Project Management

Man standing in front of confusing arrows -- represents lack of focus

The importance of focus for projects: Avoiding the turkey, the zombie and the blimp

  • Adrian Reed 
  • 6 min read

Man standing in front of confusing arrows -- represents lack of focusI recently saw an intriguing LinkedIN thread relating to quotable quotes – or more specifically, quotes or proverbs that sum up an individual’s business philosophy.   I have been thinking a lot recently about my work in my ‘day job’ and also my voluntary work at IIBA UK, and a phrase that has been really resonating with me recently is:

 

“You can achieve anything, but you can’t achieve everything”

 

Being a stereotypical analyst, I’d be tempted to expand this statement to make it clear that it’s possible to achieve anything feasible.  Clearly, however much we try we probably can’t achieve time travel, teleportation or perpetual motion (yet!). Although that might not be a reason to stop trying…

 

However, the main thing that I take away from this statement is the importance of focus.  And in my experience, focus is crucial in just about any business and is particularly important for businesses that are progressing change projects.   It’s an under-rated adjective that is easily overlooked in some small, mid-sized and even multi-national organisations.  There’s always another opportunity, another idea just temptingly around the corner. Perhaps someone sees a shiny new solution that they just can’t wait to go out and buy… without truly understanding or analysing why they need it.  It’s extremely easy to get blind-sided by the solution illusion.  I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of this pattern to some extent (I bet you have at least one ‘gadget’ collecting dust that seemed like a great idea to buy at the time!)

 

Sometimes the difficult thing is to pick a direction and stick to it until the environment changes (or until it’s necessary to make a conscious deviation). Laser-light focus, combined with the ability to read the business situation, get the data & know when to change direction is vital.

 

It’s better to do a few focussed things well than have 100s of half-finished products and projects.

 

A danger for project teams

 

There are a number of pitfalls here for project teams in this area, and I dare say that we’ve all seen instances of this.  Three patterns I’ve seen include the turkey project, the zombie project and the blimp project.

Data -- Picture of stock exchange tickers

Big Data and Projects — What changes?

Data -- Picture of stock exchange tickersI recently chaired an interesting webinar where Paul Gerrard of Gerrard Consulting spoke about ‘big data’.   Paul spoke about some interesting aspects relating to big data, but one particular item that resonated with me is the potential impact that an increased focus on big data analysis could have on projects.

 

Paul spoke about how the increased focus on data-driven decisions will lead to a renewed focus on organisations progressing smaller scale incremental changes to their systems and processes.  A focus on gathering insight, creating a hypothesis and testing that hypothesis.

 

This approach isn’t new – I’m sure that techniques like A/B testing and some of the statistical and continuous improvement techniques including DMAIC will be familiar to many readers.  Yet with many organisations now looking to embrace big data, it will be intriguing and interesting to see what this means for projects.

 

Here are five hypotheses of how it may impact projects in an organisation, and specifically what it might mean for the business analysis community and business analysts specifically.  However, I’d be extremely interested in hearing your views:

 

Picture of tired/exhausted/burned out male in front of computer screen

How to avoid the silent danger: Burnout!

Picture of tired/exhausted/burned out male in front of computer screenWe’ve all been there – you have an urgent and high-profile project deadline looming, there are 350 unread e-mails in your inbox, and you’re already 5 minutes late for your next meeting.  You desperately need to grab some lunch… but you dash out to your next meeting, stopping only to neck a strong black coffee from the coffee machine on the way.   Two hours later, your meeting has finished. The adrenaline is flowing, you look at your watch, and it’s now 5.25pm.  You’ve skipped lunch so you grab a stale sandwich, take a bite, and stare blankly at your e-mail inbox and get ready for another night working late…

 

Perhaps this kind of high-paced environment was once associated only with senior management roles in large multinationals.  However, small and mid-size companies increasingly need to run fast paced business-change projects, adapt and work as efficiently as possible.  As well as a day-job, we’re likely to be working on multiple projects, responding to queries from our colleagues as well as dealing with the (many) crises that present themselves. Plus we’re trying to balance our busy home lives too!  But when the pace increases are we actually any more efficient or productive? Many would say that we’re actually less productive in these circumstances.

 

I recently saw an interesting question raised in a LinkedIN forum.  In a thread entitled “Staying Happy and Productive” Eric Drumm asked how it’s possible to maintain a healthy work/life balance.   This is a good and important question.   After all, ‘burning out’ is not good for anyone.

 

It’s counter-intuitive, but you probably need some stress…

It would be tempting to suggest that we all avoid stress completely and retire to a sunny desert island and spend our days hula-dancing and meditating.  Yet, it’s generally accepted that we need some stress to have a happy and fulfilling life.   As this article on MindTools very articulately states, too little stress and people tend to become bored.   Too much stress and anxiety kicks in.  I don’t know about you, but I can certainly relate to both of these states – the challenge of course is finding the optimum zone in the middle.  Finding this zone can be challenging, particularly when our project workloads might be dictated based on factors beyond our control!

 

Keeping in the ‘optimum zone’ is key.

Progress Bar at 36% with person asleep on top of it

The danger of project progress reports: An illusion of progress?

