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

Technology and Team Building - Making Remote Project Management Work

Everyone knows that the best project managers are ‘hands on’. The discipline of project management requires the ability to facilitate complex interaction between schedules, budgets, technologies, and people. When these elements are geographically dispersed, the inevitable challenges to project success become much greater. To make it work, the remote team project manager needs to implement specific techniques that address the inherent weaknesses and strengths of these initiatives. An effective and creative approach to managing remote teams will increase the chance of doing the impossible.

How do we end up with remote project teams?

The global marketplace, sophisticated communication technologies, the demands of a skilled workforce, and the ever-increasing drive for cost efficiences mean that remote teams are a new fact of life. These teams may result from the use of stay at home workers, offshore development resources, or just the simple need to link skilled people and create valuable project results. How do you make it work? Communication is the essence of good remote team project management.

The Internet is the key

The Internet facilitates quality team communication. We must remember that the Internet was originally created by the US military to facilitate research and development activities among geographically dispersed project teams. Today, we’ve refined our use of the Internet as a communication tool so that it can fully support the needs of the modern project team. Collaboration is key. Tools such as email, VPN, instant messaging, whiteboards, text messaging, online conferencing, and project websites combine in allowing project managers to assist the progress of real collaborative results.

The electronic breadcrumb trail

Internet collaboration technologies promote accountability. Remote teams live and die by the ability to balance individual creative output with constant access to the quality intellectual production of the rest of the team. Remote work usually means that team members are able to remain in work environments that are creative, sensible, or at least convenient. Some of the best technology workers make the conscious decision to exist in environments far removed from major cities. This can be a win-win situation if the right environment is set up to allow the team to thrive, along with assurances to project stakeholders that the work is getting done. Internet collaboration tools create an effective and useful breadcrumb trail that brings real transparency to the project process.

How does the technology work?

Internet communication tools facilitate quick, meaningful, and efficient distribution of project information. In addition, the results effectively create an archive of project decisions, developments, and knowledge. Project information can easily be collected, managed, and reviewed by all members of the team.

A simple tool such as a team email list quickly allows individuals to disseminate information to the full group with one quick message. These lists create instant discussion threads that are easy to read, and tough to miss. Instant messaging tools provide an efficient means of getting answers for quick decisions that don’t require a full email or phone call. In addition, instant message software uses status icons that say ‘I’m here’. With a simple team rule that makes it a daily requirement to post this icon, you can feel more confident that your team is on duty. Virtual Private Network (VPN) software allows individuals to access remote computer systems using simple encryption technologies. This software facilitates safe access to high security internal networks when team members are just about anywhere, yet they are still ‘in the office’. Web conferencing and ‘whiteboard’ technologies allow project managers to hold remote meetings via the Internet with full access to real time display technologies. These tools allow a PM to use techniques that facilitate real interaction and team development. Text-messaging and “always-on” email tools, like the BlackBerry pager, permit real time communication almost anywhere. Finally, a high quality project web page is a great way to wrap it all up. The project page can act as the key interactive resource for capturing all information related to the project. This includes information updates, status reports, documentation archives, and access to all information threads. Although Internet technologies create a solid collection of project development activities, a bit more will be needed to make it really work.

Conventional Collaboration Tools

There is no substitute for a real face-to-face meeting. Due to the obvious complexity and cost associated with gathering a remote team, it is important to be judicious about the timing and technique. Meeting in person with the project team is most effective at the beginning, and end, of a project. In addition, get-togethers focused on the completion of major milestones underline project progress for both the team and sponsor. The good news is that these meetings are often an effective method of creating a ‘clearing house’ for the collection of major issues that have been skillfully and thoroughly tracked using the Internet technologies. The results are real. Daily team conference calls are also a great conventional method of facilitating communication and issue resolution with the team. The meetings can be short, no longer than 30 minutes, and the PM should facilitate discussion around the highest priority issues. The calls provide a chance for the team to ask the types of questions that just don’t translate in electronic form. Junior team members respond well to the quality of daily discussion among the team leads, and the result is a valuable mentorship tool. These conventional collaboration tools help to build superior teams.

Team-building on a remote project

Teams love information. Developing the team dynamic for a remote project team is facilitated through the effective and coordinated distribution of information. There are many creative ways to use these collaboration tools to build team development. Daily conference calls should be used as an opportunity to foster small talk, and provide friendly windows into the world of the team. A daily ‘word of the day’ or ‘in the news’ segment is a great way to set the expectation that non-project interaction is encouraged. An in-person project kick-off meeting provides an opportunity to put a face to a name, and allow the team leads to assess the true skills of the project team. The impressions made at this meeting will mold the development and growth of the team dynamic.

Although you may not be able to celebrate every milestone in person with your team, it is possible to find simple ways to remotely reward your group. Home delivery can be your remote sets of arms, used to hand deliver gifts and words of encouragement. Something as simple as a surprise pizza delivery, junk food basket from an online grocer, or local movie tickets will go over big with the team. Although you can’t be there, the team will readily get the message that results count.

