Getting projects right

Michael Bender is the CEO and Founder of Ally Business Developers. In his new book “A Manager’s Guide to Project Management” he teaches the best practices for project management success starting with value creation, alignment and structure.
Written by Vince Thompson, Contributing Editor

As the economy and American business show signs of improvement one result is the injection of more ideas and projects into the workflow. A workflow handled by fewer folks this year than last and being tackled in before the dollars and recourses have arrived. Does this sound familiar? This observation was made by Michael Bender, CEO and Founder of Ally Business Developers and an expert consultant and teacher with years of experience applying his skills to projects of all sizes including massive efforts such as the Hubble Telescope and NexRad (Next Generation Weather Radar).

In Michael’s new book “A Manager’s Guide to Project Management” he teaches the best practices for project management success starting with value creation, alignment and structure.

Michael, why another book on project management? What more needs to be said?

I’m glad this is your first question. As I indicated in the book’s preface, there are more than enough books that tell project managers how to run projects. My book targets a sadly-forgotten audience, the senior managers and executives. Until this book, they have been left virtually untouched by project management literature.

I designed this book to help managers and executives to get the most out of their projects and project managers. I cover how to successfully integrate projects into the organization’s environment, select and reject projects based on the organization’s overall objectives and strategy, develop a balanced portfolio that achieves all the organization’s strategic objectives, develop continuous improvement programs for project management, provide simple and effective oversight, and balance resources and risks across projects, research and operations. I also address outsourcing, globalization, and how projects take innovations and turn them into products.

Where does the project management process begin?

To answer this question, I begin with the basic premise that all projects must support the organization. When done properly, the project management process begins with the organization’s definition statements. These include the vision statement, mission, value and quality statements. These are the primary drivers for the organization and its portfolio.

In the book, I demonstrate how to take these statements and derive the organization’s strategic plan using a tool called the Organizational Goals Breakdown Structure (OGBS). The organization’s strategic plan defines the project portfolio – the entire collection of projects and programs the organization undertakes to achieve its strategic goals. It contains those specific goals the organization wants to achieve. The portfolio contains all the project and programs designed to achieve those goals.

This provides a clear link between project objectives and organizational objectives, called “value tracks”.  Now that the project’s objectives clearly defined and linked to the organization as a whole, management can issue the project charter – formally sanctioning the project. The project manager and project team now can build the work plan using standard project management practices.

It seems many managers are suffering from too great a workload. How do we know when we are attempting to do too much?

There are many signs indicating that you’re overloaded. Sadly, they are so prevalent in many organizations that we now don’t even recognize them anymore, they’re just part of the normal landscape.

One of my key metrics to determine if an organization is overloaded is if they have to prioritize projects. The fact that you have to prioritize (at least at the tactical level) means that you’re overworked. To demonstrate, let’s examine the converse. If you had all the resources you need to do the work, you wouldn’t need to prioritize.

Prioritizing projects at the strategic level to determine which ones should be included in the portfolio is a valid practice. Once selected, schedule them to balance the workload and properly fund the project with sufficient money and personnel. If you don’t, the fight for resources descends to the operations level; turf wars begin and project quality deteriorates. This can be a very destructive practice, and is so prevalent that people now think it’s normal.

Every seasoned project manager knows that the first thing that suffers when you’re overworked is quality. This has been a chronic problem in American projects. Despite all the rhetoric about quality, when the deadline is looming and the system isn’t quite working, management demands that the product ship. When this occurs, it signals that time is more important than quality in that manager’s mind, and further signals overload.

Other signs include: loss of morale, increased conflict, increase need to organize, and in extreme cases, many employees just shut down. Interestingly, all of these effects make employees less productive, further exacerbating the problem.

You teach project management in seminars. If the audience remembers 5 things what do you want them to know?

The five items project managers should remember:

1) Ensure the project aligns with the organization. This will help you generate buy-in and support from executives and your team.

2) Don’t be lazy, be rigorous and thorough when planning your project. We spend some 40% of the class’ time going over requirements and work breakdown structures because these work. If you apply the technology, you’ll get the results.

