Friday, May 4, 2018

Complexity - The Biggest Challenge of the Modern Manager

Managing complexity is the ultimate challenge for the 21st century project manager. I've been lucky enough to learn a few things about it over past few years managing the deployment of a unique science-based based platform called Syntegration. This process allows large teams of up to 48 people to come together over 2-3 days and solve some of the world's most complex challenges. Working with clients such as 3M, Campbell's, and Norvartis, I have watched in awe as this structured process has been applied to the right group of people to quickly produce actionable results. We like to say we have solved for the process of solving.

Structured Process

To set the stage, here is some context from our website:

"The key to our business orchestration platform is Syntegration®—the breakthrough, science-based algorithm for mobilizing large groups, deepening relationships and, most importantly, rapidly solving complex challenges. With Syntegration, we streamline large group interaction in ways that mobilize your combined talent, moving it from individual contributions, to collaboration, to collective results, to a clearly defined action plan with sustained momentum.By combining insights from geometry, neurology and cybernetics with advanced mathematical models and social-technologies, we enable you to quickly optimize large group interaction, consolidate thinking, and formulate solutions in dramatically compressed timeframes. Our team of experts deliver Syntegration in a face-to-face setting over the course of two to three days."

To put this in simple terms, it means that a Syntegration is a highly engineered process that gets big groups of people to interact in a series of 'collisions' over 2-3 days in a way that spreads knowledge, understanding, and alignment across the group. There really is nothing like this platform on the market, and the proof is in eyes of participants who light up after seeing innovative ideas traverse the minds of believers, and disbelievers alike, as the process of Syntegration unfolds.

Requisite Variety

A Syntegration needs to be carefully planned to ensure it is comprised of the right people to solve the question at hand. This often means we don't include just the top of house in Strategy/Finance/Planning but also IT, HR, Marketing. It really depends on question/challenge, but we put a lot time into the thinking around who can best provide the varied and rich context to best inform the conversation.

Actionable Recommendations

The key output of every Syntegration is alignment around the core/key issues. The structured collision of thinking among the right group of experts produces a crescendo of  actionable recommendations. These proposals are deeply informed by the hive mind of up to 48 senior leaders, who are aligned on the need for action. Our experience has shown that the Syntegration event itself creates a type of 'action halo' that participants carry with them back to their daily jobs, and immediate work priorities. This is further supported by key output deliverables, steering committees, and a 3/6/12 month check-up process.

There are ways to tackle the challenge of complexity and get teams aligned on mobilized on solutions. For over 15 years we have been doing events across North America, and we believe the right solution to solve for solving complexity is the process of Syntegration.

Dave Ullrich, B.Comm, PMP specializes in IT project management consulting and strategy with his company Cilantra Solutions. He has based this approach on the results of several successful IT project implementations with teams distributed across Canada, US, and the UK. He can be reached at

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Power of Perception - Awareness of your Surroundings

Years of experience managing projects big and small gives us a unique perspective on human behaviour. The complexity of the modern world makes it harder and harder for people to live their lives with straight line predictably. It's not just that we don't know what each day will bring, but an ever-growing sense that every day we face more unknowns colliding with other unknowns. In context of projects, this means we must dig deep as leaders to always seek root-level perspective on why our teams behave the way they do.

Body Language

To be aware of your surroundings, is unquestionably to be aware of body language. Realizing that the modern business world has more digital interaction (phone, email, text) than ever before, it is important that we seek to pick up on every subtlety on the those rare opportunities for real face-to-face interaction. Boardroom meetings provide so many chances to see real human non-verbal communication in a direct and unfiltered way. You don't need to be an expert to pick up on simple cues like fidgeting (meeting running over time), slumped shoulders (nobody is listening to me), rising from a chair repeatedly (dominance), darting eyes (unstated disagreement over something everyone agreed on), excessive texting (can either mean boredom, or even trouble at home). The point very simply is that chances to read body language should not be taken lightly and a good PM always gets an edge when being fully present and aware of their surroundings.

Emotional Intelligence

The definition of emotional intelligence is is the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one's goal(s). Good emotional intelligence is often something that comes with age, but also can simply be related to the types of varied experience we all have seen in our daily lives. Usually lived experience with many different types of people/personalities affords us the greatest chance to truly digest and reflect on the ways our fellow humans interact. Some people express behaviours that appear to reflect certain obvious feelings but may in fact have unpredictable origins. Team members may express frustration over bad processes, cranky clients, or lack of time to get work done when in fact the true challenges are personal health issues, money problems, or bad lighting. How are you supposed to tell the difference? Good leaders with real emotional intelligence always seek to comprehend the potential layers of human interaction, and human dischord. The best way is to carefully ponder the possibilities that may exist beneath the surface, and then let your own emotional intelligence guide your actions with caution and mutual respect.

