Tuesday, 9 September 2014

More on Project RAG Status Conventions

In a previous post, I laid out some of my rules for implementing a RAG status, which when used with discipline, can greatly help in project communications especially with demystifying areas or workstreams for your project team. I would still recommend any aspiring project manager to let about the RAG status, it has become part of project management lore, and tradition in some organisations, where people expect to see some kind of RAG. Familiarity is good, but don't be too pedantic about it!

I am not so sure about RAG any more...I've come to love-and-hate the RAG...It's a tool that I impress on my project managers to use, but I feel less inclined to use the RAG in upwards-communications. Of course, it depends...

I've been running projects for close to ten years now, starting with the usual small pieces of work, 3-6 month projects, 2-4 teams, one customer; then moving on to large teams (20+) scattered around the world, multiple projects with multiple teams, 12-24 months projects. So I've come to appreciate the softer side of management, to the extent that, RAG status is almost meaningless to people not responsible for managing projects or workstreams. You can waste a lot of time justifying why you as a project manager (PM), have settled to communicate the status using the said-colour (say Red), and that it is entirely within your right as PM to use your judgement, after-all, it is something that you gotta deliver!

Managing stakeholder expectations is key to the success of any project, ultimately the stakeholder is happy that his/her expectation has been met. This is a little challenging especially when there's multiple stakeholders who hold the same pecking order in the org structure, and are contributing teams to a unified project, multiple departments coming together to deliver a huge feature, end-to-end. Getting consensus at this level is always troublesome, do you really want everyone to buy-in to the why you communicate a project's status??  You can of course try, get them together, talk them through your flow-charts and state models, explaining what "On Target - Risk" means and why it's Amber, or what does "Slipping - Not Yet Mitigated" Red means, or "Slip but expect to Complete" Amber means. 

You can even explain how your Excel / MS Project Gantt includes the twenty odd sub projects tracking every single detail, bubbling up to each milestone, and how you run macros to determine if dates are being met, exceeded, and the algorithm you use to group individual task-level RAG items up to represent the group status of a parent milestone (and explain why you might have some Red tasks, but overall the milestone is still Amber or even Green). You could even explain your Critical Path items, PM 101 discussions, explaining why "Red - Slipping not yet mitigated" is a call to action for the stakeholders to actually do something, to help you recover things that is potentially beyond your control...

Friday, 5 September 2014

Hit Squads as a bridge to agility

If you've read some of my previous posts, you will know that I write mostly about software projects in the world of digital TV set top box (STB), broadcast headend systems, including internet TV, Video-On-Demand (VOD) and over-the-top (OTT) projects. There is a tremendous amount of software running in these components, end-to-end, from the STB device (which in itself is a complicated system), to the headend/backend server-side components.

The development teams are usually not under one roof, are less likely to come from single suppliers, with their own methods of working, their own release / test cycles. It is difficult, but not impossible, to establish a regular cadence for the overall delivery stream. Some teams may be following agile/scrum, without continuous delivery - and others prefer to work in a more staged, requirements-up-front / development / test / integration cycles.

There are cases however, where a large part of the development, test, integration & delivery teams are in-house, but segmented by classic functional organisation structures that result in silo-based mentality. I've seen this in a few places, especially when for example, PayTV operators take ownership for product development in-house. The application development team for instance may be following scrum/agile, other teams however, don't.

The situation is almost always the same in such projects: Driven by a Hard deadline. Typical development cycles until feature complete. Enter test/integration cycle (this is usually the first time you know the true status of all the key features and functional areas - expect trouble). You find out there's issues, you're not even close to being feature complete.

The deadline isn't going to move and you've eaten up your development schedule (you're now into the time to stabilise and in what should be surgical mode). Sequential processes with silo'ed teams are a hindrance - you need a quick way to uncover issues, resolve them quickly, providing quick feedback into the project stream. There's pockets of agile/scrum in some teams, but not everyone is convinced that is the way to go. You don't want to disrupt the teams completely yet at the same time promote a different style of working.

What can you use as a bridge-to-agility without getting into the whole methodology debate??

