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Straight Talk on Project Management

Rethinking IT project problems

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Rethinking IT Project Problems – As Projects

I’ve just had a coffee with a Project Management friend, Malc, and he has just shared a new technique that they’ve adopted across his team that has, in six months, revolutionised attitudes, improved effectiveness and boosted morale.

They’ve banned problems.

OK, I mean they still have problems – but they’ve rebranded them ‘projects’.

Literally swapping out the letters “blems” for “jects” has had an amazing transformative effect.

It makes sense! Think about it. Imagine you’re sat working hard at your desk and I walk in and announce, “Team, we have a problem.” How do you feel?

I can imagine your shoulders dropping, the groans, the pit in your stomach.

Now instead, imagine you’re sat working hard at your desk and I walk in and announce, “Team, we have a project.” How do you feel this time?

It’s better isn’t it? I mean the thing we have to deal with is the same, that email from a stakeholder has led to scope creep on a mammoth scale – that’s not changed but our attitude to it has.

Why?

First of all, problems are negative. Some of the best teams on the planet already refuse to recognise ‘problems’ … they’re opportunities … or challenges – and that’s great.

‘Projects’ has an extra layer of feelgood, security and certainty about it though. Projects – that’s what we do. Since the ink dried on your certificate, day-in, day-out, you’ve been exercising your project muscles. You are a toned, agile, project delivering machine – like a coiled spring – just aching to be let loose on the next project that comes your way.

Problems, on the other hand, they could be anything! A problem is an unknown quantity. Problems can range from no coffee in the kitchen to Covid taking down the whole team to all the servers on a multi-million-pound hardware upgrade turning up with cables with type C “Euro-plugs” rather than UK type G ones (or no cable at all – anyone who has had to make a mad dash to the DIY store to buy kettle leads will feel this pain!). Problems can be any shape, any size, take any length of time to sort, be a drain on resources, have massive cost impacts … I’m triggering anxiety for myself … so I’ll stop there!

Projects, while they can also be any shape, any size, take any length of time to sort, be a drain on resources, and have massive cost impacts … we have rehearsed processes and practiced disciplines to deliver them.

Malc’s Problemject Workflow Chart is really quite simple – but it’s the fact that he has a ready-made template to find a solution that makes all the difference. It’s highly effective in taking the sting out of most project problems.

Furthermore, that he treats problems as a ‘project within a project’ means that he brings all his project management firepower to the problem and, he tells me, eliminates the risk of a problem hanging around for too long “like a bad smell”.

You could use the same software that you are deploying to deliver your project to help project manage your problems, Malc has a simpler method! He has an A4 pad and tries to limit all his notes on one page.  When the problem is solved, he takes a scan on his iPhone so that it may be archived with the project notes for future reference – but separately, Malc has a thing about problems not becoming part of the DNA of a project.

The Workflow Chart he uses for problem solving will be familiar, but worth sharing briefly.  

  1. Name the Problem and Identify Tasks

The first thing that Malc does is give the problem a name and then identify the steps required to find the solution, on the page he showed me the problem was named as “Communication” (Malc’s team was feeding back to stakeholders, but it was not a two-way street and a lack of face-to-face meetings was causing delay. The steps were identified as Interview stakeholders > Ideate Solutions > Propose Solutions > Deploy. A daily Teams call was set up with “problem” stakeholders.

  1. Catalogue Resources

For more complex issues, Malc lists the resources he’ll need and compares this with the resources that he has. Interestingly, it is usually after completing this exercise that he identifies a resource gap and calls Stoneseed – so selfishly I really recommend that you make taking stock of resources a regular habit! Highlighting resource and talent gaps, where you are missing the tools or the people to successfully drive a solution is something that we always do for our projects but rarely for individual problems.

  1. Clarity on Deliverables

Malc always makes a note of what the project’s intended outcomes and deliverables are, this way he can ensure that any solutions are more likely to be aligned with the business needs of the project. He says this thought process also allows his imagination to take a hover over other aspects of the project and re-evaluate overall allocation of resources. Previously, doing this for a single problem has led to Malc’s team identifying that they need a Business Analyst and another time a Change Manager to deliver end user training.

  1. Delegate/Assign Roles

Once all the above is clarified, Malc can assign specific responsibilities to team members. Here’s where the rebranding of problems as projects really pays off. Telling a team member that he or she is being pulled off their planned work schedule for the day to complete a “side project”, with an end goal, specific deliverables and a delivery time is much more motivating that them feeling that they are “losing” a day to sort a problem.

  1. Workflow the Solution

You can, as discussed, use your Project Management software to schedule execution. As a highly creative type (i.e. not a big fan of the admin side of project management) Malc’s Problemject A4 pad works for him. It does have a rugged, creative charm about it – and a feeling that, whilst integral to project delivery, this problem and solution will not ‘infect’ the main body of the project. 

  1. Iterate

Malc’s really big on having at least three solutions to choose from (when time allows) – “that’ll do will never do,” he says.

  1. Thirty Word Evaluation

Last but not least, Malc always takes a moment to create a feedback loop for his problem projects. What worked, what didn’t, how he’d do things differently and what lessons he’s learned – but no more than 30 words, after all, there’s actual scheduled project work to get back to!

Conclusion

By thinking differently about problems, by bringing the Project Manager mindset and toolkit and years of delivery experience, Malc has created a culture that actually welcomes the challenge of a problem and the satisfaction of driving home a solution, it’s certainly more rewarding. “Rather than firefighting a problem, we fire up our rocket boosters and go exploring for solutions,” Malc told me – I said he was a creative type.

If you have any quirky methods or ways that you approach project delivery that are marginally different but significantly effective, I’d love to hear from you. AND if, like Malc, you have cause to occasionally reassess your resources and you find a gap, give us a call, and let Stoneseed help re-fire your rocket boosters. 

Find out more about Project Management as a Service from Stoneseed