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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Governance: The seeds of Operational Excellence

I am sure many of us have heard phrases like "we are in a constant fire-fighting mode," or "Pick your battles to win", etc. Somehow, these phrases have become so much a cliche that they have become part of our core management DNA principles. Recently, I was in a training session when I heard participants claim, "we are so much agile that we don't have time for iterations." Ignoring to immediately respond by focusing on principles of agile, grooming the backlog, and planning for iterations on this paradoxical phrase, I started questioning further. Not to most people's surprise, my finding revealed the lack of governance structure in strategic execution.

As I played archery game with my younger son on the Wii-U, he was explaining that I need to pay attention to the wind and distance before I can release the arrow. "It is not just a focus and strength game," he reasoned when I kept missing the target. It dawned on me immediately why people were failing to pay attention to strategy in execution, While strategy from the steering committee tells the archer which target to shoot the arrow, the archer still needs to have a specific strategy on how to execute to ensure the benefits align to the expectations of the steering committee. It is, therefore, management's responsibility to ensure that there are metrics and measures in place to inform the archer to take appropriate corrective and preventive actions.

However, when the managers and leaders fail to provide the required tools for people to upskill or reskill their talents, then they inherently suck the oxygen out of operational excellence. So, for an organization to continuously improve, they need to learn from past lessons and face new challenges and problems rather than relearn the same lessons or revisit the same challenges. It is leadership's failure to put the appropriate governance framework to ensure that execution is constantly aligned with the strategy.

The essential factors for operational excellence may vary within industries but they all should be having five important facts that I would like to call with a mnemonic phrase, "Strategy coordinates complex deliverable optimization." Let me expand on these five keywords:

Strategic Benefits - The strategy should deliver more than powerpoints that make it into high-level objectives in people's scorecard. The leaders are accountable to provide clear measurable benefits that the execution should deliver. One of the important artifacts from program management domain is the benefits register that leaders should produce as an outcome from their strategic planning.

Coordinated Planning - While top management may have the vision, only the middle management knows the challenges of execution. So, top management should identify groomable talents within the organization involving them in the planning exercise with actionable outcomes. One of the best tools that the program and portfolio management domains recommend is a roadmap that orchestrates when the incremental and consolidated benefits will be realized (remember I just didn't say delivered) to help with adequate prioritization of customer and business value-add.

Complex Interdependencies - Whether benefits are delivered incrementally or consolidated, the complex interdependencies among projects and the operations still have to be conceived by leadership and management. The middle management should be empowered to reskill their competencies in such a way that they are able to articulate around the political, economic, societal, technical, legal, environmental, ethnic and demographic (PESTLEED) dimensions leading to operational excellence. The best way to hold the top and middle management accountable is to have frequent management checkpoints (besides the health gate reviews) to inculcate the risks to delivery and the costs of non-delivery as part of their program or project design including the considerations for transition and succession planning.

Deliverable Integration - Particularly when benefits are incremental, but also as benefits become consolidated, integration of a number of benefits is a change management exercise. Understanding how changes impact the organization and evaluating the sensitivity around it as the projects and programs. This may take the form of standard operating procedures and transition and succession planning agreements (note that I didn't say just a plan or meeting but agreement) but most importantly having a controlled approach to releasing both the products to production as well as people to other projects.

Optimized Pace - Having a closed eye to how people will stretch themselves to deliver when benefits are not prioritized with multiple high-level priorities with interdependent resources is waiting for accidents to happen with the hope they don't. The most important assets to replace are the people and not having the above measures in places increases the stress level. Allowing people to decompress by requiring them to work on personal stretch goals aligned to the strategic benefits will help them reskill themselves to deliver on complex initiatives. They can't firefight forever and choose different battles to fight leading to employee attrition in the absence of execution treated with strategic outcomes aligned to the organizational benefits.

These five elements, in my humble opinion, is the governance fabric that lays the foundation for operational excellence. What do you think?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Simple Definition of Leadership

Leadership - Much has been talked about it both in the scholarly literature and the professional circles. Job roles, such as the Team Leader, also requires one to take leadership of a team. Similarly, various functional roles and strategic business units advance the notion of leadership inherent in them. For instance, a product owner is expected to be a leader in understanding the strategic nature of the product although the role itself doesn't have any leader tag associated. Similarly, account manager to lead the client and project manager to lead the client, team, and performing organizations mandate leadership qualities in them - yet there is no tag "leader" associated.

In a number of training classes, such as PMP training and Agile training that I have done, classes that I have facilitated in the academic setting for adult learners, as well as in the corporate and professional circles that I associate with, the questions of whether one is a leader or not comes up! So, how can we define leadership in its simple form without attributing terms such as charismatic, transactional, situational, transformational, and servant definitions so that anyone regardless of any professional or personal role can relate to being a leader!

When I was traveling to Vietnam, I stopped by Hong Kong where I had to wait for the connecting flight. It is there that simple definition really clicked to me as I saw a picture of a flying character with the slogans written in Chinese. Now, I don't know what the transcription reads on that board but the definition of leadership as, "a superpower seeing the people beyond what they see themselves and supporting them to raise up to their capabilities!" came up in my mind.

Please see the video linked here to hear my thought! (If the hyperlink does not work, please visit ) Would you agree with this definition?  Share your thoughts.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Using Time to manage to Risks associated with Stakeholders

Often, in my project management experience, I see that people miss engaging with the required stakeholders proactively to deal with risks. When stakeholders have not engaged appropriately, then, risks go uncontrolled making it impossible to mitigate them. Based on my experience, I see three types of stakeholders that need a good project manager must identify to proactively manage.

  1. Too much engaged to the extent that they suck up all the oxygen in the team. They knowingly or unknowingly give the indication to the team that their ways are the common-sense way and everything else is almost wrong. 
  2. Missing in Action stakeholders are too busy never to be around but when decisions are taken without them they appear immediately. They are the constant speed breakers breeding distrust and sometimes fear.
  3. Definitely ambiguous stakeholders who are in between these two above extremes but can never figure out what they want changing the priorities repeatedly making it difficult for the team to progress or slowdown. 
All these three types of stakeholders bring several types of risks - business, technical, and people among the many risks. The most important thing is to "Taking  Initiative Managing Expectations" that I call TIME management. While principles like start list, wish list and stop list exist that have been further enhanced by MoSCoW principles like (Must, Should, Could, and Won't) to prioritize requests, tasks, features, etc., TIME management takes into account a few simple things that anyone can do manage the stakeholders. These are asking a few questions like the following to set the expectations with the stakeholders.

  1. Is this required? Particularly when #1 and #3 types of stakeholders are involved, determining the customer or business value of any proposed technique would take these discussions far along in avoiding tangential discussions and focusing on value-added work. Including timeboxing principles such as a definite amount of time for every actionable outcome from every agenda item can further keep the focus and remove other discussions to the parking lot.
  2. Can you help me solve this, please? This approach can be used in all the three types of stakeholders. By setting one-on-one discussions with the stakeholder to mention how their values are important but how their continued presence is eliminating any creativity from the team due to their inclination to agree with the stakeholder's views or long absences taking any timely decision making away from the team can take the stakeholder management very productive. 
  3. What's the ROI? Particularly in the stakeholder #3 situation, refocusing on the efforts versus cost/benefits can bring a distinct focus back to the project's objectives. Refocusing on the opportunity costs due to the cost of the meeting in discussing features that may not be a value add unless the stakeholder can unambiguously quantify will require the stakeholder to think of the Pareto principle and focus on "DONE"!
In the end, engaging stakeholders is an art that any project manager must spent time. Regardless of how well one is, without a kaizen attitude towards continuous improvement, such arts of engaging stakeholders depreciate exponentially with time. So, use TIME to manage risks associated with stakeholder engagement. 

