Prototyping and Agile: Twins, Separated at Birth?

PM ChangeAgent Commentary
We’ve written before about the intelligent application of Agile methods in Information Technology (IT) projects: See part 3 of our 4-part 2011 series, The First 10% of a Project: 90% of Success, here in our ChangeAgents articles. This article is a follow up with more insights. And, much has happened since our earlier article.

agile_tightropeAgile is maturing, and moving beyond a focus on the last-half-of-the-IT-life-cycle. For example, we have seen  excellent discussions on “hybrid” approaches. This involves using Agile where it is most appropriate (and where the prerequisites are in place), and using other insightful pm methods where they are more appropriate. That approach in IT, plus increasing use of Agile concepts in areas such as New Product Development, shows promise.

I do still have concerns about a few agile zealots who insist upon contrasting Agile to Waterfall. Competent PMs disposed of Waterfall in the early 1980s. We also disposed of, for the most part, years-long, hold-your-breath-and-wait-forever IT projects. What did we replace them with? Three-to-six-month bursts (we called them iterations) that delivered prioritized useful business functions. Of course, we also identified most of the prerequisites for success:

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Exploding the Myth of PM Best Practices

PM ChangeAgent Commentary
What are the Best Practices in the world of project and program management (PPM)? Are there a few immutable truths that are transferable across nations, organizations, industries, cultures, and project teams? I often see assertions promoting PM Best Practices—despite my belief that the phrase is an oxymoron—that our discipline is not yet mature enough to have universal best practices. This article is a recap of many discussions on best practices over my years as a PM practitioner, then as a consultant.

best_practiceMy opinions about PM Best Practices go back to the early 1980s, when, as a PPM consultant, I frequently encountered executives, line managers, project managers, and other consultants, who expected to hear my handful of easy-to-implement “PM Best Practices.” In that era, I often made recommendations for improved effectiveness, but I called them “Competitive Practices.” And I usually sought, uncovered, and identified them from within their own organizations. I understood over thirty years ago that one organization’s best practices could be a scourge for others. Here’s why…

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My First Project Portfolio

PM ChangeAgent Commentary

Many years ago (1973), in a Data Processing group in a local government organization (Lane County, Oregon) we had several large projects, and a large backlog of small maintenance, support, and “quick fix” projects. And, for this backlog of projects, the priorities continually changed. The changes were so frequent that we could plan our week’s work on Monday, but by Friday, little of that work was complete, because of many new, “even more urgent” projects, and because of priority changes in our backlog.portfolio

We addressed this challenge by prototyping a solution: Keeping track of our “backlog” in (of all things) a box of punched cards. That was the primary input to many computer systems in earlier days. After we perfected the information we needed to track, we began to use an online version. In that era, online often meant a simple listing of card images on an 80-character screen. Unfortunately, our solution did little more than depress us—the backlog kept growing.

And then, several new books on Time Management emerged. We especially liked Alan Lakein’s How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. We decided that his insights, including better methods of prioritization, were the key. We added Urgency and Importance fields to our backlog list, with entries limited to 1, 2 and 3, where 1 was most important or most urgent. Note that Alan Lakein used A, B and C for the three choices, we used 1, 2 and 3, because they could be more easily averaged. And, we required that all entries must average 2, to force a sense of high, medium and low Urgency and Importance. Otherwise, everything would soon become Priority 1, destroying the value of the system.

These actions had turned our depressing backlog list into a manageable portfolio of small projects. We managed three types of project status, to reflect our emerging understanding of what it would take to truly manage our portfolio:

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Learning PM Success Secrets From Product Managers

PM ChangeAgent Commentary

In the early 1990s, a corporate executive and I were talking about the talent in his organization, and he asked me a question: “What’s the difference between a project manager and a product manager?” I knew he had his own answer already, so I asked him: “I can think of a dozen differences, but what do you think is the difference?”

He replied, “The Product Manager has a personality.”

I was shocked. As a practicing project manager and consultant, his reply stung. But then, this company was a major Aerospace/Defense contractor, and despite the Integrated Product Team initiatives of the 1980s, some of the old-timer Project Engineers were still not known for their interpersonal skills and scintillating style. But to make such a blanket statement? Even by the early 1990s, I had had worked with thousands of project managers who had great interpersonal skills—and personality galore!

A Product BOK
I was reminded of this discussion several years ago, when PM Consultant/Speaker/Author Gary Heerkens suggested that I should assist in a new initiative, to develop a Product Management Body of Knowledge. Gary put me in touch with Greg Geracie, who had completed a useful and popular book on the subject (Take Charge Product Management), and was working with a professional organization on this Body of Knowledge project.

Gary, Frank Salidis, Lee Lambert and other “great minds” in the pm community made significant contributions, and I reviewed their results, as a technical editor. They did a great job of bridging the gaps and overlaps between pm and pdm. The end result, The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK®) went to press in 2013, and is available at a reasonable price at and other booksellers. See the ProdBok on Amazon.

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More Than Project Take-off and Landing

PM ChangeAgent Commentary

In our previous post, Let’s Start at the Start, and Finish at the Finish, we left a teaser at the end. It’s the paragraph about the parts of an airplane flight that requires the most pilot skill. We were “piloting” our parallel concepts for a paper we were writing for the August 14-15 UTD PM Symposium. This event, hosted by University of Texas at Dallas, the PMI Dallas Chapter, and PM World Journal, is always one of the best regional PM events of the year. IPMA-USA and IPMA have participated in this event since it began eight years ago, and they are always outstanding. Now I offer the rest of the parallel concept.

Five Crucial Value-add Timings and Results
Managing a project is much like piloting an aircraft. There are several crucial timings where deft leadership, talent, quick reactions and redirection are essential for success. There are other timings when we can run on “cruise control” and perhaps, even take part in completing project work packages or other actions.

take-offAnd just when are those crucial timings?

Clearly, as illustrated in the photo at right, take-off (and landing) are among the crucial timings. And how does our piloting analogy relate to projects? Project take-off must begin with an effective Kick-off meeting—the first get-together of the team. And the landing? That has to be the Project Closure & Review, with review of results, then reallocation of the team to new projects. The results of these two crucial timings may be obvious, but in projects they include, for Kick-off, all stakeholders safely aboard the project, buckled in, and with a clear sense of direction, timing, commitment, and intended result.

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Let’s Start at the Start, and Finish at the Finish!

PM ChangeAgent Commentary

One of the greatest challenges in managing projects is engaging the full project life cycle. We too-often see practitioners who believe that the “real project” starts at execution of a preconceived solution. These folks seem to believe that the business case, stakeholder engagement, clear and measurable requirements, solution delivery staging, alternative solutions and approaches, and other essential-to-success actions are a gift from above.

Similarly, many project teams escape to other projects late in the project, before success is even evident. Crucial actions remain, such as defect correction, warranty period adjustments, follow-on change orders (chargeable, of course), that increase the return on investment of successful projects, and proof that you met the business need, and supported your sponsor’s strategy.

middleGiven this syndrome, these sadly misinformed project managers and teams should more accurately chart their projects’ precedence diagrams more like the one at left; after all, they are starting and ending their part of the project in the middle!

startMeanwhile the more-savvy project teams (or luckier teams, as the case may be) follow the more effective, more success-oriented approach, which starts at the start, and finishes at the finish. This is shown at the right.

Why do less-effective teams skip the most important parts?

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