Category Archives: PM 101

17 Beliefs For Project Managers

Bob Sutton is a management professor at Stanford, and publishes a useful blog, he doesn’t publish often but it’s always high quality content and perhaps most importantly, his work is grounded in empirical, research based analysis. It’s oriented towards managers rather than project managers, but there’s obviously a lot of overlap in applicability. Below are his 17 beliefs, which link to the related posts in most cases:

1. Sometimes the best management is no management at all — first do no harm!

2. Indifference is as important as passion.

3. In organizational life, you can have influence over others or you can have freedom from others, but you can’t have both at the same time.

4. Saying smart things and giving smart answers are important. Learning to listen to others and to ask smart questions is more important.

5. You get what you expect from people. This is especially true when it comes to selfish behavior; unvarnished self-interest is a learned social norm, not an unwavering feature of human behavior.

6. Avoid pompous jerks whenever possible. They not only can make you feel bad about yourself, chances are that you will eventually start acting like them.

7. The best test of a person’s character is how he or she treats those with less power.

8. Err on the side of optimism and positive energy in all things.

9. It is good to ask yourself, do I have enough? Do you really need more money, power, prestige, or stuff?

10. Anyone can learn to be creative, it just takes a lot of practice and little confidence

11. “Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.”

12. If you are an expert, seek-out novices or experts in other fields. If you are a novice, seek out experts.

13. Sutton’s Law: “If you think that you have a new idea, you are wrong. Someone else probably already had it. This idea isn’t original either; I stole it from someone else”

14. “Am I a success or a failure?” is not a very useful question

15. The world would be a better place if people slept more and took more naps

16. Strive for simplicity and competence, but embrace the confusion and messiness along the way.

17. Jimmy Maloney is right, work is an overrated activity.

Better Brainstorming – Logic Trees

Brainstorming can be a useful exercise, and many books can help you with that process, such as The Riddle.

However, logic trees often aren’t discussed as an alternative brainstorming, but despite using a far more structured approach they can achieve a similar result. With a logic tree you start with a problem and map out solutions to it, trying to be exhaustive and comprehensive. Starting with broad areas and narrowing down to specifics that fall within scope of the broader areas, hence the ‘tree’ framework. It’s a far more structured approach than brainstorming, but it can lead to more complete analysis and, if done well, be just as creative.

The example below comes from the powerful problem solving blog. It starts with the problem of establishing a company as a high-end tailor and then maps out possible initial directions (build a brand, focus on quality, create a unique shopping experience) and then fleshes each idea out in increasing detail such as using the finest wool or associating with celebrities. It’s a simplified example, but it shows the underlying idea clearly – click on the image below to enlarge it.

VIDEO – Scrum Explained in 4 minutes

In keeping with Scrum’s philosophy anchored in efficiency, it’s good to see the whole methodology described in just 4 minutes:

Better Reporting – The Food Plate

The USDA recently changed their dietary guidelines introducing the food plate (below) to replace the food pyramid (further below).

It’s a good example of cleaning up a report and removing superfluous information (servings, category detail) to create a clearer message and using clearer a metaphor (plate rather than pyramid) to tell the message. Not exactly clear why dairy gets it’s own circle, or if the colors imply anything, but still it’s a vast improvement in the ongoing losing battle against obesity, though innovation continues.

A great example of saying less and communicating more.

(And a lot better than some other government reporting efforts)

A Holistic Look At The Triple Constraint

I’ve previously argued that the triple constraint is more a myth than a useful project management tool.

Roger Atkinson’s academic paper takes a different approach, the argument is the triple constraint (referred to in the paper as the Iron Triangle) is only a subset of project management criteria, and a better approach is to combine 3 additional sets of metrics to capture project management success holistically, one of the metrics Atkinson proposes is IT specific, but the others capture stakeholder benefits and organizational benefits.

It makes sense, time and budget can be the easiest things to measure but aren’t necessarily the most important. See the full article here.

Managing Risk – Part 4

photo: Ian Britton (via Flickr)

The previous 3 posts on risk management have focused on understanding risk. The next step, and the primary purpose of risk management is mitigation.