What other thoughts do you have in engaging stakeholders productively? Please share/comment. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Continuous Improvement: The link between "Strengths" and "Opportunities"

Many of us that have some exposure into management either by academic preparation or by practical experience know a simple technique called the SWOT analysis. It is an acronym that stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. This powerful technique is often delegated to management and leadership for major things like new product development, change management implementation, and sales & marketing. Its simplicity in personnel development as part of the individual development plan to raise above the competition is less understood and practiced.

For example, most people get exposure to specific techniques like programming, spoken language skills, design skills, communication skills and many others. One even goes to get certified from prestigious vendor neutral (e.g.: Project Management Institute, CompTIA) and vendor specific organizations (Microsoft, Oracle). Admiral pursuits like these give us the competitive edge in the form of strengths leading to opportunities like new job or promotion either laterally or vertically.

But, too often, not having the written SWOT analysis with SMART objectives for a 3-to-5 year strategy soon moves our own strengths into the weakness quadrant. This is because a lot of new developments happen. For instance, when I was in Vietnam last month, I saw ambitious projects like a tunnel from Vietnam to Japan being considered. Academic institutions had representation from a number of countries teaching and training at their universities. Students traveled several hours each way to attend classes to increase their career potential. As globally several colleges prepare their learners to excel and several non-profit organizations provide numerous opportunities for volunteers to sharpen their competencies, the supply of such new skills and competencies is constantly increasing. So, unless someone awakens to the competitive reality, one loses the competitive edge they once thought they had!

So, how do we sharpen the saw? The best way to do this to open up the mind and time for opportunities outside. Kaizen or Continuous Improvement is the key that is going to unlock the opportunities available by giving us a reality check on whether the skills are still on par with the market demand and allow us to gain the competitive skills on time. For instance, project managers often think delivering on OBOSOT (On Budget, On Scope, and On Time) is the important metric. With the strategic talent triangle in place, the need for benefit realization is taking equal prominence in addition to OBOSOT needs. How will we ever know this if we don't attend professional networking events and certification workshops and gain guidance through mentors or coaches? 

I personally saw the six mega trends advanced by Vielemetter and Sell (2014) for leadership, such as globalization 2.0, environmental crisis, individualism and value pluralism, digital era, demographic change, and technological convergence. Don't let your skills get rusted. Refine, supplement, and augment them by sharpening them. Increase your competencies through volunteering and begin serving the ikigai that you are meant to. Opportunities only knock the doors of those that not only knock the doors but also build them of glass for opportunity to readily see and come.

Where is your SWOT and how are you preparing yourself for the future?

Ref.: Vielmetter, G. & Sell, Y. (2014). Leadership 2030. New York, NY: Amacom

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Executives need to understand Program & Project Management

As a firm believer in continuous improvement, I have always been monitoring the external environment to find new trends and equip myself with this knowledge. One of these interests was understanding more about Program and Portfolio Management. Although I had executed successfully a few program initiatives and been part of the strategic portfolio management, my interest to pursue Program Management certification became strong with an announcement of Project Management Institute on Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act (President Barack Obama Signs the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act, 2016). It was then I made a commitment to pursue PgMP certification which I passed successfully this month.

During the pursuit of this journey, I felt the inexorable gap in strategic leadership not truly understanding the value of Project Management - let alone the program management. Many viewed program management that focuses on benefits delivery and benefits sustenance the same as project management that focuses on unique product or result. Mark Langley, the CEO of Project Management Institute, claimed how the lack of understanding project management culture among chief executives such CFO leads to money being wasted on projects failing to meet their strategic objectives or not having the appropriate structure for strong project management culture is a recipe for organizational failure (Langley, 2015).

If the culture of project management that touches on scope, schedule, cost, quality, risk, stakeholder, procurement, human resources, communication, and integration can't address servicing customers, delivering good quality products, and retaining talent, what other professional discipline can be part of the operational excellence that touches on all areas of middle management to address customers, products, and people? It is no wonder Ireland (2006) claimed almost ten years back why executive management needs more project management skills than technical skills or delegation skills to effectively lead the organization. Several years later, Gale (2012) reports during a number of organizations as a case study to support the case for increasing role of project management.

As I went through the program management framework that lays the foundation for for strategic benefits, coordinated planning, complex interdependencies, deliverable integration and optimized pacing, the role of program management in benefit delivery was conspicuous. The focus of programs not only dealt with incremental benefits delivered through component projects but also on the consolidated benefits through structured governance to resolve quin constraints aligning the program efforts to organizational direction, identifying and responding proactively to risks across the projects and into operations, and leading, coordinating and collaborating multiple work streams. When such a program level leadership role is not identified to go through a program delivery framework, lots of productivity loss becomes transparent to the organizations.

Organizations today are changing dramatically. The need to respond to changes rapidly is an essential fabric to maintaining market share amidst the political, economical, societal, technical, legal, environmental, ethnic, and demographic changes and competitive edge. So, the need for executives to understand the project, program, and portfolio management is not a luxury but a necessity.


Gale, S.F. (2012). The case for project management. PMI Executive Guide. Retrieved August 31, 2017, from

Irelend, L. (2006). Executive Management's role in project management. International Project Management Association. Retrieved August 31, 2017, from

Langley, M.A. (2015, August 6). 3 Things CFOs Should Know about Project Management. Retrieved August 31, 2017, from

President Barack Obama Signs the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act (December, 2016). Project Management Institute. Retrieved August 31, 2017, from 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Customer Service Redefined

I am currently in Vietnam as part of my faculty relationship with Northeastern University to teach a course on Strategic Leadership at the International University in Ho Chi Min City. Being a vegetarian, I asked about the menu options at the hotel I stayed prior to my departure.  There were a few options presented. Upon arriving at the hotel, I explored all the four vegetarian menu choices in a couple of days! I had about 10 more days to go! Naturally, I was worried and started walking around to find other healthy vegetarian options!

I explained this to the chef at the hotel, Saigon Prince, and this is when I started a new definition of customer service. The chef patiently asked me more about my preferences clarifying food options are considered acceptable for me. He even asked me to share with me a few menu choices and coming from an India background I provided ideas of Indian menu choices first followed by other cuisine ideas like Italian, Chinese, and Mexican recommendations. The chef was a Vietnamese origin and prepared me a couple of off-the-menu Indian choices. What surprised me was his reading about the Indian menu choices I presented along with the ways of preparation! I was pleasantly shocked to the attention to the detail in preparing the area for making my dish and also giving me a clear vegetable broth soup that he found from his research accompanied this sort of dish. Needless to say, I was so happy that I recognized his due diligence and efforts by talking with the senior management appreciating him.

There were days the chef couldn't be there and so I still had to use my survival skills to explore the region. Using a combination of technology finding local Indian restaurants, I found about five Indian restaurants. One of these restaurants, Saigon India, particularly caught me off guard with another exemplary customer service. While most restaurants gave what I needed, the manager approached me and wanted to know a little more about as he has not seen me before. That itself is an example of a good customer service of differentiating frequent visitors from new visitors and trying to offer specialized service. Additionally, knowing more about my food challenges and interests, he specifically custom ordered a dish and also made the lunch menu to be one of my favorites. I was so pleasantly surprised with this burning desire to know more about the customers and catering to their needs by customized service.

