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“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells” – Dr. Seuss

It’s not that long ago that I started spending some time on understanding how the human brain functions. My interest to do a deeper dive on the mystery of the brain, was triggered by reading the book ’The Talent Code’ from Daniel Coyle. He writes about scientific research that says that top talent is based on a combination of deep, deliberate practice and passion, instead of a ’natural, innate gift’ that you received at birth. The role of the coach is instrumental for the growth of the talent to world-class level for a number of reasons. Besides creating the right conditions and motivating the individual, the most critical task at hand is to push the person continuously into their sweet spot (or outside their ‘comfort zone’), where  growth accelerates and talent blooms.

When you expose yourself to the world of the human brain, you’ll discover that the 1.5 KG organ is made up of 100 billion brain cells or neurons. All those neurons are connected and form complex neural networks. The brain is using these networks to pass on electric signals. The neural networks can get better and better by deep practice. Every time you practice, the neural network part of the brain that supports that activity gets thicker and therefore the electrical signals can ignite and pass on faster and more reliable. Based on research it has been proven that 10.000 hours of deliberate practice can make you a world-class performer in the field of expertise you’re so passionate about. Whether that is music, sports, business, consulting or project management, it doesn’t matter. There is another fascinating aspect of the human brain and its called ‘brain plasticity’. It is the ability of the brain to grow, regrow and reform its connections and functions, and is the heart of learning and of memory.

The United States, Europe and Japan have initiated major multi million dollar ‘brain research’ projects separately, to get a better understanding of the functioning of the brain. It’s an indication that the human brain is becoming more and more a centrepiece of the future of technology and business, and that it may very well become the next big wave of evolution since the rise of the Internet.

Earlier this year there was a publication in The Guardian: “What will happen when the internet of things (IoT) becomes artificially intelligent?”, wherein the author mentions that Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk share a similar concern. They see the combination of AI and IoT as a real existential threat. In other words, situations where the machine can take actions on its own without human intervention may not be acceptable. What if the robot becomes smarter than the human being?

In his book ‘The Future of the Mind’, author Michio Kaku scientists are able to insert a chip into the human brain enabling the person to perform tasks though thought alone, for example surfing the web, read and write email and play video games. He mentioned that perhaps it is a matter of time to insert artificial memories into our brain to learn new subjects.

With all this information, let’s time travel to the future and believe that we are able to insert ‘chips with knowledge and experience’ into our human brain. Be imaginative of how that may work. These chips would help us fast-track into our careers by skipping many of the 10.000 hours of practice. It would help us with instant fixes for any shortcomings. If this is all has become the new reality of the day, what modules of ’neural network implants’ do we want to insert in the brain to be a world-class performing project manager?

Here is an examples of a ’neural network implant’ that came to my mind:

Let’s assume that the project manager is responsible for the delivery of the ‘best of breed’ solution ABC for a client in the manufacturing industry. The candidate has a proven track record of delivering large scale, complex solutions, but has no experience with the particular solution, nor with manufacturing.

In that case, the chip would contain product and industry knowledge and experience from a  > people > process > technology > data > analytics > governance perspective. Most likely the chip would be co developed by the software vendor and potentially a system integrator.

One of the business benefits for the client would be that they have now access to a high performing project manager who now has access to the latest and greatest product and industry insights. As a consequence the probability of overall project success increases significantly.

I know that this is a basic example of the future potential of ‘brain chips’, however it is the right time to start thinking about the business application of this emerging technology.

It would be fantastic if you share your creative thinking by responding to my post. What ’neural network chips or implants’ would you consider?

It all seems far away that neuroscience technology is going to impact our work and life and therefore it is a very interesting area to watch. At times we may consider certain insights and solutions to be nonsense. But that something major is going to happen in this area is a given. I would suggest to keep an eye on the outcomes of the projects of the United States (Brain Initiative), Europe (Human Brain Project) and Japan (Brain/MINDS) that have launched in the last few years, and be creative in assessing the future potential.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

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Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth – Sherlock Holmes

Being from dutch descent, I obviously have a passion for soccer. Years ago, Louis van Gaal, a well-known and very successful dutch soccer coach gave his point of view of world-class performance, by saying: “quality is about ruling out coincidences.” Years later he completely re-build the footings of soccer club Bayern Munchen, and ever since that transformation, they have dominated the European soccer leagues. And now he is replicating the same principles at Manchester United.

What would Louis van Gaal do if he was a project leader? I think if you translate his principles to project management, many troubled IT business transformation projects most likely wouldn’t have ended up in that state. What would some of his principles look like?