Enter the Hit Squad Team (or also known as Tiger Team) - a concept that I've used on more than one occasion. If managed well, the benefits of having cross-functional teams are obvious. The lessons you take from here are used in your next delivery project, likely to become the preferred choice of working. I've seen this transition take shape & became the norm, without having to religiously convert people to a new mindset - I've also learnt it aint that easy. As many more before me have warned, what worked for one organisation isn't necessarily going to work for others. Still though, if you're operating in a similar technology space or problem domain like STB development, it wouldn't hurt to try this out...

What's a Hit Squad then?

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Project Premortems

I recently ran, what was probably a first in South Africa (?) (SA readers please reply if you've seen this implemented in other companies), and definitely a first for the company in question, a project premortem. I had asked around the various stakeholders which included people with decades of working experience, and no-one had known about this concept of "project premortems". Sure, people were familiar with project postmortems (or end-of-project reviews, more recently called "Retrospectives" in agile parlance) but this "premortem" concept was an enigma, as it was to me, before I came across the concept from a book (2014 release) I read earlier this year, Scaling up Excellence by Robert Sutton & Huggy Rao. Although this book's core messages are around scaling up organisations, a lot of the findings are equally applicable to the context of running large, complex projects. In my world, I manage large technical programs that involves many separate business units, clients & third-parties, with large development teams...The idea is now seeded in the company, people are talking about it, and it was well received by some CEOs, who have started using this concept in their high-level steering meetings (awesome)...

I am a huge fan of Sutton, having first come across his work in Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best... and Learn from the Worst and The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. I also keep up with his blog at work matters, follow him on twitter & listen to podcasts whenever he talks at Stanford's ETL lectures, and he is also my personal connection on LinkedIn.

As a program manager I have run various planning scenario workshops in my time, the classic risk brainstorming sessions, best-worst-case scenarios, etc - but I had never labelled the event as a "project pre-mortem", the name resonates with so many people because of their encounters with the classic project management tool of "project post-mortems". Not only the naming resonated well, the concept and implementation of this activity is in harmony with Management 3.0 concepts and practices of inclusion & transparency in agile practices. I was looking forward to changing tact, to experiment and try this out on a bunch of people (old-timers and youngsters) who are relatively receptive to new ideas and ways-of-working. It wasn't a complete success especially finding time out from a busy project that's already in motion, people came to the workshop a little skeptical, felt out-of-their-comfort zone, but nevertheless respected the process and participated as best as they could.

What's a "premortem" then?
Before I describe my custom implementation of this premortem, quoting Scaling up Excellence, Chapter 8, "Look Back from the Future", pages 264-265:
...We close with an additional twist, a mind trick that goads and guides people to act on what they know and, in turn, amplifies their odds of success. We build on Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman's favorite approach for making better decisions. This may sound weird, but it's a form of imaginary time travel. It is called "the premortem". Kahneman credits psychologist Gary Klein with inventing the premortem technique and applying it to help many project teams avert real failures and the ugly postmortems that often follow.
A scaling premortem works something like this: when your team is on the verge of making and implementing a big decision, call a meeting and ask each member to imagine that is is, say, a year later. Split them into two groups. Have one group imagine that the effort was an unmitigated disaster. Have the other one pretend it was a roaring success. Ask each member to work independently and generate reasons, or better yet, write a story, about why the success or failure occurred.  Instruct them to be as detailed as possible and, as Klein emphasizes, to identify causes that they wouldn't usually mention "for fear of being impolitic". Next, have each person in the "failure" group read his or her list or story aloud, and record and collate the reasons. Repeat this process with the "success" group. Finally use the reasons from both groups to strengthen your scaling plan. If you uncover overwhelming and impassable roadblocks, then go back to the drawing board...
How I customised the premortem for our context
As highlighted earlier, I help co-ordinate and steer large-scale projects that involve a few teams from different business units (with their own CEOs/CTOs), that must come together to develop a technical platform (set top box) and product/brand features (which is not owned by the engineering team responsible for the STB) and various operational management entities. We have over 150 people working on the project, scattered across the business. The project has been ongoing for a few months already, we've had team-wide or component-wide risk sessions, retrospectives and work was well underway. With an imminent release ahead of us, I wanted to hold this premortem with the primary focus of surfacing any issues / concerns that have either fell through the cracks, or swept under the carpet (which is often the case), ensuring we identify accountable owners for maintaining control and steering of topics to result in a positive outcome.