28 July 2009

Dealing With a Project Team That is Not Spending Enough Time Together

In a recent post I outlined eight signs that are leading indicators for a project that can be expected not to reach its goals and targets in a timely manner. This post will highlight how best to deal with the second of these signs, a project team that does not seem to be not spending much time together.

Why is this a problem? A complex project will (almost by definition) require input from different parts of the organization. It will also almost always require a combination of different experience, knowledge, and abilities in order to successfully meet its goals. While there are certainly project-related activities that need to be done on an individual basis, there is a great deal of work that needs to be done jointly by the team.

In my experience, the first, and maybe most crucial, of these activities is getting real agreement on the goals and deliverables of the project, and the translation of this into activities (Other crucial success factors for starting up a complex project are described in another blog-post). This common and joint starting point can only be achieved by spending time together, and is crucial for ensuring that all team members are doing the right things. Another activity that must be carried out jointly is the interpretation of the outcomes of analytical activities (see blog-post on how to get a team to carry out meaningful analytics). While the initial analysis can be done by one member of the team, real quality is added by using the experience and knowledge of the rest of the team. Spending time together for this type of activities is also crucial for ensuring that the rest of the team understand and agree the outcome of specific activities in order to optimally carry out their own pieces of work.

A complex project typically also requires a high degree of coordination between activities. This can sometimes be done face-to-face between two team-members, but broader coordination is often required to ensure that all activities are optimally linked to each other. A typical example of such coordination comes from a recent project where I helped a team develop a business plan. In this project two crucial activities were developing a spreadsheet model and collecting data and developing assumptions for filling the model. One of the major challenges this team had was ensuring that these two activities were aligned regarding type of data and the format of the data to be collected. An additional complexity was that the requirements of the model were changing over time as additional insights were developed. This alignment was done partly in team meetings, and partly in face-to-face meetings between the modeler and the individual team members.

Finally, the development of the overall conclusions and recommendations from the project will require closely working together, as it will be based on analysis and interpretation coming from all the activities carried out by the team. This is crucial not only for the quality of the results, but also for developing the required consensus view on the conclusions (especially if the project is political in its nature and the team members represent different factions within the organization).

Why do project teams not spend sufficient time together? Sometimes I see that it is because they do not understand the need for working together. Often this is combined with a feeling that they do not have sufficient time to spend together, and need to focus on "doing the work". Other times, the team members do not feel comfortable working together. This is especially the case if the project is political in nature.

What can be done to help the team spend sufficient time together? The first step I typically carry out is to sit down with the team to understand why they do not get together more often. Typical answers I l get are that there is limited need and that they do not have the time to spend together. In this case, I make a strong case for why time together is required (using the arguments given earlier). If "time" truly is a key factor, then I have had to ensure that the team members are able to free up sufficient time from their day-to-day activities to give the required attention to all aspects of the project work. This has usually required the assistance of the project sponsor. Finally, I have forced the team to set appointments for getting together (including agreeing an agenda for what will be discussed). In these cases, it has also helped if the sponsor has taken time to sit in on one or two meetings to help the team to work effectively together.

Follow the links if you are interested in more information on project planning or project management training.

22 July 2009

Helping a Project That is Dealing With a Very Broad Range of Issues

In a recent post I outlined eight signs that are leading indicators for a project that can be expected not to reach its goals and targets in a timely manner. Many of you have requested more details on the individual issues. In this post, the focus lies on how to deal with a project team that is dealing with a very broad range of issues.

Why is this a problem? In my experience, projects that are not dealing with a relatively narrow range of issues have great difficulties in keeping focused and have problems in knowing precisely which activities are required for reaching the agreed goals. In addition, they tend to spend a very large amount of time communicating with potential stake-holders. The main consequence of this is that it is almost guaranteed that these projects will not be able to keep to the agreed timelines and meet key deadlines. In addition, due to the broad range of issues, they will have great difficulties in developing crisp and concrete conclusions and recommendations, thereby not delivering value related to any of the issues the project set out to deal with.

My recommendation to clients is to start every project with a crisp and focused set of objectives. If you have different, but related, issues, you should strongly consider setting up specific projects to deal with each issue (either in parallel of sequentially). If the problem itself is difficult to structure, consider setting up a phased approach where the goal of the first phase is to develop a better understanding of the situation, to suggest the possible ways that the issues can be dealt with, and to give advice on how a project should optimally be set up.