A key principle is to have a plan and alternatives, call it a plan B, that are well-communicated and shared at all levels in the project and relevant business areas. The plan provides a clear sight of the future end-state and the path to get there, in terms of deliverables, approach and time line. There is a common belief that the planning process is more important than the plan itself. The process is a recurring, consistent, collaborative and inclusive activity supported by all key stakeholders and has plan versions at different abstract levels. There are many walk-throughs of the plan with the all the players, and together with the leaders they discuss major risk and mitigation strategies so everybody is well prepared. The core team is far-sighted, able to connect the dots and keen on translating requirements into work products, making estimates and crafting smart delivery strategies and tactics.

The project leader is audacious and creative in finding the most attractive path from A to B given the quality of the players, the business context and other conditions. When Louis van Gaal was the head coach of the dutch soccer team during the last world championships in 2014, he realized after thorough analysis, that he needed to change the tactics from an offensive to a more defensive style. The average age of the team was relatively low and therefore the experience level. He changed the formation from a 4-3-3 system to a 5-3-2 system. That change caused a huge turmoil across the country, because the default formation that dominated the ‘dutch school of thought’ was 4-3-3. Louis van Gaal was convinced of his bold change and trained the team on the new approach in a very short timeframe. They pulled it off by ending in 3rd place by beating Brazil and exceeded the expectation of the Royal Dutch Football Association. Germany won the tournament, and many of their players came from Bayern Munchen. Louis van Gaal was successful because he had an alternative plan and the courage to execute it. He got the buy in from the team players, and subsequently prepared, coached and motivated them to win. He changed before he had to, and knew what it looked like

Another principle is to implement industry best practice project management and delivery processes in the initiation phase including effective methods, tools and reporting. All project staff must be trained in the functional use of this model before the actual work starts. Ideally, the training is repetitive and addresses case material where performance did not hit the quality mark. That’s an effective way to build consistency. Major motivators for talented project staff is to learn new skills and gain experience throughout the project lifecycle. Seasoned project leaders find ways to combine that progressive learning ambition with continuous improvement of team performance and team bonding. An example of that would be recurring ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, where people come together and discuss a very relevant topic, or at times an odd, fun topic to trigger the creative minds.

Knowing what’s important and what’s not and being able to set the right priorities for the team is another principle. The project leader needs to be observant and have an eye for details without loosing side of the big picture. He has a transparent work style, open-door policy and is an effective communicator. Google Executive Chairman and ex-CEO Eric Schmidt and former SVP of Products Jonathan Rosenberg wrote a book about ‘How Google Works’ [2014] and said that one of their key responsibilities was to be a ‘router of information’. They said: “Most of the best—and busiest—people we know act quickly on their emails, not just to us or to a select few senders, but to everyone. Being responsive sets up a positive communications feedback loop whereby your team and colleagues will be more likely to include you in important discussions and decisions, and being responsive to everyone reinforces the flat, meritocratic culture you are trying to establish.”

If Louis van Gaal would be a project leader, he would make a lot of notes, gather a lot of data, conduct detailed analysis and with all of that provide constructive feedback and coaching to the team players. He would share his opinion based on facts, and point the team into specific directions. He may consider doing project analysis, based on video recordings of the team performance and all kind of statistics. This approach is becoming more and more a differentiator in soccer and other sports. Big data and analytics has entered that industry the last couple of years as well.

The use of fact-based data in the decision making process is another principal. The project leader would use it for example to assess where the project is vulnerable and define corrective measures  to be ready in case identified risks materialize into real problems. Together with the core team, the project leader would think through scenarios for areas where any surprise can catch the team off-guard.

There are many more principles from Louis van Gaal that we can apply to project management. They have one things in common and that is their focus on quality. Every aspect of soccer, on or outside the field, must be well thought through and meet high quality standards. That in combination with real-time fact based reasoning and decision making must put the team on the right track for high performance.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

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“It always seems impossible until it is done” – Nelson Mandela

I have been lucky for the number of occasions where I got involved into a derailed project and was asked to put it back on track. Hindsight there is actually no better learning opportunity for the organization, team and people involved in the recovery of a troubled project. When it goes wrong, it can really go wrong fast and oftentimes with severe impact. But the learnings can be of value for a lifetime, when one is receptive to it. In this post I want to focus more on ‘what to do when a project has derailed’ and less on the drivers that caused it. So what do you do? What are the key steps to recovery?