Let Talent Be Talent

It's always important to understand that, in a modern professional work environment, people are hired because they are already talented, experienced, and uniquely motivated. Talent responds to being allowed to express talent. Good awareness of your surroundings always means that you should consider the innate talent of you team, and then guide their ability to fully express their gifts and creativity. Stifling talent, or holding back creative individuals, with the wrong kinds of guard rails such as complicated processes/systems, or micromanaging, is always a recipe for disaster. Good leaders are able to perceive the key talent drivers for team members and then consistently leverage and nuture those drivers. When talent is allowed to be talent, great results will flurish.

No matter what industry you are in as project manager, it always pays to consider the human side of every challenge first, and then work to tactics. The power of perception is the power we have as managers to let people be people.

Dave Ullrich, B.Comm, PMP specializes in IT project management consulting and strategy with his company Cilantra Solutions. He has based this approach on the results of several successful IT project implementations with teams distributed across Canada, US, and the UK. He can be reached at

Monday, February 23, 2015

Desert Island PM - Stranded With Just One Tool

Good Project Management is all about the basics. A recent super complex project got me thinking about the most essential tools that a PM must rely on every day. If you were stranded on a remote desert island with access to only one PM tool to do your job, what would you choose?

The List

Many people outside of the world of project management think it is all about the classic Microsoft Project GANTT chart. This detailed task breakdown can often take ages to develop correctly using all key SMEs and stakeholders. The management and upkeep of these charts can be a full time job, and many consider them the gold standard for any serious project. While you can't argue with the value of a the GANTT as a project 'book of record', I often rely on a much simpler tool day-to-day to get real results. When push comes to shove, a good PM knows that that good tactical task management depends on your list. All you really need is a smartphone list to create and track lists on a daily, hourly and real time basis. Lists are easily managed by one person, tracking is simple and they do a great job of highlighting the work that really needs to get done right now. A good managed list is the true essence of project management.

The Spreadsheet

Everyone knows the old adage "you can't manage what you can't measure". However, we must not take this too far and end up measuring so many different elements of a project that there is no time, or inclination, to ever make sense of it. Data collected is most useful when it is easily digested by the brains that matter, and that means the brains of your key stakeholders. A simple spreadsheet is an invaluable tool to allow a PM to easily track/update data and then quickly and easily display the results. To this end, it is great to use cloud utilities like Google Spreadsheets which have a feature set that is intentionally minimized/simplified to force you to only use the functions that really matter. The key is to move away from flat spreadsheet files spread around by email and move your team to cloud spreadsheets that provide a quick and easy way to measure, collaborate and get results.

The Deck

No matter what kind of project you are managing, you can't succeed without great communication skills. Knowing what to say, when to say it, and how to say it, is the hallmark of seasoned PM.  A classic Powerpoint-style deck is one of the most vital PM tools to quickly communicate your tasks/progress/results. Not unlike the way a tweet forces you to communicate the essence of your message in 144 characters, a deck has always forced the PM to distill analysis and focus thought. A concise message works great every time whether talking to a senior executive, a new hire or a time-starved technical SME. The key is to follow best practices when creating your decks including clean fonts, liberal use of charts/pictures and simple templates and colours. These golden rules help to keep the message short, punchy and crystal clear.

As a rule, it is great to regularly re-examine your bag of PM tools and tricks to ensure you have the right mix to ensure your success. By considering your own desert island list, you may determine that the simplest tools are the ones that get used every day, and in every way, on your most successful projects.  A great PM knows simplicity is the key to success.

Dave Ullrich, B.Comm, PMP specializes in IT project management consulting and strategy with his company Cilantra Solutions. He has based this approach on the results of several successful IT project implementations with teams distributed across Canada, US, and the UK. He can be reached at 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Instincts – Making the Right Moves

Many people believe that good project management instincts can’t be taught. However, there are simple ways that any PM can improve their game. One definition of ‘instinct’ is a “complex pattern of behavior present in every specimen of a particular species, that is innate, and that cannot be overridden”. In simple management terms, it can be thought of as a person’s natural reflex. Just like an animal in the jungle, a really good PM relies on their instincts to navigate through the unknown.