What can you do if you believe that you have a project in your portfolio that is dealing with too broad a range of issues? My recommendation is to sit down with the project team and go back to the starting point for the project. Key questions that need to be answered include a) what has changed in the business environment that the project needs to develop a response to, b) what are the key issues that the project needs to deal with, and c) how well do we understand these issues?

Based on the answers to these questions, I have helped many teams to develop an overall goal and a set of concrete deliverables for the project. The goals that we have agreed have been measurable and the deliverables have represented something that clearly did not exist earlier (a marketing plan, a new process, etc). The concrete goal and agreed deliverables have then been used as a starting point for analyzing the activities being carried out by the project team. Any activities that are not absolutely required for meeting the concrete goal should be stopped immediately. If they are important for reaching other goals, they should be given to a separate team. Based on the new set of activities, a new and realistic plan has been agreed with the team, and the team has set to work again with a renewed focus and increased energy. Typically, the process of getting the team focused has taken two or three meetings in a course of a week.
Follow the links if you are interested in more information on project planning or project management training.

15 July 2009

Identifying the Projects That Are Most Likely to Fail

If you are in the same situation as many of the people I consult to you are responsible for a portfolio of projects, and are having to spend too much time checking on how these projects are performing. When my clients are in this type of situation, I recommend that they get out of this trap by focusing their attention on the projects that are most likely to fail, and spending less time on the projects that are likely to go well.

How can you know which projects are most likely to get into trouble? While my previous blog-entry suggested Eight Signs, these are signals that are visible after a project has started. What is required is a method for to identify these projects before they start. Luckily; in my experience project failure is mainly driven by project-complexity. Therefore, if we can objectively measure the complexity of your projects you can rank your projects on the likelihood of each project getting into problems, and can prioritize your time accordingly. How do we know which projects are the most complex? Again, this can be done fairly easily by understanding the complexity drivers for projects, and scoring each project on these dimensions.

Based on my 20 years of experience, I find that project complexity can be measured on two main dimensions. These are a) internal complexity, and b) external complexity. Internal complexity is based on issues related to the way that the team members need to interact, and the type of work that they need to do. External complexity, on the other hand, is driven by the overall environment in which the project needs to work. For each of these two dimensions, I have defines four key complexity-drivers, and the higher the score on each driver (using a scale from 1-5) the more complex the project is.

The internal complexity of a project is driven by:
1) The distance of the work to be carried out by the project to the day-to-day activities of its members
2) The organizational distance between the units where the project participants come from
3) The level of sophistication required in the data collection and analysis to be carried out by the team
4) The level of the "out of the box" thinking required for developing optimal conclusions

External complexity is driven by:
1) The level of pressure from management for achieving concrete and challenging results
2) Openness of project goals to interpretation and level of political elements in goal definition
3) Level of expected uncomfortableness to project participants resulting from project results
4) Required level of communication to various stakeholders for getting the necessary buy-in for results

We can use the scores on each of these dimensions to determine the overall complexity of the project. A project that scores higher than fourteen on each dimension is a complex political project, and should be followed up very closely. If you focus your attention on the complex political projects in your portfolio, you are sure to increase the overall success rate of your projects, as the other, less complex projects are much less likely to experience problems. Carrying out this prioritization process has helped many of my clients prioritize their overall work, and has also helped make individual projects more successful by focusing project activities on crucial issues.

Follow the links if you are interested in more information on project planning or project management training.

08 July 2009

Eight Signs That Your Project is in Trouble

Many of my clients are in a situation where the number of complex issues that need to be dealt with outside of the standard organizational structures is growing. The companies that earlier tended to outsource the most complex of these projects to outside consultants are now less able to do so due to economic constraints. Due to these two factors, I see that the number of internal teams dealing with complex projects is growing dramatically.

If you are also facing this situation then there are almost certainly one or more projects within the portfolio of projects you are responsible for where you have a “gut feeling” that the project is not going well. Since you do not have any conclusive evidence, it is difficult to do anything but to hope the best and see what the teams come up with.

