Is your Strategy up to date?

For awhile my husband and son have been telling me I should put my “sports commentaries” in a blog post. This refers to my comments during various sports they are watching while I am waiting for the game to be over so I can watch something else! Before you write me off as a nut, I do like watching sports, just not some of them and I prefer being at the game. When you are waiting for a game to be over, it seems to go on forever. So during the time outs, I provide my comments: gee, is the coach telling them to hit more home runs, get more baskets or touchdowns? I know it is not that simple. But I also don’t like the way time outs make the game so much less spontaneous!

So here is a sports analogy. These sports teams are taking time out to strategize when something is going wrong. When a business is struggling, they usually regroup and try to figure the best strategy to resolve the issue. Sometimes this results in a knee jerk solution versus a strategic solution.

We all know change is constant, so review and analysis of changes in the industry, market, opportunities, trending and competition should be an ongoing part of the business. And this analysis should bring about new strategy to stay on top of the market. So just as in sports, business needs to change direction as external and internal events effect the business. In the past, annual strategic planning worked for businesses, not anymore! While change is constant, strategic planning and thinking must be ongoing.

While I get frustrated with the interruption in games caused by changing strategy, I think frequent strategic planning in business is not an interruption but a valuable, necessary part of business. And of course, as in sports, the strategy must be interpreted into what needs to be done to meet the new goals. The question must be asked often, are we doing the right things now to ensure ongoing success?

Working toward Project Success

Is there any way to guarantee project success? Absolutely not, however, examining lessons learned from past projects can reveal valuable information to help ensure project success. Here I discuss processes, procedures and people to determine how to optimize project performances. Best practice project management procedures require that planning takes time and attention. Most seasoned project managers can recall a project that failed due to rushed (or no) planning. The project manager and project team are also important to project success. What makes a good project manager or project team? Corporate culture plays a strong role in aiding or hindering quality project management. It is important to keep in mind what has and hasn’t worked in the past as you plan and implement the project.

I once lead a project, which was viewed as easy by the management and as very risky by the project team. Management continuously told us this was a piece of cake (of course they wanted to believe this!). As a good project team, we conducted risk analysis and believed this to be very risky. Amazing that those of us who were going to be working on the project knew from the start that it would be one of the hardest things we ever did. All the scary facts were there: lean staffing and a late start, the team had absolutely no experience in some aspects of the project and the requirements on our statement of work did not match the signed customer contract. In addition, morale was low because we were short of resources and schedule was tight.

The project issues got worse as time went on. A key team member quit when the project had just one month left to go and some of the team members did NOT get along. Management continued to ignore the project issues, still seeing the project as an easy win.

Some very interesting things happened on this project, which resulted in its eventual success. To improve team attitude, we attended an inspiring seminar that helped us build an improved team attitude. The seminar reminded the team that you own the results of what you do. The attitude changed from “we are doomed” to “we will make this successful.” The fact that we were seen as performing poorly was both good and bad for us. This brought morale down but motivated us to “show leadership that we could succeed”. In an effort toward motivating the team, I did something I don’t think I would recommend to others but it worked for the project. I arrived at work very early and left when the last team member left. This made for very long hours and included weekends and holidays. I learned to test and run the equipment we were building. The team appreciated my hands-on approach and this helped grow a good team relationship.

All the team’s efforts were worth it in the end as the project succeeded.  We had happy stakeholders – the customer, our management and our suppliers (as part of our team). We had the satisfaction of knowing we had done well despite all obstacles.

Lessons Learned

What caused this project’s success? First we had a strong commitment to project goals. The Project goals were simple:  1. Customer satisfaction (providing the equipment they needed on time and working to spec) and 2. Turn around our poor performance record. Customer satisfaction is always a goal but this was also our first external (outside our own organization) customer, promising a good deal of future business if we succeeded. Satisfying management would change the corporate culture as they recognized our competence and learned how to improve the culture to support project management. The team was very committed to the goals. Second, the team learned the power of teamwork and the power of strong commitment to doing things right to achieve project objectives. People understood that they could get beyond their issues with other team members by concentrating on the target – to make the project succeed. We had a good amount of discussion on the effect of dependent tasks on each other. Prior to this project, the team members focused on their own tasks without paying attention to the entire project plan. Third, we included the key stakeholders on the team. We worked with the customer both in showing the project progress as time went on as well as helping the customer in tasks they needed to complete for the project. We negotiated a mutually beneficial relationship with our vendors and included them on the project team. The vendors promised their quickest turnaround when we encountered sudden specialized needs (such as quick build of custom parts). We promised a good amount of future business to the vendors.   This stakeholder participation lowered risk, lowered scope creep, and ensure that what we produced was what the customer needed. What are other ways to ensure project success?

