What’s in your backlog?

Let’s explore what you do and do not put in a backlog. How do these sound?

  • Features and non-functional requirements – Absolutely
  • Bug fixes and change requests – Yes, probably
  • Risk avoidance and risk reduction activities – Sure, maybe
  • Opportunity exploitation activities and marketing ideas – Now you’re just getting weird!
  • Team building and social events – Erm, no!

Yet, if it’s all just stuff for the team to do, then why not put it in the backlog? Maybe because the customer has not asked for it and the product owner has to own and order it, but let’s look further.

If we used a backlog metaphor for prioritizing backlog work items. It may look like this.

Backlog of Backlog Items

I am not suggesting these are the correct elements for including in a backlog, I am just showing the common ones. However, I am probably getting too abstract too quickly. Let’s start at the beginning.

A Backlog Primer

For agile teams, backlogs represent their To-Do list of work. All the things they need to complete before the product or project is done. Now, there may be interim releases. In fact, there should be interim releases delivering valuable functionality as soon as possible. However, there typically remains a list of remaining work. For long-lived products this list may never be emptied by the team, instead it is refreshed and reordered based on the latest priorities.

While the team works from the backlog, it is typically prioritized by a product owner / business representative / ambassador user that sequences the work. This product owner manages the backlog, keeping things up to date with the latest product decisions. They also flesh-out items prior to work starting on them. Product Owners also answers questions about the work from the team, etc.

Here’s a typical backlog showing a combination of features, change requests, bug fixes and a couple of risk reduction activities.

Backlog example

Types not Granularity

This post discusses the types of things in a backlog, not the names we give different levels of granularity. Big chunks of work might be grouped into releases and then divided into themes, or features, epics, user stories and tasks as they get smaller and smaller. There is not an agreed to hierarchy at the large end of the spectrum, often teams miss out one or two of the theme / feature / epic options. However, most teams use the user stories and tasks as work gets smaller.

Nevertheless, this post is about types of work, regardless of their size or what we call them.

Scrum Product Backlogs and Sprint Backlogs

Your view of a backlog may be different from mine. Most people I meet these days were introduced to backlogs through Scrum.

The Scrum Guide describes the product backlog as an ordered list of everything that is known to be needed in the product. It is also the single source of requirements for any changes to be made to the product. The guide goes on to describe the sprint backlog as the set of product backlog items selected for the sprint, plus a plan for delivering the product Increment and realizing the sprint goal.

My backlog history goes like this…

“It’s All Just Work We Have to Do”

I was first exposed to backlogs of work in the early 1990s. Working as a developer at Data Sciences Ltd in the UK I wrote a program to manage our work tasks on a government project. My project manager saw it one day and two interesting things happened.

  1. He did not chastise me for working on a side project of developing a visual work tracker rather than working on the client project.
  2. He asked why it did not contain all our bug fixes and change requests? I did not have a good answer, other than those are different buckets of work we should track separately. He dismissed this explanation and told me to add a flag if I wanted to track work types separately, and said “It’s all just work we have to do” and walked off, but his insight stuck with me. The class of work is secondary – all this stuff needs to get done.

My visual work tracker was quite limited and I abandoned it. The database connection from Easel (a language better suited to building graphical UIs for mainframe systems) did not support concurrent users well. Yet, a couple of years later when we started creating DSDM I knew the backlog was “Just work we have to do”. The backlog is the input-hopper for team work. The product owner is the input-hopper custodian, often subject matter expert, and settler of priority and compromise disputes / negotiations.

 

Risks in the Backlog

I have been keen on proactively addressing risks for many years. Just as features deliver value, risks in the form of threats to the project cost money and cause delays - if they occur. As such, these threats are potentials for anti-value. Like bank deposits and bank-fees, the act of adding value and avoiding losses go hand-in-hand to maximize value.

In the late 1990s I used RUP with some clients and was impressed by the Elaboration phase’s goal of tackling risks early in the project lifecycle. I corresponded with Philippe Kruchten, co-author of RUP, about how to illustrate the good work done on risk reduction during Elaboration that often did not have a lot to demo or show for it. I ended up creating Risk Burn Down graphs for my projects. I wrote about these ideas when I started blogging in 2006 as Risk Profile Graphs. By this time I’d been using them for 4-5 years and knew they were well received by sponsors and executives.