Both these two businesses realize that I am a passing visitor. Not making any efforts to truly understand my needs, clarifying my requests, and following through on servicing my needs is really within the normal expectations of operating a restaurant or cafe. So long as the quality of the food, timely delivery of order, and demonstrating respect for me has been addressed, both these businesses have met the standard operational definition of customer service. But, both of them redefined customer service in their attempt to understand the food challenge that I faced, clarify the requirements, research more to meet my demands, and then deliver a dish that met my requirements.

To me, they have redefined customer service. Customer service is not mentioning customer is the king but truly making him or her feel like one. Whether the existing products meet the customer's demand or not, trying to understand the customer's request and the reasons behind such a request first applies the four stages of active listening (hear, clarify, interpret, and respond) and follow through with the products they had available to meet the customer's needs. That truly made the customer feel like king and in today's globally shrinking world the customer may be far away but can still be a great marketing aid. As the basic rule of marketing goes, I will always refer them to anyone traveling to Ho Chi Ming City in Vietnam.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Management Presentations are Unscheduled Interviews for Career Growth

Many project managers in a strong project environment have to do presentations before management or client providing management level status updates about their project or program. As the performance review time comes and project managers want promotion accompanied by increased compensation, how much they have used their projects as catalytic vehicles to promote their personal brand is often not understood by many project managers. Little do many realize the type and structure of presentations in the first place in engaging with the stakeholders and use these presentation to their strategic advantage to building their own individual personal brand.

For instance, when the performance review time comes, why should they be considered for a promotion? Granted their ability to deliver projects on budget, on scope, and on time (called often by OBOSOT) is critical. But, despite the best efforts of a project manager to proactively identify risks and have risk response strategies to address these risks, the external environmental factors may adversely impact the project contributing to schedule slips, cost overruns, customer dissatisfaction, or project terminations. The project manager's ability to engage with the stakeholders managing their expectations proactively and communicating these results with the subsequent impacts on the projects positions the stakeholders to represent their interests to their management. The management presentations that project managers delivers is a critical component to this stakeholder engagement that further serves as a critical input to personal brand.

The presentations in general fall under three categories, namely informative, persuasive, or explanatory. 

  1. The informative presentations are often summarizing status updates of a project and reviewing reports and variance analysis to project team members, project sponsor, and some senior members of management depending upon the project visibility. 
  2. The explanatory presentations involve workshop or training style presentations where stakeholders or team members across the functions are trained to understand the processes, tools, policies, procedures, etc. The goal is on what they should know, how they should respond,  where they should access more details, and who they should escalate when issues arise that are outside of the workshop or training. The goal is building team morale, addressing change management, training on tools and technologies, understanding processes, etc. 
  3. The persuasive presentations focuses on lobbying for a solution and presenting a strategy providing substantial reasons on the reasons, risks (threats/opportunities), impacts or benefits if fail to act in a reasonable time. The audience in this presentation is often the senior management including the sponsor involved in the decision making.
This persuasive meeting, for instance, is a moment for management to know more about your critical thinking and leadership skills. These presentations, in my humble opinion, are the unscheduled interviews for the project managers where the management takes copious notes on how well you presented the solution and how thorough your analysis was. It is these presentations that come vividly to the senior management's mind with their mind voice reinforcing your need for a promotion. 

So, don't take these management meetings less seriously. These unscheduled interviews should be followed through on how you did, where you could improve, and have action plans to ensure that you are addressing these that your management sees. Maximize the opportunities, therefore, using your strengths in these meetings and eliminate the threats of stalled career growth by addressing any of your weaknesses. 

How well do you think you can utilize these management meetings productively next time? Share your thoughts by responding to this thread.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Method to create a Risk adjusted estimate - PERT

While estimation discussions come up among project managers or students pursuing project management, many never consider PERT. The discussions revolve around top down, analogous, bottom-up and parametric estimation. While each of these techniques have a place in estimation, I wonder why PERT is never considered. In fact, in one of the chapter meetings organized by PMI MassBay, one of the founders of PMI, Jim Snyder, considered the "Father of the Project Manangemet Institute, expressed how even PMP certifed people cant explain thr basics of estimation techniques like PERT.

I prefer PERT to any estimation technique and only prefer because it builds into a risk adjustment quantitatively. Perhaps I am biased but my bias comes from the fact that the analogous has too much uncertainty and the bottom up estimation drains people time. So, one of the approach that I have taken is to get information using historical data amd expert judjment and extract details for bottom up without spending too much time on the bottom up.  That is, my approach is to get the data required for PERT without asking people. 
For instance, if project archives tell some work took 100 hours when projected estimate was 70, then, I know 70 was a guess at the time it was given. Similarly, if someone said 70 hours but historical projects have taken up 100 hours for that level of effort, I know the 70 hours was the same guess. Now, put them in the normal or bionomial curve. If 100 hours is the regular median, then apply the standard deviation calculations which says rough order of magnitude may go from 25% to 75%. The optimistic is 25% (17.5 less from 70 hours, i.e 52.5). The pessimistic is 75% more than 70 (i.e, 52.5 more from 70, 122.5). Since 70 itself was a guess, I apply a slack based on complexity, unknown assumptions, level of expertise of the person giving, and add 10 to 15% more to 70. So, using 10%, I have optimistic (52.5), optimal (77) and pessimistic (122.5). So, (52.5 + 4*77 + 122.5)/6 = 80.5 PERT.

Therefore, use the statistical ranges amd historical data combined with expert judgment to realistically even out the uncertainties by creating a risk adjusted estimate using PERT.

How do you think you can apply this approach?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Listening with Eyes

The popularity of communication being the lynch pin for successful project is very well known. In one of the conferences I had attended, I even heard the speaker say that project success is 80% communication and the other half is communication. People have classified communication by priority, medium used, accessibility, etc. Communication plans therefore also required to be formal, clear, concise, comprehensive, accessible, and stakeholder-committed. But, one of the most critical aspects of any communication is in listening!

Again, the concepts of active listening has been around for a long time. The four critical steps of hearing, clarifying, interpreting and responding of active listening have been reasonably understood by project management community. During all these sessions, people focus on hearing the person putting aside their opinions and bias and understanding what the speaker says. All these sound great but true active listening goes further beyond what is physically heard by the ears. One should go beyond the words spoken and unearth what is left unsaid. How can you accomplish? This is done by listening with eyes and senses.

When you are listening with eyes, you are not hearing what the person says but watching how the person says. The moments of pause and silence can emphasize the severity of the message while the rolling of eyes and other body gestures may provide indications of ambiguity, resilience, discomfort, etc. Frequent use of checking phones, lack of eye contact, and change of topics are also things to monitor as listening with eyes extend practicing actively non-verbal communication to a different level getting deeper. All these approaches also have to factored along with the geographical cultural components so that your clarifying questions and interpretations are not misleading.

Listening with eyes can also be practiced in written communication where the use of color in fonts, emphasis using bold, use of upper case letters, balanced use of emoticons to soften message, use of proper white space to give breathing room for the reader, etc. There is a reason why there is a saying "read between the lines" exists.  Practice these communication approaches even when people are not talking to you such as in osmotic communication.

