When we talk about professions, we like to know if someone is good at the profession or if he’s bad. A good professional should probably be successful more than the bad one, or? So what about project managers? What is the definition of a good project manager. He should be successful at managing project, then. But what is successfully managing projects? Does this mean that the management should be successful or that the project should be success? But what does it mean to successfully manage a project and what is a successful project? This post focuses on the latter statement: the successful project. In many definitions, you take requirements, budget and time (and sometimes quality) and look before and after. If you can check as many of these groups as “as planned” then the project is a success. But then there is the sense of success. This should not be understated.
We in Sweden can be proud to be on the top three list of building projects. The problem is that it’s not the best but the worst building projects in the world. Just after the opera house in Sidney, we find the soon to be completed building of the tunnel of Hallandsåsen. So, why has this tunnel made it into a list just two places below the Panama canal?
For you who are not up to date with Swedish politics, it all started with the railroad and the heavy industry in Western Sweden. In order to ship all the heavy goods, they wanted the railroad to go through the hill created in the last ice age, instead of over it. This would not only cut time but also enable heavier train loads. It was a sure thing but also a political necessity. It was important to show that we spend money on trains and not just cars.
The problem is that the hill was not helping out here. When they started to drill, it also started to rain in ground water into the tunnel. Not little, but a lot. And the wells in the surroundings were drenched and the tunnel needed to become more water proofed. Then the cattle on the hills started to become sick and die. The water became contaminated by the material they used to seal the tunnels. Also, it was not as easy to drill as they had expected. It was slower and harder. I don’t think anyone disagrees with me when I say that during this time, everyone saw the project as a failure. So there were haltings of the project, companies were sued and there was also legal proceedings regarding the spoiled water.
The projected was halted and then restarted. In 2015, the tunnel is predicted to be opened, 23 years after they started on the tunnel. I mean, Apple started selling the IPod one year after he launched is idea to his team and here it takes 23 years to dig a tunnel which is 8,6 km long. The tunnel was originally thought to cost 1 BSEK but will probably cost at least 12 BSEK in the end. Cattle died, people had to get new water supplies and of course we had all the scared people when we had the poisoning scandal.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a TV documentary about this project and it was interesting to listen to how people involved saw the project. The engineer who saw this as the most interesting thing he’d ever done. He loved the technical challenges and probably saw the project as a success since they’d been able to overcome all these technical problems. We had the farmer who’d found his dead cattle one morning, who definitely saw the project as a failure: all that wasted money and of course the sadness over his lost animals. Then there was the project manager, focusing on the target: getting the tunnel DONE. He was a bit disturbed about the failed time plans, missed budgets etc but his work (even if there were probably many project managers along the way) was to be completed. They had not given in. The politician then. He was the most interesting person to listen to, from my perspective anyway. He also saw they project as successful, since it would be completed. But here comes the interesting part; he felt that it had been mandatory to complete the tunnel, even if it meant spending all that money since otherwise the spent money would have been waste. Come again? If you’ve wasted 2 BSEK, this money will still be waste even if you spend 10 BSEK more. But if they would have cut the project, then they would have spent the money but would not have a tunnel. Now we spend 12 BSEK and we get a tunnel. That is of course true, but think of all things you can do for 10 BSEK…
Finally, the reported turned to the potential customers. The heavy industry guy. As we all know, they don’t sit down for 23 years and just wait. They’ve found other ways and he didn’t see any big use of the tunnel.
The funny thing is that different stakeholders in a project can have such different opinions on the successfulness of a project. But who’s opinion matter?
Many of us who have children suddenly experience a change in what grab their attention. Suddenly they see things they would never even noticed before. If you don’t have kids you might have experienced this when you grew a new interest in something. When I got hooked on cycling, I saw cyclists and bikes very differently and I also became another type of driver: since I know how quickly I can ride my bike, I pay more attention to potential bikes on a road than your average non cycling driver. Sometimes this can be derived from more troublesome events. A couple of years ago, I was attacked by a probably mentally instable man while running to work and since he attacked me from behind I’ve since then become much more aware of scruffy looking old guys with big black dogs while running. Not that I’m afraid, but I do take notice of them.
