Ernest Baker, PMP, gave a presentation at the recent PMI Global Congress North America called 'Ten troublesome project management ideas and how to combat them!' I thought the content was worth sharing, as he had some good, practical examples of why things go wrong on projects and what we can do to stop them from happening.

Baker is President of Start to Finish PM, Inc and the aim of his presentation was to make us, as project managers, more aware of the 'potentially bothersome' ideas that some stakeholders come up with. By recognising them, we would then be in a far better position to combat the dangerous ideas and assumptions about project management before they become a significant problem for the project. Essentially, it's all about managing stakeholder expectations.

So, what were Baker's 10 dangerous ideas and how to address them?

1. Just Do It!

Baker said that the top symptoms of a 'just do it' culture were:

  • Executing without planning
  • Meeting a scheduled by doing not by planning
  • Creating a fixed date schedule by drawing up the plan before the scope is defined
  • Evidence of people mind-reading and not getting proper requirements or estimates
  • Ignoring the balance between scope, schedule, budget and quality (a variety of the triple constraint so beloved of project managers)
  • Lots of activity but not necessarily a lot of productive work taking place

In short, working in a 'just do it' environment means that you'll deliver your project by luck and working a lot of hours rather than skilled project management. And it probably won't deliver to stakeholder expectations anyway.

If you feel that you work with stakeholders who hold this kind of attitude, this is what you can do to combat it:

  • Agree how things will be produced as well as what will be produced: this offsets some of the issues around taking the time to plan
  • Include project management tasks and outputs as deliverables in the plan
  • Gather metrics about time spent 'doing' project management - again, this will show that it isn't that time-consuming a task and makes it transparent.
  • Don't charge your project management time (if you do time recording) to product deliverables. Instead, charge it to those project management deliverables in your plan.
  • Incorporate lessons learned and process improvements
  • Send your stakeholders on some training!

2. Rewarding Heroic Behaviour

Sometimes, you need to make a concerted effort to get something done. Being a hero is sometimes a good thing, but Baker argued that it is often heroes (and heroines) that get rewarded - whereas the project manager that doesn't get their project into a mess goes unnoticed. Rewarding Heroic Behaviour. Baker's 10 Dangerous Ideas and How to Address Them There is a risk with rewarding hero-like behaviour - the project managers stepping in to sort out a mess may find themselves in a high profile, high success role, but being in a mess is not a behaviour to reward at all. Companies which value heroes often overlook those project managers who plug away at it, develop excellent project schedules and don't mess up. Surely that behaviour is more worthy? Symptoms of an organisational culture that rewards heroic behaviour are:

  • Projects being completed by the heroic efforts of a team
  • The leader of that team being praised for their work and leadership
  • Resources are allocated from well-managed projects and given to the 'hero'
  • There's a focus on managing issues instead of managing risks

Moving away from this culture isn't always easy. In fact, as a project manager there is a limit on what you can do to influence organisational culture at the highest level. But you can address this challenge in some ways:

  • Reward your team for the behaviour that you want them to show i.e. structured, planned effort
  • Establish your project objectives and make sure everyone is clear what is expected of them
  • Define success criteria at the outset, including what this will look like for stakeholders, scope and schedule.

3. Do more with less

Baker said that the most common symptoms of a workplace where you are asked to do more with less are:

  • Resource constraints
  • 'Rules' around staffing such as only being able to use internal staff, not being able to recruit at all during a hiring freeze or having resources taken off your project and reassigned to other work
  • Requests for your project team to work more hours, or at the weekends
  • You are asked to use the people that are available, not necessarily the people who are most suitable for the task at hand.

It is not always easy to combat the 'do more with less' attitude. There are some streamlining activities you can do to make sure effort is being spent in the right places, but once you have exhausted those options, and are running your team as leanly as possible, you are going to struggle to meet the 'do more with less' requirement. In short, you can only do significantly more with more resources - not less. Baker's top tips for dealing with this were:

  • Recognise that doing more requires more: more talented people (not just anyone who happens to be free), more planning and more support
  • Get commitments for your resources so they are less likely to be reallocated
  • Explain the rationale for your resourcing levels to stakeholders in cause and effect terms e.g. 'If you want us to do this, then we require this.'
  • Ask hypothetical questions: 'If we take this resource away, what do you think the result will be?'

4. Project management is a useless overhead

Not everyone believes that project management is a value-add. This ties in with what I covered yesterday about the 'just do it' attitude prevalent in some organisations. Your stakeholders might believe that project management is a useless overhead if you see things like this:

  • People saying (or acting as if) project management is an excuse for not getting things done
  • Requirements are not defined clearly
  • Initiation of a project takes place slowly, but projects are closed down rapidly and messily
  • Project managers don't act in a disciplined way, aren't held to account, and the management oversight on projects (like a portfolio office) is missing.

However, you can get over this hurdle. Baker provided the following tips in his presentation to combat this attitude:

  • Demonstrate the value of project management
  • Get assistance from your PMO (or lobby to create one)
  • Build a business case for project management activities, making sure that you concentrate on the 80% that provides the most value
  • Track how much effort goes into project management activities: be transparent.

