Sad Truths About Project Rescues

This tweet got me thinking about the many project turn arounds I have seen over the last 20 so years. We’ve all seen the scenario play out time and again. The business pushes for more scope, faster delivery, and lower budgets. The project teams (I’ve seen this with both creative and IT teams) feel tremendous pressure to acquiesce to these demands. Even if the project manager makes a valiant defense of a rationale budget, scope, and timeline eventually they get worn down or overridden by their management and the inevitable happens. Management is promised a project the team knows in their hearts to be unrealistic, and everyone begins slogging away, hoping for a miracle, hoping for some break. Maybe some key elements on the critical path will come in early. Maybe the clients/sponsors will sign off on key deliverables within the planned 2 reviews. Almost never happens. If this is an IT project the odds are even lower, due to the vicious cycle of late and over budget projects which convince business sponsors that they need to dictate tighter budget and timeline constraints, knowing they will be missed, which in fact causes more projects to fall behind if not fail.

Then you have a project in Trouble. A project that is Red. And often, at least in the organizations I’ve worked with, people are brought in to to turn things around. I have had several of these put on my plate over the years, and the formula for success is usually very straight forward: tell the truth around what it is going to take to get the project done, or how much scope needs to come out to hit the time/budget. Yes, there are plenty of other things to do like look at the team structure, review and question the scope, re-vitalize the team, rebuild business confidence, look for efficiencies, etc. But for some reason that must be deeply connected to the human condition, when you first come on to turn something around, people are able to listen to reason. Even when what I am saying and calling for is exactly what the previous manager said, it was only once the project was in real jeopardy that the team was listened to.

And that last bit is exactly what I have found to be the key to success in turn-arounds. Listen to the team. Actually sit down with them, as many one on one as possible, and get them to open up about the project, what’s working, what is not, where they see the risk. For more thoughts on taking on a project in flight, see my previous post on the topic.

As for avoiding the situation, I would love to hear what others have found to be successful. And I would love to hear more pithy quips like the one that got this post started.

5 Simple Rules for Joining a Project Underway

Note: this is content migrated from a blog I no longer maintain “The Grumpy PM” and was originally posted on March 21, 2009

Okay, there’s really nothing simple about joining a project as the PM when the project is already underway. You’re going to need to jump right in and keep the project on track while you ramp up on everything about the project.

However, while you could probably write a small book or a long article on this topic, I have found that five is the magic number as far as the limit of “action items” or feedback points you can give someone and hope that they would retain it. Three is probably better, but I am hoping my readers are brighter than that. [;)

1 – Invest in Relationship Building
Take the time right up front to meet with all your team leads and key stakeholders one on one. Have an agenda going in, but try to keep the meeting informal and ask open ended questions to get people talking: ask each how they feel the project is going, what is working well, and what could be improved. You want to get several things out of this meeting – you need to quickly build rapport and find areas of common interest you can leverage to begin to build relationships with those you haven’t worked with before; you want to see what areas are highlighted for improvement, so you can direct attention to them; perhaps most importantly, you want to try to sense how people are feeling about the previous PM no longer being there, which is probably why you would be joining after the project started. While the urge will be great to bury yourself in the project charter, scope statement, WBS, and project schedule, resist, RESIST!

2 – Get the Up to Speed, ASAP
In direct juxtaposition to the above, you will need to ramp up quickly on the project, but don’t do it at the expense of rule 1 above. Ideally, you can get access to the project repository/library/whatever and gain an understanding of what the project is about, but if you have to do it after hours or on the weekend, it is an investment well made. I usually go for the project charter, scope documents, schedule, and risk register. You need to demonstrate competence and confidence to all the stakeholders you interact with in that first week or two, when everyone will be judging the new PM, and the team will be deciding if they are going to rally around you. As you review, make a list of questions you want to ask of team members and stakeholders as you meet with them.

3 – Trust the People on the Team
It may be the hardest thing to do sometimes, but you are going to have to trust the people already on the project to do the right thing. They have history on the team, they (should) know what they are doing, and you aren’t going to succeed without them. More than this though, you need to show them that you trust them, by word and deed. In relationship to point 2 above, tell the team that you don’t know everything, they are the project experts and you am going to rely on them. When an issue comes up or decision needs to be made facilitate the decision making process, but get the people with the project tribal-knowledge, so to speak, involved. Another thing that seems to work with most people is to ask them to explain aspects of the project they are the expert on.

4 – Do Something to Shake Things Up
I am not a psychologist, so I can’t put this in proper technical terms, however I have found a significant, positive mental burst of energy and motivation can be had from the team by make some changes right away. It can be how meetings are run, how reports are presented, or even something like changing around how people are physically seated. Go for some low hanging fruit that you know will benefit delivery or the project. Certainly, you will be approaching the project with a fresh set of eyes, and you should try to bring enthusiasm with you to the assignment. Share your observations and ideas with the team in an engaging and motivated fashion.

