Monday, April 18, 2016

Pivoting Project Management Reviews

Entrepreneurs are using the terms “pivot” and “persevere” to identify strategies for decision-making.  When confronted with a situation that is not leading to the desired results, they must decide whether to gut it out and persevere on the current path, or pivot to a new direction and new approach. 
This decisions process can and should apply to many of our business and project management practices.  If your practices are not leading to the desired results, make a conscious decision to pivot or persevere. 

Let’s talk about the project management practice of project reviews by senior management.  Are the reviews leading to better project execution and performance?  Are the reviews leading to better project selection and planning?  Are the reviews leading to better project portfolio performance in terms of business impact?  If the answer is, “No,” and you have been doing the same types of reviews for years, it is probably time to pivot.

Project Management Reviews

Let me describe the typical project management review I see when I first visit a new client.  Senior management is reviewing project status on a regular basis – normally tied to the calendar.  For example, one client had a weekly review a summary of all open projects and a “deep dive” on two or three projects based upon which projects were perceived to be in the most trouble.  At the deep dive portion of the reviews, the emphasis was upon the status of the problems or issues that had occurred and what the team was doing about those issues.  The project team received lots of “help” to fix the current problem, but there was seldom any discussion about extrapolating from the current issue to foresee future issues or to share lessons learned from this situation with other project teams so that they could avoid the same problems.

My recommendation for a project management review pivot is to change from this backwards-looking, reactive project management reviews to a forward-looking preventive project review.  What do I mean?  The project review should be focused upon all the open and remaining risk threats on the project (not just the current crisis) and the resources and management actions needed to reduce or eliminate those threats.  And when you get that working well, add a discussion about the possible risk opportunities for the remainder of the project and the resources and management actions that will enable those opportunities to be realized.


The current approach leads to a “superman” mentality among project leaders.  They bounce from crisis to crisis, using their superpowers to overcome each one.  They don’t prevent problems, they just solve them.  The leaders get great credit and often rewards for their effort.  In fact they often take on “rock star” status within the organization.  While they may be good fire-fighters, I would not call them good project managers.

Let me relate a story from a client of mine.  His high-tech firm had two major development projects underway.  Both were developing new product lines using emerging technology.  Both projects were large be this company’s standards – they were planned for three to four years in duration, with a budget of over $20 million, and a large team located in multiple sites.  Both projects were managed by senior project leaders with strong technical, business and inter-personal skills. 

One project leader, we will call him Jack, was a fire-fighter.  His team faced many problems and challenges and he overcame all of them.  Granted it took late nights, weekends, and some creative solutions but with his charismatic personality he rallied the team and they come through. The project was a major market success.  However, the project finished more than a year late and several million dollars overrun.

The other project leader, we will call him Dave, was a risk manager.  Dave emphasized proactive risk management.  He had a well-developed plan with risk triggers and options that were used by the team.  His project did have several minor fires that had to be resolved, but nothing like the problems that occurred on Jack’s project.   Dave also had a major market success.  But Dave’s project was only two months late and came in on budget.

So now it is six months later and the business is going through a major restructuring due to some problems in a different division.  The business is downsizing and it only needs one senior project leader.  So Dave was laid off.  I asked the senior management why they laid off Dave instead of Jack.  Their response surprised me.  In their opinion, Jack was a superhero who could fix any problem, but they didn’t know if Dave could handle the stress of a major project in crisis.

I pulled together a summary of the two projects, including the major challenges that each had to overcome.  I identified the proactive risk approaches that Dave had used and the absence of those in Jack’s project.  Several of the senior managers told me they had never stopped to consider the risk management approach in the project reviews.  They never asked about risk avoidance and mitigation. They were just focused on the current crisis and what was being done to fix it.

The Pivot

So if you want to transform your project performance, I encourage you to consider pivoting your project management review approach.  When reviewing a project, I recommend the following topics.
  • Quick review of the Project Charter.  Remind everyone of the project’s purpose and goals.
  • Current status with respect to the project plan.  Make sure the team is reporting against the plan and don’t just give a list of the things that they have been doing.  If they aren’t working the plan find out why. 
  • Risk issues with their response or mitigation strategies that should be encountered or resolved within the near future.   Ensure the team has an adequate strategy and resources to resolve the risks.
  • New risk issues that have been discovered since the last review.  What changed to create these risk issues and what other impacts could those changes have on the project.
  • Critical milestones and decisions that will occur on the project in the near future.  These are potential risk points and senior management may want or need to engage with those activities.

