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Ramblings about PMOs May 15, 2014

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Project Management.
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In my recent past, I heard our company management question the value in having a PMO. My understanding has always been that the primary reason a PMO exists is to define and maintain standards for project management. PMO is the acronym for Project Management Office. The bottom line result in using a consistent set of standards and practices maintained by a PMO is reduced costs in delivering projects to the customer (internal or external). Often in establishing a PMO, the templates and supporting processes are tailored to suite the organization and culture. When done right, the value is easily understood and there is a proper balance of process, overhead and execution.


I recently came across two appropriate  graphics from another blog that show what a PMO does. A shout out here to the Project Management Files blog here as the source for these images. I submit they quickly depict visually what the PMO can do. The image above shows the PMO transitions involved with the queue of potential projects, active projects and the archive of closed/completed projects. There are many tools to manage these transitions. How to evaluate a candidate project for approval is related to ITIL and of course, the management style. Also related to my previous post on being data driven.

portfolio program project

Another value the PMO provides is with managing the project portfolio and programs. From the same blog, this 2nd image shows how the portfolio, program and projects are distinct. Notice how as a planning tool, this portfolio view can easily be used as a roadmap. In terms of communications with a project team, a PM group or PMO stakeholders, having this overview of projects and interplay among program and the overall portfolio should not be underestimated. It is a much easier discussion to adjust timing of any project and then sort out the impact later. Together these two images provide a great educational tool to ensure everyone understands how projects will be deployed/evaluated/resourced.

Im my journey as a project manager, I have contributed to PMO standards and practices in several organizations. I appreciate the value in having those standards and consistent process to drive projects. The value comes in everyone knowing (and, agreeing on) what is being worked on across the organization and when it will be delivered.

At least one management team did not see that. They had but to ask to find out.

What does your organization use? What is used to manage projects? Does it have a PMO?


Making Decisions with Data March 25, 2014

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Miscellaneous, Project Management.
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How familiar is this phrase “We are going to be data driven”? I have heard this a few times in my career. Great concept and useful to manage a business if you are serious and use it consistently. However, when crunch time comes, and everyone’s nerves are worn thin, how many managers stick with the data vs. using their instinct to make a decision?

No one intends to make a poor or bad decision. Assumptions can be wrong; risks occur that are not foreseen. It happens.

The concept is obvious of course, but, one of the most effective ways to make a decision is to use solid data. What is not obvious is the process to define, collect and evaluate data to make an informed choice. Other real world considerations like time, money and deadlines may circumvent staying true to a data driven process.

Decision Matrix

Decision Matrix

All things being equal and when there is adequate time, the process I most prefer uses selected weighting on a set of criteria. The process is commonly known as root cause analysis as a decision making  method. Most refer to this process as Kepner-Tregoe analysis. It is named after the two people who invented the concept and today, their company is a multi-national consulting company. This method is one widget in the Six Sigma toolkit and is considered part of ITIL practices for problem management.

An overview of process includes :

  1. State the issue, problem, and decision to be made.
  2. Explain the use of the decision matrix technique to participants.
  3. Draft a matrix … with candidate choices positioned as rows and criteria as columns.
  4. Weigh the criteria, if required (e.g., 1-5 weight).
  5. Rate each choice within each decision/selection criteria (e.g, 1-5 score – do not rank here).
  6. Multiply the rating by its relative weight to determine weighted score.
  7. Total the scores.
  8. Review results and evaluate, using common sense and good judgment.
  9. Reach consensus.

Once complete, you have criteria and weighting configured in the decision matrix. When evaluating choices, the score helps narrow the discussion to the best choice(s). The discussions on reviewing the results can lead to animated discussions. Ultimately, the best choice comes down confidence in what the numbers tell you. I like to include a tie-breaker or ‘other’ category in the matrix and give it a small weighting of 5 to 10%. That allows a way to include intangibles discovered during the evaluation. Depending on the score for that facet, it can illuminate the best choice and help the team decide between two otherwise equal choices.