5 – Resist the urge to blame the other guy (or gal)
I can’t remember a single project where I have jumped in after it was started where people on the team didn’t blame issues on the previous project manager. Don’t be that guy, it’s shows a clear lack of accountability for the project you now are responsible for, and it is unprofessional. Be proactive and identify all the deliverables, action items, issues, etc. assigned to your predecessor and put them on your to-do list. Stay classy PMs!

Passing the PMP

Note: this is content migrated from a blog I no longer maintain “The Grumpy PM” and was originally posted on March 6, 2009.

I sat today for the PMP and am very pleased that I can report that I have passed it. So, what can I recommend for anyone else who may be planning to take the PMP? Here are a few suggestions, but bear in mind that these are coming from the perspective of an experienced project manager. If you are just out of school, these points may not be as relevant.

  • Have a study plan and stick to it. If you are a PM, you really shouldn’t need to be told this, this should be second nature.
  • Start with a good study guide. I recommend going to a book store and looking at several to see which format works best for you. Then check your local library to see if they have a copy. Save a tree and save some money.
  • Purchase a copy of the PMBOK Guide, or join the PMI since you get an electronic copy free.
  • Speaking of which, you should join the PMI anyways, since the cost of membership pays for itself if you are taking the PMP (Membership is $129, and the discount off the exam is $150 as of this post)
  • Supplement your reading with other learning activities that engage other senses. I used the PMP PrepCast, which I highly recommend, to listen to while driving and hiking, and I also took some CBTs on the areas I was having trouble with (for me that was QA and QC, which we don’t typically deal with as rigorously in IT as in other industries.) The CBTs I took were available thru online training provided by my employer, check with your HR, you might have a similar benefit you aren’t aware of.
  • I also made lots of flash cards, one set focused on the ITTOs for each process, and another set of terms, definitions, formulas, etc.
  • Let’s see, what else? Oh, take as many sample questions and exams as you can. This is an area where I could have done more preparation, but I have never been much for practice exams. However, the PMI has some peculiar ways of asking questions, and taking a lots of pratice exams or questions is a very good way to get an idea as much for how questions will be asked aswhat will be asked.
  • Review. Especially review those topics you studied first – this was an area I had trouble with. I did the worst with the Initiating Process Group, which surprised me because it is one of the most straight forward (I thought), but it was also the first Process Group I started with and so it had actually been a while since I had reviewed it.

I guess that is pretty much it. And that is probably the last I will blog on taking the PMP exam. I am gearing up to join a big eCommerce project, and need to quickly switch gears from the PMI view of the world to the Agile methodology that is being employed on this project. Anyone have good tips or ideas on agile project management, please leave a comment.

PMP Preparation

Note: this is content migrated from a blog I no longer maintain “The Grumpy PM” and was originally posted on MONDAY, FEBRUARY 23, 2009

Well I am two weeks out from my PMP test date, and have been struck by a few things in particular as I go thru the PMBOK Guide in detail.

First, it is dry and boring. I guess that is why there are so many prep books and courses out there. I highly recommend either buying one, or for the cost conscious, check one out from your local library. That’s what I did, to include checking out the PMBOK guide. While I did get a free copy with my PMI membership, I just find I can’t study from a PDF document. However, since there is a new PMBOK Guide out I didn’t want to make the purchase of the soon to be obsolete version. The other resource I have discovered is the PMP PrepCast. I found this doing a simple search on iTunes, and what a deal it is for the money! For under $50 you get over 70 podcasts that you can take with you on your commute, on a run, to the gym, beach, back porch, where ever! I have been using this to reinforce the reading I have done on a chapter by chapter basis. The host also gives many test taking tips with each lesson. So, at this point I recommend a prep book of your liking and the PM PrepCast, we’ll see if I pass though.

Second, there is a lot of process and documentation (and hence a lot of work) involved in implementing the processes described. One of my criticisms of the PMBOK Guide is that it encourages the creation of process and documentation bloat over project execution. PMs could spend a significant amount of project budget just trying to implement all the processes. Now, technically, the PMBOK Guide accounts for this in the tailoring concept, whereby the PM is supposed decide which processes to use and which to keep. However, that idea is simply not stressed enough. In my experience, which is just that my experience doing IT project delivery, PMPs tend to overdue it and the project costs the client more in the end than need be, and the decision making cycle is much longer. Disagree?, let me know, as I am heading down the PMP path, I’d love to hear from others regarding their experiences with this.

Lastly, I continue to have a nagging feeling that the PMP is really just a scheme to rake in fees for PDUs. It seems to me that the cost for a lot of PDU-earning activities is high, and that the primary beneficiaries of the PMP is all the consulting and education providers who help PMPs earn and keep their certification. I’ll surely write more on this once I am in the re-certification stage.