other on the back. However, innovation and learning take conscious effort, forward planning and accountability.

As I work with organizations, I often sit in on retrospectives. Of all the regular workshops/ceremonies, these sessions are typically the least prepared for and worst executed. I often see lazy retrospectives where a basic lessons-learned format is used, but timings are not managed and the recommendations for the next sprint get skimped as they run out of time.

The pie chart below shows a typical planned allocation of time—and the reality of how time is actually spent:

R1

In these lazy retrospectives, people are slow to start, spend longer on recording what went well than what could be improved, and then try to cram the recommendations for experiments (the most important part) into the last few minutes. As a result, experimentation suffers. Few experiments are scheduled for the next sprint, and those that are run are not evaluated properly.

This is not how agile retrospectives are supposed to operate. An excellent guide to running effective retrospectives is Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. In it they describe a five-step process:

  1. Set the stage – Help people focus on the task at hand; check that people are ready and willing to contribute. Outline and gain consensus on the process we will use. Techniques we can use include: check-in, working agreements, focus-on/focus-off (see the book for full descriptions of these techniques).
  2. Gather data – Create a shared view of what happened during the sprint/iteration. When completed, we should have a common understanding of the observations and facts. Team activities we can use include: timeline, mad-sad-glad, team radar.
  3. Generate insights – This focuses on understanding the implications of our findings and discussions. We need to see the impacts of the problems we are faced with before trying to solve them. Techniques we can use include: five whys, fishbone analysis, dot voting.
  4. Decide what to do – Now we move from thinking about the iteration that just ended to what we should try next to improve things. We identify the highest-priority action items, create plans for experiments and set measurable goals to achieve the desired results. Techniques we can use include: SMART goals, circle of questions, short subjects.
  5. Close the retrospective – Here we reflect on the retrospective process and express our appreciations. We may summarize what we have decided to keep or change and what we are thankful for. Team-based activities we can use include: plus/delta, return of time invested (ROTI), appreciations.

This is a more useful format. However, despite people having access to good retrospective advice, poor implementations are still common. Teams continue to attend late, start slowly and run out of time or rush the agreement on what experiments to run.

R2

The recurring theme is poor experimentation design and restricted learning. Gunther Verheyen summarized the problem nicely in his recent post entitled “Inspection Without Adaptation Is Pointless.” Gathering data and deciding what to do is pointless if it is not acted upon. We are doing most of the preparation work but not getting any of the benefits.

Experiment Design to the Rescue
Fortunately, there are some good models we can use. We need to manage time and effort more effectively and use retrospectives to plan and evaluate more experiments. We should spend only 50% of the available time on gathering information and the remainder reviewing the results of past experiments, making wins part of our process, designing new experiments and learning from inevitable failures.

We can help the time management problem by assigning work to be done in advance. People should be thinking about issues and potential solutions independently. There are benefits of group discussion and consensus gathering on agreed experiment design, but observation and idea generation is best done individually.

The New Yorker magazine [3] describes numerous studies that show how brainstorming groups think of fewer, lower-quality ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas. There have been numerous reports on the downsides of brainstorming ideas as a group. Groupthink and the halo effect stifle idea generation. So, ask for people to come with ideas, then use the group setting to vet and vote for them.

Visualizing the ideas and experiments is an effective way to bring collective attention to them. Trent Hone and Andrew Jarding developed the “Ideas and Experiments board” pictured below. It shows the progression of ideas through experiments and their success or abandonment:

Experiment Board

Ideas and Experiments Board (Image Credit: Trent Hone and Andrew Jarding, MindSettlers)

As discussed in the last article, by design, 50% of our experiments should fail since we are trying to maximize our learning, not validate things we already know. So I would expect to see an equal number of abandoned experiments as successful ones.

However, this format (or a slightly modified version that represents an experiments Kanban board) is a useful tool to bring the focus for retrospectives to the experiments being run and considered. With some pre-work on idea generation and an increased focus on experiments, we can structure more effective retrospectives.

R3

This retrospective format saves some time by assigning idea generation as pre-work; this also helps avoid the groupthink pitfalls. It furthermore places emphasis on the experiments—the inputs for learning and innovation.

I have experienced pushback from teams about the goal of 50% experiment failure. People understand it optimizes learning—but say it sets people up for too much failure. I understand the sentiment but counter with two perspectives.

First, these are experiments; they should be dispassionate explorations, not evaluations of the people undertaking the work. We need to be professional and try to overcome habits of internalizing results. I know this is easier said than done, so also offer a second reason: We need to kill bad ideas early to save time and money for better ones.

In the article “The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures,” Gary Pisano describes how killing bad ideas is critical. He profiles Flagship Pioneering, a Massachusetts-based R&D company. It uses a disciplined exploration approach to run small experiments minimizing expenditure. Instead of running experiments to validate ideas, it designs “killer experiments” to maximize the probability of exposing an idea’s flaws. The goal is to learn what went wrong early and move in a more promising direction.

Other useful ideas from the paper include:

  • Tolerance for failure, but no tolerance for incompetence – Hire the best people you can. Explain the goals clearly and let go of those that do not perform.
  • Psychologically safe, but brutally candid – Encourage frank but respectful two-way dialog. It may feel uncomfortable, but it can prevent issues or concerns from going unreported.
  • Collaboration—but with individual accountability – Encourage discussions, but avoid groupthink and hold people accountable for decisions and outcomes.

These are all great concepts and align with the frustrations I experience when I see teams not taking retrospectives seriously—or following through on conducting experiments. I realized I needed a better model for discussing the problem. Fortunately, I found the field of collaborative problem solving (CPS).

CPS is the study of how we work together in groups to solve new problems, innovate and build products. The innovation process and retrospective workshop fall squarely within its scope. CPS skills are quite separate from individual task-focused skills, meaning people can be great at working individually but poor at working together.

A good introduction to CPS frameworks can be found in the article “Advancing the Science of Collaborative Problem Solving.” One model they feature is the “PISA 2015 Collaborative Problem-Solving Assessment.” Unfortunately, like many academic models, the degree of difficulty goes downward, which may make sense as you read down through more advanced stages. However, I think graphically, so I have redrawn the model to show degrees of completeness and difficulty radiating up and out from a 0,0 origin, as shown below:

PISA 1

Along the X-axis, we see three categories of collaborative problem-solving competencies. These are:

  1. Establishing a shared understanding
  2. Taking action to solve the problem
  3. Establishing and maintaining team organization

Up the Y-axis, we have four categories of problem-solving:

  1. Understanding the problem
  2. Representing the problem
  3. Planning and executing
  4. Monitoring and reflecting

Within the body of the model, each square is labeled with the column number and row letter, and describes the tasks that occur in that space.

The model provides a diagnostic tool for identifying broken and lazy retrospectives. The poor engagement and weak follow-through I see in many Scrum teams is characterized by an incomplete execution of column 1 and only half-completion of columns 2 and 3 (as shown by the red outline below):

PISA 2

Teams are not spending time in “(D1) – Monitor and repairing the shared understanding,” nor are they getting to the “(C2) Enacting plans,” (D2), (D3) and (C3) areas to follow through on plans and hold each other accountable for actions and results.

What we want is a complete execution of all the collaborative problem-solving competencies; only then is the framework complete (along with the feedback mechanisms to keep things in check and moving in the right direction):

PISA 3

Summary
Innovation involves combining the right mindset and philosophy with tools and practical steps to ensure its execution. Motivation and attitude are paramount; people have got to want to do this work, enjoy it and create a pull demand for the tools and process that enable it. Trying to foster innovation with demotivated teams is like trying to push a rope.

When motivated and happy people create a strong pull demand for innovation, we need to be ready with the right tools to support the process and keep the momentum going. This includes designing experiments to maximize learning and killing bad ideas quickly—all while demanding competence, accountability and candor.

It is not easy to master the combination of soft skills and techniques required for successful improvement and innovation. However, organizations that succeed can respond to market changes faster and are poised to exploit new technologies and opportunities. Ideas and inventions are spreading quicker than ever. Learning how to build collaborative, innovative teams has become a critical skill.

References

  1. Book: Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen
  2. Article and video: “Inspection Without Adaptation Is Pointless” by Gunther Verheyen
  3. Article: “Groupthink: the Brainstorming Myth” by Jonah Lehrer
  4. Article: “The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures” by Gary Pisano
  5. Article: “Advancing the Science of Collaborative Problem Solving” by Arthur Graesser, et al.

[Note: I first wrote this article for projectmanagement.com here]


Let’s Rewrite the PMBOK

Future PMBOK
Phew, the wait is over! I have been wanting to talk about this for what seems like ages and now the official announcement is out! If you have ever been frustrated by the PMBOK Guide now here’s your chance to fix it.

We are looking for volunteers to write and review the next edition of the PMBOK Guide. However, this will not be just an update, instead a radical departure from all previous editions aligned with PMI’s new digital transformation strategy. That’s all I can explain for now, but more details will be announced when I can say more.

Meanwhile, we would like people with knowledge of the full value delivery spectrum (waterfall, hybrid, agile, lean, etc.) to participate.

The full details of volunteer opportunities and entry requirements can be viewed at the PMI VRMS site Here.

I will be acting as Co-Lead for the initiative, which is like a co-chair role. However, Chair and Co-Chair sounds too hierarchical so we switched to Lead and Co-Lead role to match the new structures we will be embracing.

If we want to change the future of project management I believe the best way to do that is from the inside outwards by doing the work - not from the outside inwards just criticizing. Longtime readers may recall my 2010 post Raise A Little Hell when the PMBOK v5 Update was being commissioned. Since then we developed the PMI-ACP, PMBOK Agile Appendices, and the Agile Practice Guide.

This is going to be different!

Click here to see full volunteer role details.


Incubating Innovation

InnovationIf success goes to those who can innovate the fastest, how do we nurture innovation? The basics are simple to understand—but difficult to implement and stick with in the face of adversity. We need to create an environment that encourages experimentation while also tolerating, investigating and learning from the inevitable failures.

It may sound easy, but executives and shareholders demand results, not “learning opportunities.” We need an approach that fosters experimentation and learning in a defendable way, with a bias for results. To innovate faster than our competitors, we need to maximize our learning potential. This means that by design, 50% of our experiments should fail since we are seeking knowledge expansion, not validation of things we already know. The trick is keeping people engaged and motivated when half of their experiment time is spent failing.

It starts with leadership and cascades down to a shared mindset of team members. Leaders need to be transparent about their own mistakes and learning moments. They need to model the desired behavior, share what they have learned and their new plan of action.

These can be strategic learnings (“Our European market testing has been poor, we are reworking the price options”) or personal (“Feedback on my presentation to investors indicated I was too technical; I need to find simpler ways to describe our technology”). Until team members see transparency in common use, they will be reluctant to practice it themselves for fear of reprisal or criticism.

We Are in the Maze-Solving Business

Maze 1
Developing new products or services is a maze-solving exercise. Nowadays, it is also a race. We need to find a workable solution faster than our competitors. There will be obstacles and dead-ends along the way, and that is okay. We must not let them demoralize us; we just need to learn from them, not repeat them, and keep going.

The process of learning starts with understanding the knowable and then adding to this through experiments and new learnings. So, we start with smart people who understand their industry domain, technology and the business goals. We then need to create an environment with a dual track of product development and experimental learning.

Organizations that run more experiments and iterate faster also learn faster. Scientists studying inheritance use mayflies because they reproduce and provide experimentation results so quickly. The more experiments you can run in a year, the more you can learn.

Our Mazes are Really Big

Maze 2

Developing a new product does not happen overnight. Outside of movies, rarely do lone geniuses develop a marketable product themselves. Instead, it takes teams of subject matter experts months to create proof-of-concepts and multiple iterations of tweaks to complete a viable product. These teams need support and coordination services throughout the process.

Sponsors, executives and shareholders need plans, projections and updates. Product managers, project managers and team leaders all play an important role in keeping the maze-solving teams motivated and moving in the right direction. They also need to keep funding and support going while providing inputs about changing market demands and conditions.

It sounds a difficult balancing act, but approaches such as design thinking, lean startup and agile provide stewardship models for development with inbuilt experimentation, observation and learning. What gets less attention is motivating teams to persevere despite the many failures encountered when experimenting for learning, not just validation.

The “Success Leads to Happiness” Fallacy
Most people start their lives with the mistaken view that success leads to happiness. Our internal dialog creates a series of “if/then” scenarios:

  • IF I pass this exam, THEN I will be happy.”
  • “IF I get this job, THEN I will be happy.”
  • “IF we finish this project on schedule, THEN I will be happy.”

However, the brain has a knack of moving the goalposts. We might be happy briefly, but then we quickly focus on the next exam, an even better job or a more ambitious project.

While it is good to progress in life, we should not connect achieving a goal with achieving happiness. Instead, we need to understand that happiness is only 10% extrinsic (external things that happen to us, like success) and 90% intrinsic (how we think and feel about things).

A Happy Brain is a Productive Brain

Dopamine

Happy workers are more productive and creative than stressed or unhappy workers. In our brains, the chemical dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for sending reward-motivated happiness signals. Put more simply, dopamine is a happiness chemical—it gets released when we are happy. Interestingly, dopamine also switches on more learning circuits in our brains.

Research [1,2,3] shows that happiness improves work performance. Happy people are 31% more productive, happy doctors are 19% more accurate at diagnosing correctly, and happy salespeople are 37% better at sales.

This intuitively makes sense. When we are unhappy or stressed, the brain prioritizes circuits for survival. If you spot a sabre-toothed tiger, it is probably best to focus on escape rather than contemplating the interplay of sunlight and shadows through the leaf canopy. Yet when searching for an innovative solution, we want all these extra brain circuits engaged. This brings us full circle on the “I’ll be happy when I am successful” logic. It turns out, being happy actually activates more of the brain to help us be successful.

Success Fallacy

Nurturing Happy Teams
So, if the smartest workers are happy workers, how do we make them happy? Well, we don’t “make them happy” at all—that would be trying to force it in externally, using weak extrinsic motivators. Instead, we equip them with the tools to help build intrinsic happiness themselves.

This might be sounding more touchy-feely than you are comfortable with. However, hard economics show that happy workers also persevere with problems longer, take less sick days, quit less and sue for wrongful dismissal much less, too…so let’s suspend the cynicism for a moment.

The good news is that with as little as 30 minutes a day, measurable increases in dopamine levels are achieved in three weeks. So, if we can encourage these behaviors and turn them into habits, we get happier, healthier, smarter and more productive workers.

These 30-minute exercises don’t even require expensive equipment or management consultants. They are simple, backed by research and include:

  1. 3 Gratitudes – a daily recording of three new things you are grateful for [4]
  2. Journaling – recording positive experiences from the past 24 hours [5]
  3. Exercise – increases blood flow to the brain and helps eliminate toxins [6]
  4. Meditation – resets multi-tasking fatigue and helps with concentration [7]
  5. Acts of Kindness - helping others and saying “thanks,” which makes us feel better [8]

Organizations spend vast sums of money hiring smart people and providing them with complex tools and training. In comparison, the cost/benefit potential in investing and encouraging team happiness is extremely compelling. As project managers, team leads and executives, we need to be conscious of the behaviors we model, because people are watching us.

If not already doing so, we can use these techniques ourselves to improve our own happiness and productivity—then share and encourage others to make use of them. A great benefit of intrinsic motivators is that they can be applied anywhere. It does not matter if you work in a toxic environment or report to a jerk. There is likely nothing stopping you making sure the first email of the day you send is to thank someone for their help or contribution. Also, no one will know if you make notes about positive experiences.

People with budgets and hiring authority do know that yoga instructors are much cheaper than labor relations consultants and HR lawyers. Longer lunch breaks and fun team activities may require some explanations, but improved problem solving, fewer sick days and better ideas are definitely worth it.