  1. Sit down and listen: When you have been tasked to fix the project, the first thing you want to do is to meet with people who represent different internal and external stakeholder groups. Seek to understand first, before you present anything to anybody, because your intention is to come with accurate statements at the right time. Gather valuable input for a thorough impact analysis that clarifies the root cause of the derailment. Keep digging in case of conflicting information up to the point where the facts speak for themselves. Be audacious in asking for information when you believe its available, but appears to be inaccessible. Escalate if you need to
  2. Structure your findings: Document your findings in such a way that it can be easily shared with stakeholders upon request, and retrieved for presentations. Create a separate ‘living document’ to capture lessons-learned. What has worked for me in the past, is to structure the findings by business process, technology and stakeholder or stakeholder group. These are three key dimensions of the solution the project is about to deliver, and people can easily relate to when you discuss your findings
  3. Build a coalition of positive advocates: While you are making your rounds to gather information, you’ll find out who the strong, positive advocates are of the project. At a certain point in time you need to rally the troops to re-start the project and you can only do that when you have build a coalition of people who can positively influence the outcome. The key purpose of the coalition is to drive change throughout the lifecycle of the project, and make sure that key stakeholders remain aligned and committed. Especially at the start when things can be messy and ambiguous, you need leadership support to keep things moving forward, make small adjustments and celebrate quick wins
  4. Present options to move forward: When you have got your facts straight, completed the root cause analysis, defined options and a recommendation, developed a plan, and got buy in from the key stakeholders, it is time for an official presentation of your findings and plan to move forward. The presentation is the first milestone of recovery and start of a new begin. That moment in time must be celebrated and marked as the turn-around point. The presentation is more of a formal approval of the new approach, as you have already obtained your approvals ahead of time through a number of preliminary meetings with the Executives. Make sure that the key messages are shared with all project stakeholders with the right level of detail
  5. Rebuild the team: Re start the project with the right people and make use of the momentum to assess the integrity and capability of the project team. Make the necessary changes as required. This applies to internal and external resources. Look further than the required knowledge, experience and skills. Think about personality, leadership style, motivational aspects and willpower. Establish a team with leaders who are intrinsically motivated to make it happen. Aim for a world-class team that has the guts, courage and bravery to deliver with relentless effort based on mutual trust and faith that the job can be done

There is a reason why projects derail and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as the organization, team and people are willing to learn, change and do it different and better the next time. When they think about new strategies and plans, change the approach and their behaviour, they’ll finally achieve the intended vision and goals of the project. When that happens it is time to celebrate the outcome and learnings.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

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Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be – Jack Welch

“All change is hard at first, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end” is a well-known saying from Robin Sharma, a motivational writer, speaker and leadership expert. The existence of projects is to drive the change that the Executive has in mind. Imagine that you are the leader of an enterprise-wide IT business transformation project that is the centrepiece for manifesting the next growth spurt of the organization. Your work relationship with the Executive is critical to make this initiative a success. How do you manage the Executive such that both of you are effective? Here are 5 management rules you should be aware off and practice.

Understand and challenge the vision: the single most important success factor of any project is a clear understanding of the vision, purpose, impact, and benefits of the project. It is all about a broad and deep understanding by all stakeholders of the WHAT. It takes awhile for the organization to absorb a vision statement. It’s the responsibility of the project leader to facilitate that process by working closely with communication experts and the Executive on crafting messages and broadcasting them to the right audience at the right time and place. The project leader should challenge the Executive on the vision with the objective to sharpen it. It is in the best interest of the organization that the vision is unambiguous and rock solid before you move forward with the planning and execution phase. If internal and/or external subject matter experts are needed in the ‘vision refinement’ process, the project leader takes care of that. Throughout the project lifecycle, the project leader is accountable for a ‘continuity of vision’ process, which means that the future state gets more and more defined in detail from vision statements to blueprints to specifications. The project leader is the linking pin between the Executive and the project and orchestrates a bi-directional communication and collaboration

Have a mutually agreed to plan: Once the vision has sunk in and all internal and external stakeholders sing from the same song-sheet, it is time to get to a mutual agreement of the project plan between Executive and the project leader. In parallel to the envisioning phase (see above), the project leader is working on a draft plan based on strategies and principles that have been discussed with the Executive. The plan has 3 levels, a GANTT for planning at the Executive level, an integrated project plan at the project level, and work plans at the team level. Throughout the project lifecycle, plans get further refined. The project leader is responsible to involve the Executive in this progressive elaboration planning process as required, not only when plans need to be adjusted and re base lined for unforeseen events. Progress and status will be reported at the GANTT level, such that the realization of the vision is transparent to the Executive at all times. Last but not least: always have a plan B…, just in case

