One of my projects several years ago felt like a disaster. I still remember the lack of sleep. The people working on the project were working long hours, short on patience, and groaning in misery. The sponsor kept throwing more scope at us. Priorities kept changing, and for every step forward, it felt like we took two steps backwards. Some key project leaders were barely talking to each other.
This “Nightmare” project had a firm deadline that had to be met, but no one was clear about what exactly needed to be finished by that magic date. The project manager was decent. She met regularly with the sponsor and tried to protect the team from the chaos. But when it is the sponsor who is throwing new scope at you every other week, it’s harder to manage the project. We expect the sponsor to be on our side.
From the sponsor’s perspective, he was working with senior leaders who were facing a rapidly changing competitive landscape. There was significant fear that the company was going to lose its shirt. And to make matters worse, there were problems acquiring one of the critical resources. Fear, money worries, and pressure are not conducive to a fun project environment.
There is an expression that we often hear in project management – people over process. I typically agree. But bad processes can make your people problems worse. Strengthen your processes to help your teams. In this blog, I’ll offer some recommendations on ways to focus on both people and process. Had we done a better job of that, things would have been much better.
Pay attention to how you start your project.
One of the biggest mistakes we made on our “Nightmare project” was not understanding the overall vision. It’s up to the project sponsor to communicate the vision in a clear and compelling way. Absent that vision, the project manager will have a harder job. In addition to clarifying the vision, there are other questions that the project manager can ask. What assumptions and constraints need to be identified? What’s more important – costs, schedule, or scope control? What are the project requirements? What scope is not included? I’ve written before on how to effectively start a project.
Define your cost estimating process.
That project was an in-house project and so the estimating process was more lax than it should have been. A clear and effective cost estimating process can reap great rewards. I really like the story of how Andrew Askins, founder of Krit, tightened up their estimating process and improved estimates by over 1000%.
Regardless of whether your project is being done for a customer, or for your management team, a defined estimating process is essential. You may be doing a software development project, renovating your office spaces, managing a major piece of litigation for a law firm, or planning a major marketing campaign for your own company. It doesn’t matter.
Break the project down into the essential activities and estimate each activity. I aim for activities that can be completed in a week or two. The larger the activity, the harder it is to estimate it reliably. And if you break your project down too far, it simply takes too much time. I’ve written on estimating before. Try this blog if you’re looking for tips on estimating costs. Part of your process needs to include a way of managing those costs. I recommend having a cost manager for each activity who is responsible for explaining variances.
Use time blocks and let nothing new be added during the time block.
If you really are in a period of rapid change and the sponsor wants to frequently throw new scope at the team, go with a one-week time block. Change requires flexibility. It also profits from structure. Constraints can vastly improve your workflows. For example, have you ever noticed that when you have an open day, without pressing deadlines, that you don’t seem to be as productive. But when you have a long to-do list, you seem to get more done?
I recommend that you structure your work in time blocks, determine exactly which activities you will work on during those time blocks, and simply refuse to add anything until the end of that block of time. In the Nightmare project, the project sponsor had a classic case of ADHD, and was completely unaware. He changed his mind every day about what was important. By having a firm policy against new work being added in the middle of a time block, we could have avoided a number of unnecessary re-directs.
Change requires flexibility, and agility is important. But, you have to be able to adapt to change AND completely focus on what matters most.
Follow a documented change management process.
Scrum tools may be great when you are doing software development. But in most organizations, given limited cash, the company needs to have a clear vision of the final destination. It’s great to be agile in how you get there, but you need to know where you are going. In Nightmare, we had no idea where we were going. It changed all the time. There was no change management process. I’ve explained how to create a change management process here.
Have firm-wide policies on processes that relate to money.
I periodically work with organizations that have inadequate policies on the use of the corporate credit cards, overtime pay, travel, or paid-time off. One might expect that there would be clear policies on these subjects. But in these days of increasing autonomy, companies are letting teams write their own rules. Some of that is good. But I usually recommend that decisions that impact money be consistent throughout the organization, unless there is good reason to do otherwise.
In the Nightmare project, there was a member of one of the other teams in the organization who frequently took a week of vacation days at the end of a corporate trip. That way, she could travel to exotic international destinations without paying a lot for her flights. She had the time. But it meant that her one-week business trip to Asia stretched to over two weeks out of the office. And, it caused problems with the team working on the project. Many of them needed two weeks on some enchanted island.
Is your organization thinking that better processes might help reduce people problems? Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to understand how to focus on both people and process. Give me a ring, and we can discuss.