Keep it simple, stupid

Keep it simple, stupid

At any one time large organisations may have more than 100 projects on the go. Project management has thus become a vogue career option. But what qualities and skills does a successful project manager need?

“Simple is beautiful. Don’t try to prove yourself by creating complexities which are not needed.” Tony Hood, one-time boss of Databank, the man who wrote the definitive report for the government analysing why INCIS failed (which led to a different approach to government projects), and until recently acting CIO at New Zealand Post, has very strong views on project management.

At the top of his list is complexity. “We make things complex for those who don’t need to understand complexity,” he says. “Keep things simple.”

More cynically: “The user only knows what he wants when you fail to deliver it.”

Hood headed a four-man team responsible for establishing Kiwibank a few years ago. The first thing he did was to set a go-live date and a budget; the necessary technology hadn’t been thought about at that stage. The result: Kiwibank launched successfully on that date.

Some projects get under way too quickly, he says. “Establishing a project with people who are not fully occupied sets the pace of the project; urgency is lost. Communication is always an issue, while too many people increase communication problems. People find work to do that may be better not done.”

He warns not to minimise a budget at the beginning of a project. “It’s always hard to budget for a project and, whether it is $10,000 or a million-dollar agreement, it is always an issue. Giving in and minimising may mean that you need to go through the same arguments for a top-up. Get enough [money in the] budget at the start.”

Project managers, he says, spend half their time managing the project and half managing the governance and the environment. That means running the project owner and his peers.

Good governance should be run by the owner. “Just because you have a project manager does not absolve the owner from ‘governing’ the project, ensuring it is running as expected.

Hood says there needs to be openness about a project. “There must be no secrets. Everyone must have access to what is going on and to the expectations.” Thus, he says, difficulties can arise when projects are spread across multiple sites, including other countries in the case of some outsourcing arrangements.

Somewhat cynically again, he says, “There are two sets of project managers — those who can sell themselves and those who can do the job.

“A lot of people reach a position (in their jobs) where they can’t increase their salaries, so they become contractors, particularly in project management.

“But if you have failed as a manager, it’s not easy to become a project manager. Still, there is a lot who do.”

So, can a person become a project manager without any experience in the detail? “Yes,” says Hood, “but it helps. Experience counts. We all have to start somewhere but when a project manager is replaced because the project is ailing, you must go for a person who has done it before.

“To an extent, project management has become an art because organisations are now buying in things. Employment law doesn’t help. It’s easier to hire a contractor rather than have to fire a staff member.”

Do project management tools help? Hood says they are important but it’s the planning that counts: What has to be done, by whom and when. “What is the critical path?”

Brian Fair recently became IT manager at Lumley General Insurance. Previously, he was group manager of the programme office at ASB Bank.

At any one time, ASB had upwards of 70 projects on the go, each of the large ones headed by a project manager. Several smaller projects might be project-managed by the same person.

He talks of the ability to leverage experiences across the organisation through the programme office. “It’s very much around investment management, acknowledging there are right ways of doing things so you don’t spend too much money on the wrong projects.”

He says that at the project level there is a need for some sort of management tool, such as a graphical scheduler. “But for real management, you need to go up the food chain to a portfolio manager. There is too often the temptation to put a tool over an already broken project.”

Consistent rules are important, he says, as well as a compliance rule.

Project management, he feels, has become a “vogue” occupation. “There are a lot of people calling themselves project managers who are not up to snuff.” He sees parallels with business analysts. That said, “formal qualifications are not necessary”.

A key lesson to be learned is the power of an executive sponsor in supporting a project.

“Any project of size requires an executive sponsor because there is competition for scarce resources. The executive sponsor is the guy who holds the baseball bat.”

Openness and honesty is essential in projects, says Steven Graham, one of the founders of the Agile Professionals Network, which was set up last November as a forum to update executives on trends in project management.

“Projects that get off the ground need open communication with all the key stakeholders.”

Graham says many organisations are adopting agile principles. “Because of the high statistics of project failure, they’re saying let’s do something different.”

A case in point was the ASB Bank, which was the first New Zealand company to implement agile project management throughout the organisation.

Graham says a 2006 review highlighted a need for increased transparency of the project management process, along with the desire by the executive management team to have more hands-on involvement.

Fronde, of which Graham is general manager, was approached to lead the rollout of the agile project management framework.

It was as much a cultural change as anything. It included executive briefings so all the project sponsors understood their role in the project, agile training for all project managers, a review of the group programme office to identify where agile fitted into overall project governance, workshops for key project managers, as well as the provision of independent facilitators to help cross-skill the ASB team on the practical implementation of agile project management.

The initial implementation began in 2006 and continues today with more than 135 staff trained in agile techniques.

Sidebar: How not to lose staff during project implementation

A person’s relationship with their manager has often been cited as a key factor in staff retention. In many IT organisations, the manager with whom they will have most interaction will be a project manager. Therefore in implementing staff retention polices, it is important to consider the leadership qualities of a project manager.