Later in 2006, I wrote about risk adjusted backlogs and Agile Risk Management explaining how to insert risk avoidance and risk reduction activities in the backlog. In 2012 I presented some Collaborative Games for Risk Management at the Agile 2012 Conference and PMI Global Conference. 

When members of the project management community read these posts and papers they correctly criticized my ignorance around proper risk management terminology. Risks, of course, can be positive (opportunities) or negative (threats). I was only talking about negative, potentially harmful risks (threats) when I talked about inserting risks based activities in the backlog. A real risk-adjusted backlog has both threat avoidance and reduction steps, as well as opportunity exploitation and opportunity enhancement actions.

This is how we got to risk avoidance and opportunity exploitation activities in the backlog.  One aims to avoid costs, the other aims to generate new value. Risk management techniques like Expected Monetary Value converts probabilistic events into financial values. For instance, if we have a 50% risk of incurring a $400,000 loss then this event’s expected monetary value is 50% x $400,000 = $200,000.

Likewise, we can assess opportunities too. If the average profit for new customers is $20,000 per annum, then we can determine if inviting qualified applicants on a factory tour with product demos and giveaways that costs us $500 per head is worth it at a 5% conversion rate. Here $20,000 x 0.05 = $1,000, so yes, it appears worth offering factory tours and giveaways for qualified leads.

Multiplying guessed benefits or losses by guessed probabilities is an inexact science. However, it is one that the insurance industry has spent centuries trying to master. So they err in their favor and often price based on what the market will bear. Yet it happens throughout all forms of business and is the basis for taking an economic view of production that underpins all the return on investment and prioritization schemes such as Weighted Shortest Job First. We are constantly looking to maximize value.

So, if a team building lunch is important for boosting performance or reducing the likelihood of conflict and delay, why not put it in the backlog? If it would be helpful for someone to walk the VP of sales through the latest product demo, put it in the backlog.

The Product Owner remains the custodian of the backlog, but with some discussions around threats and opportunities, they often see the advantages of adding these other work types to the backlog. Taking an economic view of work allows us to decide “Where is the next best dollar spent’. That may well be on Feature X or a site visit to help build relationships and increase motivation.

 

 


Certification Proliferation and Confusion

Cert ProliferationLike TV channels, the choice of project management credentials has exploded recently. 20 years ago things were much simpler, in North America, the PMP was the dominant credential, in the UK and ex British Empire countries it was PRINCE2. Life was straightforward, career paths defined, and credentials well understood.

In 1983 in the US, over 100M people watched the finale of the TV series M.A.S.H. Outside of the Apollo moon landing and sports events, it remains the most watched US TV broadcast of all time. Chances were most people in the office watched it and everyone had something in common to talk about. That was Peak TV, viewer counts have increased since but program choice has exploded much faster. These days there are so many cable choices, on-demand services, YouTube channels, and Periscope sub-streams it seems as if everyone watches something different.

Likewise, project management credentials have proliferated too. Today I discovered 7 different credentials for PMO staff from the same provider. Each (presumably) providing some niche specialization or incremental progression from a former step. Don’t even get me started on Agile certifications which have splintered and multiplied faster than the brooms in Fantasia’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

This creates problems for project management professionals and hiring managers alike. How can they compare or rank one over another? Within the PMI community, people know the CAPM® is a foundational credential and the PfMP® is more advanced. However, outside the PMI the situation is complex and rapidly evolving.

Becoming a Certified Scrum Master might sound impressive, but for many people, it merely required attending a two-day class. Yet, at the other end of the spectrum, the Association for Cost Engineers (ACostE) requires degrees or over 30,000 hours of experience (3 times Gladwell’s 10,000 hours guide). This is more like a career quest, rather than a 2018 learning aspiration. 

This diversity in experience requirements and study effort along with frequent new offerings muddies the waters of comparison. It would be negligent to simply ignore new offerings since many have been created to fill real needs.

Instead hiring managers likely use unknown credentials as a demonstration of lifelong learning and career change motivation. They may not know exactly what they entail, but for promising candidates, a few minutes on Google should shed light on the credential requirements and process. Unfortunately with the rise of automated and AI-assisted recruitment workflows these candidates might not make the initial selection due to keyword filtering.