Changing your project management reviews into risk reviews will pivot your project management approach from reactive to proactive.  I can assure you the project performance and business impact will improve.  But some of your superhero project leaders may resist the change.  They are fire-fighters and want a fire to fight.  Risk based project reviews will suppress fires and expose these leaders as the arsonists whose poor project management practices are what started the fires.   

Monday, April 11, 2016

Practical Idealism

Those two words are normally considered opposites.  I’ve heard for years that “idealists” aren’t “practical.”   “Practical” is grounded in reality.  “Idealism” is wishful thinking that can’t be achieved.  But by the same token, “idealists” challenge us to improve and go beyond our current performance, whereas “practical” approaches are stuck in the current paradigm.   If we could put them together, practical idealism could lead to an innovative approach that is transformational. 

This isn’t just hypothetical.  There is a real-life example right now in the sports world of what happens when practical idealism is implemented.  Have you heard of the University of Connecticut (UCONN) women’s basketball team?  Here are a few facts about them:
  • They just won their fourth straight national title – no women’s basketball team has ever done that.
  • They have won 75 straight games – all by double figures.
  • Their average margin of victory this season (including the NCAA tournament) was 39 points.
  • The program has a 100% graduation rate and over 80% of the players have a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
  • Their coach has won more national titles (11) than any other coach in college basketball – men or women.

Now this type of dominance does not mean that the sport of women’s college basketball is in decline or immature. The caliber of the competition and the quality of the players has been improving for years. There are tremendous women athletes in this sport. And between all of the other teams that play women’s college basketball, there is fierce competition. In my opinion, women’s college basketball exemplifies better team play than men’s college basketball – which is dominated by individual play. It is a tough, competitive, athletic sport. 

Yet UCONN performs at a level that is far above everyone else.  Why is that? Practical idealism. 

UCONN’s coach, Geno Auriemma, sets idealistic goals for the team and each individual.  Their goal as a team is not to be competitive, but rather to be dominant.  And their measure of performance is not only against the other team, it is against their previous performance.  The team is always striving to get even better.  But Auriemma also focuses on personal goals for each of his players.  That is why they have a 100% graduation rate and such high GPAs.  Any coach who lists these yearly goals for his team is an idealist:
  1. Go undefeated.
  2. Win the national championship.
  3. Beat opponents by an average of 40 points.
  4. Team members have a 3.0 or higher GPA.     

What makes UCONN different is that they have established a practical approach for achieving these idealistic goals.  The UCONN women’s basketball team works as hard as any college team in the nation.  Their practices are tough and exhausting.  They work on basic skills and on teamwork.  They are constantly seeking to improve.  Every turnover, every missed shot, every lost rebound from the previous game is scrutinized to understand what happened and prevent that from occurring again.   While the Auriemma shows genuine care and concern for each player, he also challenges and pushes them to be their best.  He refuses to accept complacency or mediocrity from any player in any aspect of her game.
Granted, UCONN is able to recruit from among the best high school women basketball players. But there is lots of talent to go around in women’s college basketball today. UCONN is only able to recruit 12 players for scholarships. They have talented team members, but so do many other programs. And UCONN does not limit their schedule to playing “powder puff” teams. In the final rankings of women’s college basketball for the 2015-2016 season, UCONN was number one and they played six of the remaining nine (beating all of them by double digits).    

Early this year, Auriemma quoted Julius Caesar as the team was preparing for a game, “Vini, Vidi, Vici” – we came, we saw, we conquered.  The attributes of dominance that were the hallmark of the Roman Legions 2,000 years ago were used to inspire his team this year.  “We came.”  They will go anywhere and play anybody.  In fact, they try to schedule the best teams in the nation.  “We saw.”  They study their opponents and prepare for them.  Some of the teams are bigger, some are great shooters, some play tenacious defense.   Doesn’t matter.  UCONN negates their strength, often by besting them at their own game.   “We conquered.”  UCONN teams hustle.  They are always working hard.  They dominate many aspect of the game.  And even when the “second string” enters the game – often early in the second half – they continue to dominate. 

So what are the lessons of “practical idealism” we can learn from UCONN?  
  • First, it is OK to be idealistic. Set big goals – seemingly impossible goals. 
  • Second, recruit talented people. Find the best people available and embed them into your team.
  • Third, work hard at the basics. There should be excellence in everything you do. Don’t accept mediocrity on any level.
  • Fourth, study your competition to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Then work to be as good or better than they are at their strengths and exploit their weaknesses.
  • Fifth, continuously improve. Set the standard of performance and then exceed your own standard.
  • Sixth, coach and encourage your people fulfill their personal goals and to be successful in all walks of life.
The UCONN story is inspiring.  Oh, and it is also excellent basketball.