So, don't just focus on creating status reports and publishing emails. Factor as part of your management style "listening with eyes" actively. A good communicator is not always the good writer but the good listener.

Please respond with your thoughts.

Friday, March 31, 2017

RACI Errors: Impact on Project Integration Management

In developing a good project integration management, it is critical to understand the role of responsibility assignment matrix. The goal of project management primarily is to deliver results through other people. This involves clear role and rsponsibility of every work package or function that will play a critical role in project delivery. One such responsibilty assignment mateix is the RACI.

I have often seen RACI filled incorrectly and have blogged earlier that readers may want to refer. However, I would like to call out the following two issues further as they have relationship on other aspects of project management knowledge areas.

1.  Mixed roles with "A" and "R": When a person or function is marked with both these roles, then this may introduce the risk of project schedule slip. If the individual responsible for doing the function fails to perform, then typically the accountable person will monitor the slip and ensure that the work is getting done. Alternatively, if the work is not completed satisfactorily, the accountable person shares the onus to check on the quality and the cost of poor delivery. Howevver, if the "R" person also is the "A" person, then the latter will not put any pressure on the former because they are both the same. This impacts risk, time, cost, amd quality. Similar challenges can be seen with "R" and "C" or "I" overlap.

2. Too may "A"s: If two people are accountable, then there are two types of problems. The first is the blindness game each "A" role plays thinking that the other role will keep an eye in ensuring the task is completed. When this taks fails to be done, the blindness game becomes the blame game reasoning with the "I thought you would have done it." This introduces project delays that may impact time and also introduces challenges with procurement. The second issue is the team gets conflicting directions from each "A" person leaving the team to get caught between power plays. The resulting team dynamics may lead to HR amd stakeholder challenges.  Needless to stay that these may further impact other areas of project management.

There are several symptoms that a proper RACI may resolve for the project manager to proactively address. But unless a project manager is having a good understanding of  RACI, the symptoms deteroriate leading to major problems requiring surgical intervention from executive management.  The project manager can avoid these strategically by planning to succeed with end in mind. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Professional Networking Inevitable for Developing Personal Brand

In one of the workshops I facilitated this month on agile project management, there were questions around gaining real experience that limited student to get gainful employment. In a talk that I gave subsequently later this month on PARAG framework for transforming middle management (Rajagopalan, 2015) highlighting how we should strive to learn from failures of projects within the industry of our specialization, the question revolved around how to go about learning from other project failures in similar sectors or industries.

As I ponder over these questions from both students looking for entry level positions as well as professionals in the work environment trying to improve themselves, there is a good striking similarity of the lack of understanding of professional networking. Perhaps confounded by the proliferation of the number of social media websites, the size of the friends circle within social media network and the practice of liking and sharing posts of people daily life, people think these social media practices are equivalent to professional networking. You can see some of these practices even in professional networks like Linkedln where people seem to follow such practices. I believe people seem to have lost the connection to professional networking and its true benefits.

When colleges seek high school students, they are looking for a lot more than being the first in the school because there will be a lot of such 'first in school' student applying for the college. What distinguishes one student from another is becoming critical as the entry criteria for admission. This fundamental need to differentiate is why the students attempt to do many things, such as volunteering for a social cause, practicing a unique art or music, or excelling in a specific sports. Particularly, this volunteering opportunities opens the doors to the understanding of customer service, accountability, and responsibility among many other indispensable values that students need to be exposed to become well rounded individuals.  How did this core need to volunteer get lost as people go through college or get professionally employed?

While contributing to the society by volunteering time is more rewarding, it provides an opportunity for one to augment their skills and gain experience in many areas, such as event planning, technical skills, customer service, etc. Besides, the same experience introduces other people that know you by face and work ethics, which carry a long way in expanding professional opportunities as one begins to look for gaining experience as well as getting introductions. One is not only helping a cause but also building their reputation and visibility as they meet new people, make connections, learn new skills, gain competencies through experience, and get introductions. This experience is not the same as liking or sharing post in social media or broadcasting forwarded posts through communication vehicles.

Now, the professional networking can also be expanded with a Kaizen (continuous improvement) attitude to professional improvement. By attending professional networking events like the monthly chapter events organized by the local chapters of the Project Management Institute, for instance, one can expand professional associations on topics that they may be unfamiliar with, problems encountered by other professional in the same industry or sector, or creative solutions to problems similar to ourselves. Further, one can even seek input on how to solve a problem that they face in group activities in a larger professional events like professional development days or executive committee meetings. Any information thus gained becomes invaluable as one adapts them to their needs creating new knowledge that can be shared to others through blogs, presentations at local round tables or chapter meetings, through the open space, global cafes, unconference, or lean coffee meetings

One common question that always comes up is the time commitment needed and the cost of the events. It is true that events cost money because they have to be arranged too. Now, if professional improvement is at the core of your growth, then, one can find time because in my humble opinion, TIME is all about taking initiative managing energy. Many organizations support these professional improvement opportunities. One can always find ways to volunteer in part or full to cover themselves to attend these professional networking events. For instance, PMI is a volunteer supported organization that has numerous opportunities and Agile Alliance has the Purple volunteers always available to support large events.

In addition, the best way one can deepen the knowledge and wisdom gained is to share it with others. Similar to how the people in the rally race get a headstart running along with the person passing the baton, it is our responsibility to share the wealth of our knowledge and wisdom to the next generation during the time life can allow us to work together. There are a number of mentorship needs, such as those organized by PMI and NAAAP for professionals to volunteer supporting other students and professionals giving an opportunity for us to question our own fundamental assumptions from a different limelight and offer value to mentees.

In the end, whether one chooses volunteering, mentorship, or just professional improvement, it is imperative that one really understands that the value of one's brand lies much more in how many people know you for what you are! This knowledge of your true worth should be much more than just your organization but for the professional society that made you who you are. The best way to positively develop this individual brand is to be a servant leader in unlearning what you know, learning what you thought you know, and relearning to master what you learned. Then, your reputation precedes you.

Rajagopalan, S. (2015). Product Personification: PARAG model to successful software product development. International Journal of Managing Value and Supply Chains, 6(1), 1-12.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Do we fully understand Scope Management?

The record of how information technology projects fail has been studied and documented in numerous reports, such as the CHAOS, McKinsey, etc. The staggering statistics of the percentage of projects failing to meet their schedules, experiencing budget overruns, and failing to deliver the promised business value doesn’t always lead to technology as a failing component. The origins of failure often are not associated with the technology but the people unable to relate to the scope in the big picture and the inadequate controls in the processes. In this blog article, let us focus on requirements on some of the less known aspects of scope – the boundary of what controls what the project should deliver!

Scope Grope: One of the less familiar aspects of scope management that plague the software industry is the team’s inability to articulate the requirements. These requirements manifest themselves as the rough draft of “wish lists.” This may also include some of those “gold-plated” features that are thought to be adding value. However, since these requirements are not solidly grounded in the technical, operational, and economic feasibility, these requirements do not strategically relate to winning more business, streamlining multiple channels of engagement, increasing employee performance, etc. These kinds of requirements become the "scope drifters" and are often a "productivity spoiler" and "promises stealer" because the business team fails to articulate the requirements clearly for subsequent analysis and design.

