WSJ Interview on “The Experience Trap”

FYI, a Wall Street Journal article (“Dangers of Clinging to Solutions of the Past”) based in part on interviews w/ yours truly came out today (link here, page B4 in the paper).  Thanks to Kishore Sengupta of INSEAD for pointing the WSJ my way and to Phred Dvorak of the WSJ for conveying the perils of experience so well and so succinctly. 

As I’ve noted to a couple of colleagues, it is hard to believe that only 250 words of copy came out of two hours of interview time.  Insert your own joke re: my verbosity here…

PM Quote of the Day — Abraham Lincoln

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

This quote is useful to counter colleagues who disparage planning in general. It is, however, important to remember that initiating and planning activities aren’t for simply “easing into the project” (in the unfortunate phrase of a PM I once worked for). They’re meant to get the project’s execution machine fueled, oiled, and sharpened… and cutting the right tree.

Podcast on barriers to successful IT/CRM

Michael Krigsman over at IT Project Failures hosted the first in what he hopes will be a regular series of “Town Hall” podcasts (here)  It was originally supposed to be a meet-up, but the weather was dodgy at best so the session went virtual. 

Anyway, Paul Greenberg moderated an excellent discussion that covered a lot of ground.  As Michael notes, Paul’s CRM background focused the conversation

…on issues drawn from customer relationship management. CRM brings together core business functions — how a company interacts with customers — with technology intended to streamline and improve those relationships. Since these goals are business-oriented, CRM offers excellent examples of non-technical failures connected with technology implementation projects. For example, one participant noted corporate managers sometimes deploy CRM hoping to control end-users, who in turn reject the system in a predictable failure. 

Be warned… I jump in at about the 30 minutes mark!

PM Quote of the Day — Vince Lombardi

Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

When I was younger, I never got the point of practice.  Sure, I knew that it would get me in shape and knock of the rust off.  However, I never got the idea that practice would help me perform better under pressure.  Too many times I found myself over-thinking a situation because I hadn’t practiced enough to make it automatic.  I finally started to realize that realistic practice in all sorts of endeavors — in particular, public speaking and presenting — helped to take the edge off along with the rust.

Practice?...  Youre talkin about practice?

Practice?... We're talkin' about practice?

Lombardi’s point also applies to how we test our processes and systems.  Too often I’ve seen customers and consultants assume away difficulties in their desire to save testing time and money.  Even worse, this saving “spasm” usually comes towards the end of the project, just as the testing was about to get serious.

The best testing practice (so to speak) I’ve seen came at a global firm that does dirty and dangerous work.  As you might imagine, that company is very conscious of safety and quality.  That firm called their last round of testing not integration or user acceptance, but “business simulation.”  Business simulation didn’t simply involve folks following a script.  We brought the system, interfaces, and data up like go-live, then encouraged the users to go “do their jobs” and call support if something went wrong.

Sure, such an approach is expensive.  But how much is that peace of mind that comes with a no-holds-barred validation that the system and its support conformed to requirements worth?

Troubled Projects and Engaging Change Stakeholders

Glen at Herding Cats (here) points to a Center of Business Practices study (here) on the causes of troubled projects.  I’ve posted on some of our own findings about project success (here and here), but I haven’t elaborated on what we’ve found about the composition of change control boards.  Below is an extract from a comment I made on Glen’s post:

Our project debrief analyses have consistently found that the right level of executive presence on change control boards is essential to ensure change is managed, not simply documented. In fact, the lack of such a presence (or regular absences) marks the project as a potential escalation.

When a senior manager vets the prioritization of changes by focusing the project team on the project’s goals and intended outcomes — one should usually find scope, time, and resource changes easier to manage (with fewer, more salient change orders). It also keeps the business invested in the project. Many IT shops resist this measure, but it works wonders once they “get it”. 

The Project Management Witch Doctors

Glen at Herding Cats hits back hard (here) at one of the breed of “Project Management Impresarios”.  Not a bad label, though I like the term Witch Doctors myself (the Micklethwait and Wooldridge book is here, some second thoughts on the book’s ideas here).  Some of this stuff can be pretty wacky and verges on Gnosticism.

The arrant wankery Glen describes was quite popular during the heyday of big-bang ERP projects.  Not a surprise, because witch doctors usually pop up in big budget projects.  During those late 90’s projects, folks had the cash to pursue myriad pet theories.  I’ve also seen it in a number of other project types — KM and portal efforts seem particularly susceptible to “soft stuff” disease. 

It is amazing how quickly we can forget the basics in the quest to become more sophisticated and cunning.  Sure the “soft stuff” is important.  In fact, I believe that mastery of such “soft stuff” can be critical to leadership success.  But it isn’t the alpha and the omega that some make it out to be.  In projects, OCM tools and techniques are only means to an end — a successful project.