Don’t wait until project completion to celebrate team achievements. That’s too little, too late—and our brains have moved the goalposts to be thinking of the next project. Instead, celebrate the little things that recognize effort, persistence and displaying a good attitude.

Obviously, it is not as simple as “happy people are the perfect innovators.” There are some concerns that people characterized as “happy” might be less likely to spot certain types of risks. Optimism needs to be tempered with realism. However, given the variable success rates of helping people become happier (“leading horses to water,” etc.), there will still be some pessimists; but on the whole, it creates a positive change that is worth the risk.

Summary
Smart companies know the future belongs to the best innovators. Building and maintaining teams of productive innovators requires investment in tools, techniques and people. We need to have the right tools and be using today’s techniques such as the design thinking, lean startup and agile approaches. Then it comes down to our people. An appreciation of what truly makes us happy—and its effects on success—is a great starting point.

Most organizations are not R&D labs, so we need to balance innovation with everyday production and service. The mindset and changes described here may feel uncomfortable (or even unprofessional) at first. However, a quote from Eric Shinseki explains that “If you dislike change, you're going to dislike irrelevance even more.” It reminds us that the business landscape is changing faster than ever—and that we need to change with it to stay valuable.

References

  1. The Happiness Advantage
  2. The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?
  3. Happiness and Productivity
  4. Counting Blessings Versus Burdens
  5. How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words, The Social Effects of Expressive Writing
  6. Behavior Matters
  7. One Second Ahead
  8. Interventions to Boost Happiness and Buttress Resilience

[Note: I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Review of Product Development Books

Product Development CycleNow that a software “Done” Milestone is more like a Tombstone

If you work in an industry that has digital products and services then the Product Development trend will impact you. As software becomes more critical to business operations and product offerings we are seeing that software projects do not end.

Many organizations are transitioning to become software focussed organizations that offer specialized services. Amazon is a software company with retail (and cloud) offerings. Banks are increasingly digital companies with financial services. The same with insurance, travel, music and even commercial goods. The cost of developing the software in new vehicles is now greater than the cost of the engine. It has become the single most expensive component, even in internal combustion engine vehicles with no autonomous driving features.

These websites and software services will only be “done” development when the company stops being competitive, offering new services or keeping up with technology evolution. At one time getting to "Done" on your software project was a relief, a goal, a milestone, now it is more of a tombstone. It means the product is no longer competing or actively being maintained as technology continues to evolve.

Switching from projects (that are temporary in nature) to products that are designed to be ongoing sounds easy enough - just keep funding the team, but for many organizations it is not that simple. Also, organizations that embrace the whole digital product view still need help governing the ongoing process.

This is where product development books can help. They describe the factors at play and provide ideas for guidance around planning, funding, staffing and governance. As I was working with clients experiencing the transition from projects to products I was lucky to engage with several authors of product-first, #NoProjects books and chat about the challenge areas and potential solutions.

I have written about #NoProjects a few times before:

 

Then when I recently read a third book about product development shift I thought it could be useful to review some of the books in the market. A neat aspect of these books is that they all present different views on the project to product mind-shift and journey.  

Continuous Digital

 “Continuous Digital: An agile alternative to projects for digital business

Allan Kelly, Software Strategy Ltd.; October 2018

Allan’s book was the first I read about switching to continuous product development. I had been following his blog for a number of years and was familiar with his work. However, it was not until reading the book that I saw his points laid out in order with full explanations.

It is a great read, it makes a compelling argument for why a project view of software projects is a flawed model. I loved the explanation on the diseconomies-of-scale for software and why it is actually cheaper in small batches – unlike physical goods.

It offers the best explanations I have heard into why a continuous delivery of features by a stable team is preferable to using conventional project models. It nicely describes the team aspects of knowledge work and offers some good suggestions around funding and governance models.  

Any change in mindset has to happen internally first before we can help others adopt it. Continuous Digital cemented my own thoughts about why good software projects never end. It explained the “Why?” questions at the heart of any shift in thinking and behavior. In the same way, we have to understand the agile mindset before generating any kind of commitment towards it. This book helps set the mindset and Why of #NoProjects so we can start our journey.

 

Noprojects book#noprojects: A Culture of Continuous Value

Evan Leybourn, Shane Hastie, lulu.com; July 2018

I read an early draft of Evan and Shane’s #noprojects about 6 months after I started reading Allan Kelly’s LeanPub drafts of Continuous Digital. While Kelly’s Continuous Digital and his spin-off book Project Myopia focus on explaining the Why with some How topics, #noprojects has more of a team focussed view.

It talks about the history of software development. It explains how we came to run software development with project structures and the inherent issues that came with them. It then outlines the case for continuous development with all the arguments for retaining knowledge, reducing handoff and dependences, etc.

I think it is a great follow-on from Continuous Digital. Obviously, it is designed to be a stand-alone text but, for me, Kelly explains the Why of product development better. Then #noprojects fills in some additional background information and focusses more on the team level implementation. It might just be because I read Kelly’s book first but if you are looking to convince others in your organization about the need for transitioning to product development it is the go-to source. Reading both will provide a great foundation to understand and transition from projects to products.

 

Project to ProductProject to Product: How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Digital Disruption with the Flow Framework

Mik Kersten,  IT Revolution Press; November 2018

I first came across Mik’s work via a podcast he did with Shane Hastie. In the podcast, Mik explained that technologies often follow 50-year cycles and then transform through a tipping point into the next evolution in the way of working.

Organizations that try to continue operating with the old model flounder and fail. Moreover, it is now about 50 years since NATO held the first conference on software engineering and the age of software began. Mik explained he believes we are at that tipping point and transitioning to product delivery will be part of the differentiator for the next wave of successful organizations.

I have an interest in technology evolution stories and learning how ideas spread and then transform our lives. So, the 50-year cycle piqued my interest and I ordered the book. The book delivers and not only does it explain the tipping point we are living through right now, but it gives the best explanation of the digital revolution and need for digital transformation I have read to date. Kudos to Mik. If you want to explain why a digital transformation is necessary, and the implications of ignoring it, Project to Product is a brilliant source.

After this great introduction, the remainder of the book explains the Flow Framework Mik helped develop and promotes through his company Tasktop Technologies. The Flow Framework provides metrics and tools for tracking and managing product development. This is useful because while the project management world has a wealth of information about tracking and managing projects, organizations that switch to product management often experience a void or competing recommendations.

The Flow Framework is useful for explaining what we should pay most attention to tracking. Namely features, defects, risks and debts. It recommends a business outcome set of measures that include: value, cost, quality and happiness. The framework employs a lean inspired set of metrics that include flow velocity, flow efficiency, flow time, and flow load.

It is in the rebranding of tradition lean metrics that I struggle to recommend the book wholeheartedly. By prefixing the normal throughput based lean metrics with the word “Flow” Mik is able to define  specific versions of the terms that are often implemented slightly differently from organization to organization. I can see the advantage of that, but it seems an unnecessary name-grab or overloading of lean terms to create trademark-able terms.

That’s a minor quibble though and what Flow Framework does provide is a good mental model for organizing, executing and tracking your product development process. It nicely extends the pattern of books started with Continuous Digital that explains Why product development. Then #noprojects that provides some team-based and stewardship elements. Finally, Project to Product provides solid How To ideas for ongoing governance and improvement.

 

Summary

These three books form a useful progression for anyone wanting to learn about the product development trend. They each provide valuable ideas to help with understanding, practicing and then managing successful product delivery.

Product Development Books Progression

The books allow readers to understand and internalize the need for a product development mindset. Then how to practice on a small scale before encouraging others to try and providing ways to measure and manage it.

Obviously, you do not need to read all three of them, or in this sequence. Any one of them is a good read and source for practical ideas. However, I found that they build nicely upon each other and thought people would be interested to consider them as complementary.


Agile 2019 Presentations

DC ConferenceI learned this week that two of my presentation submissions for the Agile 2019 conference in Washington D.C. August 6-10 have been accepted. I was very lucky to get two accepted as they received nearly 2,000 submissions for around 250 slots. It should be fun and I am really looking forward to it.

My talks will be on moving beyond agile approaches and case studies in transitioning from projects to products.  Here are the outlines:

 

The Future Looks Awesome, and Moving Beyond Agile - The Future of Agile Software Development (IEEE Software) track. The Future is Awesome

“Agile approaches succeeded and changed the way we work. They brought the philosophy and tools previously used by only the high performing teams to the majority of organizations. Now it is time to move beyond them and embrace a new wave of emerging ideas and approaches.

It is short-sighted and self-absorbed to imagine agile approaches represent the best way to execute all work types. As new technology, products, and services emerge, we need new ways to deliver them. Likewise, as organizational structures evolve to use this technology and integrate the aspirations of next-generation workers - who grew up in a digital world, our approaches much evolve again.

Fortunately, patterns are emerging from new organizational structures and the lessons from failed agile transformations. Agile’s “Family” mindset of empowerment and values-driven culture is being overtaken by “Organism” and “Community” mindset organizations embracing Holacracy and Teal Organization ideas. People are also realizing not everyone wants to adopt an agile mindset and we need better ways of integrating with more traditional models that remain that way for their own advantages. The future involves further expansion and integration, not more fervent conceptual conversion.

Come and examine the future beyond agile and hybrid agile. Explore the trends in corporate structures, career aspirations, engagement models, and the technology that is making it all possible. The future is exciting, dynamic, and decidedly less agile – but in a good way.”

It will be a fast-moving presentation recapping the rise, role, and results of agile approaches before moving onto emerging trends. Through case studies of successful organizations, we will explore new patterns in work, the worker, and the workplace.

Agile approaches play an integral role and will continue to in the future. However, they are already being augmented and extended by additional models and techniques. Using a “Yes, and…” mindset of combining approaches we examine emerging trends and what they may mean for the future of collaborative work.

 

PotholeSpeed-bumps and Potholes on the Road from Projects to Products - Experience Reports track.

“Transitioning from projects to products made perfect sense for my client. Much of the business was digital and their websites / online-services would not be “completing” or going away soon. Development was deliberately continuous, and executives embraced this as both inevitable and desirable. However, just because it was the logical thing to do, it did not mean it was easy.

Maybe if we did not have over 100 inflight projects executing simultaneously, we could have picked an easier starting time? Maybe if there were not so many dependencies between teams, work would have been easier to untangle? Maybe if they were not in the midst of transitioning to microservices and new hosting technology, the technology challenges would have been easier to resolve?

Most organizations considering the transition from projects to products have similar challenges. By definition, “transitioning” means doing things mid-process; otherwise, it would be “starting fresh with product development” – and where’s the fun in that?

This experience report recounts the story and transformation from slick PowerPoint slides to people problems and development difficulties. We did survive the journey and arrived in the land of continuous digital delivery, but we took some detours and lost some paint along the way. If you are considering the switch from projects to product development, maybe we can help you avoid some potholes and speedbumps along the road. Being forewarned is to be forearmed, but each journey is different, and as they say, your mileage will vary.”

It recounts my experience as a consultant working with the leadership team and development teams. There was general agreement that a shift to organizing around products made sense, but disagreement on the best way to get there. Rather than a big-bang changeover, we adopted a ripple-out, incremental approach. This allowed us to review and monitor for issues before spreading approaches to more teams. Naturally, the executives wanted everything done at once and the teams wanted to be left alone until after the next release.

Not being able to please everyone, we developed a workable plan and rolled out the changes to teams, technology, and supporting groups. We experienced many obstacles such as having to rewrite vendor contracts, get exceptions from accounting for budget processes and from HR for reporting changes.

More details about the Agile 2019 conference in Washington D.C. can be found on the official website.


New PM - The What?, Why?, and How? of Project Charters

Project CharterCreating a great project charter is an art and a science. Anyone new to the profession of project management needs to learn how to create a project charter. It is not only an important early project deliverable, but it also sets the tone and lays out the foundation for the rest of the project.

While we can spend our careers improving our ability to craft effective project charters, we can get to a 70% good-enough state by addressing some basic topics. This article explains those basics.

Context is Crucial
First, it is critical to understand that context matters. The definition of what makes an acceptable—or great—project charter will vary from organization to organization. It will also be driven by factors such as project size, criticality, type, approach, etc.

The project charter for kicking off a safety-critical public works project will be very different than a charter for a small internal project to, say, build a tool to recover disk space used by duplicate files.

Large, critical projects will require large comprehensive charters. These can take teams of experts weeks or months to create. Small projects will likely have their three- to eight-page charter written in a day or two by the project manager. When creating (or reviewing) project charters, we need to understand this context. Ask, what is appropriate? What level of rigor and detail does this effort require and deserve?

To start the chartering process, we first need to understand a few things about the project goals and our internal processes.

  • For the project, we need to understand the business case and an outline of the desired scope.
  • For our organization, we must understand any strategic plans we need to align with, our standards and processes, contracts to use, and any relevant external factors like market conditions and industry standards.

Once we know these things, we can start writing our charter.

Make it Clear
I am a simple person and like simple ideas and definitions. I probably miss subtle nuances but have learned that most people appreciate simple, clear documents. The style points we lose for a lack of sophistication are made up for by improved comprehension and clarity. So, my definition of a project charter is a document that authorizes the project and explains the what, why, where, when, who and how aspects of the project.

We can call the whatwhywherewhenwho questions W5 and add a “+” for the final how question. Provided the project charter answers the W5+ questions and provides approval to start the project—all at the appropriate level of rigor—it’s a winner. So, let’s get started by reviewing each question…

What?
In your project charter, you will not call the section “What?” It will likely be called “Scope” or something similar. The “W5+” idea is just a tool to make sure we address the important sections. So, in the scope section, we would describe or list the major deliverables or high-level functionality the project should deliver. People need to understand what we are talking about before they can appreciate further details such as schedule and approach.

When defining what the project will deliver, it is also useful to state what it will not deliver. So, a list of “out of scope” items is also valuable. It is better to have sponsors or user representatives complain now rather than halfway through the project (or worse, at completion when there is nothing we can do about it) that their anticipated element will not be delivered.

Why?
The why of a project is described in a “Problem Statement” or “Business Need” section. Some people put this section before the what. That is fine; follow your organization’s standard, or the preferred sequence of who approves project charters (or failing those, your own preference). Just make sure the what and the why are addressed early on.

People need to understand why this project is important. What new revenue will it bring? What problem or legal requirement does it serve? What new opportunities, new products or new customers do we hope it will attract? Projects are expensive and risky endeavors, so we better have a good reason to undertake one. The business case or problem statement is where we describe it.

It needs to be clear and compelling. It may reference a separate business case or return on investment analysis. If these components are necessary and not in separate documents, include a summary in the charter body and put the details in an appendix. We don’t want people to stop reading our project charter because they came across pages of calculations.

Where?
“Where?” can seem a strange question, maybe inserted just to get the “W” count up to five. However, think broader. Which markets, products, and departments are we impacting? Where is the project going to touch our organization, customer base, and market segment?

Remember: The project charter normally provides approval for a project to start. We need to provide the relevant context so people are thinking appropriately before they approve, reject or request changes be made.

This information may be contained in a section called “Organizational Impact” or form a sub-section of the scope section. It also explains how the project is aligned with the organization’s strategic plan.

When?
This is where we describe the “Project schedule”—not only when we plan to start and (hopefully) complete the project, but also major steps along the way.

Being a project manager writing a charter, it’s easy to get caught up in the apparent importance of your project. You might assume that once approved, the organization will rush full-steam ahead into kickoff and execution. We need to inject some caution and realism. What seems important and obvious to us is often low priority for the sponsors or those already over capacity in executing existing projects and operations. Things might take a while to get going.

