PM-Foundations – That Will Leave a Mark

When working at clients the immediate goal is to meet or exceed the expectations of the engagement. As a project manager this is accomplished by effectively leading projects to successful project outcomes. While being recognized as a team for doing a good job is satisfying unto itself, the ultimate goal is to deliver and perform in a manner that leaves a lasting impression on the project management organization. This lasting impression is reflected in the consistency and effectiveness of the practices routinely used across projects, the ability to measure and report on project performance, and the quality and relevancy of project management processes and supporting project artifacts. In the context of managing projects, there are things you can do that to leave the project organization in a better place than when you arrived – leaving a mark that lives well beyond your time spent at the client.

5 Ways to Leave a Mark on the Project Office

Below are the 5 ways that I focus my energy and efforts during a project management engagement in an attempt to leave a lasting impression on the client’s Project Office/PM competency. Obviously, the level of impact/influence in some of these areas is highly dependent on the scope, length and visibility of your engagement.

1. Become Productive – Clients are often amazed at how quickly a project manager can ramp-up and productively contribute to a project. Quickly becoming productive on a project can be accomplished with limited or no domain knowledge associated with an industry, client, business process or technology. The time to ramp up on a project is largely dependent on the project manager’s experience / expertise, as well as their command of the core capabilities of a project manager. Effective project managers instinctively know how to approach a new project, and where to begin in terms of ramping up and starting to lead the team. Project offices that develop project managers that can ramp up and become productive quickly realize gains in time to market, as well as increase flexibility in terms of moving project managers from project to project. My first job at the assignment is to demonstrate this capability, and then work with the client to make it a core competency.

2. Model Best Practices – My company’s project management services are built around the idea that project management is a very mature competency with many available sources of knowledge, and yet companies still struggle with challenged or failed projects. We firmly believe that the implementation and consistent application of project management best practices is what differentiates successful projects from challenged projects. The more ingrained these best practices are in the project management culture, the lower the dependency on the talents and heroic efforts of individual team members. There are a “critical few” best practices areas that if performed well will significantly improve the team’s performance, as well as the project outcomes (identifying key stakeholders, facilitating the development of the WBS, creating a strong schedule and budget, managing change, and measuring performance to name a few). Throughout the project life cycle, I diligently perform / model these best practices as part of “doing my job” leading the project team. Just when you think nobody is watching, someone will surprise you and comment on how you handled a certain situation. It is in these moments that you know you are leaving a lasting impression on the client based upon the way you are modeling the effective application of the “critical few” best practices.

3. Proactively Mentor / Coach – Part of improving the overall project management competency within an organization is building a project management team that has the capability and desire to effectively apply the best practices in the context of completing “real” project work. I find that having a core of experienced and skilled project managers is a requirement to a strong best practice centric project management culture. Less experienced project managers can “lean on” the core of experienced project managers for professional development counseling, and advice on specific project situations. One of the most enjoyable aspects of consulting engagements is providing “free advice” to other project managers on how I have handled specific situations on other projects (again relying on the effective use of the “critical few” best practice areas). These mentoring opportunities help improve project results associated with the specific situation, and also influence the way that the project manager will handle situations in the future. Effective coaching and mentoring is often represented as “intangible”, but it is surprising the overall impact it can have on the project management competency within an organization.

4. Properly Close Projects – I spend a lot of time on my blog talking about effectively closing a project. The reason I am so passionate about this topic is that project closure is the point in time for project managers to identify / highlight the things done well or poorly during the project, and initiate the appropriate actions to ensure that these lessons learned are reflected in future project efforts. At the end of a project, many project managers are busy preparing for their next project or client, and miss this prime opportunity to leave a lasting impact on the client organization. Project closure starts with effectively shutting down project activities, validating all product deliverables are complete and key product issues closed, and smoothly transitioning resources to new roles. The second aspect of this best practice area is preparing the project closure report (also referred to as the post-project assessment). Creating the project closure report includes gathering input from key stakeholders, and identifying improvement actions to be implemented either as part of the closeout process or for future projects. These improvement actions can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the processes and tools regularly practiced within the project office.

5. Implement Continuous Improvement – As processes and tools are improved in the context of leading a project, the impact of the improvement is limited to a single project if it is not captured as a “standard” within the project office. Improvements may represent “filling a gap” in the project management processes, or an enhancement to an existing tool. In either case, it is important to ensure that the project office regularly captures and roll-outs these improvements across all projects. As a consultant it is usually pretty easy to introduce this practice, however it takes on-going demonstration and re-enforcement of the practice to “make it stick” – creating a culture of continuous improvement does not happen overnight.