If someone was a little sneaky I guess they could state on their resume that their New_Credential_ABC was similar to a PRINCE2 Practitioner, PMP®, or another credential so they pass the keyword scan. Yet, if you were so inclined, you might as well have a section called Future Credentials Planned and list them all along with your Nobel Prize.

It is unlikely TV channels or credentials will ever converge back into a simple collection of universally understood offerings. People want choice and specialization.

If the future of recruiting really will be AI driven maybe a service that ranks, validates and checks credentials will be created to remove the need for hiring managers to do so? It could be constantly updated and evaluated by independent experts to ensure parity. In the meantime, if you have a niche credential or are considering pursuing one, be aware its lack of recognition could be a factor.

Ideally, credentials are just an entry point, beyond which experience and character fit are evaluated. Hiring managers should look for a baseline proficiency but then focus the bulk of their decisions on soft skills evaluated through interviews, etc. We could say it is like making sure candidates have a driver’s license if a job requires driving, it is a prerequisite. Yet we know hiring managers attribute more credence than this.

It is because of this proliferation of credentials and the encouragement to renew and expand that some people are opposed to them. They believe they are money-making schemes for the owners and not reflections of ability or experience. I sympathize to some degree, as stated, at best they are entry points, like drivers licenses, that demonstrate a base level of competence. Yet they are used by hiring managers to qualify candidates. It seems if you are looking to change jobs they are, to some degree, a necessary expense.

For other people, credentials are pursued for personal reasons. Maybe to encourage ongoing development or for differentiation among peers without changing jobs. The list of motivations for pursuing credentials is likely as diverse as the credentials themselves.

More choice is great - until it isn’t. When options and complexity overwhelm our decision-making process we need new tools. Luckily we can learn from other arenas that have complexity. The internet has not unified and standardized the choice of news, entertainment, or services. It has done the opposite and created more choice, enclaves, silos, and choices than ever before.

Fortunately, the internet also comes with tools to search, sort and rank to help us navigate all the diversity.  We need the same with certifications. As television and films proliferated sites like IMDB, RottenTomatoes, Fandango, and Metacritic were created to add smarts and help us choose. Built around expert and personal ratings these sites allow people to sort, filter and view aggregate scores.

Hopefully, we will see the same with certifications. Hiring managers and people looking for the next credential to consider will have tools to help them choose. Whereas films and TV shows are filtered by genre (action, adventure, drama), actors and viewer age recommendations, certifications will have different criteria. Categories such as topics covered, experience requirements, and assessment method are some basic measures. Beyond that user-provided data on market awareness, average study effort, typical salary bands, etc. could be added.

Just as we will not be reverting to only 3 or 4 TV channels again, we cannot expect the diversity in credentials to disappear. Unpopular ones will fail, but more choice seems to be the future. Fortunately, the solutions for managing complexity and too many choices have been modeled in other domains.

Currently searching for “Best PM credentials/certificates/qualifications” yields lots of articles, but no community-sourced tools. That’s likely the future and maybe a project for one of our readers?

 

References:

  1. UK Project Management Market Snapshot, October 2018 – Arras
  2. Wikipedia: List of most-watched television broadcasts, Retrieved October 2018
  3. Project Management Certification Benchmarking Research: 2015 Update - Dr. Paul D. Giammalvo

 

[Note: I wrote this article first for ProjectManagement.com here]


GOAT18

Shaw-center_0I am excited to be a keynote speaker at the Gatineau-Ottawa Agile Tour (GOAT) conference on November 30th. Along with Mary Poppendieck, we will be leading a day dedicated to learning about agile culture and collaboration.

The Gatineau Ottawa Agile Tour is an annual conference in the heart of the nation’s capital, focused on sharing and learning. GOAT has run for 7 years and is part of the Agile Tour that takes place in 90 cities worldwide.

Click to see the Keynotes Overview and the Sessions Previews.

I hope to see you there.


Hybrid Knowledge: Expansion and Contraction

Knowledge Expansion and ConsolidationExpansion and Contraction

Project management requires the combination of technical skills, people skills and industry-specific knowledge. It is a true hybrid environment. This knowledge and its application also forms a beautiful paradox. Our quest to gain skills is never complete and always expanding, but the most effective tools are usually the simplest. Smart people do very simple things to achieve desired outcomes. Yet, they probably considered fifty alternatives before choosing the most effective, simple approach. You must know a lot to be confident your choice is apt.