Share the real status with facts: The Executive likes to see a coherent, crisp and concise story of where the project stands on a single page every week, and at peak times  more frequently. Use a dashboard displaying the GANTT and status indicators for the key dimensions: scope, schedule, cost, people, quality, issues, risks and vendor performance. Provide factual information for each dimension that is valuable to the Executive and the project. Include a section where you keep track of key decisions that need to be made. Make sure that the overall story has a rolling forward approach, where the indicators speak to the current and previous period status. Refer to other documents where you keep track of detailed project status, for example issues and risk logs. Have them up-to-date and available upon request. Most of the Executives that are accountable for enterprise-wide IT business transformation projects have a hectic work life. In case the project leader does not get the attention that is needed, think about sharing status information in a creative but still effective manner. An example that works well is to distribute the status report as an attachment to an email. The email itself only carries 3 to 5 key messages. Point in the email to action items or key decisions that need to be made. Follow up with the Executive verbally in a subsequent step that can go quickly, because the project leader already gave a heads up by email, and can focus in the discussion on what’s important

Come with options: One of the ground rules the project leader wants to set at the start of the initiative is that options are being presented at the same time as the problem. Options should be realistic and when possible supported by qualitative and quantitative statements. There is a golden rule that the decision maker can select from a list of 3 to 5 options. The project leader is responsible for making a recommendation to the Executive with input from the team. Make sure that the recommendation is the result of an impact analysis and rational trade-off process between the pros and cons

Get the Executive on the floor: Key ingredients to a successful project is the demonstration of Executive commitment and alignment, as well as acknowledgement of the contribution of the organization, team and people. The project leadership team is responsible on a daily basis for people management. Coaching top talent is one of the premier activities in that area. The project leader must establish a recurring platform where the Executive ‘connects with the floor’. Projects that realize the most benefits have the Executive at arms length. They have the Executive participating in key meetings, or conduct town halls on a recurring basis, do walk arounds to meet with project staff, or have social events once in a while. As I wrote in my post ‘Want a World-Class Project Team?’, the people factor is very important, at least equally so not more than process and technology. The Executive as the visionary leader plays a crucial role

With the projects that I am talking about, ’The Executive’ is oftentimes more than one person. A major responsibility of the project leader is to ensure that along the way, the Executives stay committed and aligned. There are 2 key measures to make that happen. In the first place, work with the Executive in charge to get buy in and to build a forceful coalition of Executives. In the second place, make sure that all the Executives receive the same project status information, such that the context of the project is transparent. When everything is unfolding as envisioned and planned, you are good to go as project leader and be successful with your team.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

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If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” – William Isaac Thomas

Besides scope, schedule, cost and people, there are two things that you must be on top of every day as project leader: issues and risks. Be grateful to have them, because it is a good indication that you are making progress.

There are a number of steps to take before you actually want to start responding to issues and risks: define what they are, define the attributes and how to document and manage them.

Definition

When you kick off a new project, you want to sit down with the team and discuss what issues and risks are and how you want to manage them together as a group. A simple definition that works well is the following: “An issue is a problem that has manifested and is right there in the present moment, whereas a risk may turn into a problem in the future when certain conditions become real. Both may need immediate action depending on the assigned severity level”.

There is value in revisiting the definition of issues and risks, as well as the importance of managing them adequately, throughout the project lifecycle. For example, at peak times people tend to forget the need to manage issues and risks, because they want to finish more important work. It is the responsibility of the project leader to observe the adherence and compliance to the process, and intervene when required. A coaching leadership style oftentimes works very well at that point. Take a real problem as a learning opportunity and respond to it as a team.

Attributes and Documentation

Make sure that you document the issue or risk properly by using a simple set of attributes. Because they both describe a problem, the attributes are fairly similar. A major difference is that for risks you want to add a time and probability factor to the calculation of the risk rating, which is equal to the product of probability x impact x time, whereas for issue you define the severity level based on impact. For risks, you want to know when it may turn into an issue, and what the likelyhood is of that. If that’s almost certain to happen next week, the overall risk rating is higher than if it’s a month away from now.

The description of an issue or risk follows a particualr wording structure. For a risk it starts with: “There is a risk that “A”, because of “B”, resulting in “C”, where A = risk, B = root cause or risk trigger, and C = impact or consequence

Example: There is a risk that flights get severely delayed, because of extreme weather, resulting in people not able to get to their destinations on-time

If this risk materializes into an issue, the description changes to: “Flights have been severely delayed, because of extreme weather, resulting in people not able to get to their destinations on-time.

The benefit of using a standard wording structure is that people who are responsible to action them, can quickly understand the issue or risk, and therefore quickly address them. The root cause and impact analysis are very important, because you want to give people who are responsible to action the issue or risk, an accurate reflection of the problem, otherwise they may not react effectively.