Occasionally, this challenge may further be passed from the business team to the technology team where the requirements further need to be assessed for technical plausibility within the constraints of human capital knowledge, budget limitations, security and compliance considerations being some of them. This scope grope may further be experienced by delay tactics by execution team members and the agile approaches to time-boxed delivery may be easily be used to consider spikes as a limited experiment.

Among the many techniques available to use, a good technique to consider by both product managers, project managers, and business analysts is the SIPOC model. Using this model can help understand the relevance and importance of the entire value chain and the business impact of delivering or not delivering these wish-list features! Additional techniques include the benefits register, use case diagram, SWOT, PESTLE analysis, etc.

Scope Creep: This is a popular terminology even among agile practitioners that despises anything plan-driven. Although many relate to these concepts, there is a misconception that scope creep only involves the addition of new features not originally in the scope. Scope creep may also result from removal from scope any requirement and based on the time of the request, there may be rework required to revert some or all the changes done.

Perhaps mistakenly inherited from some of the account managers that view scope creep only as change orders that need to be executed with their client to reconcile financial changes in scope, the need to understand the process used in managing the product, program, or project cannot be emphasized more. Any organizational change control policy or governance framework has to document changes not in the form of scope initiated by the client or product managers due to the market forces in the form of new or modified requirements but also the changes to the environmental context, such as changing from using a No-SQL database to a relational database due to lack of technical support of the old tool, that impact the project’s schedule, cost, risk and quality.
Since the scope may have to reworked to bring the project to the same stability before additional work can be executed or released to the customer, the project manager’s astute awareness of the commercial and non-commercial aspects of the project’s boundary conditions may very well require additional stakeholders to be identified.

Sometimes, people may resort to what is often called “Scope Kill”. It is an attempt to disengage with new ideas because the project’s operating framework doesn’t allow it or the organizational culture doesn’t have an appetite for innovative ideas. There are many reasons for these "scope kill" contributors and some may include scrum masters not parking new ideas to be discussed at a later point and using time-boxing as an excuse to immediately mute the flow of ideas.

Several tools exist to control scope but one of the most critical tools is to have a RACI through which the Stakeholder map can be formed better to build alliances and form bridges to ensure that benefits are aligned, risks are mitigated, and quality is not compromised. The other tools include risk register, communication plan, stakeholder register, risk-adjusted backlog, a documented change control process and blue ocean thinking.

Scope Leap: Another uncommon terminology related to scope management is the scope leap, which is a result of a dramatic shift in the strategic focus or tactical direction of the organization altering the backdrop under which the project, product, or program is operating. In such cases, the measurable organizational value (MOV) no longer holds true completely. As a result, the focus of the minimum viable product may also its significance for the product and project managers.

The biggest challenge comes in when the same techniques for handling the Scope creep are used. Often, scope leap is happening when the project is in-flight and it is understandable why one would resort to these techniques. However, since the project’s assumptions and subsequently the charter have been changed, getting back to the scope grope tools is better to revalidate ourselves before moving forward.

In the end, before any technology can be associated with a project's failure, think of the role played by people, process, and organizations on a product’s and project’s scope and the resulting outcomes. It is possible for an IT project to fail because of technology but not all the techology project's failure come from technology failure! 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Product Management versus Project Management

As I was concluding a capstone class on project management, there was a question from a few students on whether there is any scope of career growth for project management as a profession with the increased focus on agile principles. Questioning further on the root cause of this concern was the fact that agile approaches, such as Scrum, does not call for a project manager role and the focus is only on product management. In a brief attempt to address this ongoing confusions thinking product and project management are mutually exclusive disciplines with product management slaying the project management field, I explain here the ongoing need for the symbiotic relationship between these two disciplines.

The experts in the field agree that a project is a temporary endeavor to create a unique product, service, or result. Inherent in this definition lies an inexorable relationship between these two disciplines. The project management is a set of processes, tools, and techniques that is indispensable to bring a product into the market. Therefore, a product cannot be delivered without the strategic focus on execution that only the discipline of the project management can provide through the phases of initiation, planning, execution, control and closure.

Does that mean the product management is a subset of the project management? Definitely not! I say this with so much certainty because project management is temporary in nature unlike product management that has a longer time horizon. Consider bringing to market a new hybrid car that runs purely on water! The product management may focus on generating the ideas, evaluating the alternatives, assessing the feasibility, and creating a business case at the beginning. Hence, the product management will have to think of a strategic road map of scouting the external and internal environments by applying the Porter's 5-force model. This 5-force model involves the availability of substitute products, bargaining power of the buyers (price consciousness of buyers), bargaining power of suppliers,those that supply goods), rivalry among the established firms, and the threat of new entrants.

Finally, after all the commercial, technical, and operational considerations have been addressed, the business case from product management becomes the starting point for project management to intervene initiating the project charter putting together the scope statement followed by the work breakdown structure and the sequence of activities that need to happen for bringing the hybrid car to the market. Now, if project managers only become tactical, then, they lose the ability to question the inherent assumptions to avoid a strategic failure. This fundamental need is why the businesses label the areas the need to work on as "capital project selection." The "capital" adjective here is a strategic decision making to ensure that the investment of funds, time, and resources are used to maximize the organizational value.

It is therefore evident that the product management defines what and where we should be doing while the project management tells when and how we could be getting there. But, the project management is like the Phoenix bird that ceases to exist as soon as that need of product management through the project management has been served. However, as the product management continues its journey through its lifecycle of development, growth, maturity, and retirement, there will be additional needs that will come up and the Phoenix bird revives itself again. Therefore, the good product managers will know that they need strategic project managers as brainstorming partners and similarly the good project mangers will have more strategic thinking beyond the organizational context to support the product managers. Each profession, as a result, has a symbiotic relationship.

What do you think? Please respond with your comments.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Lessons learned: What the Silver Screen Cinemas can tell us?

I have been an ardent advocator of teaching the basics of project management, leadership, and emotional intelligence throughout my training and teaching career. In one of the recent classes that I was fortunate to facilitate, I used the example of Apollo 13 motion picture (Grazer & Howard, 1995) to illustrate to the class about the practical realities of how risks and quality can severely turn the happy path scenarios around. It was a revelation for the class as the various teams related to the emphasis of the "unknown unknown" risks on the management reserves, the criticality of risk identification and management strategies on contingency planning, influence of leadership on the conflict resolution and negotiation, etc. Synthesized in this blog are the major lessons that evolved from the class. When used effectively, the use of movies can become an effective tool at both academic and practitioner settings.

One of the first lessons was the importance of the timely response to strategic changes in directions as the management and leadership reestablished the priority. Not only did the NASA management disregarded the original mission to land on the moon but quickly established the revised project goal as they reset the impossible expectations on the on-ground team to bring the astronauts back to earth! Even at a tactical level, when one of the engineers pointed out how much power they need to be conserving in order to return to earth, the decision-making was quick. One may question the time taken here because all these discussions were captured in a movie. However, when relating to the Apollo 13 timeline (n.d.) that were documented by where the entire episode of the discovery of the problem to the egress of the astronauts from the command module was approximately only 2.5 days, the importance of decision making cannot be overlooked.

The recurring theme among the teams was the relationship of proactive risk management. A space shuttle launch initiative is a major undertaking and risk management is a sine qua non of such larger programs. Yet, when the calamity dawned on the team, it became apparent in the class discussions how many of the risk response strategies had to be reworked identifying the secondary risks of the release of unsafe chemical gases and attempts to squeeze more power from modules for which no clear documented procedures existed.