So, do not build a schedule based on starting work immediately after approval. That just sets everyone up for failure. The most common source of late project completions is not poor estimating or a lack of risk management, it is late starts. Every late project I have reviewed had a late start. They may also have been terrible at estimating and blind to common threats, but late starts are very common. We need to explain that real end dates are driven by real start dates.

Projects get delayed for a host of common reasons. We were delayed in getting our team, we were delayed in finding a space, we were delayed in accessing funds. So, do yourself (and everybody else) a favor and explain that the project will likely take three weeks, months or years from having the requisite start conditions.

We also need to be realistic about uncertainty. The uncertainty associated with our estimates needs to be reflected (to some degree) in our schedule. It is probably not acceptable to say, “We have no clue when we will be done.” But do not commit to completing within a certain timeframe unless you have a realistic and robust plan for achieving that.

Robust means including contingency to address uncertainty. Be open about it, such as, “We included a 15% buffer for unanticipated work.” You might get asked to remove it and “work smarter” or “find a way, damn it!” and that is fine. You reflected the uncertainty inherent with the work. Depending how supportive the sponsors are, we could consider explaining that removing contingency is accepting the risk of an overrun due to learning in the future things that we do not know today.

Plans and estimates created at the beginning of the project are, by definition, the least reliable because that is when we know the least about the project. It is only when we begin to execute that we learn about its true complexity and the actual abilities of the team, vendors and supporting groups. Sponsors usually don’t want to hear this kind of smartass insolence from the project managers. PMs are hired to deliver projects, not tell them how to set stretch goals or run a business.

There are other ways to shorten a schedule. We can cut the scope of what is delivered. This could allow us to hit a deadline and maybe have a follow-on release for lower-priority work. It is not ideal and is really wriggling out of the defined scope. However, for software products, where must-have and nice-to-have features are more fluid, it could be a viable option.

We can also add more people to the project. This works great if you are undertaking simple work like digging ditches or building pyramids. For anything more complex that involves problem-solving, idea sharing and collaboration, books like The Mythical Man-Month explain that adding people to a project that is late will make it later (while spending more, too).

For these reasons (and others learned the hard way), make sure schedules clearly contain contingency to reflect uncertainties. Also, ensure that schedules work from a project start date that is contingent upon having prerequisite project conditions in place. Yes, they might both get ignored, but it is the responsible thing to do—and you can bring them up at steering committee meetings when asked why the project is behind.

Who?
The who question represents the “Team” and “Stakeholder” sections of a project charter. It is normal to show org charts of core project roles and list known team members and open positions. RACI charts can be used to list who is responsible, accountable, consulted and informed (RACI) for work and deliverables.

We should understand that the term stakeholder encompasses not only the people working on the project and sponsoring it, but also everyone it will impact. This extended family of project influencers include suppliers, customers, and even the general public if the project is likely to draw public opinion. Obviously, we do not list these broader communities by name, but we should identify them and assign a contact within the project for managing that group.

The PMI definition of a stakeholder includes not only those impacted by the project, but even those who perceive they may be impacted by the project. This is important—the scope of people who may influence development is wide. It is better to have a plan for engaging or at least monitoring these groups (be them environmental, minority or special interest) before they can blindside the project. Inventing a fire-response plan is always easier to do before you also have a fire on your hands.

How?
The how question reminds us to explain the “Project Approach.” We should describe how the project will be executed. Will we be following the standard corporate project lifecycle? Are we trying a new approach? Are we outsourcing portions?

People need to understand how the project will be executed before agreeing to fund it or participate in it. If they think the project has merit but we are suggesting to go about it all wrong, they will want the ability to influence the approach used.

When we are following a standard approach, it is sufficient to just name it. When we are proposing something different, we need to describe it in more detail. This could be a reference to another document or pointer to an appendix in our project charter.

Approval
The charter describes the project from a holistic perspective by addressing the W5+ questions; it also provides the approval/authorization to start work. In most organizations, approval of the charter triggers a request for funds or authorization for expenditure (AFE). For this reason, we need some formality around the approval and sign-off of the charter. It is normal to have a signature section for sponsor, division leads and other steering committee members.

The approval circumstances are rarely as simple as either approved or not approved. It is usual to have definitions of the various options that the steering committee may use. Common status options include:

Approve – Looks good, let’s get started
Approve with modifications – Will be okay if you make these changes (provide some space in the signature area to hand-write requested changes and then get signatures)
Request changes – Major changes are required and a new charter will need to be submitted
Defer – Not at this time, keep on hold
Reject – No, do not proceed

What about agile projects that do not have charters?
Today’s agile projects produce fewer documents. However, since charters often authorize work to start and trigger the release of funds, we still sometimes see them used in hybrid traditional/agile environments. If project charters are not used in name, typically a lighter-weight deliverable with a different name is used.

We might see an Agile CharterProject Skinny or Product Canvas. The purpose is similar—describe the endeavor and get agreement to start. When working with agile approaches, we can still use the W5+ idea to make sure we address the common viewpoints. The coverage in each section will likely be brief, but is still helpful.

Summary
Consider the context you are working in. Organizational standards and project characteristics such as size, cost, and impact of failure will dictate the level of detail and rigor that will be necessary. Then keep the sections simple and clear. Use appendices or references to external documents if sections become too long. We want people to be able to read the core body of our charter through in one sitting and then make a decision to approve it.

Make sure the sections address the W5+ views of the project one topic at a time. For instance, do not mix schedule with business justification; keep them separate. Do not paint yourself into a corner by committing to unrealistic delivery dates or optimistic costs. Present what you believe is realistic and let the steering committee assume the risks of reduction (if possible).

Recommending a template is problematic since organizational needs vary, but common sections for a small- to medium-sized project might contain:

  • Introduction – Explain the purpose of the charter
  • Problem Statement – Outline the what
  • Scope Outline – More detail on what would be delivered
  • Definition of Success – Define what “done” would look like
  • Risk Summary – Review the high-level threats and opportunities identified
  • Constraints and Assumptions – Outline the accepted operating parameters used
  • Business Case – Explain why the organization should do this
  • Schedule – Explain when the project will be completed
  • Deliverables Schedule – Outline when the key deliverables will be completed
  • Budget – Explain how much this is likely to cost
  • Team Structure – Outline who will be working on the project     
  • Organizational Structure – Explain who will be responsible for oversight and direction
  • Project Approach – Explain how the project will be run
  • Steering Committee Decision – Record the approval (or otherwise) of the charter
  • Appendices
    1. Project Background – Supporting material about why this is a good thing to do
    2. Deliverables List – A list of what should be delivered and what Done looks like for each
    3. Deliverables Schedule – A schedule for the deliverables’ leave some wiggle room
    4. Risk Assessment Detail – Details of the threats and opportunities analyzed to date
    5. Communication Plan – Details of how people will be kept informed about progress and issues

[Note: I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here ]


New PM, New Choices

Choices(Over at ProjectManagement.com January’s theme was “New PMs”. I wrote this article about the choices of approach we have and ways for new PMs to navigate them.)

These days, new project managers are exposed to conflicting guidance. On the one hand, there is a plethora of traditional “Plan the work, work the plan” literature. On the other, media is full of light-touch, self-organizing team advice. These sets of recommendations often appear to be at odds, so what is the new PM to do? Consultants will say, “Oh, it depends…” and start a lengthy (aka expensive) conversation. I say let’s examine the basics so we can make an informed decision ourselves.

The goals of planning, scheduling, and tracking are universal. We need to understand what work needs to be completed, determine a good way to do it, then make sure it happens while making adjustments as new information emerges. However, in the last 30 years, we have started tackling more projects with higher degrees of uncertainty and change. These characteristics help us determine if we should use traditional, predictive approaches or rely more on newer, adaptive techniques.

When our projects undertake defined, repeatable work using technologies and approaches our organizations have experience in, then uncertainty and change rates are typically low and manageable. Here, traditional project management approaches work great. It is safe and effective to use Gantt charts, detailed work breakdown structures (WBS), network diagrams and earned value analysis.

Yet when projects use new (to us) technology and tackle problems our organizations have not solved before, then risk, uncertainty, and rates of change will be high. Traditional approaches have plenty of tools for handling risks, uncertainty, and change; but modern, adaptive approaches were purpose-built for these types of projects and have proven to be effective in these circumstances.

Work Characteristics, Not Industries
It is important that we examine work characteristics, not just the industry domain we are operating in. It would be easy (and wrong) to classify all construction projects as candidates for traditional approaches, and all IT projects as needing an agile approach. Instead, there are plenty of experimental construction projects using new designs, materials and assembly approaches. Likewise, there are defined, repeatable IT projects that can (and have been) successfully managed using meticulous planning, detailed estimation, and formal change control procedures.

So we need to dig deeper and see if we are dealing with low-variability tasks or more consensus gathering and problem-solving. These work types often change depending on which phase of a project we are working on. Designing something is typically a consensus-gathering and problem-solving exercise. Here, formal planning and estimation are difficult because we don’t know what we will encounter.

Consider the process of designing a new car or home. We have a combination of creative goals (produce something new and appealing) and engineering goals (meet specifications, constraints). The process is likely to be iterative and adaptive. We are looking to build consensus between stakeholders, who include sponsors (concerned with value, schedule, quality), designers (aesthetics, features) and engineers (performance, practicality).

This design phase requires collaboration between subject matter experts and probably iteration on prototypes to confirm understanding and validate ideas. Approaches like lean, kanban and agile work well in these uncertain, high-change environments. Their tools for experimentation, rapid feedback, reprioritization, and improvement help generate consensus on designs and drive uncertainty out of models.

Then, once the design is agreed upon, the process of production is typically more defined and repeatable. Unless our car or home is using new technology, materials or assembly techniques, the process of actually turning designs into completed examples should be less uncertain and iterative so more predictive approaches to work management can be used.

Physical projects—which manipulate tangible materials like concrete, steel, and plastic—have significant production phases where predictive approaches can be employed effectively. Digital projects—which manipulate intangible data and algorithms—have no production phase since the process of turning code into executable software (the process of compiling code) is automated.

Physical Project Characteristics

So, software projects remain in the design phase—that early, upfront, uncertain period where subject matter experts are collaborating to create something that has likely not been done before.

Digital Project Characteristics
There will be many trade-offs between design goals and implementation practicality to be made. All the divergent stakeholders will have divergent goals. The sponsors want fast, cheap and high quality; the users want their work simplified and streamlined so they can focus on their goal. The development team wants interesting work using new technology and skills to further their craft.

Once we understand what work types suit predictive and adaptive approaches, we can make better sense of our projects. Having said software development is design phase focused, it’s important to understand most IT projects do more than just software development. Tasks like ordering equipment, installing hardware and training users can all benefit from predictive planning and management techniques.

A Case Study
A couple of years ago, I worked on a project to develop and install routing software for truck drivers. This combined custom software development, integration with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software, and hardware installation that required wiring into the truck’s engine management system and installing GPS transmitters, tablets, etc.

The custom software development was easy to plan (but not easy to do). It was new, uncertain and benefitted from an agile approach. Integrating with the COTS software was a hybrid process. We worked with the vendor to iteratively tackle the highest risk and highest business value portions first. However, being just one customer of many, the vendor did not have the availability to serve our needs as quickly as we would have liked.

We worked on a monthly delivery cadence maintaining a backlog of issues and features to tackle next. Due to previous disputes about charges, the working relationship with the vendor was quite adversarial—so detailed statements of work and a formal change control process was followed. This consumed quite a bit of time for both parties, time that could have been focussed on feature development—but that reflects the reality of many commercial projects. We have to make the best use of what we have, given the current circumstances.

Installing the equipment in the trucks demanded precision timing, OCD levels of planning and copious communications. Semi-trucks cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are carefully scheduled to make the most of their time. Bringing them in from a wide distribution area and having them out of commission while installs are performed (and drivers trained) is an expensive exercise.

When there are several hundred trucks spread across the United States and Canada, scheduling install teams and trucks to come to install/training centers becomes a variation on the traveling salesman math problem. Minimizing the total cost of lost trucking time, travel costs and staff time is a classic traditional planning problem.

In summary, like most real-world projects, the environment was complex and required using a variety of approaches. The custom software development was in-house and under our control. We used an agile approach with team-led sprints, demos, retrospectives, adaptation etc. The integration with the third-party package software was more of a hybrid approach. There were monthly deliveries based on a backlog we prioritized, but also statements of work and formal change requests.

Finally, the hardware installs and driver training was handled in a traditional, predictive way. Schedules for installs, equipment, and labor were planned and communicated well in advance. We did adjust these plans based on findings from early installs, but traditional, waterfall-style plans have always been amenable to minor adjustments. Software updates were delivered to the trucks over-the-wire as the trucks communicated back to base, so the agile teams could get new versions distributed once the equipment was installed.  

Making Informed Choices
Assessing uncertainty and consensus-gathering needs are important factors in determining the most appropriate approach to use. Thinking first about uncertainty, well-understood, often repeated work (such as building a new Costco store) represents much less uncertainty than rare endeavors such as building an underwater hotel:

Project Uncertainty

If we add to this uncertainty view the dimension of approach focus, we arrive at a framework for assessing project approaches (shown below):

Approach Focus

The “Approach Focus” Y-axis describes if techniques (approaches) are technical, such as creating a work breakdown structure (WBS); or people-focused tasks, such as team decision making or conflict resolution.

Using this framework of project uncertainty and approach focus, we can see that traditional, predictive approaches cover the bottom left quadrant of the graph well. They are great for work we are able to define and provide good process guidance:

Traditional Approach

Agile approaches tackle the problem space from the opposite corner. They are best suited for projects with high degrees of uncertainty and offer good people-based guidance:

Agile Approach

There is a large overlap, too; it represents areas where we could use a traditional approach or an agile approach. Usually, it is recommended to use the approach the stakeholders will be most familiar with. So, if we are running with an agile team, a risk-adjusted backlog and risk burndown chart will likely be an easier sell than traditional risk management approaches. Likewise, if we are in a traditional, formal contracting environment, then statements of work and bills of materials will be accepted more readily than agile alternatives.

Summary
We can use the project environment to help determine which execution approach to use. Obviously, there will be organizational standards and guidelines to be aware of, too. However, even within traditional or agile guidelines, we can tailor our approaches based on uncertainty and task focus.

New project managers should understand that traditional project management has a wealth of process-oriented guidance for well-defined tasks. Likewise, agile offers much for uncertain, high-risk work that focuses on collaboration and people-based tasks.

We should also be aware that real projects are messy, complicated affairs. We often use a combination of approaches at macro and micro levels to try and be successful. It sounds complicated, but it forms the mastery of being a great project manager and is a journey worth pursuing.

[Note: I first wrote and published this article on ProjectManagement.com here]

 


Volunteering: Giving Back That Feels Like Taking

Volunteer 2Volunteering with PMI has many benefits. Not only does it feel good to be giving back to the profession that supports us, but whenever I do it, I learn something new and build useful connections with fellow project practitioners. Add to this the fact you also earn PDUs makes the whole process a win, win, win.

Project management can feel a solitary activity sometimes. Even if you work with large teams and in organizations with many project managers, the unique nature of projects means PMs often have less in common with their peers than other roles.

In a work setting, not all PMs are willing to share their best approaches or secret sauce. Perhaps they feel competition as if their jobs could be replaced if they openly shared what worked for them. There is no such nonsense when interacting with other volunteers. You are automatically in a self-selecting group who have put a higher cause ahead of their sense of self-worth or importance.

I have come to discover that people who seem guarded with advice typically have little to protect, while those who are generous with their experience know the most and prosper more as they educate others. Knowledge and experience are not finite resources to be hoarded; instead, they become more valuable as you share them.