Your comments are appreciated. How have you “left a mark” on the project management organization?

Using SharePoint to Support the Project Office – Portfolio Management

My blogs about using SharePoint to improve project delivery have been focused on processes and collaboration at the project team level. At the project team level, SharePoint can be used to streamline processes, increase team collaboration, and more effectively measure project performance. This is where most clients start to drive improvements in project delivery performance.

There is also a great opportunity to use SharePoint to improve the effectiveness of your Project Office, with different areas of focus, and different resulting benefits. At the Project Office level, SharePoint can be used to improve visibility of your project portfolio, govern the way work gets done across the portfolio, and uplift the project management processes and tools utilized by project teams. These improvements drive stronger relationships with your key customers, better control of projects throughout the project life cycle, and consistent application of more effective and efficient project management practices.

Portfolio Reporting

Maintaining project profile and performance information at the project team level provides the ability to “roll-up” the project information to a project portfolio dashboard. Portfolio reporting is utilized to communicate to key customers the status of projects supporting their business unit strategies. SharePoint enables portfolio dashboard reporting without creating overhead or redundant processes within your Project Office. It also provides the ability for customers to consume more detail about individual projects by providing links to project sites and project status reports.

Below are a couple very simple examples of the portfolio dashboard, one sorted by project phase and the other by business unit. Key project information can be communicated on the dashboard (project name, business unit, project phase, project status, budget status, actual spend to-date, target date, % complete, project manager), as well as a link to the project status report and/or project site to obtain additional information. With some minor help from your SharePoint Development staff, the look and feel of your dashboard can be further enhanced to include things like stoplights for the project status.

Active Projects by Project Phase

Active Projects by Business Unit

Governance

Many of my colleagues hate the concept of governance. To them it represents overhead and “red tape” that slows down the process of getting actual work done. To me, governance represents an enabler that makes it easier for customers to initiate projects, as well as establish a process that ensures that projects delivered meet customer expectations. SharePoint can be utilized to implement workflow and reporting around the project intake process. The project intake process allows customer to submit projects ideas directly, increase the visibility of project requests, and reduce the cycle times associated with the project initiation phase of the project.

SharePoint also provides the capability to manage portfolio and milestone reviews with key customers. This can be accomplished by creating a Project Office level calendar, and leveraging meeting workspaces to collaborate on key deliverables and manage follow-up actions. Strong processes in this area helps ensure that your teams are working on the right projects (aligned well with business strategies), and that projects delivered are meeting the expectations of your customers. Below is an example of the Project Office calendar of events.

Project Office Processes & Tools

The SharePoint collaboration platform can be leverage to uplift the processes and tools utilized across the project portfolio. A very simple example of improving tools at the Project Office level is creating a list to manage project manager assignments. A contact list with metadata added to collect information about project manager assignments can be added to the Project Office site to improve the cycle time associated with assigning a project manager for a new project. Below is a summary view of the project manager assignments list.

Another example of leveraging SharePoint to upgrade Project Office processes and tools is creating a central repository (using document libraries) for maintaining project management processes, tools and reports. This central repository enables more consistent application of key practices across the project portfolio. Collaboration amongst project managers facilitates sharing of processes and tools “in-line” with completion of project work. Project Office resources leverage the information captured during the project managers’ collaboration to implement continuous improvements to the project management process and tools. Metadata added to the process library helps organize the documents by process area, document type, and status of the document. Below is an example view of the process and reporting libraries.

5 Ways SharePoint Improves the Effectiveness of the Project Office

  • Portfolio Dashboard – The project dashboard represents a “roll-up” of key project information maintained on project sites. Without introducing redundant processes, the Project Office can provide improved visibility of projects throughout the project life cycle to key customers.
  • Project Intake – Customers have the ability to easily submit project requests in SharePoint. Implementation of workflow associated with the project requests provides improved visibility of the requests, and reduces the cycle time associated with the project initiation phase.
  • Portfolio Governance – The Project Office calendar and meeting workspaces are utilized to effectively manage customer interactions associated with on-going portfolio reviews, as well as specific project milestone reviews.
  • Team Utilization – The Project Office site can be utilized to manage project manager assignments and utilization across the project portfolio.
  • Centralized Process & Tools Library – Document libraries can be utilized to establish a central repository for project management processes, tools and reports. The Project Office drives improvements to these processes and tools in parallel with completing project work.

