Sunday, May 27, 2007

Coping with that hollow feeling of success...

(The morning after the project launch party)

This week I was having lunch in the Krasnapolski Hotel in Amsterdam with the marketing manager of a large multi-national, discussing the launch arrangements for my book 'Making a Difference', when the conversation turned to the last step of my nine step approach to problem solving: ‘coping with that hollow feeling of success’. She asked me exactly what I meant by it and did I really believe it (she had read the title in the table of contents on the book’s website)? I replied that nothing could be closer to the truth, and sure I believed it, after all I had felt it often enough.

When you have been sweating over a project for over a year, and you have pulled your team through all kinds of troubles, motivating and re-motivating them into action beyond the norm. And when you have fought off all the politicians in the company that would pull your project this way or that, battled with suppliers to get them to simply deliver what they promised, within time and on budget. And when you have broken nearly every rule in the book, to ensure that your client gets exactly what they need and in the form that they want it, it’s really no surprise that after the champagne reception, when the last sandwich has been eaten and all there is left over, is a half full bowl of potato chips (that somebody accidentally spilt red wine into), then yes, you might well go home feeling down or depressed.

“It’s normal”, I told her, “you and I are the kind of people that push the boundaries, that put all our passions into our work. When we finally get the result we want, it can only be too short lived. There is no amount of ‘thank yous’ that can compensate for all the effort invested”.

In my book, I give an analogy with climbing a mountain and indeed, there are similarities. I once met a professional mountain climber at a dinner party, and he spoke of exactly the same sunken feeling, once he reached the summit – but then he had to climb back down again. At least for us, we only have to walk from the bar to the waiting Audi A6! The worst we have to face is a possible parking ticket.

However, wait for a few days after the party, and someone around you will say something that sparks off an idea. A thought that makes that small part, way back in the back of your brain that says, ‘hey, now that sounds like a challenge!’ The next thing you know, you are right back at step one of my nine steps, analyzing the real problem to be solved and beginning to write a scope document for a brand new project challenge! Some of us are just built like that, and our partners have to put up with it, we can not change – it’s just the way we are.

In time, you can look back at projects gone by and remember with fondness their ups and downs. In fact, what the client said or didn’t say at the launch party event, is completely immaterial, they like you, couldn’t find the right words either.

An after thought:
In the UK there are special retirement homes for musicians, perhaps we should build some for interim and project managers (the interim managers will have the luxury apartments on the upper floors and the project managers, smaller ones on the ground floor and in the basement).
I can imagine every night, the ex-managers telling more and more exaggerated stories of projects that were delivered in the most unlikely circumstances and in the most impossible of timeframes!
The only real downside to the retirement home would be that there might not be enough women residents. For a reason unknown to me, there simply are not enough of female interim and project managers. Oh well, I suppose I will have to make do with the female nurses. Hopefully they will be young and pretty and sit with me, listening to all my stories with great interest and attention? Or perhaps we could let marketing managers in as well? ;-)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"If it's what the client's asking for..."

Scope Change, allow it at your peril!

Last week, in my article ‘Project Overspend, don’t worry about it’ , I focused on budgetary control, but this week an intervention with a new project manager at my client’s site, got me thinking.

There is very little more risky for an interim or project manager than having a project under control, i.e. running on time and within budget. Sooner or later a team member is going to get bored and with boredom comes the number one enemy to any project, Scope creep.

In fact scope creep is born out of three circumstances, one (as mentioned above) boredom, and the other two arrogance and laziness (the total absence of, or, a poorly written scoping document).

An under utilized engineer, is a potentially serious risk for scope creep. Engineers need something to do, problems to solve, their world is complexity. Thus a bored engineer, in the absence of a challenge, needs to create one. I have witnessed several occasions where an engineer has 'created' (thought up) a problem for themselves to solve. Coming up with a soliution to a problem that might not exist is a great past-time and is often born at the coffee machine, in a heated debate with another engineer. It gives the engineer new purpous and the chance to shine and be noticed.

The first thing the project manager knows about the 'problem' is when he finds himself in copy of a plethora of e-mails, flying around, warning of impending doom unless an urgent issue is tackled immediately. Crisis meetings are set up by the engineering team, and e-mails are often sent over the head of the PM, directly to the project sponsors.

Even when the ‘issue’ is analized as being quickly resolvable, the founding engineer can take the claim for having saved the project from immanent disaster – even though many other engineers, would have just solved the minor problem, without even bringing it to the attention of his or her entire community. Now to be fair, it has to be said that, this phenomonum is not restricted to only engineers, it can be any under utilized team member, sometimes it can even be the project manager himself!

Arrogance shows its ugly face, often when a new team member comes on board. Rather than reading the scope document (assuming there is one), they make a few quick observations, notice something that is ‘obviously missing’ or overlooked and immediately act in much the same way as the bored engineer above.