Over the years of volunteering with PMI, I have met many great industry leaders like “Risk Doctor” David Hillson and PMO guru Jack Duggal. They have been generous mentors, and I often learn more in a 10-minute coffee break than days of training or reading. Generally, the quality of people you meet when volunteering is exceptionally high, because they are doing it for intrinsic reasons, not for pay or recognition. It’s the perfect environment or qualifier to find generous, knowledgeable people to network with. By definition of them being there, they are willing and happy to help others.

I have been in the industry long enough now to have people ask me how I got started. I have been asked how I became involved in agile approaches, or a SeminarsWorld instructor, or worked on PMI standards. The answer to each and every one is that I volunteered for something. That led to me meeting some people and then volunteering on something else. Every industry achievement I have I can trace directly to volunteer activities and volunteer contacts.

I half considered keeping this career secret to myself—the fact that the best method for professional development is free and available to everyone. Yet, that would be so anti-volunteerism that I could not.  The fact is, of course, that only people truly in love with project management want to volunteer long term.

Let’s be clear: It is not all rainbows and unicorns. There may be lots of stacking chairs, waiting around and unproductive administrivia—it is not always about discussing the “next big thing.” Also, the payoffs are random in frequency and nature. The odds of meeting your next hiring manager on a conference call or in-person meeting are very slim. Yet, like many things, there is power in showing up—and luck only favors participants.

The good news is that effort and goodwill seem cumulative; who knows when and where something useful will show up. In the meantime, you are doing something useful and even getting PDUs for your time.

There are many ways to volunteer. I used to help at local dinner meetings, but after moving far out of town I find virtual and full-day events easier to participate in. Your local chapter and the PMI.org website have many volunteer opportunities.

One thing I wish I had realized earlier is that you do not have to be an expert—or even experienced on a topic—to take part or be valued. Unlike a work setting (where you are payed a salary and so expected to largely know what to do), volunteering is great for the inexperienced. People are just glad you are there; and in fact, you get most out of working in new areas since most topics come with a free education and you have a bunch of generous individuals around to explain things.

For years, PMI have used the slogan “Good things happen when you get involved”—and it is so true. If you are looking for professional development opportunities for 2019, I strongly suggest you consider volunteering. I acknowledge the gushy nature of this write-up might suggest some insider prompting from PMI to drum up more volunteers; however, this is personal and heartfelt.

As I reflect on 2018, looking at what went well and what not so well, I see an undeniable correlation. This year, like the last 10, my most rewarding work and business connections came out of volunteering. Heck…maybe I am just terrible at capitalizing on regular work (I do have a history of buying high and selling low at most things), but the things that go well seem volunteer related. Confirmation bias? Maybe. But if you have not volunteered before, give it a try…it’s free, and did I mention you get PDUs?

I don’t think this is just me. If anyone else has experienced similar serendipitous benefits from volunteering (at PMI or anywhere else), please share in the comments below.

[This post first appeared on ProjectManagement.com here]

 


Focusing on Results, Not Agile Approaches

Focus on Business Value


Quarter Century

25 Years Agile2019 marks the 25 year anniversary of Scrum and DSDM. I was involved in the creation of DSDM in 1994 and was an early adopter of Scrum and FDD shortly afterward. Now, having been at this for a quarter of a century I am reflecting on where my journey has taken me compared to others.

I am agnostic about agile. I value the mindset and goals more than approaches that preach a single path. This has had mixed blessings for me. I remain agnostic and impartial, but I have not jumped on any of the approach bandwagons.

I received more training in Scrum by Ken Schwaber in 2002 and offered a training role (before they were called CSTs)  but I have never offered Certified Scrum Master training. I would feel wrong evangelizing the singular view of Scrum as the way, or role of the Scrum Master to spread Scrum. That feels too religious to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Scrum is an OK starting place, but I would not recommend only using a Scrum approach - since approaches like Lean, Kanban and FDD have great things to contribute too. Some Scrum practitioners correctly explain that Scrum does not say you cannot add other approaches. In fact, it can be viewed as a deliberately incomplete framework, so organizations have to add their own process to make it successful. Yet this message is undersold as I visit organization after organization that only use Scrum practices with maybe some XP engineering practices. They are missing out on so much more and struggling because of it.

The Scrum community often has a myopic focus blaming implementation struggles on a failure to understand or apply Scrum properly - when maybe something outside of Scrum would better suit the situation.

Likewise, I think SAFe does a great job of packaging and presenting some good ideas for organizations to consider - but its adoption draws too much effort away from developing valuable product. By all means, raid SAFe for valuable content and ideas, but create your own approach with the bare minimum of process. Then continue to ditch that process as soon as it is no longer worth the effort.

 

Take Off

Agile TakeoffIn the 25 years I have been using agile approaches, I have seen companies like LeadingAgile and LitheSpeed form, grow and prosper. They offer Scrum and SAFe training even though they are also agnostic and understand the benefits of various approaches.

I have thought about just sucking it up, drinking the cool aid and offering these courses. I could also explain there is nothing to stop us blending other approaches too. However, then its not really Scrum or SAFe, or whatever I am peddling so it is not a genuine message, which is important for me.

I offer my own training courses in agnostic agile, focussing on the philosophy and tools available for a variety of circumstances. However, like trying to market a healthy, balanced diet, I am first to acknowledge the message lacks the clarity, simplicity or sex-appeal of a single, silver-bullet solution.

People want a “Paleo”, or “South Beach”, or “Atkins”, “Mediterranean”, “Keto”, “Raw”, or “<Whatever>” solution to follow. I can yell, “Stop being lazy sheep and think for yourself”, but the majority of people want recipes and ready-meals, not to learn nutrition and cooking skills.

 

 

Benefits, not Popular Fads / Staying On Track

Staying On TrackThat is OK, I would rather be genuine than popular. I truly believe we are most successful when agnostically taking the most suitable approaches for our circumstances. Then, ruthlessly reviewing, morphing and pruning these approaches as our teams evolve.

We need to focus on the output, the business value, not the process. If wearing purple hats produced better results than agile then I would be all for purple hats and ditching agile. This is one reason I named my company as LeadingAnswers and not a name with the word “Agile” in it. I am focussed on solutions and outcomes, not a single approach. I still believe Agile is our best starting point, but I am always hopeful we will create something better.

As 2019 starts, I am doubling down on my “Yes, and…” commitment. I realize the message lacks the clarity of a single, sexy, (sub-optimal) solution and so it will never be widely adopted. However, my last 25 years has taught me that there are enough people who see the benefit of a balanced, evolving approach.

So, I hope you stick with me as I explore being successful by focussing on delivering business value regardless of approach. I think there is merit in traditional processes in the right circumstances. There are also many underemployed benefits from leadership, emotional intelligence, and industry specific practices that get used in pockets that we could all learn from.

Here’s to another 25 years of delivering the most business value we can through situationally specific approaches.


DIPMF 2018

Dubai SkylineI have just returned from the 2018 Dubai International Project Management Forum (DIPMF). It was my second year presenting there and this year I hosted a session called “Agile: Not New, but Now Necessary”. It traced several techniques back through history and explained how lean, agile, and design thinking approaches share common guidance for building high performing teams.

During the conference, I mainly attended the agile and artificial intelligence (AI) sessions. Having written about AI augmented project management previously I was interested to learn more about Microsoft’s PMOtto assistant that uses Azure Machine Learning Studio. PMOtto has a chat-bot interface that uses their LUIS (Language Understanding) machine learning based natural language system to understand questions. It integrates with Office 365 tools, a cognitive services model for learning about projects, and business intelligence tools for analysis. Like having a project assistant who is always getting smarter, PMOtto will track, trend, and answer questions for project managers and PMOs.

TED speaker and child prodigy Tanmay Bakshi gave an inspiring keynote on AI. His main theme was it is more like Augmented Intelligence rather than true Artificial Intelligence. He profiled some of his work including helping those with Rett Syndrome "speak" through the detection and interpretation of EEG signals analyzed by cognitive systems.

PMI’s Murat Bicak, senior VP strategy, also gave an interesting talk on AI as Augmented Intelligence. He profiled some AI generated artwork that used machine learning to identify pleasing images. Interestingly, when control groups were asked to try and identify images as either human generated or computer generated, people rated the computer-generated images as human 75% of the time compared to human-generated art only 48% of the time.

There were also great keynotes by Yancey Strickler, co-founder of Kickstarter on building socially responsible companies and Lisa Bodell, founder of Futurethink on why simplicity wins.

The whole event was really well hosted and it was great to see a massive display wall featuring a Project Management History Timeline. It showed PM developments and local Dubai mega-projects since 1917 from the Gantt chart all the way up to the present. The early years showed the creation of the Critical Path Method, the building of the Dubai airport, formation of the PMI, and creation of the PMP certification.

Timeline 00

The middle years celebrate events like building of the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa, and breaking ground on the world’s largest solar energy facility. The chart seemingly culminates in the grand finale, the Agile Practice Guide. Having worked on the guide with many other people, it was great to see it profiled. It was a fantastic conference and I hope to be invited again next year.

Timeline 2


What’s in your backlog?

Let’s explore what you do and do not put in a backlog. How do these sound?

  • Features and non-functional requirements – Absolutely
  • Bug fixes and change requests – Yes, probably
  • Risk avoidance and risk reduction activities – Sure, maybe
  • Opportunity exploitation activities and marketing ideas – Now you’re just getting weird!
  • Team building and social events – Erm, no!

Yet, if it’s all just stuff for the team to do, then why not put it in the backlog? Maybe because the customer has not asked for it and the product owner has to own and order it, but let’s look further.

If we used a backlog metaphor for prioritizing backlog work items. It may look like this.

Backlog of Backlog Items

I am not suggesting these are the correct elements for including in a backlog, I am just showing the common ones. However, I am probably getting too abstract too quickly. Let’s start at the beginning.

A Backlog Primer

For agile teams, backlogs represent their To-Do list of work. All the things they need to complete before the product or project is done. Now, there may be interim releases. In fact, there should be interim releases delivering valuable functionality as soon as possible. However, there typically remains a list of remaining work. For long-lived products this list may never be emptied by the team, instead it is refreshed and reordered based on the latest priorities.

While the team works from the backlog, it is typically prioritized by a product owner / business representative / ambassador user that sequences the work. This product owner manages the backlog, keeping things up to date with the latest product decisions. They also flesh-out items prior to work starting on them. Product Owners also answers questions about the work from the team, etc.

Here’s a typical backlog showing a combination of features, change requests, bug fixes and a couple of risk reduction activities.

Backlog example

Types not Granularity

This post discusses the types of things in a backlog, not the names we give different levels of granularity. Big chunks of work might be grouped into releases and then divided into themes, or features, epics, user stories and tasks as they get smaller and smaller. There is not an agreed to hierarchy at the large end of the spectrum, often teams miss out one or two of the theme / feature / epic options. However, most teams use the user stories and tasks as work gets smaller.

Nevertheless, this post is about types of work, regardless of their size or what we call them.

Scrum Product Backlogs and Sprint Backlogs

Your view of a backlog may be different from mine. Most people I meet these days were introduced to backlogs through Scrum.

The Scrum Guide describes the product backlog as an ordered list of everything that is known to be needed in the product. It is also the single source of requirements for any changes to be made to the product. The guide goes on to describe the sprint backlog as the set of product backlog items selected for the sprint, plus a plan for delivering the product Increment and realizing the sprint goal.

My backlog history goes like this…

“It’s All Just Work We Have to Do”

I was first exposed to backlogs of work in the early 1990s. Working as a developer at Data Sciences Ltd in the UK I wrote a program to manage our work tasks on a government project. My project manager saw it one day and two interesting things happened.

  1. He did not chastise me for working on a side project of developing a visual work tracker rather than working on the client project.
  2. He asked why it did not contain all our bug fixes and change requests? I did not have a good answer, other than those are different buckets of work we should track separately. He dismissed this explanation and told me to add a flag if I wanted to track work types separately, and said “It’s all just work we have to do” and walked off, but his insight stuck with me. The class of work is secondary – all this stuff needs to get done.

My visual work tracker was quite limited and I abandoned it. The database connection from Easel (a language better suited to building graphical UIs for mainframe systems) did not support concurrent users well. Yet, a couple of years later when we started creating DSDM I knew the backlog was “Just work we have to do”. The backlog is the input-hopper for team work. The product owner is the input-hopper custodian, often subject matter expert, and settler of priority and compromise disputes / negotiations.

 

Risks in the Backlog

I have been keen on proactively addressing risks for many years. Just as features deliver value, risks in the form of threats to the project cost money and cause delays - if they occur. As such, these threats are potentials for anti-value. Like bank deposits and bank-fees, the act of adding value and avoiding losses go hand-in-hand to maximize value.

In the late 1990s I used RUP with some clients and was impressed by the Elaboration phase’s goal of tackling risks early in the project lifecycle. I corresponded with Philippe Kruchten, co-author of RUP, about how to illustrate the good work done on risk reduction during Elaboration that often did not have a lot to demo or show for it. I ended up creating Risk Burn Down graphs for my projects. I wrote about these ideas when I started blogging in 2006 as Risk Profile Graphs. By this time I’d been using them for 4-5 years and knew they were well received by sponsors and executives.

Later in 2006, I wrote about risk adjusted backlogs and Agile Risk Management explaining how to insert risk avoidance and risk reduction activities in the backlog. In 2012 I presented some Collaborative Games for Risk Management at the Agile 2012 Conference and PMI Global Conference. 

When members of the project management community read these posts and papers they correctly criticized my ignorance around proper risk management terminology. Risks, of course, can be positive (opportunities) or negative (threats). I was only talking about negative, potentially harmful risks (threats) when I talked about inserting risks based activities in the backlog. A real risk-adjusted backlog has both threat avoidance and reduction steps, as well as opportunity exploitation and opportunity enhancement actions.

This is how we got to risk avoidance and opportunity exploitation activities in the backlog.  One aims to avoid costs, the other aims to generate new value. Risk management techniques like Expected Monetary Value converts probabilistic events into financial values. For instance, if we have a 50% risk of incurring a $400,000 loss then this event’s expected monetary value is 50% x $400,000 = $200,000.

Likewise, we can assess opportunities too. If the average profit for new customers is $20,000 per annum, then we can determine if inviting qualified applicants on a factory tour with product demos and giveaways that costs us $500 per head is worth it at a 5% conversion rate. Here $20,000 x 0.05 = $1,000, so yes, it appears worth offering factory tours and giveaways for qualified leads.

Multiplying guessed benefits or losses by guessed probabilities is an inexact science. However, it is one that the insurance industry has spent centuries trying to master. So they err in their favor and often price based on what the market will bear. Yet it happens throughout all forms of business and is the basis for taking an economic view of production that underpins all the return on investment and prioritization schemes such as Weighted Shortest Job First. We are constantly looking to maximize value.

So, if a team building lunch is important for boosting performance or reducing the likelihood of conflict and delay, why not put it in the backlog? If it would be helpful for someone to walk the VP of sales through the latest product demo, put it in the backlog.

The Product Owner remains the custodian of the backlog, but with some discussions around threats and opportunities, they often see the advantages of adding these other work types to the backlog. Taking an economic view of work allows us to decide “Where is the next best dollar spent’. That may well be on Feature X or a site visit to help build relationships and increase motivation.

 

 


Certification Proliferation and Confusion

Cert ProliferationLike TV channels, the choice of project management credentials has exploded recently. 20 years ago things were much simpler, in North America, the PMP was the dominant credential, in the UK and ex British Empire countries it was PRINCE2. Life was straightforward, career paths defined, and credentials well understood.