A PM with good instincts, and good natural reflex, knows when to make a move and when to hold steady. They know when to communicate, and when to protect information. Their instincts tell them who to talk to, and whose talk can’t be trusted. For a good PM, reviewing an org chart is like a doctor reading an x-ray, as it often quickly reveals the true inner workings of any project.

If you’ve ever tried to hire a PM then you know how tough it is to find individuals with that magic combination of clear communication skills, strong project management fundamentals and decisive instincts. The question for young PMs, and organizations looking to make their PMs better, is ‘how can one develop better PM instincts’?

The Bad News

Generally speaking, truly good instincts seem to be a product of one's cumulative life experiences. So, in many ways, you either have it or you don’t. Everything from your earliest social skills learned as child, combined with your work/travel/fun experiences, tend to play into the amorphous concept known as ‘instinct’.

The Good News

On the other hand, it is possible to hone your instincts through experience, mentors and reflection. Being mindful about developing better instincts is the first step to improve. A conscious decision to seek improve your instincts will pay benefits greater than any PM course, university degree or expensive new suit. Developing good instincts will simplify your life, lower your stress and make your projects run better.


There is nothing like real project experience to help a person understand how the world really works. In each new project, we tend to come across many of the same characters/challenges and experience helps us to react with a more immediate knowledge of likely outcomes. Many times, it really is true that ‘what doesn’t kill you, make you stronger’. PMs that are able to learn from their mistakes will increase their success when faced with similar future challenges. Experience teaches us that there are only so many different ways to approach the same problem, and that no single solution is the correct solution. Instincts improve with experience as we learn to think before we leap, and consider possible ripple-effects of what we do before we do it. Experience is truly innate and it can’t be substituted by any other skill. This is why experienced project managers tend be more trusted, and often have greater project success.


A good mentor can help one make sense of confusing, or conflicting, information. The ability of a mentor to sit outside of a situation, and draw on their own personal well of instinct and intuition, can really help younger PMs hone their own instincts. Learning from those that have been in tight spots is a great way to collect valuable intellectual capital that can only come from a one-to-one connection with a senior PM mentor. A good mentor can review various possible ways of handling a situation, apply their own instincts and make go-forward suggestions. This allows the young PM to learn ‘risk free’ by discussing various scenarios, reviewing pros and cons, and then choosing an informed path.


Daily reflection is a simple way to improve instincts. A good PM will use a few spare minutes every day, perhaps on way home from work, to engage in some realistic self-review to assess notable daily interactions, decisions and challenges. This assessment will focus on what went right, what went wrong and what could be improved in similar situations next time. This type of self-feedback loop is an ideal way to exercise one’s instincts, like flexing a muscle, every single day of the week. The key benefit to reflection is comprehension. Learning never stops and daily self-reviews are a great way to truly digest the instinctual challenges we have daily.

A PM with good instincts will have more successful projects, receive great respected from their peers and be in high demand. Project managers that leverage the benefits of project experience, mentors and daily reflection will hone their instincts and further grow to become true leaders.

Dave Ullrich, B.Comm, PMP specializes in IT project management consulting and strategy with his company Cilantra Solutions. He has based this approach on the results of several successful IT project implementations with teams distributed across Canada, US, and the UK. He can be reached at

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Connecting the Dots - Using Program Frameworks to Successfully Link Enterprise Projects

As project complexity increases in the enterprise environment, simple structures are needed to deploy mission critical applications. Program frameworks allow projects to be bundled together using straightforward governance structure, common communication methodology and shared ownership.

A Great Name

A good program starts with a great name. When a single program encompasses several businesses or technology projects, it can be a challenge to get a single name that works to distill everything. However, it pays to take the time to do some crowdsourcing, run a naming contest or engage a design firm to assist. The program name should tie back to the highest overall goals of the program and a quality name brings clarity to the mission of the overall engagement. Most importantly, a great name gets people excited, starts people talking and keeps the program at top of mind across the enterprise among both senior executives and the rank and file.

Simple Governance Structure

Enterprise programs benefit from simple governance structures that can be summarized on a single sheet of paper. The key is to create a series of steering committees and team status meetings that allow information to flow up and down the organization quickly and clearly. If everything can’t fit on a single one-pager, you probably have too many committees, too many teams or too many layers.

