Donald J. Patti

Archive for the ‘project management’ Category

From Chaos to Crisis to Calm – 9 Tips to Recover Troubled Projects

In Business, Entrepreneurship, leadership, management, project management, Small Business on 8 February 2010 at 9:00 am

Dan Moore, a fellow Principal at Cedar Point Consulting, recently reminded me that, “You can’t manage chaos, but you can manage a crisis.” These are very wise words, but they reminded me of the early stages of a trouble project — one which is far behind schedule, well over budget, not delivering results, or all of the above.  If anything, a troubled project is chaos waiting for a strong leader to transition it to crisis, and then ultimately to calm.

Whether you’re a C-level executive, an entrepreneur or a project manager, you may not have encountered very many troubled projects in your career, so you may not be familiar with how to transition from chaos, to crisis, and finally to calm. We consultants are often brought in to deal with just such problems, so I have a few tips that should help:

  1. Don’t Panic! Douglas Adams references aside, you may have just learned that a key project is in trouble, but it’s important that you not panic. First of all, panic spreads, so you create chaos from crisis, and it won’t be long before your co-workers and your subordinates are panicked, too.Second, panicked people don’t reason effectively – they make “fight-or-flight” decisions instead of rational ones, so you’re far more likely to make a bad decision or push others to do so.
  2. Be Methodical. At Cedar Point Consulting, we have a 5-step process that we follow to recover projects – Review, Recommend, Respond, Transition, Close. While this is not the only way to recover a project, it does consistently work – by step three, the project is making progress once again. Regardless of the technique or methodology that you choose, don’t attempt to solve the project’s problems until you have an understanding of their causes. Do take measures to stop the bleeding, until you’ve effectively identified root causes.
  3. Read the Tea Leaves. Whether well run or not, nearly all projects have documents that tell you where the weaknesses are and whether they are being managed well. At minimum, even the smallest project should follow a standardized process ( project methodology); a charter (with a project goal); a project plan that includes a schedule, a budget, and assigned staff; regular meeting minutes and regular status reports. If these exist, review them to assess where problems are occurring. If they don’t, find out why.
  4. Be From Missouri (“Show Me”). Reading current project documents is a good start, but what if someone is fudging the numbers or painting a rosier picture than reality? For select documents, like staff hours, project schedule and project budget, confirm that they are reasonably accurate independently. Which brings us to the next tip…
  5. Use an Independent Third Party. Whether you hire a consultant or have someone in another part of your business lead your project recovery effort, they should be an independent third party. Having a friend of the Project Manager, the Project Manager’s immediate superior or one of their subordinates jump in to help is unlikely to be successful.
  6. Change Leadership or Change Process. At the most basic level, projects most often fail because either the project manager is not up to the task or the project management process is preventing them from succeeding. A good project manager controls time, scope, cost and quality on a project. If they don’t control at least two of these and influence all four, then they are likely to fail. Conversely, if they control all of these but the projects headed off a cliff, you probably need to switch project leadership.
  7. Increase Communication. When you’re trying to identify problems with a project, it helps to increase communication within the team. Schedule and require participation in regular meetings – daily, if necessary, like Stand-ups or Daily Scrums. Finally, increase the frequency of status reports to key parties, such as the client, the sponsor and key stakeholders, even if the reporting is informal.
  8. To Thine Own Self be True. There’s always a need for optimism in every situation, but good leaders are also honest to themselves and to others about the current state of a project. Depending upon how far behind the project truly is, consider reducing scope or resetting the schedule. Failing to do so may doom the project and the project team to yet another failure – one from which they may not recover.
  9. Start Small, Review Frequently.  After you’ve planned your recovery, be sure to start with small deliverables and shorter milestones, reviewing the project’s progress frequently to make sure the conservative short term goals are being met. While this is not normally the best approach with a project, starting small enables the team members to practice working together as a team before they have to tackle the larger, more challenging deliverables of the project.

The list above isn’t a comprehensive recipe for solving all the problems of a troubled project or for complete recovery, but it is a good start.  In a subsequent post, I’ll provide a list of ways to minimize the possibility of troubled projects altogether.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at

Failed Pilot? Chalk it up as a Win!