Working toward Successful Projects

The first phase of a project’s lifecycle is very critical to its success. It is always important to complete a project in the timeliest manner but skimping on planning can lead to project failure.  Once the project has been proven to be valuable to the organization, careful planning is needed. The stakeholders should be identified and analyzed. The key stakeholders define the project’s success criteria. Rather than rushing the planning to get on with the project and complete faster, in planning, you will find areas to trim time in implementation.

How many times have you heard people say, “we never have time to plan but we always have time to do it over”? For a project to succeed, the planning must be well thought out, thorough, documented and agreed upon. It is human nature to want to rush in and get started on a project, rather than spending considerable time planning. Yet it is well known that careful planning and project estimation is key to success of the project. Good planning can actually reduce the time required for the implementation phase. Important elements of project planning are stakeholder analysis, definition of success factors, team input and risk management planning.

Stakeholder analysis requires time and thought as there are the obvious stakeholders and the not so obvious stakeholders. There are stakeholders that determine if the project has succeeded and those that do not want the project to succeed. Among the stakeholders are people competing for your resources or with agendas that oppose your project. The Project Manager needs to formulate strategy for dealing with all stakeholders; ensuring key stakeholders participate as team members and negotiating with stakeholders that are competing for the same resources.

While the project manager and project team must bring the project in on time and in budget, this does not define success.  In the end, the customer declares the project successful or failed. For this reason, the first step in Project Management is in understanding the project’s objectives. The Project Manager and team must work very closely with the customer and all stakeholders to ensure clear understanding of the critical success factors as well as understanding stakeholder issues. From the success factors, metrics should be defined to ensure the success factors can be demonstrated at the conclusion of the project.

As part of the stakeholder analysis, identify the Executive sponsor and determine the level of support provided by this project champion. If the project does not have good executive sponsorship, it is not likely to succeed.

Sometimes the stakeholders have unrealistic expectations.  Customers almost always want it yesterday, cheap and perfect! The project’s schedule, budget or scope, as defined by the client, may not be reasonable. When we were designing custom equipment for our own company the schedule was set by the customer with no regard to how long it should take, the budget was set by the customer, based on what the customer could pay and, of course, the customer set the technical specification. Therefore, the budget, schedule, specification and stakeholder expectations were unrealistic. An example of both unrealistic expectations and improper customer strategy involved a project I was handed on my first day with a company. The project team was to design a machine that would automate work that was currently done manually. When it was transferred to me, the project was several months into its timeline with no design or concept developed. Yet, the customer thought the project was still on track. I recovered the situation by explaining the issue (while begging forgiveness) and bringing the customer onto the design team. As the customer had design concepts of his own, this plan worked out.

Throughout the Project: Managing Risk and Change

Scope creep is a big issue in project management. The project plan works for the scope of the project agreed to in the planning stage. As the project progresses, stakeholders, customers and even project team members can see opportunities to make the solution even better than originally planned. While this improvement sounds good, it will lead to cost overrun and schedule slippage. The Change Management process must be well established and must be adhered to by all involved with the project. Each change needs to be clearly documented, providing the impact to budget, schedule, resources, and risk and project results. The decision to include the change belongs to the project’s customer. On one project I managed, we decided that we should go forward with most of the customer out-of-scope changes simply to ensure customer satisfaction. This backfired on us. When the project was late and over budget, the customer saw this as project failure despite all the “free” changes we provided.

While the risk taker may not see the value to risk management planning, this is very important in project management. The risk management plan is not a document to be filed away once the planning is complete. The risks must be analyzed, documented and reviewed on a regular, ongoing basis. As the project progresses, risk mitigation activities will need to be completed as the issues occur and new risks will be discovered and included in the plan. Think of risk management planning as always having a plan A, plan B, and plan C.