For each risk that is identified what would you do differently if it occurs?

Also, perhaps more important is what is the agreed definition of occurrence of the risk? Disagreement within a group over whether/when a risk factor has occurred can delay the response to it.

Finally, risks are unlikely to ever play out exactly as you anticipate, but the act of considering risks and their mitigation strategies will make your plans more robust. You may also want to consider Gary Klein’s pre-mortem approach.

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”Dwight Eisenhower

Managing Risk – Part 3

photo: Paul Belson (via Flickr)

One of the reasons risk management goes wrong is a psychological phenomenon called anchoring. Anchoring means that once an idea is out there (such as estimate of when a project will end) it has a lot of power and influence, even if it’s not intended to.  Lots of academic research documents this across various settings and context and it’s pretty robust. Once an ‘anchor’ is set, even unintentionally, it is notoriously hard to move it.

What does this mean for risk management? Well it means that once a project plan is out there, the initial estimate will be changed more slowly that it should because of these psychological factors. If the project is was initially meant to cost $3M and then a revised estimate comes in at $4M, the estimate is more likely to move to $3.5M than all the way to $4M, because of the impact of the initial estimate, even though it’s now out of date.

Good risk management should ensure that only the latest information is factored into any estimate, effectively starting from a ‘blank slate’ each time. However, even though this sounds obvious, the impact of anchoring does mean that it’s hard to do in practice.

Managing Risk – Part 2

Risk involves some form of estimation, as Flyvberg has shown, the best estimates are based on past, factual reference data, but for most projects that’s hard to obtain and so project managers are left to rely on their estimation skills. There’s an exercise on estimation here that I think everyone should do at least once. Most people are over confident in many areas.

Do you think you are a better driver than average? 93% of people put themselves in that category (of course it should be 50%). The same is true of estimation, and it’s an area that’s key to risk management, the temptation is to be excessively precise in one’s estimates, and this level of false precision understates true risk.

source: Joe Futrelle

Managing Risk – Part 1

This is the start of a 5 part series on managing risk. Risk management is second only to communications as a core skill for project managers and this week’s 5 part series offers a quick refresher on some of the important concepts.

What is Risk?

The pyramid below lists stages of understanding ranging from low (to bottom of the pyramid) to high (the top).

The first stage is pure uncertainty. I’ll use a coin flip to illustrate these different stages, you’re going to flip a coin but you’ve absolutely no idea of what the outcomes could possibly be. You’ve no ideas that heads is more likely than the coin disappearing in a puff of smoke.

The second step is to understand at least some (but not all) of the potential outcomes, for example if I flip a coin, it could be heads.

The third step is the complete set of outcomes. If I flip a coin it could be heads or tails and no other outcomes are possible.

The forth step is to know the probabilities associated with an outcome for example 50% heads and 50% tails.

The final step is to know the outcome. This doesn’t work so well with coin example because a coin flip is designed to maintain a balance of uncertainty between two outcomes, but if you were a physics genius and knew exactly how the coin would be flipped, how clean the coin was on each side, and the impact of wind direction, then you would know in advanced how the coin would land.

But, hang on, you ask, in this final example risk management isn’t needed?

Exactly, that’s the point. Risk management is a way of dealing with our imperfect understanding of the world and can be done away we get to a total understanding of the situation so as to predict the outcome. Just as a perfect driver wouldn’t need a seat belt. In most cases, though, we’re not this good and risk management is still needed.

Improving Cost Estimation

photo: Thomas Hawk (via Flickr)

The Government Accountability Office provides a reasonable useful framework for cost estimates, they should be:

Credible – this means that sensitivity analysis should be performed on cost estimates to see how much they move in relation to changing assumptions. In addition, cost estimates should be verified by least one other party.

Well-documented – this simply involves making sure all the steps and assumptions in determining an estimate are recorded.

Accurate – this sounds obvious, but the goal is to ensure the estimate is based on the costs that are most likely to be incurred.

Comprehensive – the goal here is that the estimate includes all the costs throughout the life cycle of the work performed.

Not radical by means, but a good cross-check on your current cost estimation process.