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Straight Talk on Project Management

Potholes

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Don’t fix potholes with Weetabix. And other lessons for IT Projects from bumpy roads

I noticed something today, on my morning commute.

Due to the many potholes on our roads, I’ve subconsciously started to drive differently.

Instead of looking ahead into the middle distance, I’ve found myself fixing my gaze on the road just in front of my bumper, so I can avoid the gut-wrenching sound of hitting a pothole that appeared overnight! It’s instinctive. I know that I should be focussing on the traffic merging from the junction up ahead, the car braking in front, the roundabout 200 yards up the street … but instead I’m doing the pothole slalom. I’m getting so good, it should be an event at the next Olympics!!

It’s a common, UK-wide problem. As I write this, a survey reports that almost one in five local roads are in such poor condition that they have less than five years of life remaining, it estimates the one-time cost of bringing all local roads up to scratch now stands at £14bn (taking 11 years to complete) and local authorities say that they only received two-thirds of what they needed during the current financial year to stop roads further deteriorating.

“OK David,” I hear you say, “but surely this is an IT Project Management services blog … Facebook’s the place for moaning about potholes.”

IT PROJECT MANAGEMENT POTHOLES

Well, it’s actually a perfect metaphor for IT Project Management right now too!

The road to IT project delivery is equally strewn with metaphorical potholes, that spring up from nowhere and I wonder if we’re adjusting our “driving” to suit here too. By focussing on the immediate pothole, be it scope creep or resourcing issues, are we taking our eye off the road up ahead?

In the IT Project delivery world, potholes like inflated costs, talent shortages, supply chain issues, heightened pressure for a greater return on investment (ROI), shortened delivery lead times, slashed budgets, greater absenteeism, volatile markets, projects more reactive/less proactive in nature, specific competency/expertise shortages … are everywhere. It can feel like you swerve one, then another and then … bang! A cavernous new pothole buckles the wheels of your IT Project!

Thing is, on the road you grumble about the pothole for a week or so, maybe hit up your town’s Facebook page if you really want to moan! Then, you notice that someone from the council has painted a circle around it, and a day or two later someone else from the council comes and fills it in.

No such luxury for us! You have to fill in your own IT Project potholes as you go! Imagine that on your morning commute – having to stop every few hundred yards to yank a bucket of smouldering tar out your boot to fix a hole in the road!! (Actually, don’t share this with the highways heads – it’ll become policy!)

It is though, effectively what many project teams are having to do!

I shared my pothole metaphor with a project leader friend and he facepalmed. He told me that recently that he was wrapping up his working day, feeling exhausted, but thinking he’d had a busy and productive day, after all, he’d ticked off loads on that day’s stuff to do list! His heart was heavy though, and sure enough, checking the day’s endeavours against the Gantt chart, he realised the project hadn’t moved forward much and was slipping behind.

It was happening over and over again, everyday there had been new potholes to fill, every day a new challenge that hadn’t been part of the original plan! Dealing with these had created the illusion of “busy-ness”, but they’d been busy at the expense of being effective.

WORKLOADS, BUDGETS AND PRIORITISTION

Then there’s the workloads and budgets.

Local authorities saying they only received two thirds of the money needed to maintain roads certainly rang a bell in Project Management land! Post covid every penny spent has been scrutinised like never before and IT projects are no exception – teams are expected to do more with less! Everything in the supply chain is more expensive, harder to source, and what you can source can take longer to have in place as lead times are extended.

Many IT project teams are having to react midway to changing market pressures and business need, adding to our already heavy workloads.

There’s just been a guy on TV whose job it is to sort potholes, his approach to pothole repairs is so similar to the textbook approach to IT Project Management challenges that I might reach out and offer the poor soul a job! Here are the …

TOP FIVE IT PROJECTS LESSONS FROM BUMPY ROADS  

1 – Approach every IT project and every challenge within your problem with a plan and be willing to recognise when the plan is not working and take corrective courses of action.

Potholes are like projects – no two are ever exactly alike and they can change from day to day. This goes for challenges within our IT Projects too. Potholes can start small and become gaping pits overnight. Project problems are also apt to change, you must make sure you’re addressing the issue as it is today and not how it started last week! A willingness to modify your plan during the course of a project, and being willing to modify the response to your current challenge, may be the secret to your success.

2 – Act Fast! Following on from the last point – potholes never get any smaller, do they? Project dilemmas never just disappear either, and burying your head in the sand won’t suddenly make everything in your project fine again.

Identify the problem, choose your response or solution, and execute.

A PM friend has an A4 pad exclusively for this. She draws a line down the middle of the page and on the left describes the problem and on the right jots down (at least three) solutions. She chooses one, commits to it and acts upon it immediately. It’s so simple, so fast, there’s no time to overthink or procrastinate – you just do it.

So, if you’ve decided you need PMaaS resources I expect your call before you’ve even finished this blog!

3 – Never fill a pothole with Weetabix!

I heard this on the radio once, the presenters were frustrated with the lack of road repair so set about auditioning alternative materials – Weetabix set really well (like it does if left on your sides of your bowl) but it crumbled under the weight of a car tyre!

The moral of the story is – deploy the right resource!! Always match the skills of your team to the required skills for your project.

Also, ensure your team is given the best training to perform – develop a culture that encourages team members with skills gaps to learn from more experienced colleagues. Clients often describe this as a great side benefit of hiring PMaaS talent, when a seasoned project professional with different experiences enters your team, everyone can learn new tricks.

4 – Budget properly for potholes.

The Chancellor just announced a £200m pothole package, given that the estimated cost of repair is £14bn, motoring groups are pointing out the impact that the funding shortfall will have.

If you can, budget for the worst-case scenario when it comes to IT Project problems, you can always “give the money back” if you don’t spend it and come in under budget – you legend!!

Remember, Stoneseed’s PMaaS has an innovative commercial model that helps keep costs in check!

5 – Signpost Adequately!

There was a pothole near me that I must have hit four times in a week until someone came and sprayed yellow paint around it, after this I saw it in plenty of time and was able to manoeuvre around it.  

When things go wrong in IT Projects, some team cultures (not all but some) encourage burying the problem while a solution is sought. Increasingly though, fessing up to a misstep or a challenge is becoming the cultural norm. This is good on many levels, for a start honesty breeds trust. Beyond that though, by sharing any difficulties, you allow colleagues dependent on your task to adapt ahead of a potential delay. Honesty will also (usually) buy you some extra wiggle room from stakeholders!

Spray a metaphorical yellow circle around your pothole by flagging it with necessary stakeholders, tell them what the problem is and as soon as you have a solution – advise what that solution is. So, “Tom’s tested positive for Covid, our great relationship with Stoneseed means that they can provide resources to cover for as long as he’s off.”

STONESEED

Stoneseed’s Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) provides access to project professionals, resources and tools at a flexible and predictable cost. Our services portfolio offers a true end to end service, from IT Technical Advisory, Business Analysis Services and PMO Services through to Programme & Project Delivery. 

Whatever size project pothole appears on your route, we can help you swerve it and fill it.

Our “Turn it on, turn it off, turn it up or turn it down” approach, straightforward commercial model and innovative on-demand resource model allows you to dial up and down IT project resources in sync with your delivery needs and challenges. We’re always up for a chat about the challenges you are facing.

Wishing you safe travels, both through the pothole slalom of the drive home and the journey to IT project success.