In 1983 in the US, over 100M people watched the finale of the TV series M.A.S.H. Outside of the Apollo moon landing and sports events, it remains the most watched US TV broadcast of all time. Chances were most people in the office watched it and everyone had something in common to talk about. That was Peak TV, viewer counts have increased since but program choice has exploded much faster. These days there are so many cable choices, on-demand services, YouTube channels, and Periscope sub-streams it seems as if everyone watches something different.

Likewise, project management credentials have proliferated too. Today I discovered 7 different credentials for PMO staff from the same provider. Each (presumably) providing some niche specialization or incremental progression from a former step. Don’t even get me started on Agile certifications which have splintered and multiplied faster than the brooms in Fantasia’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

This creates problems for project management professionals and hiring managers alike. How can they compare or rank one over another? Within the PMI community, people know the CAPM® is a foundational credential and the PfMP® is more advanced. However, outside the PMI the situation is complex and rapidly evolving.

Becoming a Certified Scrum Master might sound impressive, but for many people, it merely required attending a two-day class. Yet, at the other end of the spectrum, the Association for Cost Engineers (ACostE) requires degrees or over 30,000 hours of experience (3 times Gladwell’s 10,000 hours guide). This is more like a career quest, rather than a 2018 learning aspiration. 

This diversity in experience requirements and study effort along with frequent new offerings muddies the waters of comparison. It would be negligent to simply ignore new offerings since many have been created to fill real needs.

Instead hiring managers likely use unknown credentials as a demonstration of lifelong learning and career change motivation. They may not know exactly what they entail, but for promising candidates, a few minutes on Google should shed light on the credential requirements and process. Unfortunately with the rise of automated and AI-assisted recruitment workflows these candidates might not make the initial selection due to keyword filtering.

If someone was a little sneaky I guess they could state on their resume that their New_Credential_ABC was similar to a PRINCE2 Practitioner, PMP®, or another credential so they pass the keyword scan. Yet, if you were so inclined, you might as well have a section called Future Credentials Planned and list them all along with your Nobel Prize.

It is unlikely TV channels or credentials will ever converge back into a simple collection of universally understood offerings. People want choice and specialization.

If the future of recruiting really will be AI driven maybe a service that ranks, validates and checks credentials will be created to remove the need for hiring managers to do so? It could be constantly updated and evaluated by independent experts to ensure parity. In the meantime, if you have a niche credential or are considering pursuing one, be aware its lack of recognition could be a factor.

Ideally, credentials are just an entry point, beyond which experience and character fit are evaluated. Hiring managers should look for a baseline proficiency but then focus the bulk of their decisions on soft skills evaluated through interviews, etc. We could say it is like making sure candidates have a driver’s license if a job requires driving, it is a prerequisite. Yet we know hiring managers attribute more credence than this.

It is because of this proliferation of credentials and the encouragement to renew and expand that some people are opposed to them. They believe they are money-making schemes for the owners and not reflections of ability or experience. I sympathize to some degree, as stated, at best they are entry points, like drivers licenses, that demonstrate a base level of competence. Yet they are used by hiring managers to qualify candidates. It seems if you are looking to change jobs they are, to some degree, a necessary expense.

For other people, credentials are pursued for personal reasons. Maybe to encourage ongoing development or for differentiation among peers without changing jobs. The list of motivations for pursuing credentials is likely as diverse as the credentials themselves.

More choice is great - until it isn’t. When options and complexity overwhelm our decision-making process we need new tools. Luckily we can learn from other arenas that have complexity. The internet has not unified and standardized the choice of news, entertainment, or services. It has done the opposite and created more choice, enclaves, silos, and choices than ever before.

Fortunately, the internet also comes with tools to search, sort and rank to help us navigate all the diversity.  We need the same with certifications. As television and films proliferated sites like IMDB, RottenTomatoes, Fandango, and Metacritic were created to add smarts and help us choose. Built around expert and personal ratings these sites allow people to sort, filter and view aggregate scores.

Hopefully, we will see the same with certifications. Hiring managers and people looking for the next credential to consider will have tools to help them choose. Whereas films and TV shows are filtered by genre (action, adventure, drama), actors and viewer age recommendations, certifications will have different criteria. Categories such as topics covered, experience requirements, and assessment method are some basic measures. Beyond that user-provided data on market awareness, average study effort, typical salary bands, etc. could be added.

Just as we will not be reverting to only 3 or 4 TV channels again, we cannot expect the diversity in credentials to disappear. Unpopular ones will fail, but more choice seems to be the future. Fortunately, the solutions for managing complexity and too many choices have been modeled in other domains.

Currently searching for “Best PM credentials/certificates/qualifications” yields lots of articles, but no community-sourced tools. That’s likely the future and maybe a project for one of our readers?

 

References:

  1. UK Project Management Market Snapshot, October 2018 – Arras
  2. Wikipedia: List of most-watched television broadcasts, Retrieved October 2018
  3. Project Management Certification Benchmarking Research: 2015 Update - Dr. Paul D. Giammalvo

 

[Note: I wrote this article first for ProjectManagement.com here]


GOAT18

Shaw-center_0I am excited to be a keynote speaker at the Gatineau-Ottawa Agile Tour (GOAT) conference on November 30th. Along with Mary Poppendieck, we will be leading a day dedicated to learning about agile culture and collaboration.

The Gatineau Ottawa Agile Tour is an annual conference in the heart of the nation’s capital, focused on sharing and learning. GOAT has run for 7 years and is part of the Agile Tour that takes place in 90 cities worldwide.

Click to see the Keynotes Overview and the Sessions Previews.

I hope to see you there.


Hybrid Knowledge: Expansion and Contraction

Knowledge Expansion and ConsolidationExpansion and Contraction

Project management requires the combination of technical skills, people skills and industry-specific knowledge. It is a true hybrid environment. This knowledge and its application also forms a beautiful paradox. Our quest to gain skills is never complete and always expanding, but the most effective tools are usually the simplest. Smart people do very simple things to achieve desired outcomes. Yet, they probably considered fifty alternatives before choosing the most effective, simple approach. You must know a lot to be confident your choice is apt.

Knowledge and experience in project management follows the same pattern. Learning about project management, how to work effectively with people, and our industry domain is never complete. We then use this knowledge to choose the best action, which for ease of understanding and implementation, is usually a simple course of action. I call it Expansion and Contraction, but there is probably a simpler name I will learn about one day.

Learning as a Project Manager

One of the things I love about project management is the opportunity to expand our knowledge. There is so much to learn that is useful and applicable to projects. We also live in an age where there are more avenues for learning than ever before. Like a hungry kid in a candy store, the options seem endless and enticing.

But what should we learn next to make the biggest impact? We could learn techniques to make us more effective or alert us to risks earlier. While earned-value is widely used, earned-scheduling is just getting started but promises useful tools. Alternatively, we will never be done learning how to better work with people. Communication, collaboration and motivation skills are more important than ever now talent is so mobile.  Likewise, expanding our industry and business skills are critical to build credibility with sponsors and useful collaborations with teams.

The PMI Talent Triangle nicely describes these connected but infinitely extending fields of study.

Talent triangle tm

For learning purposes, the Strategic and Business Management segment includes all aspects of your industry. For example, if you work in IT, learning anything your team does or uses would be valuable.

Hybrid Learning Model

We should study topics from each of the Talent Triangle segments. However, it needs be fun to be sustainable. We learn best when we are interested and engaged, not when trying really hard to stay on topic or complete a task. Learning also needs to be balanced with other aspects of our lives. We need to look after ourselves and our relationships. We won’t perform or learn well if sick, depressed or lonely. (See the Project You post for more on this idea.)

When we get stuck, tired or burnt-out on one topic, switch to another after recording what is challenging. Our brains process things in the background. Often the simple act of recording that we are stuck on a topic yields an A-ha breakthrough days later in the shower or out on a walk. 

In addition to a stuck list, recognize all the things already studied. The following Kanban board has columns for To Learn, Studying Now, Stuck On, and Studied Already.

Learning Board

Personally, I try to limit my studying to one topic per Talent Triangle segment at a time. That’s my mental capacity, but I might mix in some short articles alongside a book on a similar topic.

Line Chefs not Eggheads

Knowledge is only useful if we can apply it when necessary. We want people who are humble and smart with a bias for action. When presented with a problem, recalling potential fixes is only half the solution. We then have to select one and try it otherwise we have analysis paralysis. The selection might be done individually or through discussions with the team, but we need to go from many options to a preferred one.

Many people find having too many options with no clear preference overwhelming. Kicking around alternatives is good to select the best solution, but be aware of the anxiety this can cause. So keep it short. Power comes from agreeing and focussing effort on the selected approach. A 40 watt light bulb is barely enough to light a room. Yet a 40-watt laser beam will cut through cardboard and aluminum. It’s the same amount of light energy, just focussed in one direction.

For me, there is an analogy or parallel between learning multiple skills and navigating. Once we know our way around we can create new pathways and connections. I live near the Canmore Nordic Centre. It has> 100km of cross-country ski trails tightly winding through a heavily treed, mountainous park. It also has > 100 km of summer mountain biking trails in the same space.

People describe the trail network and map as confusing as a plate of spaghetti (summer trails) dumped on top of another plate of spaghetti (winter trails). It took me a couple of years of frequently getting lost to become comfortable navigating there. Now knowing both sets of trails allows me to create new loops by tagging trail segments together. It also allows me to get from point A to point B quickly or get back to the Day Lodge swiftly if needed. In short, learning where all the connections are allows us to link elements together for better flow and shortcuts.

Learning as much as we can about project management, emotional intelligence and leadership builds similar skills. It allows us to see connections between ideas, link concepts together like creating a common vision for a project through storytelling.  Or, resolve conflict with empathy and appreciative inquiry.

If we can layer these skills with learning more about our industry, then in the eyes of our sponsors, we go from effective employees to trusted advisors.

When We Get it Wrong

This is all great in theory, but we will inevitably screw-up sometimes. We will assess the options and gallantly blaze our way forward into bigger problems and unintended consequences. This is when being humble and flexible pay dividends.

Just as a lack of direction in the face of uncertainty looks like fear or paralysis, then dogged adherence to a doomed plan looks like blind stupidity. By carefully framing decisions with qualifiers such as “Right now, our best course of action looks like X” or “We have decided to try Y for an iteration and evaluate the results” this way we reserve the right to be smarter tomorrow than we were yesterday.

People are more likely to forgive a mistake and try another approach when it was originally positioned as today’s favoured strategy rather than our only hope. This is not to say we should get into the habit of failing and flip-flopping, just be smart enough not to get preachy about decisions in case the occasional one turns out to be a dud.

So, strive for clarity with options to change direction if needed. We can explain: Here is what we are going to do... but, if along the way we learn of a better approach we reserve the right to revaluate and change direction. In fact, we have a duty to our sponsors to change direction if there ever looks like a better option.

Summary

If we cast the net wide and learn all that we can about project management, leadership and our industries we will never be bored or lacking topics to explore. The beauty comes when topics connect and we make links between subjects. Like always wondering where that unfamiliar road goes only to emerge from it one day and suddenly realize where you are and make the new mental connection.

As we grow in our careers we see how management is really about leadership and leadership really starts with ourselves. Then a simple shift over here makes things go better over there. Project success is a hybrid of technical, leadership and strategic domains. As we grow we see more connections and then achieve more through doing less. It is great when it works but still uncomfortable when it fails so, follow the advice of Patrick Lencioni, and stay humble, hungry and smart.

 

[Note: I wrote this article for ProjectManagament.com first and it can be found here - membership required ]

 


The New Need to be Lifelong Learners

Never Stop LearningWe are a generation who stand with one foot in the outgoing industrial era and one in the knowledge-based future. Training and education that prepared us well for careers in the past will not work in a faster-moving future. Now, we need to be not just lifelong learners, but engaged, active lifelong learners.

The move from industrial work to knowledge-based or learning work can be difficult to see because change does not happen uniformly. Instead, some organizations push ahead, while others lag behind. However, all industries are changing and terms like “Retail Apocalypse” are invented to describe the trend in just one sector.

Some product companies have learned to generate revenue from digital services while many traditional models are disappearing. While I drafted this article gadget store Brookstone declared bankruptcy and Apple became the world’s first publicly traded trillion-dollar company, with Amazon close on its heels. Each are landmarks along the road to a different future and world of work.

People have been through similar transitions before. The Agricultural Revolution moved nomadic hunter-gathers to farmers. They no longer had to wander around in search of food and allowed for permanent, full-time settlements which changed humanity. I am sure there were many people who rejected the new way of working and elected to live out the remainder of their lives as nomadic hunter-gathers. However, the general population reached a tipping point and changed.

Then came the industrial revolution. Many of the dispersed farmers moved to cities to work in factories. Again, a huge change that did not happen overnight, or around the world at the same time. There were some people left farming, but most transitioned. The next stage was known as the Information Revolution. This revolution focused on information and collaboration, rather than manufacturing. It placed value on the ownership of knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to create or improve goods and services.

We now live in an era dubbed the Learning Age by Jacob Morgan, author of “The Future of Work”. New technologies are evolving so rapidly that company training departments cannot provide all the skills their employees needed to perform their job in an effective manner. Instead, with the rise of internet-based information and learning, workers have the skills to learn as they go. Capacity to learn and a willingness to self-study are the hallmarks of learning workers.

 


MindsetA New Mindset

Becoming an active lifelong learner requires more than just a willingness to self-study. It is linked to a totally new mindset and values structure. Susan Cain, author of Quiet (and presenter of my favorite TED talk with no slides,) explains how each work era brought a new value mindset.

The Agricultural work period valued character and hard work. Role models included Abraham Lincoln and self-help books had titles like “Character, the greatest thing in the world”. Then, the Industrial Revolution moved people from small communities into cities, so they now had to be heard and prove themselves in a crowd of strangers. Qualities like magnetism and charisma became important and self-help books had titles like “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. In the Industrial era role models were great salespeople.

Today knowledge, learning, and experimentation are rewarded. The goal is to quickly test new ideas or products and then profit (if it works), or pivot to something else if it does not. Books like “The Lean Startup” and “Blue Ocean Strategy” have become the new how-to guides for people wanting to innovate. In demand skills are less sales or personality focused and more experimentation oriented. Today’s role models are engineers - who would have thought!

 

FutureThe Future of Work and Learning

Futurist Magnus Lindkvist explains there are only two types of development: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal development involves spreading existing ideas to everyone else. 30 years ago, only a few people had cell phones, now most people in developed countries have them. 20 years ago, online shopping was a small segment of sales, now it is huge. 10 years ago, ride-share and gig-economy jobs were rare, now they are commonplace, etc.

There is a lot of opportunity and work for people spreading ideas horizontally to markets or segments that currently do not have them. According to McKinsey research, more than half the world’s population is still offline. About 75 percent of the offline population is concentrated in 20 countries and is disproportionately rural, low income, elderly, illiterate, and female. This is an example of horizontal growth potential to these 4 billion people currently offline. However, once a market is served the challenge then becomes one of differentiation on price, features, and service. Things get competitive very quickly.

The other sort of development is vertical, creating new markets and products that do not currently exist. This is error-prone and uncertain. Most initiatives fail, but the rewards for the successful can be enormous. Since the cost of communications continues to fall, digital markets are global and expanding as more people get online.

Samsung recently announced it is investing $22 billion into emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, 5G, automotive electronics and biopharmaceuticals as it searches for new products to power growth. Much of this work will be exploratory with high rates of failure, but that is normal in vertical markets.

Workers in these markets are unlikely to have the prerequisite skills since the technologies themselves are still being developed. Instead, the most valuable employees are rapid learners and linkers & thinkers who can take partial solutions from other domains to solve novel problems. 