In my career I have had the opportunity to improve a large number of projects that were not going well. Distilling my experience across these projects, I believe that there are eight warning signals for projects that are not going well. The more warning signals that apply, the more urgent it is to intervene. The eight warning signals are given below, and each title links to a separate blog-entry giving more details on the individual signal:
1. The project-team appears to be dealing with a very broad range of issues
2. The project team does not seem to be spending much time together
3. The team is spending a lot of time carrying out “interviews”
4. The team does not appear to be doing any meaningful analytics
5. The team has very limited interaction with you (and other sponsors )
6. Key stake-holders, who's by-in will be required for the project to be a success, are not aware of the project
7. The project is not meeting agreed deadlines
8. It is difficult to pin the team down on any meaningful conclusions

My generic answer for dealing with a project that is showing a number of these warning signals, and is therefore heading toward failure, is to regroup. An example of such a situation was described in an earlier blog-entry. Regrouping involves bringing together the core team members in a meeting. This meeting should have sufficient time reserved for it (suggested minimum is two hours), and be set up to minimize the possibility of external distractions (possible off-site, no mobile-phones, etc). This meeting should start off with a review of the issues the project is meant to deal with, the original goals set for the project, and the deliverables the team is expected to come up with. The next step should be to go through the work the team has carried out, and to discuss the key signals that served as a starting point for your worries about the project. Based on a reconfirmation of the goals and deliverables a realistic time-span should be agreed with clearly articulated milestones where you expect concrete updates on progress. The team should then be forced to allocate responsibilities and get a (realistic) commitment from each member on the time that they will invest and the activities they will carry out.

One of the problems that I have often encountered is that the team has conflicts with their daily work or other activities. In these situations, I have needed the help of the sponsor to help free up time and deal with conflicting priorities. This has also meant that the sponsor, has needed to get more actively involved in the day-to-day work of the team with intense follow-up and active assistance in the form of “running interference” for the team and guaranteeing that they are given sufficient time to carry out the required work. In my experience such a “re-grouping” of the team activities is usually sufficient to get the team back “on-track”.

Using these fairly simple steps to bring a project back "on track" has served me well in project management consultancy work that I have carried out at a range of companies. The suggested activities can also be used to kick-start a project management training. Follow the links if you are interested in more information on project planning or project management training.

03 July 2009

Gordon Ramsay and Radical Profit Improvement

If, like me, you enjoy good food, good wine, and real cooking, and occasionally have time to watch television you have probably seen one of the many programs that Gordon Ramsay has made where he flies in to turn around a restaurant that is in deep trouble. These shows typically revolve around scenes showing gross incompetence that scare you from ever going to restaurants again, and the very interesting and colorful use of the English language by the three Michelin-star cook.

In addition, there is another commonality across these programs that could be useful to those of you facing a situation requiring a dramatic turn-around. An activity that has been carried out in all the restaurant turn-arounds that I have watched is a ruthless pruning of the menu to enable the restaurant to focus on a few dishes that are a) popular, and b) within the capabilities of the restaurant staff.

I believe that this is an excellent analogy to what many other organizations also need to do in these difficult times. For most companies a "back to basics" strategy is a much better way to improve profitability than a flat 10% across-the-board reduction of costs. (see Setting up a successful cost-reduction project for more information). Watching a few restaurant turn-around shows also gives a good lesson in how this type of consolidation can be carried out. As in the restaurants being helped in the television programs, the focus of the new product portfolio in your organization should be "popular and simple".

Finding out which of your products or services is popular should be fairly simple as your financial data should tell you which products give the highest sales. This initial analysis, however, should be expanded by also looking at which products are sold to a broad customer base and cover a wide set of customer needs. The typical steps carried out for the restaurants in the show also include market research by walking round town to look at which other restaurants exist and which ones are crowded. Similar steps in the case of most companies would be to carry out some fairly straight-forward market-research by interviewing a few clients.

Finding out which of your products are simple to produce involve looking at financial data and analyzing your production process. Your financial data should give some indications on the profitability of your individual products (direct margins, etc), but this data should be used with care. The main issues with accounting data include a) tax issues often play a large role in deciding the accounting rules that are followed, b) unrealistic assumptions are often made related to costs being fixed or variable, and c) many indirect costs are not sufficiently linked to their real cost-drivers (i.e. the products actually causing the costs to be incurred).

