Martin P Wilson


Ideas, Innovation, Inspiration, Insight, IT

Facilitation and Mentoring for Success.

Compaints and Opprotunity – Dark Stormy Skys and Beauty Often CoexistNow that so much business is done on line enterprises often have very little face to face or even telephone contact with customers. The problem of faceless customer relations began with mail order and was already being exacerbated by the growth of call centres. The opportunity to understand customer needs through informal conversation has all but disappeared.

Solidus has long argued that complaints are the last real opportunity for such contact but the potential benefits are being squandered by rigid processes, scripted responses and even dehumanised e-mail and web-based systems.

Brand Destruction by Product Terrorists

It is often said that a customer with a complaint about a supplier spreads that news widely and rapidly so that within 24 hours most of their immediate friends and family are aware of it. If the complaint is not dealt with quickly and effectively the complainant rapidly becomes a “product terrorist” and is actively damaging the expensively developed brand. Even worse are the customers who never complain and move directly to “product terrorism” telling all and sundry how bad the supplier is. With the advent of internet forums and social media they do not just tell their friends and family, it can go global, instantly. A brand is soon damaged.

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The clock is ticking, timely decision makingDespite the protestations of PRINCE practitioners and other advocates of project “management” methodologies project management is not all about process. What really separates effective project management from the rest is decision making at all levels of the governance structure.

When a Decision Needs Taking, Take it

In my first job after leaving Durham University I was often left in charge of an entrepreneurial small business. This was in the days before e-mail, mobile phones and even fax machines were something of a novelty; we still used a telex service for urgent overseas correspondence! When the owner went away on his occasional overseas business trips his instructions were very clear: “… if a decision really needs taking then you must make it, take using the best of your knowledge and ability. If you do that in good faith there will be no blame if it turns out wrong; I will sort it out, few decisions are irrecoverable”.

He meant it and lived by it, as I have ever since. The point was that delaying a decision is usually worse than not taking the necessary, even if painful, action. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to learn that lesson as they tinker with sticking plasters for the financial crises. The politicians are learning what many project managers have discovered, the consequences of indecision just keep mounting up and make the eventual decision even more difficult.

The lesson is that if a decision needs taking then it should be taken with the best information available. A timely and good enough decision is far better than a perfect but too late decision. The only perfect understanding is with hindsight “what we should have done is…”. A bureaucratic approach to project management is often engendered by project methodologies which hinder speedy and effective decision making. Waiting for more information leads to the old cliché “paralysis by analysis” – an appearance of activity whilst the problem continues to grow.

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Unlock decisions from adviceThe over-large project board discussed in a previous ThoughtsProject Governance, Less is More was brought about, in part at least, by confusing the different roles of key stakeholders. A common problem on large projects is to give equal authority to advisers and decision-makers.

Do not Confuse Advice with Authority

On large projects with many, diverse, user groups there is a need to consult widely with many subject matter experts to ensure that there are no gaps in the project requirements and all needs have been understood. Once understood not all the stated needs may be accepted into the scope of the project board. That is the responsibility of the project owner and a small, selected team authorised to define the scope and budget for the project. That group, essentially the project board, will be accountable for delivering the project scope once the budget holder’s senior management team has approved the project details. For large or strategic projects, it will often require board or executive management team approval.

Many user groups will believe that they have a say in making the decision as to what should be in scope. In reality, they need consulting and their needs considered alongside those of many other interested parties. However, there will need to be a decision that balances conflicting requirements between groups. As a result, such subject matter experts can only advise as they have vested interests and may not have the full strategic picture. To facilitate those discussions a committee of senior users may be appropriate to explore the wider picture and ensure that it is complete even if issues of scope remain unresolved.

It may even be a hierarchy of committees so that individual communities of users can agree their needs and have them represented in a wider forum that advises the decision making body on the desired scope and priorities. That senior advisory body should usually be chaired by the senior user from the project board so that he or she is conversant with the advice and can represent in a separate decision making body.

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Shadow of DoubtMuch is made of the need for responsibility and accountability on projects. However, there are limits on how widely they can be distributed. On many projects, large ones especially, there is a confusion between project responsibility and stakeholder management.

On one very large project I know of the senior responsible owner was concerned about making stakeholders accountable. As a result he insisted on them being on the Project Board and party to the project decision making. The result was the largest project board with which I have ever worked; there were around 24 people on that board. His thinking was that all members would then be equally accountable; unfortunately, he misunderstood the dynamics of groups.

The Abilene Paradox

The result was that no one, no one was actually accountable. Jerry Harvey, the American psychologist, noticed that groups often take decisions that are at odds with decisions they would take as individuals. Even to the extent that as a group they would take decisions they would personally regard as perverse. Harvey noted that the groups takes strange decisions because individuals know they can avoid personal responsibility for the groups actions. He called this behaviour the “Abilene Paradox”; he compared it to a family that chose to go to Abilene for a vacation even though individually no one had any desire to do so and knowing the journey would be unpleasant.

The other problem with such a large project board was that it became a talking shop and was slow to take decisions at all. With over twenty people travelling from all over the country it was also inordinately expensive so it was hardly surprising that the project was on its fifth project director and running over a year late. It was eventually delivered after a further replanning and with a reduced scope.

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Project GanttFor 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.

Projects are Limited Life, Standalone and Complete Pieces of Work

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:

  • are complete standalone pieces of work,
  • are temporary, resources and organisation are provided only for the duration of the project,
  • have clearly defined objectives with specific goals and outcomes. Often these in the form of business benefits that may be compared with an operational baseline taken before the project starts; or at least at a very early stage of the project.
  • do not have any continuing operational or business as usual existence. Once complete the project hands over the outcome of the project, building, organisation, computer system or whatever to business as usual management to operate.
  • often has a predefined timetable; it can either be predefined as part of the project scope or it may result from the planning as the time needed to deliver the agreed scope with the resources available.
  • operate within a set of constraints which usually include:
    • predetermined scope
    • budget and resources
    • timetable
    • quality measures
    • outcomes
    • benefits

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.

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HE04006 Old Sheep ClippersWhatever 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”.

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Quick Thoughts

Has Military Action Ever Dissuaded Tyrants?

Syria - flagIn his speech before the war in Iraq Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister, argued that not intervening would send a message that tyrants would feel at liberty to act without consequence. By military action in Iraq, he argued, those who would perpetrate atrocities would think twice. There would not seem to be any evidence, before or since, that would back up that contention.

We now have David Cameron, the current Prime Minister, making essentially the same arguments – do politicians ever learn from history?


Government Spending is not Driver of Growth

Parliament Square London IC02001If more public spending is the only way to create growth then surely governments have become too large a part of the economy? Government is about spending and has little to do with creating wealth.

The best government can do is move wealth from individuals and business to those who serve government.


Capped Bonuses, There May be Trouble Ahead

Politicians do not seem to be good at imagining unintended consequences. The cap on bankers’ bonuses, however popular, may be counter-productive in reducing risk.

Dark Stormy Skys and Beauty Often CoexistIf a smaller proportion of a trader’s income is at risk if a trade goes wrong they may pursue high-risk opportunities to get that big win. If it works they guarantee the full bonus and could also use it to negotiate a higher salary (and bonus) for the following year. If it fails the downside is limited by the capped bonus to a smaller part of overall income. At the end of the day traders are competitive and gamblers at heart so will they be more likely to pursue the big win when their own risk is limited?

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