One such example of linking ideas provided a solution to a rare liver disease in children called Tyrosinemia. The condition prevents the body from processing the common building block of protein tyrosine. Swedish doctors Elisabeth Holme and Sven Lindtedt stumbled upon the results from a failed herbicide experiment in Australia.

Chemicals in the bottle brush plant suppressed competing vegetation, making it a candidate for a natural herbicide. Unfortunately, experiments with mice led to eye issues and the product was abandoned, but the failed experiment was documented along with the plant’s tyrosine processing change. The doctors gained permission to run a small study and the results were dramatic, with liver function returning to normal. The failed herbicide became the miracle drug Orfadin that has saved the lives of countless children worldwide.  

We need to experiment and document not only our successes but also our failures. Who knows they might be useful to others. Ideally, this information should be openly available which will likely be a challenging concept for many traditional organizations. Even encouraging the sharing of positive experiments can be difficult for old mindset companies that rank staff performance against peers and create competition for resources between departments. In such environments, there is little reward for sharing valuable breakthroughs.

Nucor Steel solved this issue with its bonus pay system. Incentives are rewarded one level above people’s span of control. So, as a plant manager, bonus pay is not based on how well your plant is doing, but how well all the plants are doing. This encourages learnings and breakthroughs to be shared with other plants. It encourages global rather than local optimization. The model repeats at all levels, department heads are not rewarded on their department’s performance but a composite of all departments. The same for team leads and individual workers. Rewarding learning and collaboration has made Nucor steel one of the few successful US-based steel companies.                                                         

 


ExperimentsBetter Experimentation Design

If we are engaged in vertical development, we need to overcome our aversion to failure. As professionals with many years of experience, there is a stigma with failure. We are paid to know our field and deliver positive results, not failures. However, this is legacy industrial thinking. As knowledge workers, we need to be designing and executing low-cost experiments to learn more quickly than our competitors.

Paradoxically, if most of our trials and experiments usually work that does not mean we are great developers. It means we are wasteful innovators. By design 50% of our experiments should fail, this is the quickest path to learning and innovation. Failed experiments tell us just as much (and often more) than successful ones. We should not be duplicating confirmed ideas but exploring new ones.

Low cost and fast experimentation lead to more profit-or-pivot decisions. Organizations that can do this quicker than their peers emerge as the new Apple’s and Amazons. Organizations that do not, follow the path of Brookstone and Blockbuster.

 

LearningPersonal Learning

Going forward we need to recognize how people learn best which is through storytelling and visual learning. YouTube’s How-to videos are popular because they combine both elements in a time efficient delivery mechanism.

Checking our ego and embracing humility is also necessary for learning. We might be experts in horizontal development of the known, but no one is an expert in vertical development of the new. Instead, we must learn how to be collaborative problem solvers.

Harvard Innovation Lab expert Tony Wagner puts it this way. “Today because knowledge is available on every internet connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate – the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life – and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge.”

We cannot predict the future and that’s what makes it exciting. We may not know exactly what technical skills to pursue next, but a couple of quotes that seem to apply include: “Once we rid ourselves of traditional thinking we can get on with creating the future” - James Bertrand and “The essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail” – Edwin Land. So, go forward and experiment boldly.

  

References:

  1. Minifesto: Why Small Ideas Matter in the World of Grand Narratives, Magnus Lindkvist
  2. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Peter M. Senge
  3. The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, Eric Ries
  4. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, W. Chan Kim

 

 [Note: I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here – free sign-up required]


Agile Animations

Animation Film
Following my Agile 2018 conference workshop, I had a couple of people ask how I created the smooth PowerPoint animations. I have always liked using animations to explain ideas since they help me understand processes.

My logic has been, if they help me understand it, then they should help others understand it too. Visual learning, and especially animations, are valuable on knowledge work projects.

Animations help us overcome the three challenges of knowledge work:

  1. Invisible – designs and ideas are often abstract and hard to visualize.
  2. Intangible – bits not atoms. Since we cannot see or feel ideas there is a real danger other people might interpret them differently, leading to difficulties with collaboration and problem-solving.
  3. Transient – Our work is often novel and unique, the challenges teams face are often unique too. The solution to our last problem is unlikely to help us today.

Tom Wujec, the author of The Future of Making, has an interesting short Ted talk on how animation helps create meaning. He explains seeing an image triggers 30 portions of the brain to start working together to process information, solve problems and make decisions.

Visualizations address the knowledge worker challenges:

  1. Clarity through visualization – engage all those brain circuits, helping us comprehend faster and clarify ideas.
  2. Making concepts interactive – when we all see the same interaction of components, we build a common understanding as a group.
  3. Make permanent – Animations can be stored, shared, and replayed - capturing mental models of A-ha moments.

So, if a picture is worth a thousand words, is an animation worth a thousand pictures (a million words)? – No, but it is hard to beat visual storytelling.

Continue reading "Agile Animations" »


Creed Over Greed: Motivation and Purpose

SunriseThere have been a couple of stories in the news recently that reveal some important facts about motivation and purpose.

  • Ex-Tesla Workers Are Still Believers

Some people’s reactions over being fired from Tesla surprised many analysts. Rather than the normal angry barbs (and I am sure there were plenty of those) what made the news were the messages of thanks from, now ex-employees, explaining how they enjoyed their time there and were glad to be a part of it. Some of the Tweets included:

  • “Thanks for the opportunity, Elon! Eye on the mission. Will always be proud to say I worked for Tesla”
  • “I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed working for Tesla”
  • “I was laid off from Tesla yesterday and although it hurts (a lot!), it is the right thing for the company. I don’t regret giving all I had and in a way bidding adieu is my last contribution. I’ll be cheering Tesla on knowing I did my part. Thanks for the years of memories!”

A Bloomberg article Fired Tesla Workers Still Love Elon Musk recaps some of the comments.

  • Enlightened Pessimism

From a reverse perspective, a recent Science Direct article found that Employees who practice mindfulness meditation are less motivated, having realized the futility of their jobs. It seems that when people learn how to detach from sources of stress they are less likely to want to work towards goals they are not aligned with.

So, beware those corporate mindfulness workshops unless your organization has a compelling purpose!

The Importance of a Compelling Purpose

First, people want jobs that satisfy their physical and safety needs of having enough money to provide the necessary food and shelter. These are levels one and two in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. None of the later stages of motivation ever come into play until these most critical needs are met. However, once they are met, people want to work towards something worthwhile and motivating.

Tesla has never been about making fancy electric cars, that’s just a side effect of their real purpose. The Tesla vision and mission statement used to be: “To accelerate the world's transition to sustainable transport.” However, in mid-2016, the company changed it to “To accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy.” So, they are not building cars, they are helping save the planet for us and future generations.

That is a worthy goal. It is a purpose people can get behind, and a reason people were glad to work at Tesla, even if their role has now ended. They were never just car makers, they were game changers and that’s what people are grateful for.

Contrast it to the mission of BMW: “Strategy Number ONE aligns the BMW Group with two targets: to be profitable and to enhance long-term value – from a technological, structural and cultural perspective. The mission statement up to the year 2020 is to become the world's leading provider of premium products and premium services for individual mobility.”

While it mentions culture, there is a focus on profit, value and being the world’s leading… In other words, it is based on money and dominance, rather than a compelling purpose.

Creed Over Greed

Most organizations share mission and vision statements like BMW’s. They talk about generating shareholder value and becoming the biggest this or the leading that. This is understandable in a purely economic model, but as we saw earlier, once people have enough money they want something more - something compelling, something worthwhile.

When we can appeal to people’s desire for meaning, and when we can support them to make valuable contributions to a worthwhile purpose, they will experience motivation beyond the economics that dwindles over time. “Creed” means a belief system, it is more powerful than greed. Growing larger for the sake of profit and market share is unfulfilling, like a cancerous growth.

Having a worthwhile purpose people can unite behind is tremendously powerful. Organizations like TOMS Shoes and Warby Parker attract top talent not only because they are rewarding places to work, but also because they share a larger goal of helping others less fortunate. Studies show that contributing to good causes makes us happy so it should be no surprise that working for an organization that helps others should be the most rewarding and motivating.

Talent is More Mobile Than Ever

The internet has lowered the cost of communication. It is easier than ever to advertise jobs and share the corporate purpose. People tend to switch jobs more frequently now and the same tools that make advertising jobs easier, also make relocation easier. Smart, talented people are more mobile than ever. They want to apply their skills in worthwhile, interesting settings.

Given the choice of making more money for executives and shareholders or saving the planet, most people (thankfully) would choose to try and help save the planet. When Tesla was hiring last year, they received nearly 500,000 applicants for about 2,500 job openings. So, people only had about a 1 in 200 chance of being accepted – a  testimony to how much people want to work there.

With these odds only the very best people get accepted. This has a two-fold effect, 1) the top talent moves to the better companies, 2) lacklustre organizations get a higher concentration of sub-par people as the best move on.

Find the Purpose/Make a Purpose

If you are a CEO, aligning your organization with a higher propose will help attract top talent. If you are a leader in a traditional organization, then creating opportunities for employees to contribute to society is a powerful motivator.

We cannot all work for Tesla or Patagonia, but we can try to inject some worthwhile components into people’s work lives.  Hackathons for a good cause, Habitat for Humanity volunteering, they all help create more satisfied and motivated team members.

At various stages of people’s careers, they care about different things. Many people starting out just want the highest paying job they can obtain to get established in their adult lives. This is understandable and natural. Then, later they want to be part of something bigger, something more useful. Understanding and recognizing this desire allows organizations offering a motivating purpose the capability to appeal to the top tier talent.

 

[Note: I wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com first and it was published here]


AI Assistants for Project Managers

Robot hand
Predictions like “AI will take our jobs” sound scary. However, long before our jobs as project managers are taken, AI will help us. In fact, it already is, and we don’t think about it much. While writing this article, AI in Microsoft Word and the add-in Grammarly helped protect you from the bulk of my spelling and grammar mistakes. This is how AI will help us first, by doing small things we are error-prone with, before tackling larger tasks.

Like me, do you spend time booking meetings, finding rooms, and distributing information? Do you analyze backlogs and scope outlines for potential risks, or review estimates for commonly missed activities? Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help with these tasks and many more.

Imagine having a non-judgemental expert monitoring everything you do (and do not do) at work and making helpful suggestions to you in private. This expert is constantly learning, is plugged into all the latest research and works for free. This is the not too distant future of AI assisted project management.

June was Technology month at Project Management.com, and there have been a few articles about AI taking away project management jobs. This article focusses on ways AI can help project managers which will happen as AI develops and before it can replace jobs. It deals with automating the process and science parts of project management, leaving people more time to focus on the relationships, leadership, storytelling, empathy and emotional intelligence side of projects that are harder to tackle and are (currently) best done by people.

AI has come a long way since Microsoft rolled out the annoying and not so helpful “Clippy” Office Assistant tool in 2003. It was never tuned for project managers, but it if were it might have looked something like this:

ClippyInstead, AI is becoming more sophisticated and useful. Gmail will remind you to attach a file if you mention “attach” in the text of an email that has no attachment. Most people use personal assistants like Siri and Cortana on their phones, or Alexa in their homes. Voice recognition and comprehension are steadily increasing. Google recently demonstrated their new Google Assistant calling and interacting with a hair salon to book a haircut. Clearly, these tools will soon be ready for prime time and their use will be widespread.

Kevin Kelly, futurist and founding executive editor of Wired magazine, says in his TED talk: “Everything that we have electrified, we are now going to cognify”. In other words, we will add intelligence to devices and products. Kelly went on to say, “I would suggest that the formula for the next 10,000 start-ups be very, very simple: take X - and add AI.

To understand how AI can help project managers, let's examine its basic capabilities.

  • Knowledge Based Expert System (KBES) – these work from decision trees of IF - THEN statements to provide expertise. Gmail’s attachment reminder works with similar IF body_text includes “attach” AND Attachment = False THEN issue a warning.
  • Artificial Neural Network (ANN) – these systems model our real brains and consist of networks of weighted connections. They can be programmed to learn, recall, generalize and apply fuzzy logic. So, if we teach it someone 4ft high is Short and someone 6ft high is Tall it can generalize that someone 4ft 6 is “Not very tall”. Being able to make these types of generalizations are important for realistic interactions with people, such as Google Assistant making a hair appointment.
  • Machine Learning – this builds on Knowledge Based Expert Systems and Artificial Neural Networks to create predictive analytics that can provide validation and advice. In the project management space, this is the technology that can help with checking for missed risks, rebaselining plans, recalculating the Cost of Delay for waiting initiatives, etc.
  • Chatbots - AI powered programs designed to simulate a conversation with humans. Chatbots use artificial neural networks and machine learning to combine domain intelligence with natural language processing. This gives the impression of interacting with a (currently somewhat) knowledgeable person.

If these technologies sound far-fetched in the project management field, consider the quote “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed”. Agile tool vendor Atlassian, already provide project assistants that help with budgets, estimates, and sprint management. They also have chatbots to share project information and remind team members for estimates and status updates.

Moving forward, these tools will be expanded to help check our work for common mistakes, just as Word checks for common spelling errors. Every industry has catalogs of defect origins and removal methods (here is one for software projects) AI assistants can apply this knowledge and suggest steps to help avoid or reduce these risks. It is not an exact science and as a project manager, I may choose to dismiss potential risks flagged. However, having assistants available to highlight these risks or list the top 10 estimation omissions in my field is probably better than not having them.

AI assistants can also alert project managers to slowly developing trends that might otherwise go unnoticed. The old saying that projects become late one day at a time is very true. Optimistic project managers with “Can-do” attitudes often underestimate the impact of small setbacks and or hope that teams will “catch-up” later.  This hardly ever happens, and AI assistants can be programmed to alert early and avoid hope-based-planning.

Over-Reliance?

There is a risk that with expert knowledge systems, organizations may be tempted to use inexperienced project managers. Or project managers become reliant upon these tools and not think as deeply as they may otherwise. Like any technology, a fool with a tool is still a fool. However, tapping into standard risk lists from your industry, that gets augmented with those from previous projects in your organization is a smart move.

Having calculators has likely reduced our ability to perform long division calculations manually. However, I don’t want to go back to self-calculation just because I fear an over-reliance on technology. Instead, I want to use technology where I can and free up my time and mental capacity for other work.

Higher Value Work

The PMI Talent Triangle is a good model for thinking about all the work a project manager does. It includes: 1) Technical Project Management – the project mechanics described in the PMBOK Guide and Agile frameworks, 2) Strategic and Business Management – your industry-specific work, and 3) Leadership – the people dynamics of projects.

If we squash the triangle out and lay the pieces in order of how much impact the project manager’s contribution has towards project success we get: Technical, then Strategic, and then Leadership. By this sequence, I mean that if the basics of Technical Management are met then Strategic and Business Management work is more significant. Furthermore, good Leadership has an even greater impact on overall project performance than Strategic and Business Management Work, and Technical Project Management.

This sequence is shown below:

AI Focus

The good news for us as project managers is that (currently) AI is best suited for the lower value end of this work spectrum. It is already capable of assisting and saving us time with Technical Project Management work. Next, it should soon be commonplace to get AI assistance with Strategic and Business Management tasks. This will involve accessing machine learning focussed on our industry domains, like ROI models, common risks, and estimation omissions.

The last area AI will move into is the Leadership domain. Machine learning requires deep data sets in a consistent form to draw reliable conclusions. The people dynamics of motivation, conflict management, and negotiation are harder to classify and rank.  Currently, most people would rather work with a real person to solve issues or discover their calling. Who knows, maybe in future people will prefer to interact with chatbots who’s decision parameters can be shown to be neutral and fair. This might be preferable to dealing with people with all their inherent bias and gaps in knowledge.

