Straight Talk on Project Management

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Context Is Key To IT Project Management Outcomes

Originally published on

I took a train to London recently. Train journeys are like being given the gift of time. Once settled, I like to work, read the newspaper, take in the latest blogs from or chew over the latest insight from the PMI. Then, other times, I like to just close my eyes and meditate (for that is what I’m doing if ever you see me with my eyes tightly shut like this on a train, certainly not sleeping).

From previous experience, I knew that the best way to achieve these outcomes was to book a seat. It’s disappointing when you climb on board the train with these great intentions and there are no seats – I’ve tried to work standing up with my laptop resting on the luggage rack, it’s not easy.

So I went to the trouble of reserving a seat for the journey. I boarded the train, inevitably in the wrong carriage and set off in search of my seat. When I found it, there was a lady sitting in it … in MY seat. She had her laptop set out and was working, files and books were opened and she had a coffee and a pastry from the buffet. I looked at the little ticket in the seat next to her it became clear that she had perched in the wrong place.

I could have been indignant that my carefully planned journey was compromised, I could have asked her to move.

Alternatively, I could look at the environment, see that she was established and take her seat instead. A compromise. In the end, I did the latter and ended up sitting next to a happy passenger for two hours rather than an annoyed one.

I still got some work done, read some industry insights and managed a good forty winks of deep ‘meditation’.

But how does all this translate into IT Project Management?

Well, think of the woman in MY seat as a data point. Data points add context to your project. Context is key to outcomes.

Compromise is a valuable IT Project conflict management skill. When you search for solutions that deliver satisfaction to all parties sometimes you actually find a better outcome. The seat on the train that I ended up in was better than the one I had booked. A window seat, facing in the direction of travel had been my preference but hadn’t been available at the time of booking.

When conflicts cannot be fully solved, compromise allows everyone to walk away winners. For example, recently an IT Project Manager employed by a client found that the complexity of a new project was beyond his self-assessed capability. He is an ambitious chap and took it upon himself to search out a training course that would, he believed, bring him up to speed.

The problem was that the course was not within firm’s budget and the time he would have had to spend away would have had a detrimental effect on the portfolio.

After considering the contextual data points, like the company’s and the project’s needs and the PM’s self-awareness and hunger to improve, the compromise that we suggested was hiring in more experienced Project talent from the Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) market. The external talent not only bulked up the competencies of the in-house team but also became a mentor. The result was that the team, who were used to smaller, less complex projects, became knowledge sponges. They learned more than would have been achieved by sending one manager on a course. Plus, as all the learning was ‘on the job’, it was contextually relevant to the team and their work for this specific business.

Suddenly, the “compromise option” looks better than the original idea – just like my train seat – but you need to understand the needs of everyone involved, consider the reason behind a request before attempting to come up with a compromise solution.

I was asked to consult on a Project once where the Project Manager had laid out the road ahead, the task schedule, beautifully. There were milestones along the way to measure progress, start dates, completion dates, time allowed for dealing with the unexpected, resources were allocated and tasks delegated. On paper it was perfect. Then a key member of the team became ill and was signed off work. At this point, the whole plan should have been reassessed, tasks should have been re-timed and redistributed, PMaaS talent could have been drafted in, but this wasn’t on today’s schedule. They ploughed on. In-house talent got reassigned to complete the ill team member’s workload but this meant that their own work was delayed. Interdependent tasks were not completed on time and the Project caved in like a house of cards.

As I write, a storm is rattling the windows of my office, the last of the golden autumn leaves are being shaken violently from the trees and I’m reminded of something that I saw driving home last night. A man in a high visibility vest was using a leaf blower to shift fallen leaves from the pavement onto the road. He illustrated this point perfectly. Given that the weather forecasters had been warning all week of the imminent arrival of high winds it might have made more sense to reschedule this planned task to a time that it might actually make a difference. I drove down the same road today and all the leaves blown onto the carriageway have been blown back and they have been joined by hundreds of fresh ones. When you add context to your task list you can save yourself a lot of pointless, fruitless work.

Another place where IT Projects benefit from adapting to context is in governance.

Colleagues will tell you .. governance is my specialist subject. If you’re ever on a telly quiz and the subject is governance and you have a ‘phone a friend’ option – I’m your man!

However, I’ve seen rigid adherence to governance be the ruin of many an IT project. Surely the main role of the governance team is to facilitate successful implementation of an IT Project and its changes. The problem comes when what governance looks like is agreed at the outset and not flexible enough to change to suit the current status of the project. A decision making framework created at the start of an IT Project may not be fit for purpose when, for instance, a competitor launches a product that disrupts the market and makes your project obsolete.

Sometimes, the best thing that you can do is take a step back.

I remember an IT Project Manager telling me that Service Level Agreements agreed and signed before the start of a Project, eighteen months previously, were now hampering creativity and innovation. The firm had bought out a competitor and the IT team was now managing a greater volume of service desk enquiries. On paper, the metrics of the SLA suggested the Project was in good health but the situation had changed. When you break down what a Service Level Agreement is … literally an agreement about the level of service that will be provided you can see why it must be open to change along the way.

In this case, the volume of IT issues had increased but the number of issues logged (via telephone) had not because when staff called the helpline it was usually engaged. The SLAs were geared around time It took to deal with an issue and end-user satisfaction. They didn’t take into account all those who couldn’t though, there was no metric for the poor souls listening to Vivaldi on a loop. They didn’t exist. When the IT team suggested an online system for issue reporting the client pointed to the SLAs and the fact that, on paper, issues were being dealt with within agreed timescales.

SLAs and KPIs are great but to treat them like concrete, inflexible contracts can do more harm than good.

SLAs must be subject to alteration over time. Clients and service providers alike need to review, modify and update SLAs so that they reflect new environments, new services or changes to existing services, ownership of the company or regulatory commitments. Sometimes, actually, most times, when you take a broader view that is focussed on your desired outcome while also taking in all available contextual information, you get to enjoy the best possible result.

One of my friends has spent all the years he has lived in his home painstakingly cultivating a flower bed in his back garden, nurturing plants he had bought from the garden centre and treating them to feed and fertiliser. This year, due to work commitments he didn’t have the time and the patch was left to nature. The result has been that an abundance of beautiful flowering weeds and wildflowers have grown from seeds blown in from nearby woods and fields. Poppies and meadow thistles, daisies and dandelions, buttercups, foxgloves and campanula have provided a changing colour scheme through the seasons and the garden became a magnet for bees, butterflies and birds.

Given that the desired outcome was to create a relaxing, colourful space to be enjoyed by my friend and his wife, leaving nature to put on the show has proved to be a rather effortless way to achieve this.

And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Sometimes a better outcome presents itself. When you open your eyes to context, environment and you are willing to compromise you are in a position to take full advantage. 

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