What we pay attention to is personal but there are, as John Medina points to in his Brain Rules, also some cultural differences. Urban Asians view visual scenes pay a lot attention to the context of the scene and the contrasts between foreground objects and background objects while North Americans pay attention to foreground objects before paying attention to background objects and context. This means that different groups presented to one visual presentation will probably see very different things.
When we present something or try to make a visualization of something, we take for granted that others notice the things we want them to notice. But then again, we all know that you yourself don’t direct your attention to what the presenter had in mind. How many things have you thought about the presenter’s weird accent and missed the context of the presentation? How many times did one of the items in the presentation grab all your attention, making you miss the rest of the content?
We cannot force people pay attention to what we had in mind but we can do what we can in order to help onviewers pay attention to the important things. And step one is probably to recognize that we all pay attention to different things.
I may be a bit black and white here, but I often find that in the question of measurements and estimations there seems to be two clear sides and the battle is tense:
- Measure everything! You get what you measure! If you can’t measure it, don’t do it!
- Measurement leads to people doing what ever to get high scores, not high results! We spend so much time on measurements that we don’t have time to do any changes. Depending on the measurement point and method, you can present any result.
So where am I? I see myself somewhere in the middle and I cannot decide where my heart is. Probably nowhere. So hence I turned to randomness. Or rather, Audible did. I have an Audible subscription and every month I get a new free audio book and since we were on holiday, I took the time to get some new nice reading. I seldom have something special in mind and pick something that sounds interesting. Since this was the way I found Predictably Irrational and Made To Stick, I find this method very good. I find books I would never have selected otherwise and many times I’m very happy with my choice. And this time I found Drunkard’s walk by Leonard Mlodinow. I was directly hooked. Math was never my strongest subject, but here I was drawn into the history and almost magical world of randomness. The book also covers how the workings of our brains clashes with the workings of randomness. We are pattern seeking entities and randomness is random.
To summarize, what is hard for us to grasp is that there is a small chance that something specific improbable will happen to us but very probably that something improbable will happen. As an example, the chance of you dreaming of your aunt the night before she dies probably feels improbable but the chance that someone of her many friends and relative do is not as improbable as one might think.
In the first edition of the Ipod, Apple spent a lot of energy making the random song selector working randomly and they did such a good job that people complaint about it not being random. Again, the chance of The Winner Takes It All being played twice on your morning jog is not that high (if you have that song and loads of other songs on your device) but the chance of any song being played twice is not that low, given that you have that song on your device. With a true random song list, it is not unlikely that one song is played every time you use your device. But when you change the question to what the chances that specifically The Winner Takes It All is played everytime, the chances drop dramatically.
For you math geeks, this is nothing new, but for me so thoughtworthy and there are some aspects of randomness which I will continue bothering you with.
So I leave you with a question to the next time. Imagine that you are participating in a game show. You have three doors in front of you and behind one door, there is a wonderfil sportscar. The game show host tells you to pick a door. The game show host, who knows where the car is, then opens one of the doors you didn’t pick, knowing that he opens a door behind which there is no car. He then asks you if you want to stick to your choice or if you want to change. Should you?
We all heard those fairytale stories in our childhood. The basic setup was almost always the same: A happy start, then the heroes had to fight some evil foes just to end up winning the show “and so they lived happily ever after”.
Most of us grow up and learn that the real hardship is not in that initial challenge, to cross that first victory line: the challenge is to stay that successful.
But somehow, in the world of project management, it sometimes feels like we still believe in fairies and magic. We still think that the challenge is to bring the project to an end and everyone that stands in the way is an evil troll or witch. “They keep changing their mind” “The requirements they write is not good enough” “Operations are not taking responsibility”.
Two weeks ago, the crown princess of Sweden finally tied the knot and this almost felt like that old story again but we are wise to listen to the words of the new HRH Daniel of Sweden.
We all, like HRH Daniel, know that when the happy end has been passed, the real work starts. The real work is the every day struggle to keep everyone as happy as they were on that happy project launch. Independent of if you’re working with princesses or just your average everyday user.
First of all, as you might have already understood: we’re moving into the summer season and my blogging will probably be less frequent. The garden needs some constant handling. It’s almost like handling technical debt: you think that you’ve fixed something but next time you go back you can see that the weed has already started growing.
But I need to tell the story of Endurance. Sometimes the truth is so much amazing than real life and in which case is this more telling than the story of Endurance.