Results that really matter

Remote teams can make everyone look good. This approach to managing teams will only become more common as communication tools continue to improve. As the frameworks get better, the cost and quality benefits of remote teams will become harder to ignore. Whether the context is offshore development, the use of home offices, or increasing global collaboration, remote projects must be executed successfully. Project managers have a great variety of collaboration tools available to make it work. It is possible to keep a ‘hands on’ approach with remote team project management.

- Article was written for Gantthead in 2003.

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, April 27, 2009

Making Meetings Matter - How To Run Effective Meetings

To make meetings really matter, you just have to be simple and consistent. After all, managing effective meetings is the quickest way to gain credibility with your team and drive real project results. It is vital to prepare well for every meeting, and sincerely value the time contribution of each and every member of your group.

Here is a checklist that will focus your planning:

- Always start on time.
- Always have an agenda.
- Always clearly communicate the purpose of the meeting.
- Always clearly communicate the desired result of the meeting.
- Always set a specific duration for the overall meeting, eg. 1 hour
- Always time each of the major topic areas, eg. Introduction – 10 mins.
- Always pick a Meeting Chairperson.
- Always set the clear expectation that the Chairperson will be the ‘traffic cop’, working to keep the meeting on topic, and on schedule.
- Always provide the opportunity for the group to add to the agenda at the beginning of the meeting.
- Always manage your group to stick to the time estimates.
- In the event that the schedule is slipping throughout the meeting, ensure that you use the final ten minutes to drive for close on key topics. Call for a pause in the action, review what absolutely needs to be addressed in ten minutes, and then work to complete.
- Always reschedule a follow-up meeting if all topics can’t be covered within the scheduled timeframe.
- Always track a list of Action Items throughout the meeting. This includes issue, person responsible, and due date.
- Always summarize Action Items for the group at the end of a meeting.
- Always take Meeting Minutes. All that is required is a collection of simple notes on key points.
- Always follow-up with Minutes in email, or just the list of Action Items.
- Always keep your meetings as short as possible.
- Always finish on time.

Strong meeting management is a skill appreciated by anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Terry Scott is a Technology Project Management specialist who is passionate about process. He can be reached at

The Power of Perception - How Project Managers Get The Real Story

Good project managers have a sixth sense. This is the ability to walk into a high-pressure situation and get a quick read on your surroundings. A PM that is new to any project needs fast answers and instant credibility. To get the job done, you need to know who to talk to, who will listen to you, and who can actually do the work. Solid powers of perception help a project manager get the real story.

Body Language

Meetings are one of the first places that you will start to see the real picture. As PM, you will lead to set the tone and define the agenda. Meeting management skills are vital to ensure that you can read your audience, and adjust your approach in real time. You should postion yourself in the best area of the room to properly observe body language. The key is not just look for what people are saying, but how they are saying it. When individuals speak, take note of who is paying attention, who is grimacing, who is slouching, and who is making eye contact. All the non-verbal cues displayed in a meeting will give you some good behind-the-scenes information about who really has influence on the group.

Observing how different people react to the same messages may give some indication of general buy-in to the project objectives. For example, telling good news such as ‘this project has the support of all Directors, and a sizable budget sufficient for the next two years’ may elicit non-verbal cheers, or jeers, depending on the individual. Similarly, bad news such as ‘the project has has lost the support of our public stakeholders and we have to pick a new administrator’ may even cause a team member to crack a smile. Depending upon the reactions, you may need to change your purpose/focus/delivery on the fly.

Metrics – Get The Facts

Sometimes it really takes some hard numbers to back up the soft facts. It may call for some snooping to get at the real story, but you have to think like an analyst to really make sense of the conflicting information. It always important to first get into the weeds and assess the details, then summarize. The ‘one-pager’ is every good PM’s secret to success. If you can’t summarize all your details into a good one-page document, you are probably not providing a useful big picture view to your stakeholders. If you really need to prove a point, prove it quickly, and back it up with real numbers. The one-pager is the only way to go.

Influence the Influential

Some times you have to get the facts across, and get them across directly. The use of a Steering Committee is the most formal way to communicate vital project information to individuals that can actually influence the organization. A Steering Committee that acts as an effective ‘clearing house’ for issues will help to get real results when you need them. It is vital to stick to really important details, and come prepared with options. A PM that communicates in a direct manner, and respects a Steering Committee’s time, will build greater trust and wield increased influence.

Other times, it is necessary to use informal methods of influencing the most influential members of the project team. The single best way to do this is the ‘pre-meeting’. The pre-meeting refers to a type of informal project communication that occurs prior to a standard decision-making meeting, via phone call, hallway discussion, etc. The goal of the pre-meeting is to warm up the meeting participant to the desired flow of the upcoming event. This gives you an opportunity to solicit feedback and engage your key decision makers about issues that will affect the meeting direction. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that the meeting is about validation, not confrontation. Taking an indirect approach facilitates face-saving and promotes ownership.