Common Communication Methodology

Once again, a one-pager dashboard is vital. Program transparency is greatly improved when you create a document, or website, that provides a single one-page overview of all projects and all common metrics. A regular spreadsheet with simple colour codes, project statistics and key roles/names should be updated every week and presented with all relevant financial reporting. Documentation should be posted using a common platform like Sharepoint, or Google Docs. A communication matrix should be developed to ensure that everyone gets the information they need, when they need it.

Shared Ownership

Shared ownership of a program starts with a common understanding of the overall goals. When clear project goals are defined up front with input from all levels of the organization, all teams can agree on a definition of success. A series of iterative working sessions to develop the program goals creates a conduit for senior management to float competing priorities, gauge reaction from peers/stakeholders, then revise. This ‘survival of the fittest’ process will ensure the ideas really have legs and they will form a solid base for the success of the program.

Simple frameworks are the glue that holds an enterprise program together, working to increase the chance that all program sub-projects are executed with success.

Dave Ullrich, B.Comm, PMP specializes in IT project management consulting and strategy with his company Cilantra Solutions. He has based this approach on the results of several successful IT project implementations with teams distributed across Canada, US, and the UK. He can be reached at

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Transparency – The Magic of Agile

Projects need transparency to ensure clear project communication. Everyone wants to know just what they need to know, when they need to know it. One of the best things about the Agile methodology is the focus on frequent iterative checkpoints between the development team, management, the sponsor and the customer. This form of connection goes a long way to create greater project transparency and helps a team to more organically readjust requirements to react to changing needs, market conditions and financial restrictions.

Communication Over Documentation

The many variants of the Agile methodology have a common desire to value communication over documentation. The scenario of a waterfall project that spends years in the development of project requirements documentation, only to be cancelled prior to development, illustrates the core communication weakness of waterfall. People don’t know what they don’t know. Short iterative touch points allow all stakeholders to see requirements in action, and make adjustments quickly. The communication loop is simple, direct and sometimes painful.

Communicate Up and Down

From a management perspective, it is still important to communicate in both directions on an Agile projects. As everything moves very quickly, there is a temptation to get caught in the weeds of daily issue management and overall project direction. This is particularly true in the early stages of an Agile project when processes, requirements and development may all be happening at the same time. The temptation is to focus on communicating and connecting with the team. However, this is the stage where the Steering Committee must be kept up to speed on their value for money. Once the early iterations starting flowing through the review and approval stages, the wider team will become more aligned on the larger project goals. Overall project transparency will start to emerge as the development team learns early about the needs and quirks of senior management. Similarly, the steering committee will get a real sense of what kind of work can be achieved in realistic timeframes.

Consistent Approach to Iterations

A simple iteration schedule applied consistently is the best way to ensure transparency. A simple two week loop with checkpoints for requirements planning, design, review, development, QA and deployment acts like a mini circular project plan. Everyone knows exactly what to expect every two weeks and the team will establish a rhythm. As unplanned requirements come up in successive iterations, they get reviewed alongside other project priorities in real time. The loop is tight, clear and effective.

Be Flexible

As the name implies, Agile really is all about flexibility. Project transparency means that everyone knows more about what everyone else is doing. If people know you are doing, you need to be prepared to adjust based on their feedback. Change is constant, and change is good. Getting in the groove of a constant feedback loop will allow you to elevate your project management game with creativity and decisiveness.

Embrace Agile as your window to clear project communication.

Dave Ullrich, B.Comm, PMP specializes in IT project management consulting and strategy with his company Cilantra Solutions. He can be reached at

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Thin End of the Wedge - How To Sell Project Management To Disbelievers

Where do you start? Selling project management to disbelievers is a serious challenge when trying to grow an organic project-based culture. Making the case for project management involves knowing how, and who, to influence with the details that matter. How can you get someone to really understand something that they’ve never really seen before? You need the real thing. The greatest advocates of project management are those that have had it work on a project from beginning to end. These are people that have seen several ‘near misses’ averted, but also have a full understanding of the potential impact on the bottom line. Project management works. We all know that, but now we have to prove it to other people. You must tailor the message to your audience, and there are several great ways to make your pitch.