Imagine it’s 1914. WWI has just started. You are heading to the south pole to cross the continent on foot. Crazy is just the Christian name but this was Ernest Schackleton and this was the age of exploration. Almost like the IT bubble era but instead of building strange web sites people went to distant areas of the world. In both cases a lot of money was lost but the age of exploration also resulted in many lives lost in the Arctic ice.
Schackleton and his crew took their ship to the Antarctic but got caught in the ice and had to spend the Arctic winter on their boats. This was a amazing thing in itself but it was nothing compared to what was to come.
You might have thought that the summer would bring bliz but when it became warmer, the ice broke and with it, the ship broke too. So now they were on the ice, with just small boats. Far from everywhere. And no; there were no IPhones.
From Wikipedia: The end of Endurance and some time on the ice
Finally, after many hardship, they reached Elephant island, but this was an uninhabited island and they were 1300 kilometers open sea from habited land. They only had small life boats and winter was closing in again. It was an open sea trip in the worst conditions in the world. Add to this; they had survived on the ice for many months with almost no supplies.
Ernest Schackleton did not cross the Antarctic, but he gave us this amazing story and showed some traits which are desirable for any project manager. I will not here tell the end to the story but as you might have guessed, there were survivors.
So, which were the traits? I recommend you reading the book yourselves, but I would like to point out some interesting findings which I found especially intriguing:
- Endurance. This was the name of one of the ships, but also an important trait. Schackleton would not accept failure and death.
- Change of objectives when the objective became unreachable. Schackleton changed the objective when he couldn’t reach the goals. Instead of giving up, he picked the next important thing.
- No sentiment when it came to priorities. When it stood between death and a valued item, Schackleton picked what ever would keep them alive. But he also realized that social aspects were also important. A banjo and a deck of cards were kept while almost everything else got discarded since these items were important for the social knitting and to keep off boredom.
- Same rules applied to managers. When Schackleton told the guys that they needed to throw away everything, he pulled out a bible which he had received from the queen. He tore out the page with her dedication and threw away the rest, stating that only what could not be shed was to be shed.
- No hiding from possible conflicts. Schackleton identified trouble makers and depressed party members and took them into his own tent. He felt it was better that he could keep and eye on these than that they would poison everyone.
The day and age of the great explorers ended almost 100 years ago, but these traits with a leader seem endless.
Most of us don’t want anything bad to happen to our kids. In order to keep them safe, we make choices which secure their safety and we set up rules and regulations to prevent those unsecure situations. If it can save the life of a child, we should of course do it. To be on the safe side. Or should we?
David Eberhard, a Swedish psychiatrist, describes in his book “I trygghetsnarkomanernas land” (In the safesideoholics land) he describes a time when everything should be on the safe side but also a time when teens get a psychosis when they are dumped for the first time, where the psychological health is on an all time low and when more and more people get burned out.
Eberhard does not buy the official reasons for this: that the pressure is so high today. He believes that the cocoon like state we put our kids in are ruining their chances to learn how to cope with risks, failures, pressure and sorrow. So, when they are finally in a risky situation they don’t recognize it (since they are used to everything being safe) and when they are faced with a sad situation, they panic. Our “On the safe side” mentally are killing their possibility to live life to its fullest.
The social pressure is also a factor: we talk negatively about the parent who lets her kids cross the street on themselves and these stories are great headline news. It’s better to follow the crowd. To be on the safe side.
I recognize the situation all too well. I have friends who’ve brought their kids to the E.R. for symptoms I would say points to a common cold. Not just once, but many times, and still they continue this habit even if they keep coming back with the same conclusions from the doctors. To us other parents they say: well, it was perhaps not anything dangerous this time but you want to be sure when it’s your kids, don’t you? I don’t know how many times I have had to bite my tongue: No, I don’t think it’s OK to waste precious E.R medics time. And no, I don’t think it’s OK to spoil the weekend for that kid, having to spend yet another day in the waiting room. And I don’t think it’s OK that really sick people get to wait even longer because of this.
What is really sad about Eberhard’s conclusions are though that he thinks that the main concern of these parents are not the kid, but themselves. No parents can forgive themselves if they did something (or didn’t do something) which caused harm to their kids. In other words: we are afraid of the feeling which we would cause ourselves if something happens.