It is an unfortunate aspect of human nature that we always believe that we are somehow better, cleverer than most other people. And nothing demonstrates this better than a project manager or consultant during their first few weeks with a new client; “how is it possible that you can run without X or Y” or “In my last company we always did it this way or that…”

The Scope Document:
The most important part of any project has to be the definition of the scope, get this wrong and disaster sooner or later takes hold.
Imagine that your client asked you to put together a team to produce a device that allowed people to speak with one other anywhere in the world (for the sake of this metaphor, we’ll assume that the mobile phone has not yet been invented, but the network is there). The scope will need to be pretty strict to ensure the project meets its objective and we will only know if the project meets its objective if we know, in advance, what the fixed criteria are by which it will be measured. In the case of the mobile phone, it needs to broadcast and receive spoken conversation, nowhere in our imaginary scope document, does it say anything about short message texting, playing games, surfing the internet, buying buss tickets, paying for parking, playing music, watching TV or adult content channels or whatever else today’s mobile telephones can do.

Consequently, a project without a very strong and clearly written scoping document, signed off by all the stakeholders, is on the road to disaster before it even starts. The project will end up being ‘designed’ in the BREQ (Business requirements document). I have noticed that it is at BREQ stage that everyone comes out of the woodwork to have their say on what they want included and what is needed, especially those who are not paying for the project! These people will tell us why our mobile phone can not just be a phone but needs to be a PDA and computer as well. Six months go buy, instead of six days, and still the project is not ready for pricing estimates. And when the estimates finally come in, it is more often than not, a shopping list of nice to have’s that the timeframes and budgets simply can not support.

So my advice to any new project manager is; 'ignore the scoping document at your peril, otherwise throughout the project people will invent important new features and functionality that ‘somehow must have been overlooked’ and the next thing you know, you (the PM) are going back to the sponsors announcing delays and the need for more cash'.

I believe that it is the personal responsibility of the project manager to get the scope under control from the beginning and defend it rigorously until the end of the project. The scope document also needs to clearly state what the project won't deliver, expectations need to be measured and controlled.

If your client decides they don’t want the project, or its deliverables, after all – then obviously you simply need to stop and cut your loses. On the other hand if your client keeps changing their minds about exactly what is required, then you had better put the project on hold and force the client to taking seriously exactly waht their requirements are before another day or Euro is wasted. Putting a project into ‘pause’ mode is very handy, it’s not as dramatic as 'on hold' or 'stop'. Pausing a project is about creating a brief time out to go back to basics and to be sure that what was originally asked for is actually what we need and going to be delivered.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

“Project overspend? Don’t worry about it”

The Triple Constraint and why not to ignore the cost (even if your client does not mind).

Any project manager will tell you that the ‘triple constraint’ is the most important part of managing any kind of project. Namely: ‘Scope, Time and Budget’. This week, I have been mulling over the third constraint, budget. Why is it that so many large corporations, take their eye off the budget? For many large companies, over spending is not ‘welcome’ but it is not a serious misdemeanour either, especially if the over-spend has occurred ‘in-house’.

For whatever internal political reasons, it is still hard to come to terms with and understand how this comes about. Is it because so many companies have Hey Grade type rewarding systems? The kinds where staff are ranked and rewarded by the numbers of employees they have reporting to them, or indeed, how large their departmental budget is? If there is a link, then perhaps it is little wonder that budget is so often over-looked (assuming that their end of year assessments are allowed to sweep away the issues of over spend, after all maybe their boss is not so interested in reducing departmental budget either)?

As an interim manager, a relaxed attitude to budgets annoys me profusely. Mainly because I know that it is not good for the long term of the business and also for the shareholders (who ultimately, I like to feel I report to). Of course running a massive project with hundreds of reports, with a seven or eight figure budget is great fun, but if you discover that it is just a game for the management team and big ego trip for you, then you get a sour feeling, that this is simply not right.

Working for small companies with cash constraints and limited resources maybe frustrating for a host of reasons, but their need for ‘value for money’ and on time delivery is strong revision lesson for us all. I always think of all the things the business could do with the over spend money, especially when it could have been avoided.

The difficulty often lies in not being able to control the budget adequately. Whether it is an external supplier increasing prices, or internal departments dumping booked man-hours onto projects that are under budget, the result is often the same for the well performing project manager. Those around you are screwing up big time, while you can the financial can. “Even if the management team, say don’t worry, it’s only an internal budgetary issue, for a passionate interim manager, it really is a kick in the guts.

I feel it is the duty of all interim and project managers, no matter what project they are on, to take a serious interest in the spend rate, and to continually report back progress versus budget, no matter how unwelcome the news might be. This has the additional advantage of ensuring that if your budget gets dumped upon, near the end, you can demonstrate that all the way through the project you were on track. After all at the end of the project, the management team will remind you exactly how much the project cost and memories are very short when it comes to exactly why the project ended up 35% overspend.

The day after a party, it is usual to moan about the bill. What gets me is that it is often the good old interim, or project manager (whatever title he or she has) that is the easy target for blame.