There are a few attributes that are very important for managing issues and risks effectively:

  1. Short description: Describe the issue or risk and follow the standard wording structure
  2. Root cause analysis: Describe clearly and concisely the determining, causal factors of the issue or risk
  3. Impact analysis: Describe the impact to the business and project in qualitative and quantitative statements
  4. Severity: Its common to use 4 severity levels, for example: 1-critical, 2-high, 3-medium, 4-low. Each level gives an indication of the impact, exposure, and response time.
  5. Priority: Its commong to use also 4 levels for priority setting, for example: 1-urgent, 2-high, 3-medium, 4-low
  6. Ownership: Assign an owner from the project and from the business who have responsibilities for the funtional or technical area that is impacted. The project and business leader are accountable
  7. Status: Follow a simple standard, for example: 1-new, 2-assigned, 3-analysis completed, 4-in progress, 5-completed, 6-closed

The severity level is set by the project team and is an indication of how critical or undesirable the issue or risk is from a solution perspective. The priority level is set by the business and is an indication of how urgent or fast the issue or risk needs to be actioned. At the start of the project these attributes need to be well defined and tailored to the specific needs of the initiative.

Issue – and risk management process

Once you have documented the issue or risk, the real work begins. You want to implement and consistently follow a simple 3-step issue – and risk management process:

  1. Document: Any project stakeholder should be allowed to identify an issue or risk, but not allowed to document it. Keep the number of people who can document them to a minimum. Think about assigning that responsibility to team leaders. The reason behind this is that the people who documents an issue or risk is able to speak about it. Those people are also attending the meetings where the issue or risk is being handled from a project management perspective
  2. Manage: The project leader is responsible to conduct a recurring meeting with project and business stakeholders where issues and risks are being managed. In such a meeting, each issue and risk is being reviewed, and the severity, priority, ownership and status is being set
  3. Escalate: The higher the severity and priority levels, the higher the chance that issues or risks needs to be escalated to limit impact. Make sure that escalation paths have been defined and agreed to by all stakeholders prior to the project kick-off. Agree to response times from decision makers. Think about how you want to involve external parties in the escalation process, for example subject matter experts, mediators or lawyers. Its best to have that all straightened out and agreed to at the front door, before you begin and not when you are right in the middle of it. At that point it is often too late

The day-to-day responsibility of the project leader is to keep the resolution of issues and risks moving forward. A key part of that is to continuously make stakeholders aware of the status and impact. The project leader needs to use his instincts to trigger the escalation process for issues or risks that are stalling. Be on top of them. Without issues and risks there is no change, and without change no achievement and success.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

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The bigger the dream, the more important the team – Robin Sharma

The building blocks of solutions that IT business transformation projects deliver are commonly defined as people, process and technology. Many organizations tend to jump straight to the technology component to argue what the best fit would be for the future state of the business. The next building block in line that gets most attention is process. “Do we adjust the business to industry standards and leading practices, or are we unique and therefore accept modifications of the technology to fit our needs?” Organizations tend to spend so much time on debating technology and process that they forgot about the need of having a qualified project team of internal and external resources that can actually do the work.

Let’s be real. When IT business transformation projects fail, it may appear it is the technology, but in most cases it is not. If it fails, it either has to do with a lack of adequate leadership to move to standards and leading practices, or it is a consequence of not putting a world-class project team together, or a combination of both.

I strongly believe that the people factor is at least as important as process and technology, so not more. At the end of the day, the work gets done by people, and one can only expect world class output if there is world-class input. Here is a list of factors that can be helpful with building a world-class team:

Capability: knowledge, experience, skills, personality, diversity

Pick the right people for the job, and if they don’t seem to be out there, keep looking. When organizations select people, the focus automatically goes to knowledge, experience and skills. That’s perfectly fine as a first set of selection criteria, but in interviews the focus should shift more towards personality and diversity. Does the candidate fit with the team and organization? And what values can the candidate bring to the team that the organization does not have today, but can become very useful down the road? Diversity can be a driver of the ‘creative power’ of the project team as a whole

Intrinsic motivation and passion

You want to build a goal oriented project team, where people have the opportunity to unite business and personal ambitions. Motivation that comes from the inside is propelling a team to greater heights of achievement. Identify those common grounds and shared interests during the selection phase and foster them during the execution through coaching

Work environment

There is a reason why many start-ups and companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook have work environments that are way different and standing out. They recognize that there is an immediate relationship between creativity, productivity, job satisfaction and business performance, and value that by making substantial investments in the work place. An IT business transformation project thrives on creativity and there is no such thing without top talent that feels ‘at home’ and can ‘outperform’ during business hours

Feel safe

In his book ‘Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t’, author Simon Sinek explains that remarkable things happen when there is trust and cooperation within the team. There is a continuous need for each person to feel safe. Sinek means that leaders are responsible to takeaway elements that are perceived as dangerous, and trade them with positive elements like opportunity to grow and succeed, self-confidence, education, and ability to try and fail. If certain conditions are met and the people inside an organization feel safe among each other, they will work together to achieve things none of them could have ever achieved alone. Sinek also mentions that great leaders would never sacrifice the people to safe the numbers, they would sooner sacrifice the numbers to safe the people. The great leader has followers because he cares, not because of the rank, position and authority, as that drives fear. The world-class team of the leader who establishes a ‘feel safe’ environment will be able to consistently deliver a remarkable performance, whereas a leader with the opposite style may at best harvest some short term, mediocre results