Sometimes while reading this book, I started to think about all these projects out there. All these efforts to introduce agile values in software development. Yes, it’s probably sick to think about that all the time, but I couldn’t help but see the consequences in my work situation.
What happens when the failure afraid, security manic safesideoholic parent come to work and get to plan that project? What does he feel about an agile approach, when he don’t get an estimate in hours but in story points? When he cannot see which date which functionality is delivered a year in advance?
No wonder that many thinks that the traditional waterfall approach is nice and comfortable. It feels great to wait with starting the development to after we have that thick pre study. We have really done everything to get to the bottom with this problem. If they project goes south, no one can say that we didn’t analyze the problem before we got started.
And what are the consequences for the project and the project group? Well, if you’re into agile values, you probably have an idea about this not giving ground for the most innovative development.
Do you know who this guy is?
His name was Trofim Lysenko and he was the father of vernalization. He thought he could make wheat cold- and humidity tolerant by exposing it to this the same way you can learn a person tolerate pain by exposing him to it. It might seem like evolution but the difference is that evolution does not act on the current generation; it affects future generations by making the tolerant strains more common.
Lysenko make farmers plant soaked seeds in frozen lands. The result was a disaster. The yield did not triple as Lysenko had promised and instead it decreased or ceased.
This would have been the end to this story hadn’t it been for a number of sad coincidences. We are in Stalin times and land. So, even if the plan failed and people died by the millions, the practice did not only stay but grew all over the Soviet Union. It was not until the 1960’s that the Soviet Union lifted the ban on genetics and slowly started turning away from vernilization. The cost in human lives is incomprehensible but we’re talking about millions of individuals, starving to death. So, what went wrong?
Well, if we for a second ignore the guy with the huge mustache and just look at Lysenko and his crew, I would claim that the problem was not the idea. Yes, it proved wrong, but having wild ideas is not a problem. The problem was that they stuck to the plan even if it obviously did not work.
Realizing that you are wrong is often painful. Depending on your pride, it can be very painful but if you’re a sane person this pain should subside. This pain is temporary.
If you instead use the scientific approach and keep on planning, keep on evaluating, if you stay agile, you can exchange that pain with the joy of succeeding.
I don’t know if Lysenko realized that he was wrong. He died in 1976, and I find it hard to believe that he never in the deepest roots of his heart did not realize that he had been wrong. One or two of the guys on his team must have wondered, anyway. And still, it took so many decades before actions were taken.
In software development, we project managers often find ourselves in Lysenko’s shoes, having made the wrong assumption about a problem or a plan. And we need to face the fact that we were wrong. We need to meet our stakeholders explaining the new plan and the new hypothesis. The pain will not be lesser if we wait. Just look at Lysenko, how many find it OK that this continued for so long?
Hence, Pain Is Temporary, Planning lasts forever.
The saying is of course also a game with another famous saying from Lance Armstrong. The original is “Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever”. And if you stop planning, if you stop acting on changes and new input; you have quitted your responsibility. The project manager who keeps holding on to the failing plan is quitting his responsible as a manager and becomes an administrator. I guess he’s not as bad as Lysenko, but most of us aren’t working for Stalin.
Have you ever seen objectives or principles which are something like this:
“Our solutions are future safe, uses the best of technology and is easily integrated with our other systems”.
Sounds well, doesn’t it? My former college professor once said that a valid objective is one that someone could rewrite so the aim was the opposite and someone could also see that as a valid objective. So, “future safe solutions” is not a valid objective since no one would ever want a solutions which wasn’t future safe. An objective is only interesting if it helps us make decisions and these type of “happy” objectives are therefore in principle useless.
So, how do you avoid these useless objectives? How do we formulate them so they give meaning and direction? There are probably many ways, but here are some favorites from the agile dame in Enskede, Stockholm:
N is better than M
Why does the agile manifesto help us? Well, because it tells us something about the relative priority. If I get to choose between following the process and interacting with people, I choose the people. Since someone could say that process is more important than the human (and sometimes this is true, for example in aviation regulations you have to follow the procedure), this is a valid objective also given my professor’s definition. But this is only if someone could be standing selecting between N and M.