PM Foundations – An Effective Lessons Learned Process

In my experience, the best practice area that is most often minimized or entirely overlooked is project closure. At the end of a project, project teams are hurriedly preparing to move onto their next assignment, and miss a prime opportunity to leave a lasting impact on the client organization. Implementation of a consistent continuous improvement practice (aka, the lessons learned process) enables the ability to enhance the organization’s project delivery capabilities with the initiation of each project. The overall purpose of the lessons learned process is to identify improvement opportunities (things done well, or areas for improvement), and to initiate actionable next steps. In the context of this discussion, improvement opportunities can relate to both the product that was delivered, as well as how the project was planned and executed.

The lessons learned process should have consistent structure and organization from project to project. The following represents the primary steps in the lessons learned process:

  • Kick-off – The process is initiated with a brief discussion of the purpose of the lessons learned process. Information captured in the project closure survey is helpful to determine the best flow for the initial lessons learned discussion.
  • Capture Ideas – Ideas are generated for each of the project areas (e.g., project phase, functional group, or product category). Again, these ideas represent things done particularly well on the project, or areas for improvement. The facilitated discussion includes a review of ideas captured throughout the project (primarily by the project manager) and from the project closure survey, as well as brainstorming new ideas during the lessons learned meeting.
  • Group into Opportunities – Organize the ideas into groups based upon the type of improvement opportunity.
  • Prioritize – Identify the high priority opportunities, based upon impact of the opportunity (to the product or future projects).
  • Identify & Assign Actions – For the selected opportunities (high priority), identify actions that represent the next step(s) associated with implementing the opportunity. In addition, assign ownership for the opportunity to someone on the team who is responsible for seeing that the next steps are initiated.

Capturing Ideas

There are 3 primary sources of ideas around lesson learned opportunities:

  • Opportunities captured throughout the project. As improvement opportunities are identified throughout the project, they should be captured in a central repository. Particularly for longer projects, these ideas may get lost by the time you get to the end of the project.
  • The themes from the Project Closure Survey represent direct input for capturing ideas about lessons learned opportunities.
  • Through the review of opportunities that have been captured previously, the facilitator prompts the participants to brainstorm additional improvement related ideas.

It is a best practice to attempt to “guide” the discussion through the various aspects of the project in an organized manner. This could be based upon project phases, work streams, product categories, or functional areas. As with any well facilitated brainstorming session, the facilitator discourages passing judgment on ideas at this point in the process. You are trying to encourage participation in the process from all participants. In addition, using techniques such as having participants write new ideas on post-it notes helps get everyone involved in the process.

Grouping & Prioritizing Ideas

After completing the “brainstorming” process, the facilitator helps the team organize the ideas in groupings of related opportunities. It makes it easier to organize the ideas if they are grouped / organized based upon the type of opportunity (or opportunities that can be addressed with a common set next steps).

During this process it represents a best practice to physically organize the ideas into the related categories. This is either accomplished by re-organizing the post-it notes (posting the ideas on the wall in the groupings), or resorting the ideas captured by a software tool (displaying the ideas in the groupings using tools such as a Excel, Visio or MindMapper).

Once the ideas are grouped, the team works together to identify the high priority opportunities based upon the potential impact associated with each opportunity. This impact could be related to an improvement to the product, or an improvement to the project delivery process (across all projects). The opportunities can either by rated as High, Medium, Low, or ranked from High to Low.

At the end of this process the facilitator is attempting to get people to agree that the “right” opportunities have been identified, and prioritized appropriately.

Many times this point in the process is a good break for the first lessons learned session. The break provides participants time to review and elaborate on the improvement ideas before identifying the next steps.

Identifying & Assigning Actions

After the ideas have been organized and prioritized, the facilitator helps the team identify the appropriate next steps for the high priority opportunities. The next steps identified generally represent actions required to get the improvement opportunities moving in the right direction (vs. the exact steps to solve/implement the improvement). The facilitator should steer the team away from getting into a detailed discussion on how to solve the problem.

At this point in the process the team is also looking for people that can “own” the problem, or at least take ownership for the problem to the point that the next steps are initiated. The “owner” is generally somebody that either has accountabilities tied to the opportunity, or the passion/desire to help move the opportunity forward.

Managing Action Items

The single biggest complaint or “pitfall” associated with the lessons learned process is that nothing happens with the feedback that is captured after the project is closed and the team members return to their “regular” jobs. Sometimes this happens because the action items generated out of the process are not “actionable” enough to be implemented, but more often than not it is because there is not a group or process that is responsible for making sure there is the appropriate follow-through for the continuous improvement ideas and actions..