5. Embarking on a 50% confidence-level schedule

I'm sure this has never happened to you - starting a project where you don't really have confidence in the dates? Unfortunately it happens a lot, especially in organisations where project management isn't valued. Baker highlighted the following symptoms of this problem:

  • A fixed deadline is agreed before the requirements are properly defined
  • Initial estimates - which are not based on the full amount of data required - are taken as the final and definitive estimates
  • The desire to 'produce something' means the business case is ignored
  • Management want to be seen as 'tough' by fixing the date and holding you to it regardless of the fact it is not achievable.

So how can you combat this? Baker had some ideas to build more confidence in your schedule:

  • Agree realistic deadlines (although it might be too late in some cases!)
  • Reduce the scope to cope with the imposed date
  • Don't use a waterfall lifecycle: try Agile or an evolutionary lifecycle to shorten delivery times
  • Put contingency in your plans
  • Manage the schedule risk, for example, always know the critical path.

6. Bad multi-tasking

Baker said that multi-tasking is actually a problem on projects - if you do it badly. There's a risk that if you don't multi-task effectively you will end up:

  • Spreading your resources too thinly
  • Suffering from interruptions and constantly starting and stopping
  • Making slow progress on all tasks
  • Having to use heroic efforts to get the project completed
  • Suffering from quality issues across products, processes and your own quality of life!

Bad Multi TaskingBaker recommended that project managers shouldn't multi-task. He suggested that you schedule 'focus days' - where your team gets together and just works solidly on a particular issue with no interruptions. You can do the same thing by blocking out time in your calendar so that you aren't invited to meetings, for example at the end of each week for status reports, or on a monthly basis to make sure you have time for risk and issue reviews.

Baker also suggested that you focus your efforts on tasks that are important, not the ones that are flagged as urgent. You'll have to find a balance, and I've written about that before.

7. Proximatic Competency

What, you haven't heard of proximatic competency? Don't worry, it's a term that Baker confesses to having made up himself. He defines it as:

Any resource within a certain distance of a discipline or skill has the same level of knowledge, skills and ability as the entire group within that discipline or skill.

Still not clear? What he means is that proximatic competency assumes that everyone in a department has the same skill set. You'll know from your own experience that this isn't true. Even people with the same job title and doing the same job tend to have varying skills or knowledge. Managers sometimes make the mistake of forgetting that, and that's when you end up with:

  • Project teams made up of whoever is available
  • Estimates that are not accurate as the people making them don't have the skills
  • Proxies being sent to meetings and then being unable to make decisions
  • Knowledge gaps
  • Information not being passed on to others in the same department

Baker recommends educating your stakeholders regarding the skills that you need on the project. And not letting them get away with giving you people that can't do the job. He also suggests asking a lot of questions, and using techniques like the '5 whys' to get to the bottom of requirements and estimates.

8. Inaccurate reporting

Finally, for today, Baker's ninth 'troublesome idea' that stakeholders have is that which comes from inaccurate reporting. He summarised this as 'watermelon projects': projects that are green on the outside (in the reports) but red on the inside (the team knows that something is going wrong). Reports that don't cover the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth mean that the senior stakeholders don't know the whole picture. And therefore they can't make better decisions. To combat this, Baker recommends:

  • Defining project objectives
  • Agreeing metrics and tolerances per phase and for the whole project
  • Having a communication plan for your project
  • Spending time building relationships with stakeholders

Tomorrow I'll be looking at the final of Baker's ten troublesome ideas!

9. Low stakeholder engagement

Project managers working on projects where the stakeholders aren't engaged are going to have a hard time. You need stakeholders who can put the effort in to support you and your team, and to manage effectively. You can read more about a way to manage your stakeholders using my INFORM method here (link to Wellingtone). However good your management upwards, sideways and downwards for your stakeholders, you will still struggle if they aren't interested in your project. You have to ask yourself if the project is worth doing, because if they aren't bothered about it, why should you be? Baker's approach to dealing with low stakeholder engagement is:

  • Set ground rules at the beginning of the project and maintain them
  • Create a stakeholder matrix, covering who is responsible, accountable, consulted and informed for each part of the project (a RACI chart)
  • Understand what 'complete' looks like for every task
  • Share the ownership of project activities with the team

Baker's final 'troublesome idea' was:

10. Failure to use history

Ever wondered why projects still fail today, when we've surely come across all the issues already in other projects? Well, we don't learn from previous mistakes. Baker pointed out that this is a really common problem, and if you want to know if your organisation suffers in this way you should look for:

  • A failure to collect and analyse data
  • Mistakes made several (or more) times
  • No single repository for knowledge, or shared approach to the content of that repository
  • No way of managing continuous process improvement

What you're doing today is history tomorrow, so if you want to stop making the same mistakes over and over again, you need to start learning from your errors. Baker provided some tips on what to do including:

  • Collect data, and make sure it is accessible to others
  • Compare plans to the baselined versions so you can see the differences
  • Change things that don't work
  • Provide coaching and mentoring for project team members, to make sure the knowledge gets shared about
  • Make lessons learned an agenda item for status meetings (PRINCE2 is also big on this)

Baker's presentation was very comprehensive, and he had an easy style to listen to. If you want the one big takeaway message from the presentation and the following Q&A it was that stakeholder management is the project managers responsibility - and that setting expectations is part of stakeholder management.