Knowledge and experience in project management follows the same pattern. Learning about project management, how to work effectively with people, and our industry domain is never complete. We then use this knowledge to choose the best action, which for ease of understanding and implementation, is usually a simple course of action. I call it Expansion and Contraction, but there is probably a simpler name I will learn about one day.

Learning as a Project Manager

One of the things I love about project management is the opportunity to expand our knowledge. There is so much to learn that is useful and applicable to projects. We also live in an age where there are more avenues for learning than ever before. Like a hungry kid in a candy store, the options seem endless and enticing.

But what should we learn next to make the biggest impact? We could learn techniques to make us more effective or alert us to risks earlier. While earned-value is widely used, earned-scheduling is just getting started but promises useful tools. Alternatively, we will never be done learning how to better work with people. Communication, collaboration and motivation skills are more important than ever now talent is so mobile.  Likewise, expanding our industry and business skills are critical to build credibility with sponsors and useful collaborations with teams.

The PMI Talent Triangle nicely describes these connected but infinitely extending fields of study.

Talent triangle tm

For learning purposes, the Strategic and Business Management segment includes all aspects of your industry. For example, if you work in IT, learning anything your team does or uses would be valuable.

Hybrid Learning Model

We should study topics from each of the Talent Triangle segments. However, it needs be fun to be sustainable. We learn best when we are interested and engaged, not when trying really hard to stay on topic or complete a task. Learning also needs to be balanced with other aspects of our lives. We need to look after ourselves and our relationships. We won’t perform or learn well if sick, depressed or lonely. (See the Project You post for more on this idea.)

When we get stuck, tired or burnt-out on one topic, switch to another after recording what is challenging. Our brains process things in the background. Often the simple act of recording that we are stuck on a topic yields an A-ha breakthrough days later in the shower or out on a walk. 

In addition to a stuck list, recognize all the things already studied. The following Kanban board has columns for To Learn, Studying Now, Stuck On, and Studied Already.

Learning Board

Personally, I try to limit my studying to one topic per Talent Triangle segment at a time. That’s my mental capacity, but I might mix in some short articles alongside a book on a similar topic.

Line Chefs not Eggheads

Knowledge is only useful if we can apply it when necessary. We want people who are humble and smart with a bias for action. When presented with a problem, recalling potential fixes is only half the solution. We then have to select one and try it otherwise we have analysis paralysis. The selection might be done individually or through discussions with the team, but we need to go from many options to a preferred one.

Many people find having too many options with no clear preference overwhelming. Kicking around alternatives is good to select the best solution, but be aware of the anxiety this can cause. So keep it short. Power comes from agreeing and focussing effort on the selected approach. A 40 watt light bulb is barely enough to light a room. Yet a 40-watt laser beam will cut through cardboard and aluminum. It’s the same amount of light energy, just focussed in one direction.

For me, there is an analogy or parallel between learning multiple skills and navigating. Once we know our way around we can create new pathways and connections. I live near the Canmore Nordic Centre. It has> 100km of cross-country ski trails tightly winding through a heavily treed, mountainous park. It also has > 100 km of summer mountain biking trails in the same space.

People describe the trail network and map as confusing as a plate of spaghetti (summer trails) dumped on top of another plate of spaghetti (winter trails). It took me a couple of years of frequently getting lost to become comfortable navigating there. Now knowing both sets of trails allows me to create new loops by tagging trail segments together. It also allows me to get from point A to point B quickly or get back to the Day Lodge swiftly if needed. In short, learning where all the connections are allows us to link elements together for better flow and shortcuts.

Learning as much as we can about project management, emotional intelligence and leadership builds similar skills. It allows us to see connections between ideas, link concepts together like creating a common vision for a project through storytelling.  Or, resolve conflict with empathy and appreciative inquiry.

If we can layer these skills with learning more about our industry, then in the eyes of our sponsors, we go from effective employees to trusted advisors.

When We Get it Wrong

This is all great in theory, but we will inevitably screw-up sometimes. We will assess the options and gallantly blaze our way forward into bigger problems and unintended consequences. This is when being humble and flexible pay dividends.