Change projects are critical

Progress Bar at 36% with person asleep on top of itIt’s often said that organisations need to continually examine their environment and adapt to survive.  This inevitably leads to a focus on implementing valuable and sustainable change within organisations.  Change isn’t always easy, and for many mid-size and large organisations with hundreds or thousands of employees, it can be extremely challenging indeed.  Organisations will often, quite sensibly, take a project-driven approach to assessing, defining and implementing business change.  They’ll examine the status quo, establish what needs to change, execute that change and then measure the benefits.

 

If you say it quick enough, it sounds simple, doesn’t it?  As anyone who has ever worked on a change project will attest, it’s anything but simple.  Balancing varying stakeholder needs, managing risks and issues, and understanding what the business actually needs is easier said than done.  There are many twists and turns along the way, and many places where projects could get de-railed.  It’s therefore quite understandable that senior managers and sponsors in organisations rely on dashboards showing them how their projects are performing.   These dashboards help them to see whether their strategic programmes and projects on track and whether the deadlines will be met.

 

Projects sometimes go ‘off the rails’… even when they are measured

 

Given this sensible focus on tracking project progress, I’m always amazed when I hear of projects that appear to have been on course to deliver until the very last minute.  Everything was fine until the project hit 99% — then there were so many complex problems  that all emerged at once. What on earth could have gone wrong so late in the project lifecycle?  And, assuming progress reporting was in place, why wasn’t it spotted earlier?  In some cases, there may be illusory status reporting taking place.  Let me explain…

 

One dynamic that can affect reporting is ambiguity in reporting metrics.  There can be subtle misunderstandings over what progress is being measured.   In fact, one significant question that needs to be asked early on when a project is being defined is how will we measure progress?

 

Take the following examples:

 

Is the UK Government Jeopardizing Its Major Projects?

  • Adrian Reed 
  • 2 min read

I’m pleased to say that one of my recent blog articles has been published on “Techwell.com”, where I have contributed as a guest author. I’d love to hear what you think, so please take a look and add a comment on the site.   Excerpt: “The United Kingdom government has reportedly saved £490 million (approximately 788 million… 

Project lessons from the Great Train Robbery: Familiarity breeds contempt

UK history was made on the 8th of August 1963 when £2.6 million in cash was stolen from a Royal Mail train. The “Great Train Robbery” has entered the collective consciousness of British culture as a daring heist executed by cool criminals, many of whom stayed on the run and evaded capture for years.

 

The facts behind the Great Train Robbery are astonishing.  The cash (equivalent to about £43 million today) was carried in an unguarded compartment, and was stored in sacks (rather than a safe).  Looking at this arrangement in the cold light of day, it’s easy to ask why the risk hadn’t been foreseen.  I’m no expert in rail security – but if I was transporting over £40 million, I’d make sure it was locked and guarded!  In many ways, it could be seen as a robbery waiting to happen.

Man in a suit with boxing gloves

The PM and BA debate

  • Adrian Reed 
  • 3 min read
Man in a suit with boxing gloves

PM and BA: Friendly rivalry?

I recently came across an extremely interesting and lively debate in the BA Times LinkedIN discussion forum, where the perennial discussion of the relationship between the Project Manager and Business Analyst was discussed.  A number of views were stated during the discussion, and it’s clear that in some organisations, a view exists that there is a natural career path from senior BA to PM.  Some take this view further, and in her 2007 article entitled “The Yin and Yang Of Project Management and Business Analysis”, Juliet Alters argues that interested BAs should be “groomed” for project management roles. 

 

I’ve always found this view curious.  Whilst there are certainly some overlap between the roles, the disciplines of Business Analysis and Project Management are distinctly different.  As Elisabeth Larson quite eloquently points out in her article “Can You Be Both PM and BA on the Same Project”:

 

 “The PM’s role is to meet the project objective (PMBOK® Guide Fourth Edition Section 1.6). The BA’s role is to help organizations to reach their goals (BABOK® Guide 2.0 Section 1.2). This is a subtle but important difference”.

 

There may be similar shared competencies, but there is a very different focus.  To draw an analogy, an Electrician and Plumber may share similar core competencies (dexterity, ability to read schematic diagrams, ability to communicate with customers), but I can’t imagine anyone arguing that an Electrician should expect to “progress” to a Plumbing role.

When it comes to projects, are you picking the winners?

Innovation is critical for organisational survival.  Whether it’s a new product innovation, or creating better and slicker processes, organisations need to adapt to stay afloat.  They need to find new ways to reach out to their customers, and new ways of meeting (and exceeding) their customers’ needs and expectations.

 

This creates a dilemma.  Knowing which project, product or initiative to progress next is a tricky choice.  There’s often no absolute “right” or absolute “wrong” answer, and as a result people often rely on experience to make decisions.  A recent HBR article showed that on average, marketers rely on intuition and “gut feel” over data, for 89% of customer-related decisions.

 

Stack of foreign coins

What is the ROI on your projects?

A rich source of data could be available to organisations to help them make decisions.  One area where useful data can be found is the examination of benefits realised by previous projects.  That is, understanding which new products and projects delivered the business and customer value that was anticipated, and which didn’t.   This boils down to understanding which projects were good investments and which were bad.

 

The discipline of “benefits realisation” is thoroughly ingrained within the project management profession, yet statistics show that organisations rarely define and track these benefits.  Figures from 2011 show that in the Insurance industry, measurement of benefits happens in only 25% of organisations.   Another way of putting this is that in the insurance industry 75% of organisations have no idea whether their projects have delivered any benefits at all!