Value of PM in Business Transformation

I forget to whom I should give the hat tip on this topic, but Here’s a study by Logica that highlights what makes change “Winners” successful (study here, may require registration).  As you can see, project management was a differentiator in business transformation, which of course I think is great.

My take is that being good at PM is necessary, but not sufficient, to be good at change.  That’s because being better at PM should mean that one is better at delivering initiatives of any type.  In other words, PM excellence should make change-heavy initiatives more successful — but that’s because PM helps when delivering all initiatives.

Remembered the source… hat tip to Michael Krigsman at IT Project Failures.

Checklists and Change Programs

Jerry Manas’s post at PM Think (here) is a useful reminder to avoid a common error made when PMOs first implement processes and controls — over-engineering.   I can only say “Amen” to what Jerry notes:

We create forms, templates, and stage gates, in an attempt to gain control. But in doing so, we also create such barriers to implementation that it becomes like the Twelve Trials of Hercules just getting something implemented. P lus we lose flexibility (and I might add, credibility) as well. 

We’ve succumbed to that syndrome ourselves and Jerry’s prescription is a fine cure.  Our PMO finds checklists especially effective in two situations:

  • Initial design, communication, and usage of a new or changed process.  Checklists reinforce the basics and ease process adoption.  Only once the change program is past the awareness and understanding phases — in other words, early adopters are actually using the process — does developing sophisticated templates or tools make sense. 
  • Handling process handoffs.  Process and value chains are generally weakest where there are handoffs (e.g., between sales and delivery).  These handoffs are particularly severe when the personnel who accepted the leading process or phase deliverables aren’t directly responsible for the successor phase.  In this example, delivery management may have to accept/approve a statement of work, but the project manager hasn’t been selected.  Rather than force the PM to recapitulate the phase or process closing process, we use a checklist so the project manager can validate the quality of the handoff him/herself.

Tom Peters: 80% good, 20% overboard

Tom Peters has a list on how to lead during what he calls “weird” times (post here, also read the comments here).  As always, he’s thought-provoking.  My biggest concern is that folks like to cherry-pick from Tom without understanding that the points in his “lists” often build on or reinforce each other. 

With that caveat, here is Tom’s list.  My comments are below in bold.

  1. Be conscious in the Zen sense. Think about what you are doing more than usual. Think about how you project.  (Crossderry: The last is critical at these times.)
  2. Meet daily, first thing, with your leadership team—to discuss whatever, check assumptions. Perhaps meet again late afternoon. Meetings max 30 minutes. (Crossderry: All good, harder for me to implement in a global team.)
  3. If you are a “big boss,” use a private sounding board—check in daily. (Crossderry: Interesting… hadn’t thought of that.)
  4. Concoct scenarios by the bushel, test ‘em, play with ‘em, short-term, long-term, sane, insane. (Crossderry: Too many leaders think that this means “just throw s*** against the wall” by rearranging everything or withdrawing to a bunker to do scenario planning.  Prime example of a topic that gets cherry-picked from a list. If you aren’t doing this w/ managing by walking around [MBWA] and working the phones, experts, customers, vendors, etc., you’re missing the point.)
  5. MBWA. Wander. Sample attitudes. Visible but not frenzied.  (Crossderry: The last is critical at these times.)
  6. Work the phones, chat up experts, customers, vendors. Seek enormous diversity of opinion.  (Crossderry: Oh yeah, no time to head for the bunker!) 
  7. “Over”communicate!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  (Crossderry: Yup.)
  8. Exercise—encourage your leadership team to double up on their exercise.  (Crossderry: This verges on “double plus good” Motivation-speak.  How about “If you don’t exercise, start; if you’re not exercising enough, do more; if you’re already exercising enough, don’t stop.”)
  9. Underscore “excellence in every transaction.”    (Crossderry: You betcha… and it’s a nice loop back to point 1.)

Hat tip: Bas de Baar

Corner Cutting Survey Top Answer: Not communicating with senior management

Executive body language after cancelling too many meetings

The corner cutting poll’s top answer (at 22 percent) remains Executing planned communications with senior management.  This answer matches our own experience within SAP, which indicates that proper stakeholder management decreases the probability of risk events, shortens their duration, and lessens their total impact. 

In our experience, the most frequent communications mistake was failure to execute planned executive-level messaging, which eroded the project manager’s position in the eyes of sponsors and other leaders.  Such an erosion of a project manager’s position leads to negative second-order effects, including:

  • Mistrust of the PM’s ability to lead and prioritize.
  • Senior management bypassing the PM in favor of direct communication with team leads and vice versa.
  • Exclusion from decision-making bodies or meetings.
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