This evaluation process can be used for a range of  situations where decisions must be made. I have used this for vendor selection, candidate interviews and for strategy roadmaps. In the end, having data can confirm your choice and give confidence. Using this framework also minimizes biases and leads to an improved appreciation of choices you would not have considered otherwise. Having data is always good; having a process to make a choice with that data is even better.

What process do you use to decide?


Impact of Project Communications February 25, 2014

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Project Management.
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One of the most important skills I find in project management is being able to communicate. It may sound simple and a bit obvious and yet can be a hard lesson learned for project managers.  My experience has shown that having the ability to hear and,  just as important, be heard, can make or break a project. The format and style used in those communications can be formal or informal, relative to the culture and management style of the organization. Regardless, that ability to indicate progress or raise issues quickly and get feedback keeps a project on track and moving forward.

Feedback-LoopIn fact, I prefer having a closed loop in communicating. I have found that the feedback loop is key to keeping everyone on the same page about a project. This works not only during execution but also for change management. Without feedback, you may not meet the needs of the client and/or stakeholders. That is a waste of both time and money for them and you. That can easily be avoided working in a closed loop with feedback.

The Project Management Institute lists 5 skills each project manager should have to be successful. The list includes the following traits:

  1. Listen to both what is said and what is not said.
  2. Build relationships with everyone involved in the project and across, up and down the organization.
  3. Set clear priorities with the team and obtain that list from the stakeholders.
  4. Collaborate with everyone as none of us is as smart as all of us.
  5. Convey the mission and project impact to it.

I agree with this list and also expect that stakeholders have similar skills. Their ability to listen and provide clear direction is a key success factor on every project.

Without feedback, how would you know you when you successfully deliver a project?

Ramblings on web design process October 26, 2013

Posted by Edwin Ritter in E-Commerce, Project Management.
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You know the phrase “It’s great when a plan comes together”? It strikes me as odd that we are surprised when the results of planning using a consistent process yields what we expect. That’s the purpose of a plan. Perhaps from experience we know that a plan and process don’t always match reality.

I found this infographic a while ago and posted it to Slideshare (shameless unintended plug). It is a useful visual to show the end to end process in plan, design and build phases of a website. From project to project, the actual timing can vary widely from what is shown. Factors such as scope and complexity, cost and resources will drive the actual durations. This graphic is useful in guiding the conversation with teams and clients alike. During status updates, it’s useful to ensure everyone understand which phase we are in. It helps set expectations and also show what’s next.

However, I’ve found that some phases are not optimized, like reviews and approvals. Reviews and approvals tend to take much more time than we expect. That makes project management interesting. How do you account for extended review cycles without impacting the delivery date? What makes it more fun is some client adding new features during the reviews. Call it scope creep. I’m sure they realize it will change the end date.  Simple math, really. More features = more time.

Following the plan takes rigor and discipline. Flexibility also helps when reality hits. Keep your plan together. Sorting out the impact to the plan and getting everyone to agree can be a daily task for project managers. I always preface updates to clients with the phrase “I don’t make the news, just report it.”  So, don’t be surprised. Expect the results you plan on.

It is great when a plan comes together. That’s why you use a process to make it happen.

Ramblings on robots February 3, 2013

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Cloud Computing, Project Management.
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The topic of robots and automating work via machines has gotten a bit of ink lately. In the last month, I have read several articles on how robots will replace humans. Perhaps you’ve seen them also. The premise, or promise, is that machines will replace many of the tasks currently done by humans. A recent issue of Wired has robots as their cover story titled Better Than Human. The question is not if, but more of when, robots will replace people for many of the jobs that exist today. The major assumption is that it will create new jobs for us carbon-based life forms. The impact with machines used instead of people to perform a task is also connected to big data and cloud computing.

robot work force

Robots will replace humans in many jobs.

