Straight Talk on Project Management

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New Year, New Budgets, New Projects! NEW CHALLENGES. Do IT Projects need new solutions?

Happy New Year! I am never sure when to stop saying that. Traditionally, I stop around a week into being back to work, but then nothing about this New Year is normal, is it?

There’s never been a New Year and back to work period like this! Ever! For a start, many of us aren’t back in the actual office! Who would have predicted that a year ago?

Actually, I was reading back over past New Year blogs, from previous Januarys, about IT Projects and how to approach the coming twelve months. I smiled at the simplicity. They are all about new budgets, sharpening practices, reassessing methodologies, brushing off and refreshing recommended supplier lists (RSIs), etc, etc. As important as all these things are, the iteration of David that wrote these blogs didn’t know how lucky he was.

I remember writing every word. I remember the feeling of nervous excitement at the challenges ahead – like that feeling of being keyed up and raring to go just before playing in a football match. Every year the challenges would be different, I knew this, but the years of experience and great contacts and support networks would be equal to them – I knew this too! Or at least I hoped. And every year I was right.

And then there’s this year! Oh my!

Take your pick! Brexit and supply chain challenges; tighter budgets due to the recession; changes to business need and business case; unprecedented pressures for return on investment (ROI); lockdown restrictions; staffing restructures (layoffs); reduced hiring budgets; staff sickness issues (always prevalent at this time of year – but where previously you’d take a Beechams, have a day off and then soldier on – now a government app will tell you to self-isolate!!!); business caution and uncertainty; IR35 … you get the picture.

Actually, scrub what I said earlier. the iteration of David that wrote those blogs didn’t even know he was born!

Challenge, after challenge, after challenge. But then …

What IT Project EVER was totally without challenges?

The answer, of course, is there has probably never been a project that didn’t throw you a curveball or two, cause you sleepless nights or cause you to have an uncomfortable conversation with your stakeholders.

Did you ever give up? Did you ever question your career choice? Ever doubt your ability to deliver? No. You rolled up your sleeves and ploughed on, faced your challenges head-on and (more often than not) triumphed and delivered your project.

My Australian Project Manager friend, Mike, is a keen surfer and often draws parallels between the two. He tells me of the barrelling waves that make surfing exciting and compares them to the challenges we all face during the lifecycle of an IT Project. He’s right, surfing on a millpond would be boring – at best you’d float and at worst, jump off in boredom and paddle to the side.

Mike often says, “We’re Project Managers, not Project babysitters. You either manage it all or none of it – the challenges are the bit that makes it fun”.

He’s spot on, but in Project Management those barrelling waves have just kept coming.

So, what’s different this year? Why are so many IT Project teams holding their heads in their hands? I asked a few colleagues and clients – the answers that came back were all variations on this theme – “The challenges are mostly all new”.

While this feels true, like instead of surfing waves made of water, I swear some of this year’s feel like they’re made from molten lava!! But are the challenges that they bring new? Really? I think this needs challenging and reframing.

The Challenges Are Mostly All New. Really?

A friend is struggling with a really bold IT Project portfolio right now. Post-Brexit, their business processes have had to adapt. New documentations, shipping, labelling requirements, logistics, banking legislation, fund transfers, etc, etc, etc – and all this business process change management is naturally being driven by IT. Actually, the projects initiated to deal with this will be transformational when they deliver. The Project leadership and team are all seasoned professionals, between them they have always found the answer to any problem from their collective decades of stored knowledge. I asked him this week to give their challenge a name. The answer was “Brexit”.

Before we proceed, I’m not getting into a debate about the rights and wrongs, and pros and cons of Brexit, it’s not that kind of a blog. I am hearing Brexit cited as the cause of many issues and IT project woes though, so let’s use it as a (good) example of how some project teams have fallen into the trap of trying to solve the wrong problem – and what I mean by a reframe.

Firstly, let’s validate the challenge. The team is right – no-one’s ever done Brexit before, no-one’s ever worked through such a period in regulatory and relationship change. No-one, before now, has ever managed an IT Project through times like these. I get it – but is Brexit really the ‘problem’?

So, I asked my friend, “How are you and your team going to sort Brexit?”

We were on a Zoom call and my little window remained lit for what felt like an eternity before the answer came back …

“It’s not up to us to sort Brexit.”

“But you just said Brexit was your IT Project’s challenge – it’s your job to deal with the challenges that your project faces,” I said.

“Well it’s not just Brexit, it’s COVID!” said another of the team.

“Goodness,” I said, “Brexit and COVID. OK – how are you going to solve COVID?”