All I know for now is that I currently welcome any AI assistance I can use. It is likely to safeguard me from making basic technical project management errors or omissions. It should also be helpful soon in providing industry knowledge and best practice – like having a seasoned professional in the industry available to look over your work. However, AI tools will check in real-time before you commit that decision or share a plan.

This leaves me more time to focus on the people. The people sponsoring the project, those working on it, and those who will be impacted by it. They will have their own AI assistants too. Booking meetings, getting rooms, and sharing ideas should become frictionless leaving us to work on the more significant issues.

My recommendation is to stay abreast of AI developments and remain open to trying the tools as they emerge. Standing still in an environment that is moving forward has the effect of moving backwards -which is not good. Where I should probably be more worried is in writing articles like this. It seems like a blend of domain-specific Strategic work with some Leadership based storytelling. Likely a candidate for an AI takeover long before the project manager. (My plan is to get in on the research and get a Chatbot writing this stuff for as long as I can get away with it!)

References:

  1. How AI could Revolutionize Project Management, CIO Magazine, Mary Branscome, January 12 2018
  2. 3 ways AI will change project management for the better, Atlassian Blog, April 7, 2017
  3. Artificial Intelligence in Project Management - Is Your Company Ready for it?, Teodesk Blog, Minja Belic, January 22 2018
  4. AI will Transform Project Management. Are You Ready?, PWC White paper, Marc Lahmann, et Al, 2018
  5. Artificial Intelligence in Project Management, Khaled Hamdy, March 2017

[Note: I wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com, it first appeared here – free membership required.]

 


Webinar – Solving Wicked Problems: What is Old is New Again

Problems
My PMXPO webinar has now been watched by > 11,000 people and received lots of positive feedback. It is hosted at ProjectManagement.com here.

(For people collecting Professional Development Units (PDUs), it also auto-records 1.25 credits for you.)

The webinar reviews problem-solving through the ages and shows how agile is the rediscovery of many old approaches. Wicked problems are those that cannot be solved with traditional methods or ways of thinking. They are the unique challenges never seen before in your organization, region or industry.

As companies race to innovate and compete in a global market, we are seeing wicked problems more and more often. While the solution may be new, some common steps repeat in the stories of novel problem-solving successes through history. This presentation combines a fast-paced view of wicked problems and solutions through history—with a slower reveal of the common steps for solving challenging projects.

It is ideal for anyone faced with managing projects with lots of uncertainty—or people looking to understand the links between lean, leadership, building collaborative teams and problem-solving.

Watch Now.


Agile 2018 Conference – Unraveling Team Dependencies

Agile_SD2018_600x100_Speaking_FM
I am excited to be presenting on the Enterprise Agile track at the Agile 2018 conference in San Diego, August 7. I have worked with several organizations this year that had issues with work dependencies between teams. My session called “Two-Pizza Team Heartburn Relief: Solutions to Team Dependencies” highlights the shift to global rather than local optimization.

We will investigate dependency problems through animations and simulations and then explore some candidate solutions. Each brings their own issues – if these problems were solvable they would have been already, but the suggestions do help considerably. Here is the description from the conference program:

Small teams are great - until they cause bigger problems than they solve. Small teams can communicate more effectively than large teams. They can leverage face-to-face communications more readily and share tacit knowledge without the need for so much written communication. However, for large endeavours, using many small teams present their own problems. Work dependencies between teams can cause major delays through costly hand-offs, mismatched priorities, and blocked tasks.

This workshop introduces strategies for structuring teams to reduce hand-offs and dependencies that create blocked work and delays. By investigating the (lack of) flow through multiple teams we can diagnose the cost of hand-offs and culprits of delays. We examine tools for making hand-offs and dependencies visible to highlight and bring collective attention to the problems. We then explore resolution patterns and work structures that maximize small team communications but limit negative aspects of managing multiple, inter-dependent project teams.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the time and cost penalties of team dependencies and hand-offs
  • Gain tools for making dependencies, queues, and blocked work visible
  • Learn how and when to balance small team benefits with more dependency issues
  • Share implementation patterns and strategies to maximize team throughput
  • Examine the pros and cons of larger teams, feature teams, and product vs. project development.

That probably sounds more technical than it really is. It is a workshop to show people how teams often get stuck with work items when they rely on work from other groups. It combines anecdotes and experiences from 20+ years of agile consulting along with some insights from Troy Magennis on dependency delays, and Dominica DeGrandis, author of Making Work Visible.

Through case studies and exercises, we explore the hidden impacts of well-intentioned small teams. First, we’ll explore the “mostly harmless” two and three team dependencies, and then see the impacts when five or six dependant teams try to get work done. Please come along if you are attending the conference and have issues with dependencies between teams.


Post-Industrial Project Management

Old TractorIntroduction

We know old concepts that govern agriculture do not apply to industry. Engineers do not consult the weather or growing seasons before designing machinery. Yet many project managers who work in the knowledge worker domain still apply project management approaches developed for the industrial era. This mismatch of approaches wastes effort and misses important new risks.

This article identifies the mismatch of applying industrial project management in today’s post-industrial marketplace. We first examine how to determine if your projects are: industrial, knowledge work, or hybrid. Then classify project management tools and techniques. Fortunately, for every industrial focused approach, there are modern knowledge worker equivalents. Using this information, we can apply the right tools for the job or at least identify the risks of mismatched projects and techniques.

 

How We Got Here

Work, like people, has evolved. Humans started out as nomadic hunter-gathers following the seasons and game. Then, when they discovered farming, they settled and built permanent home sites. This change was christened the Agricultural Revolution and heralded a huge shift in how people lived and worked.

Next came the Industrial Revolution. Farmers and craftsmen (craftspeople really) moved from distributed communities to live in expanding cities where the industrial mills and factories were booming. Again, this was a massive change for humanity. Schools focused on timekeeping, rigour, and repetition to prepare children to work in factories. Conformance to schedules and plans made the scaling of a workforce possible.

Concepts like Taylor’s Scientific Management provided tools for tackling big engineering endeavours and applying specialized labour. Progressive decomposition of work and detailed scheduling of tasks allowed complex projects to be planned and managed. Techniques like work breakdown structures, network diagrams, and Gantt charts were taught to project managers to tame and track engineering work.

These techniques work well for tangible, stable and mostly predictable projects. As long as an organization has a history of building a similar product, then the gap to a new design or bigger scale can be reasonably estimated and planned for. Difficulties arise when we try to use these approaches on intangible, unfamiliar, and new environments. Differences in understanding frequently occur when we lack physical reference points such as “I want a wooden door like this one, but a foot taller”. These differences result in more change requests, more reported defects, more uncertainties and risks.

In novel, intangible environments like software development or filmmaking things rarely progress predictably enough to follow the “Plan the work, work the plan” mantra of industrial projects. New technology evolution accelerates the rates of change. Demands to deliver faster worsen the situation. Many of today’s projects fit this new breed of project that were christened "Knowledge Work" projects by Peter Drucker.

Also, many traditional industrial projects have been automated or offshored to cheaper labour markets. This leaves a higher proportion of new projects developing largely invisible, intangible, difficult to reference, products and services – knowledge work.

I am not suggesting all project work has changed. Just as we still have farmers - and hopefully always will, we still have traditional industry and industrial projects. So, while not all work has changed, the fastest growing segment has. The increasing role of software in business also means a larger proportion of projects have at least some knowledge work component. 

To help diagnose your project types, answer the following questions about the nature of projects you execute.

Table 1

If you scored more on the left-hand side of the table, you are engaged in mainly industrial type projects. This is good news for reliable execution, traditional project management tools and techniques should serve you well. If you scored more on the right-hand side, you are firmly in the knowledge worker domain. You should move from industrial project management approaches and adopt knowledge worker ones. If you scored equally from each column, you are in a hybrid environment. Here you likely need to draw on a combination of approaches to be successful.

 

New Territory, New Tools

The tools and approaches of the knowledge worker revolution address the complexity and ambiguity that accompany these projects. Let’s dig deeper to understand the characteristics and appreciate post-industrial project management techniques.

Knowledge work projects bring subject matter experts together to collaborate on new and unique products and services. This might involve scientists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, software developers, or web designers working with the business to build something new. Each of these groups has specialized knowledge, typically no single person knows everything needed to complete the project. What is being created is new or sufficiently different to the sponsoring organization that previous project’s plans and estimates are not particularly useful to predict progress.

Compared to traditional, predictable industrial engineering, complexity, uncertainty, risk and change rates seem very high. Without tangible reference work, it is necessary to use an iterative-and-incremental approach to determine fitness-for-business-purpose. Teams could attempt to analyze and predict all features and functions, but often initial use uncovers additional opportunities and requirements.

Trying to explain the nuances of iTunes or Netflix to someone who has never seen anything like it before is difficult. Incremental trial proves faster and more useful than speculative big-design-upfront that cannot anticipate every interaction with user behaviour or linked systems.

Tools rooted in big-design-upfront, predictable decomposition of tasks, linear progression of work, etc do not work well in these environments. These include detailed requirements documents, work breakdown structures, network diagrams, Gantt Charts and earned value management. That’s not to say you cannot use these approaches, just there are alternatives that better handle the high rates of change and uncertainty.

We still need to record requirements and the use of product backlogs containing user stories makes it easier to reprioritize when changes occur. We still need to break down work and help the business decide how to best divide a big project. Instead of looking at complex architectural component diagrams, the business can make better delivery decisions by using release roadmaps, and features lists.

In the face of high rates of change, averaging delivery rates to-date can give more reliable projections than estimating the durations for planned activities. Likewise, when work is creative or R&D type in nature, we often get nonlinear progression – in other words, some things go faster than anticipated while other items take longer. Approaches like earned value management that extrapolate performance to-date to predict likely completion schedules and costs assume a linear progression of work. Instead, tracking progress based on tested, accepted features only is a more reliable predictor of true progress.

Table 2 shows knowledge-work alternatives to industrial work project approaches

Table 2

Traditional project management approaches are built on the realities of predictable, industrial work. Knowledge work projects defy these traditional laws of physics since they operate outside the physical domain. Instead, they deal with ideas, people and collaboration, which is intangible. Traditional resource management suggests if we are digging a ditch with 10 people, then adding 10 more people would complete the task in half the time. Fred Brooks’ law of software development tells us that adding more people to a project that is already late will increase its duration.

Traditional project management approaches are not flawed or broken. They work great for the industrial world. In these environments, the best way to run a project is with detailed upfront planning, clearly articulated tasks and schedules, and careful granular tracking. However, if your results from assessing Table 1 indicate a hybrid or knowledge work environment then use the appropriate tools.

Trying to use the recommendations from a previous work era is akin to waiting for a full moon before starting your kitchen reno. At best you are adding wasted activities and at worst you are ignoring the realities of your environment that carry the risk of overruns and failure. 

 


The Truth About Transformations

TransformationTransformations are flavor of the month. It is no longer enough to launch “initiatives,” “programs” or “projects” to undertake work. Instead, we launch agile transformations, digital transformations and productization transformations. They sound more revolutionary, more dramatic and further reaching. Our organizations will emerge reborn, uniquely positioned to compete in a new world of opportunities and growth. Like a larva transforming into a butterfly, we can now fly!

Well, that’s the idea and the promise of the consulting companies that sell transformation services. However, what really happens? Can the average organization actually become a disruptive leader just by adopting the structures, tools and processes from the real disruptive leaders? Or, is it like buying the same shoes as our basketball heroes wear hoping they will transform us into slam-dunking superstars? The reality is somewhere between these extremes. Any company can improve, but we should not expect to become something we are not.

Let’s look at some of the popular transformation services on sale and examine the promise and truths they hold.

 

Agile Transformations Dandelion

The goal: Agile transformations move organizations from working with traditional project management approaches to using agile approaches. They also seek to change the way organizations are structured and run from a top-down, command-and-control model to a more business- and customer-led, value-driven approach.

They aim to instil lean concepts of respect for people, minimization of waste, and value delivery. They employ a more trusting Theory Y view of workers as willing contributors rather than the traditional Theory X view that workers need close supervision to work hard. They encourage workers through intrinsic motivators such as empowerment, autonomy of work, and belief in a worthy purpose rather than carrot-and-stick approaches.

The claimed benefits: Agility allows organizations to respond to change more quickly since plans and work are done in smaller batches with frequent checkpoints. This allows changes in direction to be made when feedback indicates it would be desirable. The evaluate-as-you-go and learn-as-you-go aspects of iterative and incremental development help organizations manage complexity and uncertainty.

Agile approaches allow for the delivery of value sooner since work is prioritized via business value. The empowerment and intrinsic rewards offered result in happier, more engaged employees. Allowing workers to design their own workplace and work practices results in a more loyal and productive workforce. A mantra of one agile approach is to “Change the world of work.”

The reality: Agile is much easier to implement at a team and project level than it is at an organizational level. Teams quickly see the benefits of frequent collaboration and business engagement. Tools like product backlogs, kanban boards and release roadmaps bring much-needed visibility to design work and problem solving that often manipulates invisible data and ideas. Iterative development of small batches of work, with frequent reviews, provides better insights into progress and issues than sequential, large-batch development. While some people find the “let’s try something” approach counter-intuitive to rigorous upfront planning and design, most understand the risk reduction and true requirements validation benefits.

At the organization level, it’s a tougher sell. The initial confusion and apparent chaos that comes with establishing empowered, self-organizing, self-managing teams can seem like the inmates are running the asylum. What happens to supervisors and managers? In some organizations, departments are built around functional silos. If I was head of the quality assurance group and now all my people report into individual teams, what’s left for me to do? How do I justify my yearly budget (and position) with my headcount down to zero?

Organizational structures often reflect their culture and decision-making style. This may be hierarchical, flat or distributed. Truly transforming the organization to be agile requires a change of structure, which means changing the culture. Not an easy task, and not something to be undertaken lightly. It requires sufficient buy-in from the very top through every layer to the bottom.

Agile transformations often stall at the organizational level. Instead, we see pockets of conversion and pockets of resistance. It often takes changes in roles for the transformation to occur. However, just changing the way teams operate brings many benefits. While not really an agile transformation, a “switch” to agile project operation within a traditional organization can still be very beneficial.

So, while true agile transformations are rare, agile implementations are common and still worthwhile. The organization may never grow wings and fly as promised by consultants—but if it learns to wiggle more efficiently, avoid danger, and eat faster, that might be all it needs.

 

Digital Transformations  Digital

The goal: Digital transformations aim to convert and grow business in the self-serve digital domain. They do not have to involve websites, but many do. Rather than visiting offices or calling in for service, customers self-manage through apps and websites that greatly reduce labor costs and offer almost unlimited scaling opportunities.

The claimed benefits: Cost reduction and closer engagement are the main claimed benefits. They use websites and AI-powered chatbots to handle the majority of customer questions and interactions. This reduces the need to have as many people employed at physical locations and answering phone calls. Banks and insurance companies are undertaking digital transformations to offer services in convenient formats for customers (mobile phones) as well as reduce overheads.

Encouraging customers to manage their services via mobile apps also opens up options to ping, notify and promote upsell opportunities. It is cheaper and easier to push promotions and “exclusive member benefit offers” to people who install apps than compete for attention in traditional advertising channels. Apps also let companies gather additional marketing intelligence like location, contacts, spending habits, etc.—all additional fuel for promotions and potential sales.

The reality: Building compelling websites, apps and AI services is no small undertaking. Many organizations go through the significant expenditure to discover that only a portion of their customer base embraces the new options. Organizations then try carrot-and-stick paperless discounts or paper-based account fees to incentivize the desired behavior.