The concept is not new, of course. It can be argued that machine automation started with the Industrial Revolution as machines performed what humans did previously. Benefits in use of machines include consistent, repeatable actions, improved forecast of turns (i.e. – throughput), working with known capacity, higher quality, less waste and more accurate delivery. Having the machines in place provide humans to focus on other aspects of running a business.

From an economic and budget perspective, we know that the human element is the highest cost in any process. As Moore’s Law still works, the cost to use machines make more budgetary sense. This type of disruptive change will bring uncertainty, fear and confusion initially. At least, to us humans. To the machines it would be a non event and they might just say “meh”.

Any speculation I have at this point would be just that, speculation on how this will play out. However, I do look forward to what new jobs will be created by robots. Having a bot take over what I do now would be great. When that happens, I will then be able to define a process or sequence of operations for one or more bots, aligning those resources to perform that work I have assigned to them. No feedback, no personal issues, no drama, just predicatbel result. I won’t have to schedule meetings, take and distribute notes or ask them for critique of my performance either. Hmm, this could be a really good thing. My future job description may include more think time to improve/define innovation.

When will this happen again? When it does, will you be ready?

Ruminations on Risks and Black Swans March 10, 2012

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Behavior, Project Management, Trends.
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Whatever we do, we deal with risks.  Despite our best laid plans and intentions, there are always those uncertain and unwanted events that happen which are beyond our control.  In a previous post, I talked about risks on projects. This post deals more with risk behavior. Risk management (or, risk tolerance) covers the spectrum from total avoidance at all costs to a laissez-faire, what-does-it-matter attitude.  A low risk tolerance leads to ‘safe’ choices that eliminate, or substantially reduce, an unlikely event with a negative impact occurring. Likewise, a high risk tolerance leads to choices where outcomes are unpredictable and not guaranteed. In this scenario, the chances for unlikely risks occurring are higher. Financial investors know their level of risk tolerance and how it influences their investment choices.

Black Swan

The occurrence of a highly improbable event that may not always be planned for. The impact can be positive or negative.

There is a related effect with investors called the ‘Black Swan that describes what happens when a uncertain, unstable event does occur.  In a 2007 book by Nasim Nicholas Taleb, titled ‘The Black Swan – the impact of the highly improbable‘,  it is defined  as :

  1. an event that is unpredictable (an outlier),
  2. has a massive or, extreme impact and
  3. after it happens, we create rational to make it more predictable (less random).

Taleb makes a living betting on the occurrence of Black Swans.  He is a contrarian when compared to the typical financial investor who avoids risk by seeking the small gains in the stock market. The positive effect of a Black Swan is seen over time. Likewise, a negative Black Swan happens very quickly. For most investors, the preference is to avoid the downside risk of a negative Black Swan. Managing risk can be a tricky business.  Taleb has 2 observations related to risk assessment I want to highlight:

  1. We have more confidence in what we know is wrong than in what we know is right.
  2. We over-estimate what we know and conversely, underestimate our uncertainty.

The first point bears repeating. We are more certain about something we know is wrong.  Our intuition, skills and experience tells us what is wrong. Sometimes, we know something is wrong when we see it. That confidence drives our behavior with money, work and our personal life more than we may want to admit. I think that is because we are better at dealing with failure than success. We plan for success, of course, but realize we have to deal with a minimal level of failure.

The other facet on uncertainty I have seen at work many times. Providing accurate estimates is a skill built on experience and dealing with knowns. When faced with new challenges, it is tempting to minimize complexity. How hard can this possibly be? More than likely, it is harder than you are able to imagine at this point in time.

When a risk is deemed highly improbable, we tend to not spend much time and energy thinking about it. When a negative Black Swan strikes, the risk mitigation(s) you have defined will be quickly tested. If your tolerance is low, you will have well thought out and documented options. Your sponsors, stakeholders and clients will benefit from and appreciate your efforts. The path forward that is selected is based on their risk tolerance of those negative Black Swans. Positive Black Swans can only make things better, right?