Toward Successful Project Management

Best practices in Project Management require looking to the past, present and future:

  • Look to the past –remembering what has worked and what hasn’t worked.
  • In the Present – the project manager and project team must pay careful attention to all that is happening on the project t each day.
  • Look to the future  – through careful planning, adjusting as required and carrying out risk mitigation activities.

 

 

Order to Chaos – the Importance of Project Management

When I first joined a mid sized business that had no processes and procedures, I thought I had gone to heaven. It seemed like such freedom after working in companies with a good deal of processes, procedures and bureaucracy. Within a short time, I realized that I needed to drive establishment of sound processes. Our customer satisfaction depended on this! We needed project management to resolved quality and productivity issues. Another time, I was brought into a project that had started over a year earlier but little had been achieved while they waded through red tape holding back necessary first steps. While this was called a project, it was not being run as a project. The customers knew nothing about the cause of the delays. They only knew that when they asked a project team member a question about status, they received nothing but blank stares. Seeing this issue, I organized the project into a true project so that we could prioritize on tasks and phases, keep the customer informed, move forward and show progress.

Motivating during difficult times

When leading a team on a difficult project, it is important to keep the team motivated and continuing to resolve issues. However, motivation is more difficult when working on a project that is full of problems and potentially headed for failure. Team members tend to give up when they see a project as hopeless. This can be overcome and bring great rewards as illustrated in 3 examples from my past:
• On a project where we had a late start and a long list of issues, concerns and uncertainties, I took the project team to a motivational seminar about ownership (of everything you do). We had the team goal of stopping a division shutdown by successfully completing he project. As a team, we “owned” the success of the project. Considering that we had to work many nights and weekends to complete on time, it really helped to have this motivation. We had team members that didn’t get along, huge pressures to resolve problems and were much overworked but our dedication to successfully achieving our goals trumped all that and the project was a success.
• Later in my career, I was hired to lead program that was one year late to start. Despite the start delay, the customer wanted the solution now (that’s not unusual!). It was difficult to manage both up and down the organization. The customer was unhappy about the late start and the team was disgruntled about the schedule that they saw as unrealistic. I found that thinking positively and keeping a sense of humor helped me to motivate the team to complete activities as quickly as possible. Of course the team did think I was nuts for being so positive under the dire circumstances but this method worked.
• I joined an organization as a Project Manager only to find that I would be leading Engineers who had never worked with formal project processes and didn’t like them. Their projects were very difficult as we built custom equipment per the internal customer’s schedule and budget. We were not allowed to do a feasibility study to determine if the project should even be started. Prior to bringing in methodical Project Management, the division’s management had micro managed the Engineers to try and get the job done based on a very lose plan. I had always believed in empowerment. It took time to convince the team members about the power of good project management but empowering them made a world of difference in motivating them to work hard, resolve problems and work as a team. Empowerment beats micromanagement any day!

Ensuring Business Results with High Impact

Several years ago, I was hired for a position that didn’t have a job description. There was no career path for the position and the hiring manager wasn’t sure what the title should be for the position. Despite all this, it was one of the most exciting positions I have had! The job came basically with a mission. The business’ primary customer and their customer’s customer were very concerned about quality issues with their product. They were threatening a shutdown until the issues were resolved. Within two weeks, I resolved the problem of customer dissatisfaction and also sped up the process to a solution to the quality issue. This will sound simplistic but every time I am tasked with resolving an issue of customer dissatisfaction, I do one thing. I listen to the customer and seek to understand the root cause of their problem. I come to a client with my experiences to help them but also first I want to understand their true business issues. I have gone into consulting engagements after other consultants didn’t satisfy the client and I found that the issue really was that the previous consultants went in with “the solution”, with the idea that everyone needs what they were selling, not understanding the customer at all! There are no canned answers to a client’s problem. A consultant must be sure they are solving the problem that causes the customer’s pain and provides significant impact to the business. This may surprise you but the solution was for my company to become proactive. Make a plan, lead their experts to solutions around the issues and report on progress.