In Business, E-Business, management, project management, Software Development, Technology on 14 December 2009 at 8:30 am

You’ve just had a failed pilot, followed by a quick meeting with the Project Management Office (PMO).  Your project was killed and you feel like a failure.

What should you do next?  “Celebrate,” I say, “then chalk it up as a win.”

What? Not the answer you were expecting?  Let me explain…

I spend quite a bit of time in a classroom, whether its to teach a subject or to learn myself.  During one class, the oft-cited Standish Group statistic that measures projects successes reared its ugly head once again, this time citing a roughly 30% project success rate with roughly 45% qualifying as challenged (Standish Group 2009).  Per Standish, roughly 70% of projects fail to meet expectations – a sobering statistic.

A project manager sitting behind me who specialized in pharmaceuticals shocked me when she said, “Gee, I wish our numbers were that good [in our industry].  The odds of a clinical trial resulting in the drug reaching market is 1 in 20, and this is after its cleared a number of internal hurdles to justify a stage I/II trial.”  (A stage I/II trial is early in the process and serves as a pilot).  While I laughed at her comment, I also considered how it related to the Standish statistics and definitions of project success.

By her definition, success meant bringing her product all the way to market, an unlikely outcome by her own estimation and by those of my fellow health sciences colleagues.  But, what if success was defined as, “Accurately determining whether a product should be brought to market,” or “Successfully determining whether a project should continue past the pilot stage”?  Suddenly, many of her projects would be considered successes.  After all, how many drugs don’t work, have ugly side effects, or have the potential to kill their patients?  Isn’t she and her team successful if they keep bad drugs off the market and aren’t we better off for it?

In the software industry, good software methodologies use pilots, proof-of-concepts or prototypes to determine whether a software product is worth fully developing and fully budgeting.  In the Rational Unified Process, the rough equivalent of a pilot is called the Lifecycle Architecture Milestone and its purpose is to confirm that the greatest technical and design hurdles can be overcome before additional funding is provided to the project.  In Rapid Application Development prototyping is embedded in each and every iteration (cycle), while paper prototyping is a part of Agile development.  Regardless of the methodology, these steps are designed to provide results early, but they are also designed to confirm that a project is worth completing, providing an opportunity to change course or shut down the effort when it’s not.

So, maybe it’s time for those of us in the PMO and portfolio management to change they way we measure project success.  Right along side the “projects successfully completed on time/on budget” statistic, there should be two others — “projects successfully killed because their pilots proved they simple weren’t viable,” and “dollars saved by ending unfeasible projects early.”  Because in the end, a pilot’s failure is just as good as a pilot’s success, as long as you listen to its message.

When Taking Over Means “Steady as She Goes”

In Business, leadership, management, project management, Small Business on 15 November 2009 at 8:00 pm

You’ve taken a new leadership position, so you’re ready to take charge and make your mark. There’s just one problem – all’s well. The division you’ve inherited is running smoothly, or the project you’ve taken over is on target. What do you do? Here’s how to tell you’re in this leadership situation, and what to do if you are.

Confirming All’s Well

Because leadership changes usually occur when change is needed, it may be difficult to tell that nothing is wrong. But there are a number of indicators that appear when everything is just fine. If you answer “yes” to most of these questions, you’ve probably inherited a steady ship:

  1. Your predecessor retired. While some people are forced in to retirement and not all recent retirees were good leaders, it’s a good sign that all was managed well if your predecessor retired in the position.
  2. Your predecessor held the position for more than 10 years. Particularly in disciplines like information technology and marketing, ten years is a mark of seasoned leadership. While times may have changed and forced a change in leadership, it’s a good sign that your predecessor enjoyed the position enough to stay in it for a decade or more.
  3. Turnover was low. You’ve talked to the staff below the prior leader and they average five years or more with the company. This means the prior leader knew how to hire and retain the right people for their positions.
  4. The numbers are good. Whether the key performance measures for the division are customer satisfaction, profit-per-unit-sold or days-ahead-of-schedule, the key measures all look good, especially after some independent validation confirms they’re accurate.
  5. You’re allowed to phone your predecessor. When both sides haven’t parted on good terms, it’s rare that you’re allowed to pick up the phone and call your predecessor. When you ask, “Do you mind if I give the prior manager a call?” an answer of “yes” with no cautions or caveats is a good sign.
  6. The echo of kind words. In initial conversations about your predecessor and their work, co-workers and subordinates speak fondly of them and readily point to past successes.