Acknowledgement

Studies have shown that a person, who contributes to a work product, wants to receive some level of acknowledgement. People want to feel good about their performance. Deepak Chopra, a well-known author and speaker of alternative medicine and forms of spirituality, found that if a person is using his strengths and the leader:

  1. Acknowledges that, his level of disengagement goes to less than 1%
  2. Ignores him, the level of disengagement goes up with 45%
  3. Criticizes him, the level of disengagement goes down with 25%

It is interesting to see that ignorance is worse than critique.  A leader who wants to be successful with his project team, makes it a habit to provide constructive feedback on an ongoing basis, and understands that ignoring people performance is a no go zone

Effective communication

Leaders who build world-class project teams are strong communicators. They know how to share the right information to the right audience at the right time. They understand that predictability is important for senior leaders to make informed and timely decisions, and for team members to do their job extremely well. An effective approach to make that happen is to have a single plan-on-a-page readily available that provides instant answers to scope, timeline, financials, issues and risks. In world-class project teams, each member has a solid understanding of the vision of the initiative, the path to get there, the individual’s contribution and project performance. Effective communication has become a habit instead of a planned activity

There are more factors that help leaders to build world-class project teams. Think about degree of control, decision autonomy, leadership style, social interaction and team development or growth and learning opportunities. Technology can become a competitive advantage for organizations if they are able to attract top talent that is needed to implement it flawlessly. Therefore a change of mind-set is needed: one that focuses more on people and world-class performance.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

 

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The bigger the dream, the more important the team – Robin Sharma

If you go through my blog you’ll see posts that speak about critical success factors for IT business transformation projects. I have talked about the importance of trust, the impact of ambiguity, how to pick the right people, but also vendor performance, dealing with competing priorities and SMART project leadership.

It is not so difficult to BREAK your project; you can do that in a heartbeat. It is much more difficult to MAKE your project. It all comes down to leadership potential of all internal and external stakeholders, because project success is something you create and achieve together as a well-integrated team.

There are a few, silent ‘BREAKERS’ of success that can be detrimental, throw you off track and ultimately force you to pull the plug.

Singing from the same song sheet

Many organizations that initiate an IT business transformation project put their faith completely or way too far in the hands of the vendor. They rely too much on the vendor’s expertise to design, build, test and implement the solution. For these organizations it is a given that the vendor provides industry leading practices to the project. “But that’s why we hired them” is a comment you hear when organizations realize that their expectations are not being met.

Is this an issue caused by the vendor only, or by both the vendor and the organization? It can actually be both. Every organization should develop in-house expertise of the future state solution, otherwise you are not able to define WHAT you want in clearly articulated business requirements. With expertise I mean: knowledge and experience of the business processes, technology and data.

Does it need to be at the same level as the vendor? It must be at least at a point where you can truly understand the options that are being presented by the vendor, and you can identify alternatives that for various reasons do not come forward. Organizations should consider assigning a solution architect (contract or permanent employee) to the project who can bring that level of knowledge and experience. The solution architect functions as a catalyst to other project resources and brings continuity, consistency and integrity of the design to the team. All key resources should be trained in the new technology at the start of the project, preferable by the technology vendor.

The money that the organization spends on building this solid project team capability must be perceived as an investment. It is a risk mitigation activity that has both short term (set project up for success) and long term (effective sustainment) value.

Vendors who embark on IT business transformation projects should encourage the organization to build up their capability right at the start of it and not gradually overtime. It is in their best interest to work with a client organization that sings from the same song sheet, speaks the same language and uses the same communication matrix, from the starts of the design phase onwards. The quality of the solution design drives the value and benefits that the organization has in mind and is expecting to realize.

Silo mentality

It is fairly common that organizations with traditional structures have entities (departments, units, teams, etc.) that operate in silos. We also know that nothing great happens in silos. IT business transformation projects thrive on creativity, collaboration, communication and a multi-disciplinary approach. Organizations can only attract and retain top talent if they move away from this one-dimensional paradigm once and for all. Top talent that is needed to staff the project and future sustainment organization will quickly move on to greener pastures if the organizational culture does not change.

A major risk of silo mentality is that the project will struggle with the “pave the cow path and reinvent the legacy” syndrome. The future state will be not be much different. As a result it does not bring what the organization needs to achieve cost savings, better customer service levels, accurate management information or anything of that kind that makes it better (world-class) than the organization’s peer group. It is not an easy task for the leadership team to successfully deliver the IT business transformation project in this context. What needs to happen?