What’s your risk tolerance? What method(s) do you use to deal with uncertainty?

Ramblings on Risk Assessment and Projects February 22, 2012

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Project Management.
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Behaviorial studies prove we have a natural tendency to avoid risk. I want to refer again to Malcolm Gladwell  and present the following scenario. You have $300.00 and are presented with 2 choices.

  • A) You can receive another $100.00 or
  • B) Toss a coin and if you win, you get $200.00. If you lose, you get nothing.

Most people prefer A. They tend to go for the sure thing and avoid the 50% risk of getting nothing. Even though there is the potential to get 2X if you win.

Now consider this scenario. You now have $500.00 and have 2 choices.

  • C) Give up $100.00 or
  • D) toss a coin and pay $200.00 if you lose. If you win, you pay nothing.

All the choices (A,B,C,D) have equal probabilities. In his New Yorker column, Gladwell wrote “… we have strong preferences among them. Why? Because we’re more willing to gamble when it comes to losses, but are risk averse when it comes to our gains. That’s why we like small daily winnings in the stock market, even if that requires that we risk losing everything in a crash.” (Ed. Note – emphasis added)

Assessing the severity of a risk happening (or, not happening) is a key skill for project managers.  When evaluating a risk on a project, be aware of the bias to gamble on the loss rather than the gain. We look for ways to mitigate risks.  When a risk does happen, it creates chaos, can jeopardize a project and requires additional work to resolve. Communicating with your team, stakeholders and client(s) is crucial during this time. As a project manager, you must identify and define potential solutions (among them – do nothing). Some events are  ‘acceptable risks’. Typically, the sponsor(s) and stakeholders will determine what is or is not acceptable. Depending on the situation and the client, they may also determine what is acceptable.

Have you noticed how you are risk averse? What are effective risk management strategies you use?

Ruminations on 5 New Management metrics December 14, 2011

Posted by Edwin Ritter in career, Project Management.
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I saw this article today on Forbes.com about new ways to manage. I agree with each and have used several of these metrics with success. To read the full article, use the link provided. My comments on each metric are included below. While it is a catchy title, I don’t think managers need to know these to be successful. You can adapt one or more for your own use easily and look for ways to subtly employ each of the strategies described. These metrics won’t drastically change management styles, but they do provide ways to improve your management ability and help drive your team to be successful.

Metric 1: Flow State Percentage

Basically indicates that people need more think/soak time. When you have time to concentrate (i.e. – no interruptions), you are more productive. Getting to, and staying in, the zone more often makes you a better performer.

Metric 2: The Anxiety-Boredom Continuum

Keep a balance here. Not too easy, not too hard. Stay engaged and tune the level needed as it suites your team.

Metric 3: Meeting Promoter Score

I have used this to great effect. If you rate the meetings, you get instant feedback on what works, what does not and what people are really interested in. I found that once you have a consistent score, you don’t need to track it and your team knows what to expect and is engaged. Bonus – if you end meetings early, expect your score to increase.

Metric 4: Compound Weekly Learning Rate

My Father-in-Law, who came from the old country, always said “Every day you learn.” You do if you are motivated to do so. Even if you just did this for yourself, measuring your progress would change your priorities and how you spend your time in the office.

Metric 5: Positive Feedback Ratio

Catch your team doing things right. Even the mundane tasks. The author mentions the payback is realized that when you have legitimate criticism, your reports will listen.

These strategies are easy to implement. You can try one or more with your team and tune them as needed. With the new year just around the corner, now is a great time to look at ways to improve your management skills. Who knows – you may influence your peers and your boss by doing this.

Good luck and let me know what your metrics look like over time.