If you’ve responded, “yes” to 4 of 6 of the indicators above or more, there’s a very good chance you’re inheriting a well run division or team that needs few short-term changes. The next section describes how to lead in this situation.

An Even Keel

Once you’ve confirmed that all is well, you have quite a management challenge ahead of you. (Yes, that’s correct – a challenge). Your predecessor was well liked, the team performed well, and you have to do at least as well for the transition to be considered successful. Here’s what you should and should not do:

  1. Give credit. Once you’ve confirmed prior success, give credit to your predecessor and the team, noting that you respect what they’ve already accomplished. This is more than phony ego-stroking, it’s confirmation for your staff that you knew can properly assess a business situation and take the correct actions moving forward. They’ll appreciate that you’re recognizing them, but they’ll respect your business intuition even more.
  2. Avoid radical change. While it’s very tempting, do not try to transform the organization to suit your own management style and don’t attempt a major reorganization. It’s likely to cause resentment by your co-workers and subordinates who were very happy with the way things were. Even worse, it may turn a productive team into an unproductive one.
  3. Make change slowly. An obvious converse of the prior point, if some changes are necessary, make them slowly. This will give people an opportunity to know and trust you, but it will also give you time to understand why the team was so successful in the past. After a little wait, you may find that some of the changes you’ve planned aren’t needed and it will definitely put the distance of time between you and your predecessor.
  4. Learn from the management style of your predecessor. They were successful sitting in the same chair you now hold – who better to study than them? Review old reports and deliverables, review performance results going a few years back, and see how the division ran in the past.
  5. Give them a call. Invite your predecessor to lunch and ask them what worked so well. What management style did they use, what methodologies or techniques. Also, if possible, ask them about your staff – what are their likes and dislikes, what makes team members tick, who doesn’t get along with whom? In a couple of hours, you’ll be a lot closer to making a smooth transition.
  6. Review goals, then consider more ambitious ones. It’s possible your predecessor already set some pretty solid target for the team, but there’s also a very good chance that the bar has been a little too low most recently. If this is the case, raise expectations a bit, work with the team to identify new opportunities to excel, then add them to your strategic plan. By doing so, you’re most likely to add value to an already good situation.
  7. Adjust. While it may not be YOUR management style, your predecessor’s approach worked well. Consider adopting all or part of it, even if it’s a stretch for you. You may find that you grow as a leader by adding arrows to your quiver in this way.

Same Crew, More Knots

As a manager and leader, taking on a successful team may be the most challenging experience you ever face. It’s likely you’re a leader because you can take charge in difficult times to steer a new course, but the winds of change simply aren’t blowing. In this case, the most prudent course is to learn from the successes of the past and adapt to the new team. It will take longer, but eventually your team will improve upon past successes. If nothing else, resist the temptation to immediately set a new course – ironically, you’re far more likely to fail.

When Quality is Too Costly

In Business, management, project management, Quality, Software Development, Technology on 2 November 2009 at 8:15 am

Throughout his career, my father served as an engineering manager in the aerospace industry, where the parts he and his teams developed were used for missiles and spacecraft. Sometimes, these parts were required to meet specifications within one ten-thousandth (0.0001) of an inch, a level of quality rarely seen in any industry. I remember discussing the day his company announced they would enter the automotive parts market, which used similar components.

“You should be quite successful,” I told my father, “if you’re able to deliver products that are of such high quality to the automotive industry. Who wouldn’t buy a product that meets specifications so precisely?”

“That’s actually the problem,” my father responded. “We can build parts to one ten-thousandth of an inch, but the automotive market doesn’t need anything that precise and isn’t willing to pay for it. It costs an awful lot of money to build something that precise and to verify that it meets that standard.” He continued, “It will take us a while to figure out how to mass-produce products with much lower tolerances that are also competitively priced.”