Another theme resonated nicely from the discussions was the importance of stakeholder and communication management. As heard in the movie, “Failure was not an option,” for NASA but there were several stakeholders in the power-influence grid that need to be managed. The team’s efforts in managing these numerous stakeholders’ expectations during this major recovery exercise were commendable particularly in light of the fact that that the only available communication channels available at that time were the radio, the television, and the newspapers. Managing expectations of public relations was still achieved in the absence of today’s Internet-connected social media world.

An interesting point was the class’ focus rested predominantly on the on-ground team efforts until discussions were brought on the astronauts that needed to execute these sequences under entirely different situations of limited heat, extreme stress, limited resources, and intense focus. These facilitated discussions further highlighted the analogy to the gaps experienced with the distributed, virtual, and remote teams were brought to light.

In summarizing, this exercise brought a good closure in bringing home the vital elements of management and leadership while constantly managing the emotions expeditiously and relating to the basic principles of project management.

What other movies do you think can bring home similar experiences in a teaching or training setting?

Apollo 13 Timeline (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2016, from

Grazer, B. (Producer), & Howard, R. (Director). (1995). Apollo 13 [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Management Debt: Costs of Non-delivery and Non-conformance

The principles of lean have always focused on maximizing the value delivery. In fact, the Japanese term Muda (Arnheiter & Maleyeff, 2005) refers to the seven different types of wastes that one should remove. Expanding on this, practitioners have added the non-utilization of talents introducing the mnemonic or memory aid, DOWNTIME, to capture these eight types of waste an organization or project should closely monitor to increase efficiency. These eight type of wastes are:
  1. Defects
  2. Over-production
  3. Waiting
  4. Non-utilized Resources/Talent
  5. Transportation
  6. Inventory
  7. Motion
  8. Excess Processing

Often, these eight principles are considered an academic exercise and practitioners have lost connection with these principles. Unless these principles are related in terms of the management language, money, these principles don’t gain the limelight. In this blog article, I would like to synthesize some of these principles in terms of two types of costs as follows that relate to the cost of poor quality. When these two costs are not managed appropriately, it is management debt to the project.

Cost of Non-Delivery
This principle refers to the “…measure of the costs associated with preventing, testing for, or correcting defective items,” according to Carr (1992, p. 72). The cost of poor quality comes from both the internal and external failure costs where poor quality costs are associated with rework, redesign, retesting, failure in or shortage of specifications in requirements, bugs arising from poor development practices or myopic understanding of or inaccuracies in requirements or design, or unplanned delays in monitoring the dependencies. All these relate to elements mentioned in the DOWNTIME factors and could lead delivered work that is still not production ready unacceptable for customers. Say, if any of the above factors contributed to a schedule slip of 10% on a project that cost $100,000. At a minimum level, this slip means $10,000 (10% of $100,000) is now an additional cost to the project that could have been effectively controlled.

Cost of Non-conformance
Non-conformance means the rules of engagement for a specific development or management methodology are not completely adhered. For example, not following the integrated change control mechanism to use a tool that is not approved by the organizational policies, not adequately preparing for the specific meetings increasing the cost of a meeting, taking missteps that lead to the escaped defects increasing customer’s bad will, or over-engineering a feature beyond the fitness for use. When these things happen, it often involves more time spent in corrective actions introducing increased testing, executing recalls and incurring expenses on the performing company’s time and money, or attempts at various levels to restore customer satisfaction. The cost of non-conformance retraces its roots to the cost of quality examples on lack of adherence to existing policies.

Therefore, middle management focusing on delivering products or projects, whether they operate through traditional or agile approaches, should evaluate the cost of non-delivery and cost of non-conformance to ensure that all these waste producing efforts are eliminated. Management is obligated to monitor these patterns that lead to the management debt similar to the technical debt. Only when this management debt is controlled, the concept of efficiency grows with the seeds of cost of good quality. 

Arnheiter, E.D. and Maleyeff, J. (2005) ‘The integration of lean management and Six Sigma’, The TQM Magazine, 17(1), pp. 5–18. 
Carr, L. P. (1992, Summer). Applying cost of quality to a service business. Sloan Management Review, 33(4), 72.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Managing others: Four Simple Powerful Questions

I was recently invited to be part of the expert panel with EcoCar 3 in Natick, Massachusetts. It is a college level automotive engineering competition that challenges 16 universities from across North America to reduce the environmental impact of vehicles. It’s a major workforce development initiative that seeds the auto industry with thousands of engineers, business leaders and communicators and we’ve added in a new project management track!

Among the numerous questions asked of the panel, one question that really struck a chord in me was the question on how to engage a team member as a project manager. Now, this particular topic has been a burning question for me because the most important task facing any project manager or any manager is getting work done through other people. The principle of emotional intelligence is at the epicenter of leading others. In my doctoral thesis, I studied about the relationship between emotional intelligence and various types of leadership styles concluding that transformational leadership was found to be critical for project manager success (Rajagopalan, 2009). Subsequently, I continued to explore using a qualitative research interviewing a number of senior representatives across many industries validating a framework called TONES for middle management transformation through project management (Rajagopalan, 2014).

Synthesizing the ideas again that the panel reaffirmed during the panel discussion, I present below four critical questions. These are:

  1. Can you do the task? 
  2. Do you want to do the task?
  3. Do you have time to do the task?
  4. Is this the best you can do to complete this task?

I have established and managed a PMO in a professional services setting and in a life-sciences setting. Further, I have delivered a number of projects and programs - some platform level and some client driven projects and I will explain below the purpose behind these questions.

  1. The first question focuses on unearthing the true desire for an individual project team member or a project manager in the PMO. If the person doesn't have a desire to accomplish any task, then, no amount of motivation can help. 
  2. The second question focuses on addressing the fear factor. The fear may arise from a fear of failure or fear or uncertainty. In such cases, if the person wants to do this but has inhibition, I intellectually stimulate the person on why they want to do the task. 
  3. The third question focuses on creating the bandwidth. Sometimes, the person may have too much going on to devote adequate time to complete the task. This question raises what needs to be stopped to free up time required to accomplish this task. 
  4. Finally, the fourth question focuses on continuously monitoring the progress, motivate and energize the person to create a stretch goal to raise beyond their own limits. 

Engagement is all about making one feel important and helping them raise above their own assumed potential. Creating this engagement is the seeds for leadership. In getting projects done by people, every project manager therefore needs to demonstrate this leadership.


Rajagopalan S. (2009). Relationship between emotional intelligence and transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership styles of information systems project managers in virtual teams. Dissertation Abstracts International (UMI No: 3359539).

Rajagopalan, S. (2016). TONES: a reference framework for identifying skills and competencies and grooming talent to transform middle management through the field of project management. International Journal of Markets and Business Systems, 2(1), 3-24.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Project Management is a life skill

In one of the blog entries earlier, we had discussed the need for mindset change for project management. If we truly understand the principles of project management, we can appreciate how relevant this skillset is in managing one’s own life. This discipline is perhaps the only pervasive profession that has tight coupling as a life skill.