Just as a lack of direction in the face of uncertainty looks like fear or paralysis, then dogged adherence to a doomed plan looks like blind stupidity. By carefully framing decisions with qualifiers such as “Right now, our best course of action looks like X” or “We have decided to try Y for an iteration and evaluate the results” this way we reserve the right to be smarter tomorrow than we were yesterday.

People are more likely to forgive a mistake and try another approach when it was originally positioned as today’s favoured strategy rather than our only hope. This is not to say we should get into the habit of failing and flip-flopping, just be smart enough not to get preachy about decisions in case the occasional one turns out to be a dud.

So, strive for clarity with options to change direction if needed. We can explain: Here is what we are going to do... but, if along the way we learn of a better approach we reserve the right to revaluate and change direction. In fact, we have a duty to our sponsors to change direction if there ever looks like a better option.

Summary

If we cast the net wide and learn all that we can about project management, leadership and our industries we will never be bored or lacking topics to explore. The beauty comes when topics connect and we make links between subjects. Like always wondering where that unfamiliar road goes only to emerge from it one day and suddenly realize where you are and make the new mental connection.

As we grow in our careers we see how management is really about leadership and leadership really starts with ourselves. Then a simple shift over here makes things go better over there. Project success is a hybrid of technical, leadership and strategic domains. As we grow we see more connections and then achieve more through doing less. It is great when it works but still uncomfortable when it fails so, follow the advice of Patrick Lencioni, and stay humble, hungry and smart.

 

[Note: I wrote this article for ProjectManagament.com first and it can be found here - membership required ]

 


The New Need to be Lifelong Learners

Never Stop LearningWe are a generation who stand with one foot in the outgoing industrial era and one in the knowledge-based future. Training and education that prepared us well for careers in the past will not work in a faster-moving future. Now, we need to be not just lifelong learners, but engaged, active lifelong learners.

The move from industrial work to knowledge-based or learning work can be difficult to see because change does not happen uniformly. Instead, some organizations push ahead, while others lag behind. However, all industries are changing and terms like “Retail Apocalypse” are invented to describe the trend in just one sector.

Some product companies have learned to generate revenue from digital services while many traditional models are disappearing. While I drafted this article gadget store Brookstone declared bankruptcy and Apple became the world’s first publicly traded trillion-dollar company, with Amazon close on its heels. Each are landmarks along the road to a different future and world of work.

People have been through similar transitions before. The Agricultural Revolution moved nomadic hunter-gathers to farmers. They no longer had to wander around in search of food and allowed for permanent, full-time settlements which changed humanity. I am sure there were many people who rejected the new way of working and elected to live out the remainder of their lives as nomadic hunter-gathers. However, the general population reached a tipping point and changed.

Then came the industrial revolution. Many of the dispersed farmers moved to cities to work in factories. Again, a huge change that did not happen overnight, or around the world at the same time. There were some people left farming, but most transitioned. The next stage was known as the Information Revolution. This revolution focused on information and collaboration, rather than manufacturing. It placed value on the ownership of knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to create or improve goods and services.

We now live in an era dubbed the Learning Age by Jacob Morgan, author of “The Future of Work”. New technologies are evolving so rapidly that company training departments cannot provide all the skills their employees needed to perform their job in an effective manner. Instead, with the rise of internet-based information and learning, workers have the skills to learn as they go. Capacity to learn and a willingness to self-study are the hallmarks of learning workers.

 


MindsetA New Mindset

Becoming an active lifelong learner requires more than just a willingness to self-study. It is linked to a totally new mindset and values structure. Susan Cain, author of Quiet (and presenter of my favorite TED talk with no slides,) explains how each work era brought a new value mindset.

The Agricultural work period valued character and hard work. Role models included Abraham Lincoln and self-help books had titles like “Character, the greatest thing in the world”. Then, the Industrial Revolution moved people from small communities into cities, so they now had to be heard and prove themselves in a crowd of strangers. Qualities like magnetism and charisma became important and self-help books had titles like “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. In the Industrial era role models were great salespeople.