Ramblings on Cycles and Phases August 30, 2011

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Project Management, Trends.
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In a recent book review I read, the author proposed that the Big Bang might be cyclical. The premise is that given enough time, everything in the universe starts over again. Man, that is like, totally cosmic. That is a long cycle for sure. We have some time before the cycle is complete and begins again. Until then, the universe will keep expanding.

Having a repeatable cycle is also beneficial on a smaller scale. Like our daily routine. We humans are creatures of habit.  Typically, we do not like change. This is especially true in business – we like having a predictable and repeatable process. There is the challenge to keep it from boring rote execution. Management types appreciate working with knowns as opposed to unknowns. Having that consistent process cycle is a good thing.

When managing projects, I like having distinct phases (i.e. – discovery, planning, execution, etc.). Managing phases and cycles across multiple projects can be challenging yet also very rewarding. I enjoy the interesting challenge of having a cycle of multiple projects in different phases. Those situations keep you focused!

I think we are entering a business cycle where things will accelerate. Companies that are properly positioned with resources and good business processes can take advantage with increased sales, market share and ultimately, profit.

What phase is your company currently in? When the boom cycle starts again, will you be ready?

6 Vital Signs on Project Health June 30, 2011

Posted by Edwin Ritter in career, Project Management.
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There are multiple tools and measures available to manage projects. Here are 6 metrics that provide vital signs to monitor project health. These metrics can assist you to identify trends and define your level of comfort during implementation. They are also useful in communicating status to your team and stakeholders. Additionally, they help identify when to stop a project and provide the data to support that decision. Based on an article I read a long time ago, I have recapped the salient points in this post and included additional comments.

Health Monitor

Here are the 6 vital signs :

  1. Critical Path status – this is the big picture view of how the project is tracking. It accounts for factors such as budget, resources and time. Use ratios of 15/20/25% as a vital sign. If the status of the critical path is off by 15%, identify tasks with your team to get back on track. If the status hits 20%, use change control methods to adjust scope, increase budget or reduce quality with buy-in from the stakeholders. When the critical path status hits 25%, suggest the project be shut down.
  2. Deliverable hit rate – A measure of the team’s success at completing project subtasks or deliverables. This also indicates pace and how well your estimates are tracking to the project schedule.
  3. Milestone hit rate – Similar to deliverable hit rate but refers to major task completion of the project.
  4. Issues vs. deliverables ratio – Simply the measure of the number of issues (or, problems) raised during the execution of the project divided by the number of remaining deliverables. When you have more issues than deliverables, you don’t have a plan anymore, you have Swiss cheese. How fast you close these issues is key as well and is connected to the deliverable hit rate.
  5. Planned budget vs. actual – Using the same ratios as with critical path of 15/20/25%, if the project goes too far over budget, check the return on investment (ROI). The stakeholders will need to decide if the costs are still justified by the benefits.
  6. Planned resources vs. actual – Includes employees, hardware, software and time. Measure this the same as planned vs. actual budget.

How your organization uses project management will determine how many of these you can use. You may not use the critical path method (CPM) to track projects. There is a built-in assumption here that collecting the data signs will not detract from other project tasks. It also implies that your team will embrace this in addition to, or, replacement of whatever monitoring practice is currently in place. If you collect these measures and routinely monitor them, you have a good idea of your project health. Use these or tweak as fits your style and organization.

I appreciate that you can use this to communicate with the team and stakeholders. I like the vital signs 2, 3 and 4 – hit rate measures for deliverables, milestones and issues. Charting these and displaying them on a regular basis provide great performance indicators that your team and sponsors can easily understand. Trends are visible to all and your team may even provide solutions before you ask. Remember, shutting down a project is not a sign of failure – it is always a valid recommendation. Having the data and trend supports the decision.

There are many ways to run projects. As a project manager, you will use a lot of different styles, tools and measures.  I have used success criteria based on QA results, stoplight traffic controls and even the statistics from the project schedule to communicate project progress and health.

What signs do you use to measure project health? What are your favorite, time tested ways to monitor progress?