Many years later, I encountered the same issue in my own career. Educated like many others in the principles of total quality management (TQM) and the concept of “zero defects”, I believed that the key to building excellent software was a clean defect log.  Budgeting time for multiple rounds and types of testing, my team and I dutifully worked to test 100% of all functionality in our systems and didn’t release our software until every known defect was repaired.

The day came to release our software and I was met with an unexpected surprise. Sure enough, not many defects were reported back, but there were defects reported. Why?

It turned out that our large user base was exposing problems that neither our QA team nor our beta testers encountered or anticipated. Only through the rigors of production use did these defects come to the surface. This was my first lesson about the limitations of preaching a “zero-defect” mantra – nothing replaces the “test” of production.

During our project retrospective, an even more important downside to the blind pursuit of “zero defects” surfaced. Over the two extra months our team spent addressing low-severity defects, our client lost roughly $400,000 in new sales because the new system was not available to collect them. (I had done the ROI calculations at the beginning of the project showing a $200K per month of new income, but had completely forgotten that holding on to the system for a couple of months meant the client would be deprived of this money entirely-they were not merely delayed). For the sake of perfection, zero-defects meant withholding key benefits – this was a far more important lesson than the first.

Certainly, few users want to deal with defects in software, particularly software that’s not ready to deliver. And, of course there are software products where a near-zero defect rate is extremely important. For example, I’d be quite upset if a zero-defect standard weren’t set for the key functionality in an air traffic control system or in certain military, aerospace, medical and financial systems.

But now, before I recommend a zero-defect quality target for any project, I make certain that the costs of such a high level of quality are not only beneficial to the client, I make certain I include in my calculations the lost benefits the product will bring to the users by holding it back until this level of quality is achieved. After all, none of us like defects, but would we really want to wait the months or years it might take before we reap the benefits from a new version of our favorite software?

A Case of Developer’s Optimism

In management, project management, Software Development, Technology on 26 October 2009 at 6:30 am

In the project management world, “How much time do you think this will take?” is often a loaded question.  This is true not only when senior managers ask this to a project manager, but is also true when a project manager asks this to a developer or other team member.

As a former developer, my knee-jerk response when asked, “How much time…” was almost always to respond with the correct answer – but under only the best possible conditions and outcomes.  It was only when I began managing projects that I saw how often my estimates were low and began to understand why.  I’ve coined this under-estimation of work effort on an individual task or unit of work “Developer’s Optimism”, though it’s just as likely that any other member of a project team could make this mistake.  Developer’s Optimism has many causes,  but it can be alleviated using a few basic cures, or adjustments, to the estimating process.  I’ll explore both the causes and the cures in today’s blog.

The Cause

Developer’s optimism is, on the surface, what the phrase states – a well-meaning software developer or other expert on the project team gives an estimate that is theoretically possible but highly unlikely.  In most cases, the developer may be quite experienced, yet their estimate only has a one in ten chance of being accurate.  Why?

It’s not that the developer wants to ruin your estimate, though you may begin to believe this is the case if you’ve had this occur with the same person repeatedly.  In nearly every case, he or she has made one of six mistakes in their estimating that you need to help them avoid, as described below:

  1. He did not include unit testing.  In most cases, a developer will not include unit testing in their estimating, particularly if you phrased the question as we did in the first paragraph.  In most developer’s minds, the work is done when the last line of code has been written on an alpha version, not when testing has been completed.  This common difference in dividing lines can throw off your estimate by 10-25% or more.
  2. She did not include re-work.  Perhaps all of your developers do perfect work and they deliver the first version of their code working exactly as your specifications are written. But, then the client takes a look at the outcome during a prototyping session and says she’d like a few changes.  Depending upon your client’s level of scrutiny and detail, this could bias your estimate downward by between 5-50%.  Sure, change requests can add hours to cover this, but isn’t better to plan for a moderate amount of change in advance, rather than come back and asking for more time and money mid-project?
  3. He estimated based on his own skills and not those of others.  Hoping for a better estimate, project managers nearly always go to only senior developers, designers and architects to benefit from their experience – big mistake!  A senior developer will almost always tell you how long it will take them to do the work themselves, not how long it will take the average developer.   Inevitably, when the time comes for the project manager to staff their team, the senior developer is not available and the estimate is unrealistic.  In this scenario, it could take as little as 10% and as much as 10 times longer (yes, doubting senior manager reading this now – 10 times!) for an inexperienced developer to complete the same work as an experienced one – particularly if the senior developer is not available to provide coaching or guidance.
  4. She estimated her portion of the work but did not include the work of others.  In this case, she’s spot-on with her estimate, but she’s the user interface (UI) developer and not the database developer.  So, if you use her estimate, the hours are gone and the UI looks beautiful, but the database queries/procedures aren’t written and the graphics haven’t been spruced up by the graphic artist.
  5. He did not include bug-fixing.  Depending upon how you estimate testing and quality assurance, you may or may not assume that the developer has included time to make bug-fixes in their estimates.  In most cases, he has not done this, because bug-fixing often occurs weeks or months after the code was written.  Depending upon the complexity of the task and experience of the developer, bug-fixing typically takes between 10% and 30% more time than completing the work itself.
  6. She did not account for complexity and risk.  In some cases, project managers never ask the critical follow-up question to “How long will this take?” — “How hard is this?”  When asked, we begin to understand how complex and risky the task actually is.  Particularly if a project involves many high risk tasks, one of these tasks is certain to face many setbacks as it is developed, blowing our initial estimate out of the water.  For high risk tasks, it’s not uncommon for the task to have a 25% chance of taking twice as long.

The Cure

Fortunately, project managers can cure their teams (and themselves) of Developer’s Optimism by taking roughly a half-dozen steps when making their estimates.  These include:

  1. Asking multiple individuals to estimate.  Instead of asking one senior developer, ask two or three developers of varying skills, then average their work.
  2. Use analogous estimating.  Analogous estimating uses historic project data to look back at the level of effort spent to complete similar tasks in prior projects. It then adjusts them based upon the differences between old and new to estimate time for the current task.  As a result, analogous estimating takes away some of the risk of downward bias that is so common when project estimates are developed.
  3. Make it clear what “this” is.  When asking the question, “How much time will THIS take?” make it very clear what THIS entails – are you assuming THIS includes unit testing, bug-fixing, re-work, the work of other team members, or none of the above.  If none of the above, be certain to include these in your own, separate estimate.
  4. Add “…an average developer…” to the question.  Instead of placing the developer in the position of assuming they will do the work, ask them to assume that they WON’T do the work by rephrasing, “How much time will this take for the average developer?”  In many cases, the developer can remember their skills when they just started or when they were a few years on the job, and will give you a better estimate.
  5. Assess complexity and risk.  For each task and the project as a whole, conduct a risk assessment and set aside a legitimate number of hours for risk contingency based on the probability of a specific approach to completing a task failing and the likely number of hours to develop an alternative if the primary fails.  Risk management is a key discipline in project management – one that impacts your estimation as much as it does your execution of the project.
  6. Use PERT.  Not a shampoo, many project managers have encountered Program Evaluation and Review Technique as a way to estimate project duration and level of effort.  During the evaluation process, PERT asks individual estimators to provide three estimates – one optimistic estimate, one moderate estimate and one pessimistic estimate for the same activity.  PERT then averages these three values using the formula, Expected time  =  ( optimistic  +  4 x moderate  +  pessimistic ) / 6.  While I tend to use 3 times the most likely and divide by 5 because I think project variation tends to be greater than 4 times the moderate estimate, I have found PERT’s estimating formula to be a good way to level out the bias.

An Optimistic Ending

Project estimation is almost always fraught with some degree of inaccuracy, so its not as though taking the steps above will result in perfect estimates.  But it is possible to have a reasonably accurate outcome – one that consistently is + or – 10% for the entire project — on a vast majority of projects.   To do this, however, project managers must take methodical steps to reduce innaccuracy.  They must also ask their team members and their senior managers to take off the rose-tinted glasses before giving or speculating on an estimate.