Part of creating a culture of continuous improvement is ensuring that there is the appropriate hand-off between the project team that identified the opportunity and the team that is responsible for implementing it. In a best case scenario, someone from the project team that is passionate about the opportunity can be part of solving the problem, but this is not always the case. Some practical ideas on where to go with the opportunities / action items from the project team:

  • Continuous Improvement Initiatives – If the opportunity is large or strategic in nature, a continuous improvement initiative may be launched to implement the action item(s). Like any other initiative, it will require adequate sponsorship and resources to be successful.
  • Project Operations – A client may have organizations that are responsible for taking learnings from initiatives and implementing continuous improvement ideas/actions (e.g., project office). The hand-off in this case is generally a presentation of the high priority opportunities and proposed next steps from the project team, and agreement on initiatives the project office should include in the future plans for their area.
  • Product Releases – Many times the improvement opportunities are associated with the product. In this case the opportunities and justification would be presented to members of the team that is leading the next product releases (or managing the on-going support of the product). This is the scenario where it is most likely that a member of the current project team would be part of the implementation of the continuous improvement opportunities.

Upon completion of the feedback process, and hand-off of the recommended next steps, it is the project manager’s responsibility to ensure that the process and supporting documentation is documented and stored in the project files. A summary of the process and recommended next steps will become part of the final project report. The supporting details should become part of the documents archived in the project files. This becomes a valuable asset for use by members of the project office or future project teams.

7 Lessons Learned Best Practices

  1. Timing – The lessons learned session can be performed at the end of the project, or at the end of major milestones/project phases (retrospective at the end of each sprint in the Agile world).
  2. Guided Discussion – Attempt to “guide” the discussion through the various aspects of the project in an organized manner. This could be based upon project phases, product categories, or functional areas. Generally if the discussion is “guided” (vs. randomly generated), the discussion is more organized and more likely to cover all aspects of the project.
  3. Organizing Improvement Ideas – Using a tool or physical representation on the wall, re-organize the improvement ideas into groupings. The re-organization process helps the team better visualize the appropriate next steps required to implement improvement ideas.
  4. Accountability – Someone is assigned accountability and responsibility for ensuring that something happens with the next steps recommended by the project teams. This accountability generally resides in the Project Office (project delivery opportunities) or the Product Maintenance teams (product improvement opportunities).
  5. Impartial Facilitation – To be an effective facilitator, engaging the group and guiding the discussion, it is best to have not been intimately involved in the project. As the project manager it seems natural to facilitate the lessons learned discussions, however that limits your ability to contribute as a participant. Consider engaging an experienced facilitator that has not been actively involved in the project to facilitate the meeting. The facilitator should be provided some level of background on the project (e.g., summary of project closure surveys) to help them better guide the discussion.
  6. Targeted Discussions – Often times it makes sense to break the groups into multiple sessions to focus on specific topics (e.g., components/phase of the project). One caution with this approach is to make sure the discussions are not so focused that you lose the overall cross-functional nature of the lessons learned process.
  7. Meeting Length – Lessons learned meetings that are too long tend to lose energy and focus by the end of the session. Therefore, you have high quality feedback around improvement opportunities and limited direction in terms of what to do about it (action items and assignments). To address this issue it is often helpful to break the lessons learned into two meetings: Meeting #1 = Capture, group & prioritize improvement ideas, and Meeting #2 = Identify & assign action items.

Using SharePoint to Improve Project Delivery

As I work with different clients, I usually run across the same project management related theme. Project Management is a very mature competency with very well-defined concepts, processes, and tools. There are a lot of resources available to help organizations improve the PM competency, including one of the best professional organizations I have worked with, the Project Management Institute (PMI). However, clients still have projects that fail, or are significantly challenged (e.g. bad quality, scope creep, late delivery, over budget). Clients are frustrated with inconsistent delivery results from project to project. The root cause of project related problems are often linked to shortfalls from a project management competency perspective.