My Zoom window stayed lit as I waited for a reply.

Eventually, my friend clarified, “It’s the job of the governments of the world to solve COVID. We have process issues because of Brexit and COVID isn’t helping because project demands are soaring. The Brexit process challenges would be enough but while we’re dealing with that we’re also having to set up a work from home infrastructure, deal with layoffs and office restructuring, move everything to the cloud. Both Brexit and COVID-19 are unprecedented.”    

“Ah, yes they are unprecedented,” I conceded, “but process issues and rapidly scaling demand aren’t. I know for a fact that you’ve had both issues before because you’ve sourced PMaaS (Project Management as a Service) resources through Stoneseed and we helped you with many process issues”

There was a moment of silence before I asked, “So, is your challenge Brexit, COVID or is it processes and demand?”

We all agreed it was process and demand issues, concluded that these challenges were not new and had been overcome before, and therefore opened a solution space to deal with the actual problem.     

Obviously, I’m not belittling the impact of Brexit and COVID or any of the other ‘new and exclusive to 2021’ challenges. They are causing major disruption, but then when was running an IT Project ever plain sailing?

The point is these guys were locked into a mindset that Brexit and COVID were their problems, when what they really needed was the necessary talent to deliver their project, they needed to adjust and refine their processes. Make sure that you’re asking yourself the right question.

Ask The Right Question. Solve the Right Problem.

A great question to ask to make sure that you are trying to solve the right problem comes from Bernie Roth of Stanford’s D-School. For years, Bernie has been applying the skills of the designer to problem-solving. In order to ensure that he’s tackling the right question Bernie asks, “What will it do for you to solve your problem?”

When you ask yourself “What will it do for you to solve your problem?”, you can cut away layers of red herrings to really get to the heart of what’s truly causing you pain.

The illustration Bernie often gives is the time he hired a car and was running low on petrol. He pulled into a petrol station but couldn’t find the release for the petrol tank cap. He searched everywhere, thinking where he would have put it if he had designed the car – all to no avail. Eventually, he sheepishly approached a woman who had just driven onto the forecourt in a similar car.

“Where’s the release for the petrol cap?” he asked.

“There isn’t one”, she answered.

He’d been trying to solve the problem of “where’s the lever that releases the petrol cap?”. If only he’d asked, “How do I get the petrol cap open?” He probably would have had it open in no time at all.

Chances are you’re doing the same as Bernie. Don’t ask how you solve the problems caused to your project by Covid, ask how you deal with scaled-up demand and you may find you have already solved issues like the one you’re dealing with – countless times!!

Often, we get so focussed on solving ‘a’ problem that we lose sight of THE problem. Check that your challenge really is Brexit, or COVID or the release lever for the petrol tank on a car. It even works for IR35!!!


IR35 is a particularly nasty curveball. While you are busy dealing with all of the new challenges we’ve discussed, you also have something that which will shake up the contractor market in a way never seen before. There’s a real risk of increased cost as contractors fall within IR35 and look to you to mitigate their increased tax burden, the demand vs supply landscape for contractors is shifting in the wrong direction for hiring organisations and morale among contractors is taking a bashing as they wrestle with the (in their view, unfair) change. Some even question if it’s worth their while any more!

But, as a Stoneseed client, you can relax!

Using a model like Stoneseed’s Project Management as A Service (PMaaS), IR35 complications are avoided. We employ most of our Project Team, they are on our payroll and therefore comply with UK tax legislation. Protection from IR35 tax risks and access to flexible resources on demand via a predictable cost model. I told you that you could relax.

Relax a little at least!! IR35 for the Private Sector comes into force in April 2021, so NOW IS THE TIME to act. To help you plan for the IR35 off-payroll rules and the changes necessary to ensure compliance, we have designed a planning guide that will take you through all the steps needed to ensure your projects are resourced in-line with the new legislation.

In conclusion, all these things we’ve mentioned, they are genuine challenges. And, at the moment, there seems to be wave after wave of them. But when was it otherwise? And who wants to surf on a millpond anyway?

New Year, New Budgets, New Projects!

There ARE lots of new challenges! But challenges are the nature of the game for Project Professionals. Lockdown, remote access, restructures, Brexit .. etc .. they all need planning for! Demand for project delivery is at an all-time high. Actually – how exciting! What good health our industry is in!!!

And you’re not alone. Stoneseed has stayed open, operational, fit and ready to help during the pandemic and we remain so. In a world craving normality, it feels good to be doing what we do- helping you deliver your IT Projects – whatever challenges you’re facing – old or new.

Find out about Stoneseed’s Project Services