Project Management

Involve Your Customers

First and foremost, this means listening to your customers. Early on in the project, your team must spend time with customers and end users. Make sure the project team understands the requirements from the users’ point of view.

As you move from planning into project development, try to create prototypes of the end product. If the product is a web page, it’s simple to build a dummy page that looks like a user interface but which has no functionality. If you’re building a house, build a model first. If you’re writing a play, test some scenes with friends. The idea is to build a mockup of the product before the “point of no return” decisions have been made. Change is cheap during the prototype stage, but change is expensive once we’ve locked down functionality.

Why build a prototype? Because people are busy and because language is an imperfect communication tool. I can spend hours writing documents and talking about user interfaces but the odds are high that my audience is busy thinking about other things. However, when you sit them down in front of a prototype and say “this is what the product is going to look like,” then suddenly they can focus. Even if they tell you that they hate it, you’ve made progress because now you have information.

Another benefit of involving your customers is that they become invested in the success of the project. It’s easier to manage their expectations because they are close to the project. Finally, if your customers are truly involved, then you can be confident that you’re working on the right project. Don’t forget, if you build the wrong product quickly and effectively, it’s still wrong.

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Inspirational Thoughts on Leadership

My friend, Jack Perron, sent me this excerpt from a sweet book called The Willows and Beyond by William Horwood. The book is a sequel to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. For best comic effect, take a moment to read these inspirational words on leadership out loud.

In this scene, Toad (who has been visited by his lazy son, Master Toad, andwho has decided that the kid needs to be forced to hike every day) comes across a book by chance in his library…

The book was entitled “Hiking For Leaders With Novices: Do’s, Don’t’s, and Definitely Not’s”, by Colonel J.R. Wheeler Senior, Member of the Alpine Club and Hiking Advisor to the Royal Marines School of Music (Yachting Section).

Wheeler’s notion of leadership was clear and to the point:

The leader is leader, and must at all times be on his guard against
insubordination and the dangers of paying too much attention to the weak and
feeble in his group. These must be weeded out and made an example of.

Where native porters are concerned, the leader is advised to hire two or
three (on my Nangha-Dhal Experdition I took on an extra porter for every
four days of the journey, but conditions were extreme) so that they might be
disposed of en route to encourage the others not to slacken.

The good leader will always remain in front and not allow another to
take his place there, otherwise, like the African pack lion, he is done

It will frequently happen, and a leader should certainly not be
disheartened by this, that the way will be lost. I make it a practice, and I
urge novice leaders to learn from my mistakes and follow this advice
vigorously, on no account to tell others in my party where I intend going.
This ensures that wherever one may arrive, one appears to have intended that
as one’s destination.

The true leader should not feel obliged to know or understand the use of
every piece of equipment or the practice of every technique, for he will
have employed those in his expedition who should be able and willing
advisors on such matters. However, the effective leader will need to
appreciate the importance of seeming to know what he is talking about and
looking as if he knows what he is doing. This inspires confidence in those
he leads, and keeps them at their tasks.

Therefore, a leader is strongly advised to try on the equipment till he
is used to wearing it, and to find some quiet place where, unobserved, he
can get the feel of it with a short solo hike or two. In this way, he will
ensure that he looks the part.

Project Management

Project Risk and Task Estimation

It’s common knowledge that I love Liquid Planner. In my opinion, it allows me to to do magic and foresee the future.

::geek mode on::

Liquid Planner allows you to use probabalistic modeling for any or every task in your schedule. This means that instead of saying that a task will take 5 days, you use statistical language to describe the likely range of days. Once this has been done for a number of tasks, then the model of the entire schedule can be described using probability.

::geek mode off::

This concept is fundamental to successful project management. Because of the uncertainty inherant in projects, it is insane to try to predict exact task durations. We might as well pretend to be psychics wearing gypsy headscarves. However, we can hone our estimation skills to the point where we can make educated predictions.

Liquid Planner is cool because it removes much of the emotion from the calculation of date ranges. However, it is important to note that the assignment of the probability distribution to each task is still a human activity. There’s no magic formula or supercomputer that can tell you exactly how likely a given outcome will be. And thus, garbage in/garbage out.

The take-home lesson is that when you’re planning a project, don’t get trapped into giving your management an exact date when the project will be complete. Provide a range of dates that accurately describes the amount of uncertainty. If it’s early in the project and much is still unknown, say “second half of the year” or “third quarter.” As you refine the project plan and remove some of the uncertainty, you can provide finer granularity by stating the month when you expect to complete the project. The only time you can be certain of your completion date is the day you’re done.

Much more information is available in Steve McConnell’s Rapid Development and Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art.

Project Management

Having a Vision

Your team has a good project, one you believe in and which will help your organization to achieve its goals. The next step is to write a good vision statement. You may think that everyone understands where the project is going, but folks are probably more confused than you think.

Here’s Scott Berkun on the subject, from The Art of Project Management:

Because everything derives from the high-level vision, the team’s overall leader should invest more entergy in it than any other early planning material. The five most important characteristics [of a good vision] are:

  • simplifying
  • goal-driven
  • consolidated
  • inspirational
  • memorable

I counsel my students to write short vision statements, no more than a sentence or two. The language should be vivid and exciting, quickly communicating that vision of the future state which gives their project meaning.

Project Management

On Being a Change Agent

When I introduce project management to my students, I always tell them that my goal in the course is not just to teach them how to do project management. My goal is to change their lives.

In part, this is because learning project management is about becoming empowered. No longer will you feel that you must sit quietly and do what you’re told. Instead, when you see bad decisions being made in your organization, you’ll feel compelled to ask questions. But you’ll be able to frame those questions in business-oriented language. Rather than simply complaining, you’re able to talk about the risk factors of a project and the implications of moving forward when the potential return on investment appears to be negative. By understanding project management, we gain the confidence needed to help our organizations learn, improve, and mature.

This is by way of introduction to Joel Spolsky’s excellent column on Customer Service
Joel is a change agent. He is willing to study his business environment and make decisions based on what he sees even when those decisions run counter to the current received wisdom about how to run a company.

For example, he understands that in order to run a successful software help desk, the staff must have the skills to both understand and communicate the customer’s problems. As he says,

It’s crucial that tech support have access to the development team. This means that you can’t outsource tech support: they have to be right there at the same street address as the developers, with a way to get things fixed. Many software companies still think that it’s “economical” to run tech support in Bangalore or the Philippines, or to outsource it to another company altogether. Yes, the cost of a single incident might be $10 instead of $50, but you’re going to have to pay $10 again and again.

When we handle a tech support incident with a well-qualified person here in New York, chances are that’s the last time we’re ever going to see that particular incident. So with one $50 incident we’ve eliminated an entire class of problems.

This resonates for me because we see the same class of issues in project management. Executives often choose to see the planning phase of the project as a waste of time and money. But in the same way that Joel’s $50 eliminates an entire class of problems, our investment in a project planning phase eliminates untold numbers of potential issues, with a savings in time and money that is many times the cost of planning.