Project Management Best Practices

To address this shortfall, I generally start the conversation with clients about establishing Project Management best practices. Best practices represent the practical application of the knowledge contained in the PMBOK and other sources of knowledge (concepts, processes, tools). The critical few processes that are integral to the success of the project are listed under each of the phases of the project life cycle in the graphic below. Practical application of these best practices drives a consistent project management approach, and tangible business results:

  • Quicker ramp-up of project managers
  • Easier integration of projects in a multi-project environment
  • More productive project managers (not inventing processes & tools on the fly)
  • Better overall team performance (including measurement of performance)

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The Project Environment

The other element associated with driving improved project results is the project environment in which we work. Enterprise Environmental Factors and Organization Process Assets are the most commonly referenced process inputs within the PMBOK. They are the things that your team inherits as it launches a project:

  • Existing systems (finance, timekeeping, project management)
  • Knowledge bases (repository of information about processes, previous projects, organization)
  • Standards / Guidelines (particularly important in a regulated environment)
  • Process, Policies, and Procedures (commonly describe Project Management and SDLC related information)
  • Historical information (artifacts from previous projects)
  • Culture (organization channels, communication vehicles, teamwork)

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As I work with clients it is important to understand whether their project environment enables improved project performance, or represents a project constraint. Does the environment enable you to launch and execute the project effectively, or constrain you (weighing you down with baggage and roadblocks)? Some of the questions I ask to determine the answer to this question are:

  • Are the systems tied to the PM best practices, or create “incremental steps”?
  • Are policies, processes, and procedures fully integrated into the project work to be performed?
  • Is information about other projects accessible?
  • How do people work together? How is information shared?

Using a Collaboration Platform to Drive Improved Project Performance

SharePoint 2010 is an enabling tool utilized to dramatically change the project environment (within both single and multi-project environments). Creating a more productive project environment helps you launch the continuous improvement phase of your Project Management “Best Practices” program from a more efficient and effective starting point.

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Key elements of a more productive environment include:

Collaboration – Enhancing your project environment to create more effective interaction between team members.

  • Providing a single source for the truth
  • Upgrading version control for key project artifacts
  • Establishing closed loop communications

Streamlining Processes – Utilizing a tool to establish or enhance project management related processes.

  • Establish structure via lists and libraries
  • Use workflow and alerts to reduce cycle time associated with reviews/approvals

Measuring Performance – Capturing the data required to measure project performance, and make the appropriate “course corrections”.

  • Measurements are a by-product of the work performed
  • SharePoint provides a platform to communicate “real-time” project performance metrics

Best Practices Associated with the Collaboration Platform:

The following are the key best practice associated with implementing and maintaining collaboration tools / processes to improve your project environment:

  1. Ownership – If team sees the value in the collaboration tools and processes, they will take ownership for updating and maintaining the project site. The value of collaboration is significantly diminished if the project manager is the only person providing updates to the project site.
  2. Central source – The collaboration tool must represent the single source for current project information. As the project manager, you need to make sure team members use the tool in this manner (e.g., discourage people from maintaining work in progress offline on their own laptop).
  3. Version control – This best practice ties to the central source of information. If utilized correctly, the collaboration tool helps solve the version control related issues across the project team.
  4. On-boarding team members – The project team site represents an excellent source of information to on-board new team members. The team needs to make sure the project site is set-up and maintained in a straightforward manner. You do not want new team members to get lost in the information that is available within the team site.
  5. Project closeout – With a little luck, your projects have a beginning and an end. Decisions need to be made at the end of the project in terms of what happens to the project site.

There may be a next version of the product in which case the site would be “rolled forward” to a new project site.

The production information may need to be available on a support site.

At a minimum, key project information is captured on a historical project file site.

There needs to be purposeful action related to the disposition of project site at the end of the project or you will end up losing valuable project and/or product related information at the end of the project.

Recommended Next Steps

Depending upon the current maturity of the people, processes, and tools around SharePoint in the project environment, your next steps may vary.

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The standard approach related to implementing a collaboration platform to upgrade your project environment includes the following:

  • Identify (or confirm) the “critical few” best practices that should be emphasized and integrated into the collaboration platform.
  • Establish some standards / guidelines that would be used by each of the teams (and a place where these standards are accessible). Some examples include:

When to create project site

What are the standard elements of the project site

What meta-data is important for standard reporting or site organization

Create templates for key lists and libraries (risks/issues, change requests, status reports document libraries)

  • Depending on the experience of your project team, you may need to provide training for the team on SharePoint. At a minimum you need to get your up to speed on the specifics associated with the implementation of SharePoint within your project environment.
  • Get started => Don’t wait until everything is perfect before you launch your new project environment. You will never get complete consensus on the standards/guidelines, and there is an opportunity cost associated with “do nothing”.
  • Establish processes to identify and capture best practices in the context of your new project environment. As these ideas are incorporated into the standard best practices they will be reflected as tangible continuous improvements.

Note: Future blog posts will continue to elaborate on the discussion around upgrading your project environment using the SharePoint 2010 collaboration platform.