An analysis should therefore be carried out of the production process itself. For a restaurant this is fairly simple as it is possible to directly see the dishes that create chaos in the kitchen. In a larger organization with processes that typically cover more time, space, organizational units, and people this can become quite a complex undertaking. Complexity in itself, however, is no reason not to start. There are several possible starting points for such an analysis including customer interviews (which of our products are you unhappy with and why), interviews with sales people and service representatives (which products give the most complaints), interviews with production people (which products are the most difficult to make and which result in the most rework), etc.

By combining the results of these two analytical streams it should always be possible to determine products that are a) not popular, and b) complex to make. The short list resulting from this combination will always be a good starting point for carrying out a "pruning of the menu" in your organization.

Follow the links if you are interested in more information on reducing complexity, project planning or project management training.

01 July 2009

Setting Up a Successful Cost-Reduction Project

Almost every organization in the world today is looking at ways to reduce costs. Some companies can do this fairly simply by closing factories or giving top-down targets to all relevant departments (costs to be reduced by 20%). Other companies that I talk to feel that they require a more fundamental approach that will restructure the way that they do their business. Sometimes this includes a strategic review of which products and services should be offered to the market, other times the markets served are seen as stable. In the second case there is usually a need to fundamentally re-assess how the products / services are brought to market in order to radically decrease the costs and/or to improve service levels.

Carrying out such a task will, almost by definition, require a project, and such a project will always be extremely complex (both due to political issues and the required out-of-the-box analytics). Based on experience in setting up and carrying out numerous strategic transformation projects for A.T. Kearney (definitely the consultant to go to if you need broad external help in carrying out a transformation (see http://www.atkearney.com)/) I believe that there are a number of very dangerous pitfalls for such projects, but that these pitfalls can easily be avoided by carefully thinking through how the project is set up. The key pitfalls and how these can be avoided will be covered individually.

A very common problem that I have seen in very many situations is that the transformation becomes an endless and uncontrollable process with different parts of the organization moving forward at different speeds. In my projects I have solved this problem by dividing the overall transformation into clear phases, and forcing all the individual parts of the transformation process to stick to the same overall milestones. Typically I have divided the transformation into three phases. The first phase of my cost-reduction projects have focused on understanding the key issues and setting realistic targets for improvements. The second phase has focused on the actual re-design of the new processes, while implementation has taken place in the third phase.

Many transformation projects I have seen have been plagued by unclear goals and targets. I agree that the start of a transformation process should include broad high-level goals that are, almost by definition, not tightly defined. However, in my projects I have always used the first phase of a transformation to develop a detailed understanding of the situation and key issues faced by the company, to make an overview of key changes required (by how much do costs need to be reduced in order to be competitive and profitable?), and to suggest the overall direction of possible improvements. Combining the results of these activities has typically given the project clear goals and targets for the individual parts of the transformation process.

Transformation projects are often plagued by difficulties in avoiding departmental politics and getting real end-to-end improvements in processes. To avoid this pitfall I have set up an appropriate small team at the beginning of the transformation and expanded this team over time. For the initial phase of a transformation I have strived to put in place a fairly small team that consists of a selection of people from across the company representing different organizational units and skills. The people chosen for this task have been analytically strong, open for change, and well respected through-out the organization. In the re-design phase the members of this team have typically become team-leaders for the sub-teams looking at individual processes or parts of the organization.

Transformation projects often have problems in enforcing decision-making and the implementation of agreed changes. To avoid this, my transformation projects have always included a steering committee that consists of key decision makers. If the transformation covered a total company this was the management team. The key challenge that I faced was to ensure that the steering committee understood and agreed with the overall process (phased approach, etc). In addition, they had to agree to a governance model that included clear decision points (certainly at the end of phase 1 and phase 2, but probably also at other key milestones). The steering committee also needed to agree to a generic set of rules that included free discussion up-front, but a commitment to the implementation of made decisions (agreed is agreed).

Carrying out these fairly simple structural changes to the transformation process has served me well in all the projects I have carried out, and I believe that they will also help you in setting up a successful transformational cost-reduction project. Follow the links if you are interested in more information on project planning or project management training.