Executive Leadership can:

  1. Set a new tone for the organization by communicating core values that go with the future state. There are organizations that define core values in a collaborative manner with their people
  2. Clearly articulate the vision, the path to get there, and what contribution is expected from each of the entities
  3. Model the behaviour that is expected
  4. Actively participate in the IT business transformation program with the intention to inspire, motivate and coach people
  5. Set the right business priorities and make timely decisions when needed
  6. Clarify in what functional and technical areas change must happen to achieve major business benefits
  7. Monitor progress and take corrective actions as required
  8. Assign ‘business transformation’ specific performance goals to key leaders
  9. Source top talent from outside the organization that resonates well with the future state
  10. Implement a reward program that encourages people to think, act and speak differently

Project leadership can:

  1. Make sure that project and relevant business objectives, strategy and plans are always aligned and well communicated
  2. Increase focus of change management activities on stakeholder alignment and commitment
  3. Define and enforce solution design principles that drive people, process and technology change
  4. Quickly identify and remove roadblocks on the design path to change, and actively manage integration points or dependencies between entities
  5. Simplify design concepts as much as possible
  6. Implement an escalation path up to the Executive Sponsor to get fast decisions on design issues and risks
  7. Foster a working climate of collaboration, creativity, communication and change
  8. Conduct demonstrations of components of the to be solution to key stakeholders
  9. Implement quick wins where possible and meaningful
  10. Seek for industry leading practices and share that with stakeholders that resist to change

There are a lot of ‘make or break’ project success drivers to think about when you initiate, plan, execute and close an IT business transformation project. Key is to identify and respond to them properly and in a timely fashion. Stay in control of your own destiny by investing in core project team capabilities and by taking the right actions at the Executive and Project level.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

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“To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often” – Winston Churchill

I was reading the book “Playing to Win, how strategies really work” from A.G. Lawley and Roger L. Martin recently, and came across the term VUCA. It caught my attention and triggered me to do some research, because I wanted to understand what it means to a project leader in today’s world.

What does VUCA stand for?

According the University of North Carolina, the notion of VUCA was introduced by the U.S. Army War College to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, multilateral world, which resulted from the end of the Cold War. The acronym itself was not created until the late 1990s, and it was not until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that notion and acronym really took hold. VUCA was subsequently adopted by strategic business leaders to describe the chaotic, turbulent, and rapidly changing business environment that has become the “new normal.”

Going in each of the four dimensions in more detail, Wikipedia says that:

  • Volatility, is the nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.
  • Uncertainty, is the lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.
  • Complexity, is the multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues and the chaos and confusion that surround an organization.
  • Ambiguity, is the haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion

The University of North Carolina says that you need to counter each of them by changing leadership behavior. Volatility can be countered by vision. Leaders with vision can make better decisions and handle turbulence with the future state in mind. Better understanding and the ability to stop, look and listen counters uncertainty. Leaders can counter complexity with clarity and by making sense of chaos they can improve their decision-making. Finally, ambiguity can be countered with agility and the ability to communicate across the organization and to move quickly to apply solutions.

Given these definitions and assuming that you are working as a project leader for an organization that operates in a VUCA environment, what can you do when you have the responsibility to deliver an IT enabled business transformation initiative?

Here are some thoughts and suggestions that you can consider:

  • Understand the internal and external forces that can cause the organization to be in a state of turbulence
  • Make sure that you understand the vision of the organization and the future state it is moving towards. Regularly check if there is alignment with the vision, goals and strategy of the project. Work with the business leaders to clarify and remove possible discrepancies
  • Consistently manage a clear scope statement and definition of WHAT the project is going to deliver and how it meets project and business goals
  • Execute a robust issue and risk management process with key internal and external stakeholders to and monitor if root-causes tend to change overtime as well as risk triggers. Adjust your ability to respond if required, for example do a skill assessment and determine if your capability, capacity and agility is at the level that it needs to be. Keep it practical and realistic
  • Surround you with seasoned subject matter experts in areas where the ‘VUCA calories’ are high. Their thought leadership should enable you to quickly sense, respond and adjust when needed
  • Communicate the vision, goals, strategy, plan and status on a regular basis to all stakeholders. Make them part of the thinking process as that improves commitment and chances of being successful
  • Implement alert mechanisms that quickly inform you about threats, risks and actual deviations from the critical path. Key aspect of this is ‘management by walking around’. Make it a habit that you frequently speak to stakeholders who have deep insight in certain VUCA drivers, and give you meaningful feedback
  • Deal with forces that are in your scope of control and create unnecessary chaos immediately, by setting exceptions first and taking corrective actions second, for example by removing or defusing You need forces that understand chaos and can help simplify circumstances, not the opposite
  • Implement methods, tools and standards that are robust but flexible to accommodate a change in approach
  • Always aim for being ahead of the curve and be on the ball by having alternative strategies and plans readily available to change the course of action when it is needed

VUCA is a reality of the day and you have to deal with it as project leader. Use VUCA in your advantage by treating it as a force of change that is needed to achieve your project goals. Manage VUCA as an opportunity!