For instance, let us evaluate how the ten core knowledge areas espoused by the Project Management Institute are integrated with the circle of life using an example of planning a vacation. These areas involve managing time, cost, scope, integration, procurement, human resources, communication, risk, quality, and stakeholder. When we our making a plan to go on a vacation with our family, we plan how many days we can go on a vacation based on the number of days available from our work. Depending upon whether spouse and children are joining, we engage with additional stakeholders at School and integrate our activities around time. Every activity that we plan during the vacation is scoped out by the amount can we spend on the vacation and the risk tolerance to adventures we can engage in. We also engage with multiple types of vendors to book our travel and hotel arrangements. We continue to engage several people in evaluating the vacation spots and activities that we can do to ensure that the value of the time and money spent is of acceptable quality. Finally, we manage several other activities such as taking care of bill payments, watering the plants, taking care of pets, preparing transition plans at work by communicating with the involved stakeholders. Now, is everyone traveling on vacation a project manager? However, as you can clearly see, these skills are still essential outside of the project management profession. Is there any reason why we shouldn't call these project management skills as life skills? 

The significance of project management principles outside of project management profession is not new. On May 4, 2013, the Chicago Tamil Sangam staged a historical play, “Ponniyin Selvan” in the regional Tamil language. Centered on a course of events that took place around the 11th century Chola Dyansty in ancient India, staging the play presented several unique challenges such as the following that were overcome by applying some basic project management principles. Each of the following activities were considered interdependent projects that was coordinated as a large program with several milestones, conference calls, demos, rehearsals, and marketing demystifying how these life skills were executed by many non-project professionals. Readers can visit to learn more about how these activities related to the agile manifesto.

1.    Preparing rich costumes, jewelry, and artifacts to differentiate the Emperor, the Kings, Queens, Ministers, and workers that required coordinated efforts to identify the needs among the actors, procure items necessary from India, and get them shipped from India
2.    Identifying the needs of the auditorium based on the play requirements, distance, transportability and audience needs including law and order maintenance
3.    Designing several high-end artifacts that were transportable with easy assembly, such as preparing backdrops suitable for the play, two boats that moved on the state, a ship with effects to display shipwreck, a palanquin as an entry point for the character, and pillars establishing the authenticity of the 11th century
4.    Rehearsing the play spread over five volumes perfecting dialogue delivery, enunciation of words, clarity of voice projection, light cues for various spots on the stage differentiating progress of characters and events through various backgrounds, preparation and coordination of musical clues, singing and dance choreograph appropriate to the characters, body language clues collaboration such as when to pass the message card or the crown, how various characters should see during critical scenes, 3 full length exams including a daylong marathon practice sessions
5.    Advertisement and marketing efforts on social media, press, and soliciting appreciation from prominent external representatives, such as the President of India, increasing the reach
6.    Subsequent preparation for the main event date with food and supply for the crew, makeup needs, and transportation of goods, stage preparation, and coordination of light clues with the auditorium crew that didn’t speak the regional language, backstage line up of cast during the play informing what scene is in progress
7.    Addressing challenges for audience lineup, food distribution, parking lot and law & order challenges on the day of the event

As an extension to the change in mindset on what the misconceptions around project management, let us arise to learn the tools and techniques recommended by this discipline so that we can enhance our own quality of life as well as the voluntary community efforts a number of us support. In the next session, we will discuss further on a unique framework from my post-doctoral pursuit of how we can focus on what we need to learn. 

What are your thoughts? Please share and spread the knowledge.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Servant Leadership starts with forming a habit to spread the knowledge

I was volunteering at the #Agile2016 conference this week in Atlanta, Georgia and had an opportunity to support another volunteer friend who was trying to organize an open space session. What was so impressing was this friend's willingness to get over the comfort zone to get in front of a crowd to facilitate this session with the only goal to creating a stickiness of the information gained from attending the conference to others. It was so wonderful to see how this friend exemplified servant leadership forming a habit to facilitate this session.

Marshal Goldsmith (2007) published one of the classic book where he advanced 20 habits for fast forwarding one's career by identifying habits that may be bringing themselves down creating trust erosion in the team. These behavioral traits may be in our own blind spots that we may easily fail to recognize how we are are sowing the inappropriate seeds for our own professional growth while simultaneously bringing the team down. Joshua Arnold (2016) referred to some of these behavioral traits as HiPPO (HIghest Paid Person's Opinion) in one of this presentation at the Agile 2016 conference. Readers are advised to check this classic to get more insights.

It was a classic example for me to see in action how one individual took the initiative to form a habit not only to benefit from his own reading of a classic book but also push the individual limits to get over the stage fear because of the belief that there was something he had the world should know to benefit from. Now, servant leadership is exactly that - leading with others in mind encouraging the drive to excel, acting with humility, and strategically advancing long term benefits over short term quick wins.

This friend proposed the idea at the open space session providing an elevator pitch creating an interest for about a dozen people as he described the 20 habits creating an activity for people to form a group and select one of the habits that resonated with them in groups, create visual images of these habits, and identifying strategies on the impact of this habit and recommendations to eliminate this habit. The amount of time this friend spent at evenings and nights to form the elevator pitch and create stickiness for anyone that may come for his open space session applying the techniques suggested by Laura Powers (2016) really hit a home-run as the attendees to the session appreciated the new packaging on these habits as they emphasized how this session helped them. I was so glad to be part of supporting him in his endeavors.

As I continued to support this friend in this session, I really renewed my own interest in the coaching of such down-to-earth individuals who not only try to improve themselves but attempt to leave the world in a better place than they found it by avoiding excuses. As Carrie Kish and Jurgen Apelo pointed in the various leadership stages of genius tribes and managing for happiness respectively in their keynote address, it is the knowledge that we gain from such selfless individuals and their friendship that makes

What are we doing today to get ourselves out of any comfort zone that we have encapsulated ourselves in advancing the great experience and knowledge that we have gained?


Arnold, J. (2016). How to train your HiPPO.  Atlanta, GA: Agile Alliance.

Goldsmith, M. (2007). What got you here won't get you there. New York, NY: Hyperion Books.

Kish, C. (2016). Leadership for genius tribes. Atlanta, GA: Agile Alliance.

Jurgen, A. (2016). Managing for happiness. Atlanta, GA: Agile Alliance.

Powers, L. (2016). The neurology of learning: Your brain on agile games. Atlanta, GA: Agile Alliance.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Agile or Traditional - Productivity Management still has basic roots

Having managed a number of initiatives in both agile and traditional setting, I often find people thinking the agile culture enhances productivity many times over the traditional thinking. The principles of collaboration, limiting work in progress, lean thinking over scope, and focus on value generation may lead one to think that agile is much better than traditional. Still traditional approaches to management doesn't mean that these processes should be avoided to sow the seeds of productivity. Agility is in the end is only a mindset to managing productivity towards value generation. In my experience, I have found a few techniques that are have withstood the test of time to produce predictable productivity in any team.

1. Manage meetings
There is a lot of practical literature around how to run effective meetings. Instead of going into microscopic details on meeting management, can we not focus on ensuring that every meeting has a clear outcome to accomplish at the end of the meeting? Whether it is 15 min or a day long meeting, having a clear outline of planned outcome will establish evaluating the necessity of the meeting in the first place. Not having a meeting unnecessarily or accomplishing meeting objectives earlier releases so much time that could be used for other productive tasks.

This is where agile thrives because it timeboxes all ceremonies and avoids meetings not necessary. Project and Program Management can also apply the same techniques.