Thin End of the Wedge #1 – Lead by Example

The only way to understand project management is to see it in action. Setting a great example is the best way to demonstrate the benefits that result from a strong application of PM best practices. When projects are new to an organization it is very important to ensure that potential champions witness classic PM form. It is vital to ensure your initial projects have a very well defined beginning and end. In a non-projectized environment, it is very common for work engagements to have uncoordinated starts, and never-ending finishes. Work just happens. In the project-based culture, the key is to ensure both the team, and the larger organization, know exactly when a project has started and finished.

Communicating project timelines, status, and team composition is the best way to stand out from the crowd. For example, you should kick-off your first projects with a splash using several standard team-building tools. The group should work together to come up with a team name, common meeting area, and simple ground rules. Keep the tone electric, and really sell the sizzle. In addition, the initial meeting should be used to strongly define the project roles and responsibilities, scope, and timelines. When the project is complete, make sure you have a final celebration, team gift, and a lessons learned/postmortem. Publicize the project team results by putting a photo of the group in your company newsletter. Although they may not always be fun, projects are new to your organization. Make the novelty work for you by capitalizing on the little successes and work on ‘building the story’ around the growth of the project culture. By providing good form, you provide a concrete reference point for the entire organization.

Thin End of the Wedge #2 – Scope Matters

What is the one thing that you need to know if you have never heard of project management? Scope matters. All projects have a beginning and end, and a good PM must know exactly what has to be accomplished in the given timeframe. Scope must be well defined and clearly communicated to all project stakeholders. Once the boundaries have been clearly laid out, an array of tools and techniques must be deployed throughout the project to ensure the boundaries are protected.

It is important to explain that everyone benefits when the project team sticks to the scope. At any given time in a project, a sponsor may try to add a feature that would benefit her department, product, or corporate profile. Meanwhile, a team member may try to change an element that would make his job easier, be fun to do, or further pad his resume. The temptation to change scope is constant, and the context is usually very personally, and politically, charged. In organizations that are defined largely by functional activities, these types of changes are commonplace. Why? When your job is to do operational work, scope doesn’t really matter. In the project world, the PM must be adept at using issue management, change control, and quality communication techniques to keep the team focused on the project boundaries.

The PM is there to understand the big picture, and promote the long-term project view. Individuals that are focused on short-term objectives, usually suggest small functional changes, causing more ‘scope creep’. The job of the PM is to enable the team to fully understand the impact of out-of-scope changes, and promote the benefits of staying within the project boundaries. Ultimately, nobody on the team wants a project to be over time, over budget, or lacking features. The impact on company, career, and job satisfaction can be very real. The PM helps the team to stay on point, ensuring that maintaining project scope will benefit everyone.

Thin End of the Edge #3 – Accountability

‘Doing what we said we would do’. This pretty much sums up the objective of any well-run project, but project management disbelievers may not agree. It is tough to have accountability without scope, and both are often somewhat fuzzy in operational organizations. We all know individuals that have built a career around transferring, obscuring and denying accountability. The key advantage of project-based work is the ability to better define scope, and therefore better assign accountability.

By clearly defining the roles and responsibilities at the start of the project, it is possible to lay solid groundwork that will encourage more responsibility. Always remember that the ‘project role’ can often be different from the ‘organizational role’, and the distinction must be made very clearly. A team that knows exactly what is expected has a greater chance of success at meeting objectives. The project manager should take the time to personally review the assigned project role with each team member at the start of the project. Feedback should be gathered, allowing the PM to ‘sign off’ on the agreement with each person.

Although someone other than the PM may often assign project roles, it is important that the manager confirm the role with the individual. Remember that the best work assignment is always an agreement between the manager and the team member. Individuals that have a stake in the decision about role definition always appreciate the ability to better define their work. This is great for the team, and further strengthens the PM’s ability to ensure accountability.

Patience and Subtlety

Slow and steady. Organizational change is always best achieved through gentle execution of a well-planned set of objectives. Selling project management in an entrenched functional organization will always be tough. The key is to stick to a few simple principles, and work to the goals with patience and subtlety. To lead by example, patience is needed to allow several initiatives to pass through the full project lifecycle. Once the results are real, it will be easy to champion the success. The process of promoting scope and accountability in a functional organization will require a subtle approach to minimize the potential for ‘organizational shock’. The move to a project-based culture will really shake things up, and the wise PM will recognize the importance of treading lightly. Selling project management to disbelievers is a challenge that can be met when we stick to the vision, and work smart.

Article originally published in May 2008.

Dave Ullrich, B.Comm, PMP specializes in IT project management consulting and strategy with his company Cilantra Solutions. He can be reached at