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Straight Talk on Project Management

Lessons from the shopping mall

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YOU ARE HERE! IT Project Management lessons from the shopping mall

You’ll have been to the shopping centre and seen those huge store maps showing how to reach each shop – and a huge, colourful arrow with the words ‘YOU ARE HERE’. I just had a bit of an epiphany standing infront of one.

Increasingly, and especially in the last two years (post Covid, etc), I wonder whether IT Project teams would benefit from a map like this, with a big arrow showing where you’re at – and help getting where you need to be.

You see, a number of project teams we’ve either worked with (or that I’m aware of because colleagues and friends are working on them), seem to have a problem clarifying where they are! If you don’t know where you are – can you know where you’re going or how to get there.

The shopping mall was the perfect metaphor! There was building work going on and although I’d been before it was a bit disorientating. It doesn’t matter how many projects you’ve delivered, if enough of your project delivery environment becomes alien, it can be disorientating too.

In the world of IT Projects, it’s mainly manifesting in two ways:

  • The Project is behind schedule, but the team (or more likely) stake holders haven’t let go of the original Gantt chart and where they should be at this point, as a result they are ‘mentally’ starting each day there.

Or alternatively, things just got over complicated, and someone needs to unpick how they got where they are – but there isn’t the time or resources to take “a helicopter view”.

(Imagine, you’re the builders at the mall, by Thursday all the walls should have been finished. It’s Friday now though, the walls are half built, but you’re all collectively thinking ‘it’s roof day!’).

  • The resources that you scoped out and maybe started the project with, are not the resources that you have now – but nothing has been adjusted to reflect or mitigate this. It could be illness (there’s a lot of that!), reallocation of resources, staff turnover. Or maybe there’s been scope change, or a shift in market need speeding the delivery date and the resources allocated no longer fit the bill. 

YOU ARE HERE – HOW WE GOT HERE

In the first scenario, many IT Projects became very reactive after lockdown, plenty still are, and budgets and allocated timeframes are both tighter than I can ever remember. I hear of teams communicating their status to stakeholders who do not make the connection between delays or resource issues and having to adjust expectations. So, back at the mall, stakeholders hear that those walls aren’t finished but keep asking what time today the roof will be on.

Some teams are so up against it that they themselves physically but not emotionally check where they’re at – a bit like looking at your watch and then having to look again because you didn’t take in what time it was. You ever do that? The person next to you sees you check your watch and asks, “What time is it?” – and you haven’t a clue! If a team can’t instinctively communicate where their project is (usually because they’re nearing burn out to be fair!), can they be confident where it’s heading?

In the second scenario, again driven by more reactive projects and shorter delivery lead times, teams with depleted headcounts are still trying to do the work of the full ‘squad’ they started out with. Back with the builders at the shops, they’re building the walls ready for the roofers without factoring in that half the bricklayers have been reallocated elsewhere but not replaced.

YOU ARE HERE – START WHERE YOU ARE

In the mall, trying to start your journey to Marks and Spencer from The Perfume Shop would a fruitless endeavour if the ‘YOU ARE HERE’ is outside Ted Baker. So, it is with IT Projects.

In other words, don’t start today where you think you should be, or where stakeholder expectations say you should be – start where you are.

And don’t plan today’s workload for ten, if there’s only seven of you left.

It sounds really obvious, it IS really obvious, but the problems that a number of projects are facing boils down to this – a failure to identify and accept where you are (and proceed from there)!       

YOU ARE HERE – DESIGN THINKING AND THE BEGINNER’S MIND

A friend always talks about a project management mentor he had worked under who, if I remember correctly, had spent time at either Apple or Google – anyway this guy was big on design thinking.

For him, this was the notion that rather than just think your way out of a problem – you design your way out and the first step was always to ascertain where you are.