The Water Cooler

If all else fails, there is always the water cooler. This short informal conversation is one of the best ways to get the true pulse of the team. The water cooler is the opportunity to ask the same questions, in a different way. This age-old technique is one to the best ways to develop the skills of perception, and find innovative ways of getting the real story. Additional context helps the project manager to make more effective decisions, and more quickly influence the organization.

This article was originally published in 2005.

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

Getting the Point Across. Why Project Managers Love the Power of Analogies

It has often been said that effective Project Managers are like ducks on water. Imagine a graceful animal smoothly gliding across a lake, calmly traveling from one place to another. In reality, the beast is wildly fluttering its feet under the water line, working hard to get to its destination. You’d never know how much effort was involved to make it look so painless. Project managers also need good tools that make it look easy to get the job done, and one of the best is the power of analogy.

Communication is the essence of Project Management

Project managers are challenged every day with ensuring that everyone on the project team has the information they need to do their job. To make it happen, we use phone calls, emails, websites, memos, meetings and even the old-fashioned water cooler. At each one of these opportunities there is a short time window to make our point. Most importantly, we must make the point effectively. As the focal point of the project team, the PM must ensure that the ultimate result of these communications is successful. As a rule, the measure of our ability to communicate effectively is defined by a smoothly running project. If sponsors, stakeholders, and team members know what they need to know, then effective results tend to be a self-fufilling prophecy.

Analogies simplify complex communications

Project managers have to work quickly. Timelines are always shorter than you need, issues more complex than you thought. Meanwhile, project teams are composed of varying skills, training levels, and personalities. Agility is vital when you have to constantly assimilate with each new project team, technology, and set of taboos.

An analogy is a form of logical inference based on the assumption that if two things are known to be alike in some respects, then they must be alike in others. In other words, this usually allows a comparison between a complex concept and something much more simple. By making the comparison, we provide a clear window into the essence of the subject at hand. Project-based environments will present many situations where it is crucial to get a point across quickly and effectively. Done correctly, analogies hold the key to success.

Execution is key

You can’t get it right every time. The use of a good analogy can be entirely spontaneous, or very well planned. In either situation, there are several things that can improve your chances of getting the point across. There must be a very legitimate point of comparison between the two subjects, and the relationship must be obvious. Be sure you are not comparing apples and oranges. The analogy must not be so simple that you come across as condescending. There is nothing worse than risking personal insult by underlining a simple point, with an even more simple analogy. Proper execution requires reading the audience, being knowledgeable about the subject, and a very deep ‘trick bag’ of real world experiences from which to draw your examples. It takes practice, but when you’ve got it right, you know it.

How do you know when you’ve got it right?

Ownership. When you float a really great analogy that truly resonates with your intended audience, you will see immediate ownership. This means instant feedback, as different people grow and expand the concept. This shows that people fully understand the comparison, and see greater unexplored value in the strength of the association.

Classic PM Analogies

Here are several classic Project Management analogies that you can use to clearly make your point:

1. ‘Under the Hood’ – Like many good PM analogies, this one focuses on the importance of getting people to understand the importance of scope. The explanation may go something like this – “On this project, we were given the task of completing X, and we are well on track to accomplishing our goal. However, there has been pressure to complete several additional tasks, and we are proposing that this work should be pushed to Phase Two. As an analogy, imagine taking your car for service at the garage, where you have requested an oil change - no more or no less. Once the mechanic has the hood open, there may be a temptation to see other things that need to be fixed. All you expect from your mechanic is a list of things that are wrong, and perhaps the cost to fix them. At this point, it is best to close the hood, take the car for a test drive around the block, and then maybe think about that list.’
2. ‘Stranded on a Desert Island’ – This is another great scope analogy focused on project planning– “Why do we need a clearly defined scope and solid plan for this project? Imagine we are stranded on a desert island with all our worldly possessions strewn around us on the beach. In the process of trying to figure out how to get off the island, we see a ship off in the distance. As we only have one life raft, and it can only carry so much weight, we have to think very carefully about what items we will take. We don’t want to get half way out and have to turn back because we brought the wrong stuff, or have to throw things overboard because we carried too much. Rembember, it is always possible to come back in another raft for more stuff, but we have to get the initial delivery to the ship first.”
3. ‘Beware of the Nunchucks” – This is a favourite that highlights the importance of training when implementing new systems. Although not for every audience, this often works well with the technically minded. “We must consider the importance of thoroughly training our users prior to implementing this ‘user friendly’ system. Imagine a fourteen-year-old boy that receives a set of nunchucks as a gift. These are the peculiar ancient weapons, composed of two sticks held together with a small piece of chain, used in old martial arts films. Because the boy has seen many of these films, and the apparent ease with which they are used, his first inclination will be to pick up the nunchucks and start swinging! As he has seen hundreds of martial arts films, it will not take less than five minutes of some wild, but fun, uncontrolled swinging before the child has smacked himself square in the centre of his forehead – (for effect, tell this part complete with a loud smack to your head!)

A well-crafted analogy always helps a PM get a tough point across quickly and effectively.

Originally published in 2003 in Project Times.

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