3) Encourage and provide truthful estimates. If your team pads task estimates, then you pad project estimates, then you add risk contingency on top of all that, don’t be surprised when senior managers cut your budgets and schedules. Get truthful estimates from you team, provide truthful estimates to your management, then defend them.  It’s easier to make good decisions when you have accurate facts, than if you have mistruths.

4) Plan your execution, and execute your plan. It worked for General Norman Schwarzkopf, it will work for you. Don’t take your rigorously-developed and truthfully-estimated plan and ignore it once the project starts. Work the plan.

5) Use your change management system. It’s easy and keeps your plan intact. When you have legitimate changes, update the plan and follow the new plan.

How do you determine the value of a project up front?

For most organizations, it should be the value that finds the project, not the other way around. In other words, the strategic plan defines the goals for the organization; we then define projects that achieve those goals.

For innovatively-driven organizations, or when planning is lacking at the executive level, the project must find its value. Here, again, the OGBS defines the core values for the organization and provides guidance for project alignment.

The act of aligning the project to these values remains a challenge, at least in this country. This is a combined business analysis and project management function. IT departments recognized this problem long ago, and many companies now employ people with a title of business analyst whose job is to help define IT projects that add value. In a marketing-driven organization, product market managers assume this role, but many lack the project management skills to do this well.

In the book, I define portfolio and project designers to address this very issue. Their role, among other things, is to define, then connect project results to organizational value. They do this by defining project requirements specifically to achieve organizational goals much like a product marketing manager defines the features of a product to achieve a certain market share and profit margin.

Is there a step by step system for insuring successful projects?

Yes, there are many, but they are all essentially the same. I cover these steps in chapters 2 and 3 of my book at the executive level so that managers can understand the process. A more detailed version can be found in the Project Management Institute’s (PMI’s), Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. ITIL® (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) offers a less academic version for IT managers.

The problem I see for project failures isn’t that the steps are faulty or unknown, the problem is that they’re just not followed. Project managers fail to apply appropriate rigor leaving holes in their plans which manifest themselves as delays, poor quality, and cost overruns. Senior management frequently forces the problem by demanding unrealistic deadlines, constantly shifting priorities and starving the project of resources.

Project management as a discipline is well-known and highly reliable. You just have to do it.

Is there project management software you recommend?

I don’t have a particular preference for software. There are many good packages out there and I encourage people to review the prevalent offerings before making a choice, don’t just take the obvious product(s) just because they’re obvious. I’m quite happy to use whatever my clients are using. When I’m working on my car, I find the Stanley screwdriver just as useful as the Craftsman. It’s knowing what to do with the screwdriver that makes me a mechanic.

What’s the best way for someone looking to enhance their project management skills to get the knowledge and coaching they need?

Sadly, the recession has decimated most corporate training budgets, therefore the training industry. This shake up has caused some confusion in the training and coaching arenas. For example, many people make the mistake of taking a Project Management Professional PMP® exam preparation course thinking this will teach them project management. It doesn’t. These are designed to help experienced project managers pass the certification test.

The place to start is with a “fundamentals” course. All serious project management training organizations have one. They are designed to teach people how to plan and run projects and almost all align with the PMI standard. Mine is called “Successful Project Management”.  This seminar also incorporates the concepts presented in my book.

The recession has reduced the offerings to help experienced project managers. In response, I’ve designed a suite of short courses designed for experienced project managers call the Pro-1 series. These build on the basic concepts in specific areas like requirements, risk, metrics, etc.

There are some on-line offerings available that offer excellent benefits for less money. Project management deals more with humans and teams rather than science; therefore, instructor-led training is usually preferred in the early learning stages. On-line offerings work well for specific or advanced topics. I also offer these on my web site.

Once you understand the basics, there’s nothing that can replace watching a master at work. If your project is large enough, or your organization is looking to enhance project management as a discipline, hire a consultant – not to run your project, but to coach you through one.

To Learn more about Michael Bender's Book, Click Here

To Learn more about Michael's firm, Ally Business Developers, Click Here

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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