He also taught my friend the value of a beginner’s mindset. Rather than approaching a problem with all your preconceived ideas or experience of what worked well in the past, you come at it as would a novice – you’re curious and inquisitive and you ask great questions to ascertain the true nature of the challenge. You see the city as a tourist not a native! A beginner’s mindset allows you to ascertain where you actually are rather than where you assume you are.

Writer, Co-Director of the Stanford Life Design Lab and the man who led Apple’s mouse-design team, Dave Evans, together with Bill Burnett (also ex-Apple) write about the beginner’s mindset in their book “Designing Your Life”. In conclusion, they ask, “How often do we go with our first idea and think we know answers to questions we’ve never really investigated? How often do we check in with ourselves to see if we are really working on the right problem?”

Design thinking can clarify where you are and open up your mind to new solutions! In our world, this could be accessing on demand project resources as a service for the first time – more on that later.

YOU ARE HERE – CLARITY TO PROCEED

Burnett and Evans also loop back into the whole point of this blog, acceptance of YOU ARE HERE!

They write, “There’s a sign over the design studio at Stanford that says You Are Here. Our students love that sign. You might say it’s somewhat clarifying.”

Acceptance of where your IT project is

, can be clarifying too and provide clarity on what the next step to take should be! Logically, that’s entirely dependent upon knowing where you are taking that next step from. 

So, to paraphrase Evans, you are never too late, and you’re never too early, YOU ARE just HERE.

“Design thinking can help you build your way forward from wherever you are,” Evans and Burnett write, “Designers get juiced by what they call wicked problems. They’re called wicked not because they are evil or fundamentally bad, but because they are resistant to resolution. You have a wicked problem. And that’s a wonderful and exciting place to start.”

I love the idea of us getting “juiced” by our IT Projects by the way – what a tremendous word!!

Design thinking puts as much emphasis on problem finding as problem solving – you don’t want to be working on the wrong problem! Needing to get the roof on that mall by Saturday might not be your actual problem, but it feels like it is, so you attack that with all your energy. Your actual root problem is that the guys originally allocated to build your walls are now doing that on another site. Work on that instead.

Design thinking is a very powerful asset and I’ll recommend some further reading at the end.

YOU ARE HERE – PMaaS IS HERE TOO

In IT Project Management terms, accepting YOU ARE HERE is all about resourcing the project that you’re delivering against the reality of today, rather than perhaps the environment you faced at the start. If the scope changes, staff are reallocated, or you just suffer from a spate of absence through illness, having a contingency plan has never been more important.

Back at the mall – it’s Thursday and you need those wall builders. The fact they’ve all been allocated elsewhere doesn’t cut it – you’re shouting, “just get me some new wall guys!”.

Stoneseed’s Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) can give you this level of flexibility and control over resources.

With reasonable planning, PMaaS provides access to a wide range of project skills, made available against your demand schedule. From a single Project Manager, Business Analyst, Technical Advisory or PMO expert for a few days, right through to a large team of fully utilised project professionals – you can turn it on, turn it off, turn it up, turn it down.

PMaaS can flex with your needs, Stoneseed’s innovative, on-demand resource model allows you to dial up and down IT project resources in sync with your delivery priorities and access them onsite or remotely (our remote access Project Management expertise can offer extra rapid response resources).  

CONCLUSION

Once you’ve established where you are and where you want to go next – Stoneseed can help.

Stoneseed offer a complete Project Management Office (PMO) range of services from provision of single resources to a team of PMO experts; or a full PMO service package via a Managed Service. We also offer PMO Consultancy and Technical Design Authority, if you have a PMO you wish to refine and improve.

Stoneseed’s Project Management as a Service is like each “YOU ARE HERE” arrow at the shopping centre having a lift next to it that takes you directly to the store you want! Now that IS an idea!

YOU ARE HERE … where next?

Find out more about Project Management as a Service from Stoneseed

 

Further Reading on Design Thinking

Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett/Dave Evans

The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life by Bernard Roth

Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success by Matthew Syed, Simon Slater, et al.