2. Correct your course
Whether it is running meeting or managing the client, things don't always go the way you plan! So, plan for course correction? What's the point in all these "Failing to plan means planning to fail" when we fail to apply it in principle! When a meeting goes on a tangent, correct your course by bringing attention to your outline. When customer requests come out that emphasize lack of understanding or you get a project where you don't know the underpinning the technology, make course corrections yourself by taking an initiative to learn the technology!

In the world of Khan academy, Plural Sites, Course Era, Open2Study, Bright Talk, and so many other MOOC - not to mention YouTube or Vimeo - there is plenty of information available already for people to gather information! So, correcting your own course is totally on you and not doing so is actually taking the team's time away!

Here is also an approach from Agile where there is retrospective at the end of every iteration! Did traditional approaches ask not to have frequent lessons learned sessions? Absolutely not! It is a restriction that project management forced themselves on and the management failed to react to it. In other words, they chose to learn from the lessons and hence succumb to failure!

3. Focus on Training on "Done" criteria
Having a constant baggage on the trunk actually creates so much drag in an automobile which slows the automobile and burns unnecessary fuel! That's why we don't drive - at least technically - with unnecessary baggage, right! Doesn't that principle teach us to focus on getting tasks completed! Coming from lean management philosophy, it is a principle of waste in over-engineering anything to the point that it is not getting done! So, project management can extend these principles to apply simple heuristics in managing their WBS or have user stories that apply the INVEST principle.

In my experience, I have always applied the golden rule of no task having a duration longer than the risk that I can live with the task completing. Most often, no tasks are longer than 40 days and some work package is always getting delivered every two weeks. So, milestones are not 3 months apart! Such thinking still applies earned value principles to make course corrections if a project slips!

Here is where the INVEST principle from agile comes to help where every user story is independent, negotiable, valuable, estimable, small, and testable! So, don't add tasks just for the sake of adding and use the hammock tasks productively.

4. Establish Stretch goals
No matter how much one knows, there is always room for improvement! This is one of the reasons change management principles advocate continuous improvement. The self-organizing theme behind teams in agile setting really ensures that team members are adequately skilled cross-functionally to pick up other people's task to support the sprint commitment! In a traditional setting, we create unnecessary layers. Every team in a traditional setting should have a stretch goal to learn another team's work and practice. Not only does this avoid central dependency on another, it also helps appreciate the tricks of trade and appreciate the service level agreements and standard operating procedure enhancing adherence to protocols. It also lets creative juices flow as one challenges the status quo to do things differently! Only by learning more does an individual become part of a group and evolve to be a self-organized team.

5. Use the tools of communication effectively
Although we all appreciate a wrench and hammer have their distinct purposes, we also realize overly abusing the tools for the wrong purposes damages what we are trying to accomplish more than the tool itself. The same analogy goes with the tools. I wish we can monitor the use of the "Reply to all" button that creates so much email for an organization. People reviewing the emails out of sequence, replying to them in random order understanding parts of pieces, and eventually ignoring it will only cause so much productivity loss - time that can be used for other productive tasks. So, learn to manage by walking around, collaborating using better tools, and avoiding creating so much electronic dialogue that provides no clear documented decision making.

In my experience, these simple techniques have helped build constant productivity regardless of the approach. In the end, what matters is only the results.


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Agile needs to understand and focus on agility more

Over the last few weeks, I overhead a few practices such as the following while claiming to practice agile.
a)       Not finding the tasks in the sprint backlog for sizing the user story
b)      Evaluating the definition of done during almost every sprint
c)       Focus on the sprints and lose the value not delivering on committed time
d)      Not factoring capacity into account in a velocity driven planning

The major focus of agile is on maximizing value to the customer. This is stated as, “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” To accomplish that goal, it is imperative to ensure that we exhibit agility rather than claim to practice the so-called Agile paradigm. When the focus is on this value maximization to the customer, how could the above practices that fail to add value to the customer be considered agile practice?

Maximization of value means within the agreed timebox, the team self-organizes to add the appropriate tasks. The scrum master acting on the team’s behalf needs to hold the definition of done articulated ambiguously by the product owner. Similarly, the product owner needs to be held accountable to the larger committed timeline to the customer not losing focus on the slips in the timeline due to losing velocity in every sprint.  The scrum master needs to hold the product owner responsible for capacity planning in a velocity driven team rather than a commitment driven team.

If the principles recommended above are not upheld, then claiming to be agile is an understatement. This is because the maximization of value delivery with a focus on customer is falling apart. Some of the root causes are the following:
a)       Thinking that a team is agile just because of the use of a specific tool or adoption of a specific recommended ceremony.
b)      Merging the crucial roles of scrum master and product owner in one person who keeps neither role in check.
c)       Addition of new team members not sharing the same norms disrupting operating rhythm.
d)      Allowing the flexibility to let the team not meet the required commitment because it can always be picked up in the next sprint.

Going to the basics, if the focus is on value delivery to the customer, then, it is important to not lose the focus of time, scope, quality, and cost and the risk of non-delivery on these elements. Increasingly, as agile gains mainstream focus, it is indispensable for the agile team to understand these considerations and not just adhere to agile terminologies. Only when one understands these principles can one appreciate when to stay agile, when to adapt practices, and when to recommend going with traditional approaches. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Project Management – Mindset Change

I recently published an article in a Chicago Tamil Sangam's newsletter in my native language, Tamil on the change in the mindset about project management. Based on requests received to see this message translated in English, I am posting this blog entry.

Once upon a time when someone didn’t get a job the people recommended those to get a computer engineering job. Similarly, the prevalent thought of project manager among today’s workforce is that these project managers can’t do anything other than updating tasks in the project plan. Although the experts familiar with project management profession can laugh and ignore these comments, these comments are regrettable when the experts think these comments deeply.

The Project Management Institute describes this profession suggesting that project managers should exhibit multifaceted skills to enter any industry. If you check out the responsibilities of the roles such as the healthcare software engineering, retail database administrator, or financial QA analyst on the Internet, do you think one can get these jobs without the required experience for that job? Even if one gets this job, can one continue to retain that job without keeping skills current? I am sure you know the answer.

Similar to these jobs, the project management profession also has been mandating the project managers to possess the specific domain knowledge and basic technical skills for a long time. Despite that, why do people feel the way expressed above about this profession? There may be many reasons for this. However, one important reason is the project manager’s lack of self-initiative! The resulting lack of attention to details lead to team members spending their time in unnecessary meetings, correcting customer complaints, and collecting required documents eroding trust and earning aversion on the project manager. These mixed feelings about the project managers manifest as a mocking smile at the project manager’s incompetency.

Analogous to the dialogue from the very popular Tamil movie, Parasakthi “Whether our voice is heard in heaven or not, it should be heard by the management,” the Project Management Institute also introduced several changes through the Talent Triangle. This requirement mandates the project manager to continuously improve their technical project management, strategic business management, and leadership skills potentially leading to the losing their certification when these skills are not maintained.

Many of you may be a project manager, member of a project team, hiring managers, or their friend or family. Your cooperation is also required to change this mindset about project management. If you are a project manager, begin to participate in the local chapter meetings and join advanced classes to improve your skills and competencies. If you know a project manager, create volunteer opportunities and encourage project managers to practice their skills. When such attempts lead to making the project managers better at their professional skills, you will also reap from the benefits of the projects managed successfully. So, let us stop feeding the earlier thoughts, think of what we can do and act on it!

Project Management - Mindset Change (2016, April). Palagai, 1, 8-9.