These new websites and app projects will never be finished or done. Since they now represent the organization's face and communications vehicle, expect ongoing investment in their upkeep and technology refresh cycles. When looking at the potential savings, do not underestimate the likelihood of initial build costs to spiral—and integration into existing back-end systems to be orders-of-magnitude more costly and time-consuming than anticipated.

However, it seems an inevitable trend. Using established content management systems and app frameworks can help rein in costs. Being at the forefront of technological capability is only paramount if your core business is selling technology services (Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft). For everyone else, fast-follower (or even majority-adopter) is probably fine. Digital transformations are real, already here and unlikely to be fading anytime soon.

 

Productization Transformations Product

The goal: This is the transition from using projects to build software systems to building and viewing software as long-term products. As organizations realize software represents a market differentiator, they recognize their systems will never be “done.” If they were to finish, it means they are no longer innovating, improving or competing.

So, they move from the start-stop world of software development through projects and instead adopt continuous development and drip-feed funding models. Historically, organizations staffed and funded projects through vendors and contractors using capital expenditure models. The switch to software as a long-lived product or service changes both staffing and budgeting. The increase in cloud-based hosting also raises the question of opex (operating expenditure) versus capex (capital expenditure) funding.

Organizations often reach out for help making these changes to development, staffing and funding models. This is the new and emerging world of productization or “continuous digital delivery.” It involves restructuring and forming long-lived product teams with everyone present to develop and maintain the software products over its entire lifespan.

The claimed benefits: By eliminating the handoffs between development teams and sustainment teams, more knowledge about the system, and how to extend it, is retained. Fewer handoffs in general is one of the biggest benefits of switching to products instead of projects. Handoffs are very wasteful—they contribute to the eight lean DOWNTIME wastes…

Defects
Overproduction
Waiting
Non-utilized talent
Transportation
Inventory excess
Motion waste
Extra processing

…all of which can occur when one group hands off work to another group.

By creating stable teams that are aligned with developing and sustaining long-term products, organizations can wean themselves off unpredictable vendor models. From a budgeting perspective, estimating the burn rates and capabilities of stable teams is much more reliable than estimating how long a new vendor-based team will take to complete some work.

Stability, continuous development and better knowledge retention are all compelling reasons to trade projects for products. The difficulties come in the transition and available support.

The reality: Switching from running traditional stop-and-start software projects to continuous product development is still a new idea. Usually, organizations have a suite of currently executing projects that still need to be delivered on schedule. Existing vendor contracts may make it difficult to switch to the onsite execution approach favored by continuous digital delivery.

Finance departments are typically set up to evaluate and approve requests for expenditures based on one- or multi-year ROI projections. In the continuous development world of productization, the spending never stops.

Instead of project-based funding, small teams create minimal viable products for evaluation. If they show promise, they get additional funding in more of a venture capital-style model. New metrics like customer market share and profit-to-funding ratios are used.

The benefits are real and don’t require a major upheaval to organizational culture or structures. However, experience is thin on the ground along with books and training courses. It’s like using what we today call agile approaches in the 1990s. There are early adopters, conference sessions and blog posts, but far to go before the idea even approaches the chasm (let alone crosses it).

 

Summary

“Transformation” is probably too grand a word for the degree of change most organizations achieve. However, as so many ideas compete for our limited attention spans, it would seem crazy to merely name a change initiative a “rollout” or “improvement” these days. People have become desensitised to reasonable names and seek revolution and excitement to generate the interest they need to participate.

We should not expect traditional organizations to truly match digital-first companies like Spotify. They were founded to disrupt existing businesses and came without the baggage of a traditional client base to support. (Also, they are led and staffed by people that share different values than most North American institutions.)

Their ideas may be great for other organizations to experiment with and adopt what works, but what makes them truly powerful is that the ideas were created internally and vetted through experiments. Copy the concept (internally generate new processes to solve local problems), but not Spotify’s actual procedures.

There is nothing wrong with buying the same kind of shoes as Michael Jordan wore (heck, if the placebo effect gets you exercising more, they were likely a good purchase). However, don’t leave your day job to sign up with a basketball team until you’re sure you are world class. Today’s transformations bring many benefits—as long as you take the “transformation” claim with a grain of salt.

 

[Note: I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Mind Hacks to Make Studying Easier

Mind HacksWhat if you got a little buzz of guilty pleasure every time you thought about studying for your exam? What a difference that could make compared to a soul-numbing dread of having to do something you do not enjoy.

Our minds have systems to protect us and maximise our wellbeing. They do not always work, but overall, these mechanisms reinforce memories of good events and minimize negative ones. We can use these systems to make studying more enjoyable and effective.

By going out of our way to make studying pleasurable we begin to dread it less, then feel neutral about it, and eventually enjoy it. Things you enjoy are not chores, they are more like hobbies. But how the heck do you enjoy learning about earned value or resolving team conflict? To many people, these topics represent all the junk we deal with at work and what we try to escape in our personal time.

The key is to separate our emotions about the subject matter from the learning experience. Focus on making the studying enjoyable. Everyone likes different things, so chose what works for you. You could buy that indulgent chocolate that’s too expensive to justify and have a square when you start and every 15 minutes of study. You could get a fancy notebook for your preparation and a posh new pen. If you like working in social settings then find a great coffee shop and buy that mocha latte you know is overpriced, but oh-so-good.

Step it up a notch and form a study group that goes to a good restaurant after every meeting. Make the studying event good for you, don’t be afraid to indulge a little. The goal is to retrain your mind from “another 2 chapters, aarrg” to “great, seeing Alex again and trying that new Thai place”.

Obviously, some words of caution are necessary. If an excess of red wine or illicit activities are your indulgences then the subsequent hangover, memory loss, and guilt will have a net-negative impact. The treats must be defendable and morally acceptable. Things you are happy to discuss with family and co-workers. Beyond that, create a good environment for study, do what it takes to make it fun, use the very best materials and reward your hard work. This is a worthwhile investment in yourself and you should recognize it.

When we make a shift to positively associated emotions we remember and recall information much easier. Many people can recall vast amounts of information about their favourite sports teams, TV shows, or quirky hobby. They are not especially talented, instead, people remember and recall things they enjoy much easier than things learned under obligation - like perhaps details from the highway code for a driver’s test.

Being creative and doing what it takes to make studying enjoyable will not turn work topics into hobbies with effortless fact recall. It will, however, associate more positive thoughts to the overall experience and subject matter. This will help with making time for study, starting study sessions, and motivation to continue studying. These are important since most people give up on the process, not the material.

Another human nature trait we can use to our advantage is our brain’s association with locations and food. While we have evolved into complex creatures we still possess a primitive, reptilian brain stem. It is hardwired to remember where things can be found, sources of good food, and acts of sharing food. This deep but powerful association with food is why team building education often recommends bringing food. We are programmed to remember where we had it and build bonds with those we share food with.

Fine, but you may ask, how can I use these facts to help remember net present value calculations? We do so by making associations with locations and food memories. Memorization techniques based on location date back thousands of years and were written about by the Roman politician Cicero in 55BC.

Method of Loci (Loci is Latin for places) uses spatial memory to help us remember and recall information.

Using this approach, we take somewhere we are familiar with, maybe our house or local street and then associate items with distinct locations. So, imagine walking through your home in a logical sequence from your front door and then assign an item or concept to each location. Then, to recall the items or steps in a process in the correct order, we walk through our house again in our mind collecting items from each location.

There are many versions of Loci method. A popular one is called the Memory Journey and another is Roman Room - experiment and find one you are comfortable with. They all rely on our basic ability to recall locations and are often used by participants in memory competitions who compete at memorizing long lists of information. Personally, I like to imagine navigating a gourmet food store, associating things with the cheese, wine and chocolate collections which taps into our food and location aspects of our reptilian mind. However, unwanted weight gain might be a downside to this approach!

A 2017 study that used fMRI brain scans, found the spatial processing areas of memory champions were much more active than those in a control group of volunteers. The study went on to find that volunteers trained in the method of loci for six weeks saw similar brain function develop. The training-induced changes in brain connectivity matched the brain network organization that previously distinguished memory champions from controls. So, the good news is that in as little as 6 weeks of practice we can tap into these location-based recall techniques. Just don’t forget to start!

So, to help your studies make the process appealing. Make it social if you are a social person, make it silent and personal if you are a quiet person. Acknowledge and indulge your preferences to reward your study efforts. Next, don’t try to memorize things by just reading or highlighting, these have actually been found to be the least effective ways of studying. Instead, try location-based memory techniques that are proven to be effective and used by 90% of memory competitors.

 

[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Mining Bitcoins with Your InstantPot: Has Agile Popularity Gone Too Far?

InstantPot_Bitcoin_MachineI am excited to be presenting at next week’s PMI-SAC Professional Development Conference on May 2 in Calgary. I am looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new people at this new format conference.

My session “Mining Bitcoins with Your InstantPot: Has Agile Popularity Gone Too Far?” examines the hype, realities and use of agile approaches.  Here is the presentation summary from the conference site:

“The project world seems to have gone agile mad. The PMI has stuffed agile into everything in an attempt to stay current, but is it right or even helpful? Fear of missing out has vendors claiming to be agile and executives asking managers to be more agile. However, like InstantPots and cryptocurrencies, does the reality live up to the hype?  This session investigates the agile trend and looks at a new breed of agile suitability filters that help organizations apply agile approaches only when and where they make sense.

The presentation profiles organizations that effectively use agile approaches and how to build PMOs that support agile, hybrid, and traditional project teams. We look at the limitations and applicability concerns of using agile approaches. It would be naïve and arrogant to believe that agile (or any other approach) is universally the best way to execute projects. So, what types of projects do suit the approach (spoiler alert: novel, knowledge-worker projects) and what types of projects should best avoid it?

We will explore hybrid approaches where certain portions or periods of the project can exploit agile approaches. In these hybrid scenarios, we examine how to coordinate and integrate the agile work with the more traditional, plan-driven work. Also, we will examine the cultural fit of agile approaches and investigate how corporate mindsets and values effect structures and decision making. Trying to force fit a new mindset that is at odds with the corporate culture will inevitably be met with resistance. So, we need to be smart about what we try to introduce and how we plan to do it.

Our end goal should be successful projects and happy stakeholders. The approach we take should be appropriate for the tasks at hand, there are no points for style or conformance, since every project is different. So, learn how to analyze the project variables that include organizational, standards, technical and team components then act intelligently within that framework also guided by the inputs of the contributors.”

That description was for a 2-hour slot proposal and I was assigned a 1-hour slot so I will have to cut some material, but I will cover the highlights. The presentation title and outline are deliberately a little controversial to hopefully spur some reaction and interest in the session.

Having been involved in the development of the recent PMI standards, I personally do not believe “PMI has stuffed agile into everything in an attempt to stay current”, however, I can see how this may appear so to external parties.

As agile rides the hype cycle it is important to retain a grasp on where it can add value and where it’s use should be limited. This session aims to strip away some of the hyperbole and ground people with some practical application tools. Please come say hello if you see me at the conference!

PMI-SAC PDC Banner


Where Did All the Project Managers Go?

PuzzleSoftware is eating the world” claimed venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen in his 2011, New York Times article. Seven years on, the trend continues, and project managers are also on the menu. The next generation of project managers face new challenges but also new opportunities as organizations undergo a major transformation.

Software is becoming omnipresent, it is embedded and integral to all industries. Not just technology companies (like Google, Apple) but every sector is being disrupted by software including retail (Amazon), banking (PayPal, cryptocurrencies), transportation (Tesla, Uber), and travel (Airbnb).

As a project manager you may say “Great, just think of all those IT projects that will need project managers!” Well, that’s where things get interesting. First, today’s software teams don’t respond well to being “managed”, that’s old-school command-and-control thinking along with Gantt charts and calling people “resources”. Instead, they are led, empowered and supported by servant leaders. Next, the idea of a “project” with a defined endpoint is dissolving too.

As organizations realize their software systems provide the competitive advantage then stopping development equates to an end to innovation or competing. When organizations become more software-driven their systems are never “done”. As a result, organizations are switching from projects (that have a fixed end) to products - that continue to evolve. This movement popularized by the #NoProjects and Continuous Digital titles is growing exponentially.

 

 The Project Manager in a No Projects, No Managers Future

This double whammy of no more projects and no more managers likely creates heartburn for people with the job title “Project Manager”.  While this trend is clearly the future of work I believe there will always be a role for smart, cooperative people that can help with collaboration and development. 

 A quote that comes to mind is “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. The next generation of project managers will have new titles like “Product Leads”, “Development Team Coordinators” and “Digital Transformation Leaders”. They will help organizations build development capabilities around long-term products.

 This new generation will still communicate with stakeholders about status and risks. They will still facilitate consensus gathering amongst experts. They will still try to diffuse conflict and find common ground during arguments. The goals (satisfied stakeholders and value delivery) will remain the same but the tools, titles and processes employed will be vastly different.

 

New Tools and Approaches

Heavy upfront planning efforts and the use of tools like critical path network diagrams and PERT charts are not so useful when the input data is very uncertain. Tools like work breakdown structures offer great insights into sub-system assemblies but they are slower and more difficult to reprioritize than modern backlogs and release roadmaps.

As rates of change increase so too does early lifecycle uncertainty and the competitive need to start work quickly. The days of carefully analyzing work products upfront are dwindling. Instead, organizations build prototypes based on what they know right now and then iterate towards the final product. In the intangible world of software, the cost of experimentation is less than that of detailed analysis.

Also, using a software product provides better feedback on its suitability and possible expansion than reviewing a document or diagram about it. IWKIWISI (I Will Know It When I See It) becomes the new mantra, replacing the “Plan the work, and work the plan” ideas of old.

As organizations adopt a continuous delivery model that is focussed on products not projects then funding models change also. Instead of yearly budget cycles to fund entire projects, smaller tranches of funds are released to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Then, providing the product continues to return value, more funding is made available. A venture capital funding model lets product leaders focus on delivering a stream of high-value features that support continued investment.

Projects classically track metrics like on time/budget and Return On Investment (ROI). Products track customer satisfaction, market share, profit to funding ratios. They are similar concepts but a new vocabulary to learn.

 

Role Changes

Agile software development teams organize their own work, solve most of their own problems, and are empowered to experiment with new work strategies and approaches. They do not need (or want) to have work assigned to them, nor asked to report status. Instead, they make their work visible via kanban boards and new features.

They do however need people to remove impediments and chase up external dependencies. They also need investment in training, shielding from interruptions, plus regular encouragement and words of thanks to stay motivated. In short, all the servant leadership practices that good project managers did anyway still apply.

Project managers cannot be the center of work planning or task distribution. There is too much complexity to be anything but a bottleneck. Instead, we must trust development team members and product owners from the business as subject matter experts in their own domains.

Where these teams often need help is keeping the larger perspective on where it is we are trying to get to. When you are heads-down on solving a technical issue, it is easy to lose sight of the end goal. Having someone communicate the product vision reveals a beckoning summit towards which others can chart their own course.

In this way servant leadership and visionary leadership that predate modern project management are still valuable and needed. Yet the scientific project management that grew out of the industrialization of process is largely left behind.

 

The Future

In many industries, the classic role of projects and project managers will continue. I don’t see construction moving away from big upfront design and the reliance on project managers any time. In the software world though I think we are heading for substantial changes. Sure, some companies will continue as they always have with software project and project managers. However, most organizations will transition to long-term products with leaders and coordinators.

It is an exciting time for life-long learners willing to acquire new tools and approaches. There is no shortage of work for people who can collaborate with others and solve problems. The critical role of software will increase as organizations undertake digital transformation and adopt continuous digital strategies based on products vs projects. So, while the role “project manager” might be heading into the same category as “switchboard operators”, “human alarm clocks”, and “bowling alley pinsetters” the work and opportunities in this exciting field continue to grow.

[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]