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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Project Communication: When It Ain't Broke, It Can Fix Whatever Is

We talk about communication all the time, but we rarely communicate about it.

Communication. It’s one of those everyday pervasive things we notice only when it trips us up – and even then we pause only long enough to cuss a bit. Then we move on, busily sowing new communication pratfalls pretty much like the last one.

Wait a minute! Back there, I said we talk but don’t communicate. What does that mean? We’re seeming to claim that talking is not the same as communicating.

Good question. Now we can get into the subject in a meaningful way, and examine how it lurks in just about every problem among people. And therefore in every solution. Especially in project management.

Communication does indeed occur when we talk, but the talking itself isn’t the whole thing, and often isn’t even the main thing. Other factors can be better carriers of useful information between the conversational parties than the words are. It’s a lot harder to understand and be understood when, for example, you can’t see the person(s) you’re talking to. It’s even harder when you can’t hear or be heard, such as when the exchange is through writing rather than speech.

Whatever the situation or vehicle, it’s difficult to communicate meaningfully when the subject matter is complex, dynamic and unfamiliar – say, when you’re managing a serious project. Doing it remotely, and/or across cultures, multiplies the barriers. And it’s infinitely worse when there is ignorance, misunderstanding, hostility or conflict. Open, latent or disguised.

Just sticking with regular project management, among culturally homogeneous, co-located people, you have to conclude that most projects don’t meet reasonable expectations for schedule, cost and outcome. Ideal project outcomes are just not that frequent, because ideal project situations are just not that frequent.

Why is it so tough to manage projects to happy endings? Not surprisingly, my endless string of project manager surveys about the worst project failings nearly always places communication right up in the top three, often first. The other top flaws are essentially caused by or are dependent upon communication.

When communication fails, everything fails. When something else goes wrong, communication always is essential to the repair. How?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Project Management and the Pursuit of Assurance

“Will this make me less risk-averse?”

The question, in a roomful of managers, startled me. I was a newly minted trainer, and we were gathered for a project management workshop. I hadn’t quite thought of the matter in terms of overcoming the jitters – but my views have radically changed since that long-ago day.

My previous experience with projects had been informal – in fact, I had never heard of something identifiable as “Project Management” until I got into consulting.

When, as a manager in the news business, I was responsible for getting something done, I rolled up my sleeves and went into combat mode. People knew that the poor devil stuck with the effort – special edition, process change, behind-the-news series, whatever – was in for a tough time.

They also knew that that person was going to disrupt their busy lives with demands for additional effort, generally unpaid and unrewarded. The thing rarely went well. Besides the reluctance of project “team” members and others whose help the leader needed, there were all the uncertainties of the work itself. The likelihood was that this was going to take a lot more time, blood, sweat, etc., than predicted. In all likelihood, more than it was worth.

So, with perfect logic, everyone stayed as far away as possible as long as possible. “Leadership” basically involved tracking people down and strongarming them for the desired output. All of this caused serious damage to relationships and left institutional scars that ensured a lousy start for any future initiative. It produced consistently poor results.

The essential problem with that familiar approach is its failure to properly engage and manage the one factor that makes all the difference: People. In the best of projects and the worst of projects, people are the most volatile variable. When this part is right, amazing things become possible. When it's not right, nothing will work.

And, in a typical organization, experience has inoculated potential participants against enthusiasm for participation.

When the manager mentioned above raised the unexpected question, it wasn’t just risk she was thinking of. She really was referring to the array of negatives, certainly including risk, that often surround the management of projects. Every one of them is based on – or heavily influenced by – people, their intentions, behavior and relationships.

This poor functioning of the human factor makes sound project management nigh impossible in many organizations, but it doesn’t have to be that way. For one thing, project managers have to stop supporting the negatives that bedevil them. WHAT?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

When Is It a Project?

If you’re human, you’ve done it. You’ve slipped sideways into a project without realizing it, and your routine practices didn’t work. This can be messy and difficult.

Some people you know have been doing it all their lives. Some never catch on – even when they are acutely aware that things just aren’t working right. They assume that’s the way the world is and nothing can be done about it.

Well, when IS it a project? And what CAN be done about it?

The answer to the first question is not as simple as it might seem, and the implications are extremely important. Project management calls for relatively time-consuming and uncomfortable actions up front. You have to get key stakeholders to sit still for the necessary research, decision-making, planning, communication and commitment. That’s a challenge.

When you’re looking for ways to identify when you’re into a project, you’re not going to get a lot of help from the scripture of the industry. Here are some examples:

The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (the PMBOK Guide of the Project Management Institute) – “A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.”

Harold Kerzner’s Project Management -- “A project can be considered to be any series of activities and tasks that:
Have a specific objective to be completed within certain specifications
Have defined start and end dates
Have funding limits (if applicable)
Consume human and nonhuman resources (i.e., money, people,
Are multifunctional (i.e., cut across several functional lines).”

Garold Oberlender’s Project Management for Engineering and Construction
“A project is an endeavor that is undertaken to produce the results that are expected from the requesting party. . . . A project consists of three components: scope, budget and schedule.”

All three are correct, as are many of the various other definitions of “project” out there in the field. But many people who wake up in project situations could use some finer tuning. How do I know whether what I’m doing, or what I’m facing, is a project? What do I do about it?