The Commander’s intent is used in US military and according the the principle you should always in a sentence say “Independent of how everything else goes, we should have achieved X”. This also gives a relative priority. X is more important than anything else there is. This would mean that if we said future safe is the commander’s intent, that should be reached independent of other priorities.
The pronounceable sentence
It’s too common that an objective is formulated in a long, complicated sentence which you have to read many many times before it becomes clear. These objectives are written like law text but cannot be part of everyday life. So, write your objective so anyone can remember it. Both commander’s intents and N better than M objectives can and should meet this criteria too.
Better missing one objective than all
What are the chances that you would remember if you had one, and just one objective? What would they be if you had 100? We sometimes try to cover everything in our objectives so we write too many.
In 7 habits, we talk about 3 wildly important objectives. That is probably a limit. One of the projects I’ve been struggling with for a couple of months now have three objectives and that is too many. It gets confusing. Better focus on one.
Write it down
Do you think that everyone knows the objective(s)? You don’t have to write it down? You’re wrong. Write it down and post it on the team wall. When the guys look up, it should be the first thing they see.
One final insight. I love concrete stuff. When it gets fluffy and lots of words, I loose focus. But don’t mistake abstract with not concrete. Just look at Nike’s brilliant logo. Just do it! Isn’t that just a wonderful objective which can give you guidance when you’re wondering if you should really run in that cold rain?
No, we don’t have a PMO on TUI Nordic, not according to the general definition anyway. But we have a central team of project managers. This is not the first time in my career that I’ve been part of a team which consisted of other project managers, but that has been more of an organizational thing – we’ve shared the same boss and gone to the same group meetings.
When I read about the definition of a PMO I see a lot of words about standardized processes and templates. In other words making the choice of the individual project manager less important. It’s like the borgs in Star Trek The Next Generation:
Resistance is futile. Your cultural distinctiveness will adapt to serve us.
Wow. Doesn’t sound like the best day of my life. But there is another part of the borg which IS of interest to me:
We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.
Now were talking! We’re talking sharing learnings. Everyone that work with agile values know the importance of retrospectives and adapting. But if the retrospectives are kept within the project, well the team might flourish but chances are that the same problems arise in another project, especially if the projects don’t share resources.
In our project manager’s team, we spend a lot learning from each other. We share happy stories and not so happy stories. With the purpose of evolving ourselves and upcoming projects. I can use learnings from another project in my current project.
This shouldn’t be something magic and sharing knowledge is hopefully part of many project manager teams out there. But what is core here is that this is the purpose of our team – learning is our core value and not just a bullet on the agenda. After almost every discussion point we add – what can we learn from this?
When I read the Wikipedia article on PMO’s I don’t see a single word about evolution and learnings but I think that this should be the main purpose of a successful PMO which does not only serve project manager’s longing for standards and processes but are there to make projects successful.
I can gladly admit that I’m not into football. Not even American football. But sports in general is interesting when it comes to leadership and success. Athletics are also special since they act in front of colleagues and fans during the winning and loosing. If my software development team fails a sprint, most people have no idea. But if a football team looses unexpectedly, the whole world knows at once. Many means that this results in a resistance to making big changes to strategies and methods. If you try a innovative strategy and looses, you’re a disaster but if you’d at least stuck to standard strategies, you’re probably better of in fan and media attention.
That’s why this story about The Saints and how they clarified their leadership, changed their vocabulary and focus intriguing. Words are important. Leadership is crucial, clear objectives a winner and sometimes you have to have a go at something radical.
If you want the short answer of how the Saints went from being a 7-9 and 8-8 team in 2007-08, to this year’s “turnaround” 15-3 NFC champions, it has everything to do with Williams and his relentless emphasis on creating turnovers. …
“He came in and he made us obsessed about takeaways,” Saints strongside linebacker Scott Fujita said. “Obsessed.Every day in practice we’re the crazy team that’s picking up every loose ball, every incomplete pass, and returning it for a touchdown. If opposing teams could watch the way we practiced, they’d probably think we absolutely lost our minds. But now the obsession has become a habit.” …
“It was my No. 1 job when I came in the door; we had to do a better job of taking the ball away,” Williams said … “And remember this: They call them takeaways. They don’t call them giveaways. I don’t want to hear that. It’s not a turnover. It’s a takeaway. If you take that approach, you go try and take the ball all the time. It’s not something you just do half the time.”