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©

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buy real viagra online cheap “If you think that a fixed price contract is going to solve all your previously experienced project issues, think twice”

A fixed price contract appears to be the magic bullet to a number of project management issues, but that may only be superficial. At the end of the day, all of the project management routines still need to be flawlessly executed including the financial aspects, regardless what contract vehicle has been selected.

With a fixed priced contract the customer is making an attempt to transfer the financial risk to the vendor. The transfer is at a cost to the customer and wouldn’t exist, if the parties decided to sign a time and materials contract. The additional cost is a risk premium (cost contingency) that the vendor is adding to the base estimate that if done properly already has an effort contingency. It is quite common to see a risk premium in the 10 – 30% range on top of the base estimate and effort contingency together. So long story short, customers are paying a lot extra when they sign a fixed price contract. Is that worth the money; is that worth the delivery risk? Now, there are customers that want to know what the actual project cost to the vendor is and based on the outcome recoup part of that risk premium. Unfortunately that’s not how it woks, because the customer did not bear the delivery risk and also would not chip in extra dollars if the vendor would experience a cost overrun.

Alongside the risk premium (additional cost), the customer bears the risk that the vendor is not delivering the contracted scope with the expected quality (less business benefits). When a vendor is exposed to a fixed price deal, they are managing the project scope very tight. When the project scope is not well defined in the contract and therefore the level of ambiguity (see previous post ‘Ambiguity’) is relatively high, the project is set up for failure. Oftentimes the expectation gap cannot be closed without a project change request, which most customers do not account for in their budget when they have signed a fixed price contract. It is very likely that the gap is significant; therefore the vendor is raising many change requests over time. The relationship stress that manifests between the customer and the vendor, because of the conflict, can be detrimental to the overall trustworthiness of the parties, and when trust goes down, cost goes up, and speed goes down (see Stephen M.R.Covey, “The Speed of Trust”). As a result, the project slides into a downwards spiral triggering all different kind of consequences.

Managing a fixed price contract is asking for a different mindset from the parties than any other contract vehicle. Scope and schedule must be perceived as equally important for both parties. If not, the project is doomed to fail. There are cases where a vendor managed a fixed price contract as it was a time and materials contract. For quite awhile there was an abundance of resources and everything seemed possible (exaggerating here a little bit), but overtime when the project actuals came in and the scope verification check was completed, the vendor realized that the burn rate was way out of line, and that the only way out was raising change requests (extra dollars or scope reduction). At that point, frantic behavior should not be a surprise to anybody. It is possible that the vendor tells the customer that for certain deliverables they have exceeded the number of hours, and the customer has to pay extra. Or that rigorous testing is not required, because best practices and development standards have been followed consistently, and therefore the risk of failure is low. A customer would instinctively think: “But I have a fixed price contract for that deliverable, the requirements are clearly articulated in the contract, blueprint and specifications. We agreed to the delivery approach, what’s the problem?”

These are just a few examples of situations where a customer might end up with, if they make a fixed price deal. They need to be aware of the buyers risk of paying more (risk premium), for potentially less quality (business benefits), and potentially damage to a good relationship with the vendor, whom they may have been successful with before at other projects. What is then the alternative?

There is actually a few. Customers can simply go for a time and materials contract. There is nothing wrong with that if they manage it well. Or customers can decide to go for a hybrid model, where the basis of the contract is time and materials, with fixed price for specific, well-defined scope items. They can also consider performance-based contracts with time and materials as basis. If the intention is to transfer delivery risk to the vendor (which is a great idea and something a customer must consider), embedding performance-based incentives in the contract is a perfect alternative. More and more vendors are willing to demonstrate skin in the game.

The success of any contract vehicle comes down to the accuracy of the scope definition. Customers need to know WHAT they want (see my post ‘Continuity of Vision’) throughout the project lifecycle. They need to clearly articulate it to the vendor, and collaboratively document it meticulously in the contract. When customers are locked into a fixed price contract, discrepancies seem to be much harder to resolve than with any other contract vehicle. Customers must be mindful of the pros and cons of a fixed price contract when they consider it. Customers should not run into it, because they think they have frozen their financial baseline and they therefore only need to focus on scope and schedule. That’s an act of shortsightedness, which at a certain point in time will be proven to be wrong.

Bas de Baat

Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©