For the sake of consistency, we need to understand what we mean by a project. Project managers who have been involved with projects for a while usually have a clear view. Although the definition of a project may seem obvious to experienced projects managers it is often not so clear to new project managers or managers with only business as usual or operational experience.
Many definitions of a project are written in rather worthy and pretentious terms. For all practical purposes a project has clear set of characteristics, projects:
A project may be a one-off or it may be part of a series of linked projects or programme of work to deliver strategic outcomes. In such cases, the allocation of resources and project organisation may not appear temporary. Good project discipline requires formal closure of a project when it has delivered its objectives (or abandoned for whatever reason); then a new project properly initiated with its own clear scope and constraints.
Whatever the tool good craftsmen achieve much more with them than the average user. They demonstrate a facility with the tool of which most users can only dream. The same is true of project managers and their use of project tools provided by methodologies such as PRINCE 2.
All too often organisations train staff in the use of PRINCE or other methodologies and expect them to be equipped to run projects. Often such people have never worked on a project prior to such training and as a result do not really understand what is involved. I faced such a situation when I took over a major government change programme.
I inherited more than a dozen “project managers” each with responsibility for major workstreams within the programme. During initial discussions with each individual it was clear that they had no idea how to plan or scope a project. They all had PRINCE certificates so were aware of the documents required by the methodology but with no appreciation how to create or use them as a project manager. In reality they were senior subject matter experts (SME) seconded from the frontline service. In methodology terms they were equipped to be senior user on a project board rather than the project manager.
They had, very unfairly, been put in an impossible situation so before I could get on with managing the programme I had to grow them from a low level of project management skills. I really needed to get to grips with a critical £100+ million programme that was already behind schedule. Before I could, I had to create a serious of project management training workshops to give my team some skills and knowledge of basic project management. I had to cover such things as basic project planning, work breakdown, budgeting and such matters as dependencies, risk identification and mitigation, and project software. All this had to happen even before I was able to explain how to control a project once it was up and running.
The lesson is that staff who are to manage a project for the first time need more than simply training in a methodology such as PRINCE. Before that training they should have some experience of projects, perhaps in the case of my “project managers” they should have spent time on a project as a subject matter expert, and thereby developed some feeling for the dynamics and characteristics of projects. This would then have allowed them to put the methodology into a real world context. Instead it was just a strange bureaucratic process they believed to be “project management”.
It is your briefcase, stuffed with work you have brought home to do over the weekend. You knew in your heart when you packed it that you would not get it done. But still you brought it all home even though you have a busy weekend of family commitments. Why, oh Why?
Many years ago I had a boss, Mike Fitzsimons, who taught me a valuable lesson, one I practiced until recently. He pointed out that although we have good intentions when we take a bag of work home at the weekend we rarely get it done. If we do it is often at the cost of domestic harmony. The description of a case of work throbbing gently in the corner is his. His alternative approach was to get into the office early on a Saturday and clear the work he would otherwise have taken home. Generally he had it done by coffee time and was back at home well in time for lunch with the rest of the weekend clear in front of him.
At the time we usually worked away during the week on client sites so we did much of our work in hotel rooms; there was not much else to do. It was in the days before e-mail so there was always administrative stuff to do when we did make it back to the office for a few hours. By going in and clearing the administrative backlog he could relax knowing it was not building up.
I started doing the same and spending just an hour or two in the office early on Saturday rather than taking a bag of work home. It had the advantage that my boss and I were also able to catch up, share information and plan our response to any new opportunities or challenges. By 11am I was done and the rest of the weekend was my own to enjoy with the family without guilt.
It is important to find a way of separating work and home life. If one does not, one may wake up one day and find there is only work. And work is uncertain in these times of austerity.
Methodologies, such as PRINCE 2, are widely touted as key to successful project management. If that is true why do so many projects supposedly managed using such tools still come in late, over budget and deliver limited benefits? This is brought to the fore by the recent scaling back of the multi-billion pound National Programme for Information Technology that was supposed to be the future administrative underpinning of the United Kingdom’s national Health Service.
Most experienced project managers can tell tales of projects run strictly to PRINCE framework that never got delivered or were late and over budget. A classic example from my own experience was for a new telecommunications company. The programme was running late and the programme manager was replaced by an experienced PRINCE practitioner. He started by imposing PRINCE disciplines with formal recording and reporting. Unfortunately the projects still continued to slip.
He was advised that he was not catching up with the programme. It was moving away from him faster than he could catch it using formal methods; he just could not get the necessary decisions taken quickly enough. Bear in mind this was a start-up company with all the energy and lack of formal management that goes with it. The attitude throughout the company was “just do it” so formal change control and other decision making processes just did not work.
After six weeks he accepted the reality that it was not the environment for him and resigned. I picked the work up. I liberated the project teams from all but the most essential paperwork and gave them the responsibility to take decision as long as they kept everyone informed. Realising that formal governance was not working I adopted an approach of telling senior management what we would do unless they told me not to. No response was approval and I would go ahead as planned. It was an extreme form of management by exception but it fitted with the culture of the organisation. We achieved sign-off on schedule. It is a high-risk approach because failure will fall squarely on the programme director or manager; sometimes one has to stand up and be counted.
Killing Giants by Stephen Denny is not the first book on the subject of how smaller enterprises can compete successfully with the market leaders. However, it is probably the most accessible and its ideas are straightforward to implement.
The ways in which Killing Giants presents the ideas lend themselves to creating practical strategies for any business that is competing against much larger incumbents. Denny stresses he is not providing advice but telling stories from which the reader can learn. Killing Giants consists of ten broad messages. One, or more, stories, illustrate each section. From each story, Stephen Denny pulls out what he sees as the key lessons and puts them into a wider context.
At the end of each chapter, Denny pulls all the lessons together with the overall message. So while the content is not advice of the form: do this, that or the other, Killing Giants steers the reader to possible strategies. The reader is then left to apply what they have learnt, the ideas, to their own situation. It works well as the ideas are practical and the messages are down to earth so reinterpreting top specific situations is straightforward.
As Stephen Denny clearly expresses the ideas with minimal management jargon applying them to real-world situations should not be difficult. Readers can adopt some immediately and others will require more thought. The ability to move quickly will encourage the smaller business owner to use the ideas. Used with imagination and commitment the ideas in Killing Giants should enable the smaller player to claim their niche.
Martin Wilson was brought in by one of the junior departments in a sensitive government programme. As a junior partner the department could not be seen to be disruptive but it had serious concerns about the programme scope. Martin explored the issues on an individual basis with the other parties and especially with the programme director. It showed that all were aware of problems with the programme direction, “the elephant in the room”, but felt powerless to deal with it. In just six weeks of sensitive negotiations Martin was able to generate consensus and get the programme redesigned and heading in a more appropriate direction.
Sometimes a programme or project needs fresh thinking to get it running smoothly; it may be that a health check has exposed issues.
Solidus has considerable experience with putting projects and programmes back on track. Usually it is a case of a project team using Solidus to facilitate an exploration of the challenges. Often the team are too close to the issues, Solidus helps them step back to “see the wood for the trees”. The client can then often resolve matters themselves. In extremis Solidus can take over project leadership until it is running smoothly.