“The attitude and attributes of the project manager has a direct and measurable effect on the performance of the team, more so than their technical knowledge,” notes Mark Jamieson, director of Access Point.

Staff retention policies for the project itself tend to be tactical in nature, in many cases having to make the best of what you have got, and competing for resources within the company. For example, he notes, the ability for a vendor project manager to keep the assigned resources on your project against competition in his own company is an unsung and often invisible attribute, but a very important one.

Jamieson says from a project manager’s point of view, there are two key success factors on retaining staff on a project:

Proper planning: This means resource needs are identified and scheduled. This gives the project an advantage against other demands on required staff’s time, because its requirements are clear. Also, by providing clarity to the team of what is required, the distractions of other, less structured activities are removed. Only a few organisations have resource management systems that recognise the specific planning needs of project resources, including the spreading of resources across multiple projects, but these are very useful.

A project environment people want to be part of: Project managers consider this to be more important. A motivated, engaged team can achieve wonders, says Jamieson.

“If people want to be on your team, they will usually find some way of staying on it. If they feel they are in a negative environment, they will find something else to do in the company. Although project work has a reputation for being stressful and high-pressured, many people enjoy the environment of a focused project team, with its clear goals and objectives and team spirit.”

Sidebar: Upskilling for project management

ESI International is the largest global organisation specialising in project management training.

It opened an office in New Zealand in 2004, and today trains project managers for many of the country’s largest organisations.

“They recognised that project management had to have some processes and follow standards,” says country manager Tanya Belfield.

“We train to Project Management Institute standards.”

She says examples of large users include Telecom (180 trained), Gen-i (120), the New Zealand Defence Force, New Zealand Police, and the banking and finance industries.

Globally, ESI has Shell, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco among its customers.

Sidebar: ‘I run a department, I can run a project’

By Chris Pope

A group of chief operating officers from different businesses once asked me to help them plan out a strategic programme of work being jointly owned/led by their respective business; each with their own interests and priorities. The conversation went something like this:

“We would like you to help us plan out the tasks… here’s the whiteboard marker”

“Ok…Do you have a project definition or scope document?”

“Well, no, but we have this Discussion Document, it should have all of the information we need…” (I could not hear the rest of the sentence over the alarm bells ringing in my head).

“Hmmm, well as you say, that is a Discussion document, it is not an agreement between your organisations as to what the goal of the exercise is, what you expect to deliver at the end of this, and how you’ll know when you’ve succeeded...”

As I sat around the table with these business leaders, explaining the project management process and the “why” behind it, the light went on. They began to realise that there is a difference between business management and project management. They saw “Scope”, “Risk”, “Schedule”, and “Objective” no longer as words to which anyone can attach their own meaning, but as the critical pillars of a project. Pillars that must be planned and constructed by an expert in order for that house to stand strong.

I left this meeting thinking about a common objection that I hear from IT managers, business professionals, and even a room of COOs. “We run a business (or department), certainly we can manage a project…how different can it be?”

We can all agree that there is some overlap between general management skills and project management skills. Come to think of it, there are similarities between an automobile mechanic and an aircraft mechanic…but let him work on your Boeing, and the importance of the differences (weight and balance, centre of gravity, metal fatigue) will become abundantly clear!

Here are five differentiators between project management and general management that can make or break a project:

Scope definition and management: Where does success start? At the beginning! You would be surprised at the number of projects that go “off the rails” because the “track” was never laid to begin with! Project Management experts know the importance of clearly defined goals, objectives, and deliverables; and why every one must understand and agree to them before the first task is typed into Microsoft Project. If the stakeholders do not know why they are doing a project, how they define success, and what the results will be at the end of it, it is better to shelve the project before it costs your company time, money, and heartache!

Project planning: Business operations are ongoing, projects are (by definition) temporary. But what type of project is it? How complex? How much “unknown” is there? What are the primary drivers — Time? Cost? Scope? Knowing the questions to ask, and how to interpret the answers into the best approach to the project will save rework and missed deadlines. One size does not fit all — Waterfall, Iterative, Agile, are very different project management approaches for different types of projects. It takes a skilled project manger to know the difference and which to apply.

Risk management: Many people just identify a risk. But the important questions: “What is the potential impact of the risk” and “Who ‘owns’ the problem and will be responsible for resolving it?” rarely get asked. A strong project manager will always assess the risk and actively mitigate it until it is no longer a threat, so it does not come back and bite him later.

Product development lifecycle: I have seen business managers define a solution without first understanding the problem. The project management expert knows that any product development starts and finishes with the end-user, and must be go through certain milestones in order to get the desired results.

Stakeholder engagement: Although many managers may lead their teams, complex cross-departmental projects require a greater level of facilitation and communication skills.

Many projects get into trouble because people without the required project management skills are asked to lead them. They soon find themselves frustrated and overworked; operating out of their depth; and doing so poorly. Savvy business leaders operate in their strengths and get others with the complementary expertise to augment the skills they lack.

Chris Pope is the Director of The Valde Group (, a management consultancy.

Fairfax Business Media

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