Today knowledge, learning, and experimentation are rewarded. The goal is to quickly test new ideas or products and then profit (if it works), or pivot to something else if it does not. Books like “The Lean Startup” and “Blue Ocean Strategy” have become the new how-to guides for people wanting to innovate. In demand skills are less sales or personality focused and more experimentation oriented. Today’s role models are engineers - who would have thought!

 

FutureThe Future of Work and Learning

Futurist Magnus Lindkvist explains there are only two types of development: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal development involves spreading existing ideas to everyone else. 30 years ago, only a few people had cell phones, now most people in developed countries have them. 20 years ago, online shopping was a small segment of sales, now it is huge. 10 years ago, ride-share and gig-economy jobs were rare, now they are commonplace, etc.

There is a lot of opportunity and work for people spreading ideas horizontally to markets or segments that currently do not have them. According to McKinsey research, more than half the world’s population is still offline. About 75 percent of the offline population is concentrated in 20 countries and is disproportionately rural, low income, elderly, illiterate, and female. This is an example of horizontal growth potential to these 4 billion people currently offline. However, once a market is served the challenge then becomes one of differentiation on price, features, and service. Things get competitive very quickly.

The other sort of development is vertical, creating new markets and products that do not currently exist. This is error-prone and uncertain. Most initiatives fail, but the rewards for the successful can be enormous. Since the cost of communications continues to fall, digital markets are global and expanding as more people get online.

Samsung recently announced it is investing $22 billion into emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, 5G, automotive electronics and biopharmaceuticals as it searches for new products to power growth. Much of this work will be exploratory with high rates of failure, but that is normal in vertical markets.

Workers in these markets are unlikely to have the prerequisite skills since the technologies themselves are still being developed. Instead, the most valuable employees are rapid learners and linkers & thinkers who can take partial solutions from other domains to solve novel problems. 

One such example of linking ideas provided a solution to a rare liver disease in children called Tyrosinemia. The condition prevents the body from processing the common building block of protein tyrosine. Swedish doctors Elisabeth Holme and Sven Lindtedt stumbled upon the results from a failed herbicide experiment in Australia.

Chemicals in the bottle brush plant suppressed competing vegetation, making it a candidate for a natural herbicide. Unfortunately, experiments with mice led to eye issues and the product was abandoned, but the failed experiment was documented along with the plant’s tyrosine processing change. The doctors gained permission to run a small study and the results were dramatic, with liver function returning to normal. The failed herbicide became the miracle drug Orfadin that has saved the lives of countless children worldwide.  

We need to experiment and document not only our successes but also our failures. Who knows they might be useful to others. Ideally, this information should be openly available which will likely be a challenging concept for many traditional organizations. Even encouraging the sharing of positive experiments can be difficult for old mindset companies that rank staff performance against peers and create competition for resources between departments. In such environments, there is little reward for sharing valuable breakthroughs.

Nucor Steel solved this issue with its bonus pay system. Incentives are rewarded one level above people’s span of control. So, as a plant manager, bonus pay is not based on how well your plant is doing, but how well all the plants are doing. This encourages learnings and breakthroughs to be shared with other plants. It encourages global rather than local optimization. The model repeats at all levels, department heads are not rewarded on their department’s performance but a composite of all departments. The same for team leads and individual workers. Rewarding learning and collaboration has made Nucor steel one of the few successful US-based steel companies.                                                         

 


ExperimentsBetter Experimentation Design

If we are engaged in vertical development, we need to overcome our aversion to failure. As professionals with many years of experience, there is a stigma with failure. We are paid to know our field and deliver positive results, not failures. However, this is legacy industrial thinking. As knowledge workers, we need to be designing and executing low-cost experiments to learn more quickly than our competitors.

Paradoxically, if most of our trials and experiments usually work that does not mean we are great developers. It means we are wasteful innovators. By design 50% of our experiments should fail, this is the quickest path to learning and innovation. Failed experiments tell us just as much (and often more) than successful ones. We should not be duplicating confirmed ideas but exploring new ones.

Low cost and fast experimentation lead to more profit-or-pivot decisions. Organizations that can do this quicker than their peers emerge as the new Apple’s and Amazons. Organizations that do not, follow the path of Brookstone and Blockbuster.

 

LearningPersonal Learning

Going forward we need to recognize how people learn best which is through storytelling and visual learning. YouTube’s How-to videos are popular because they combine both elements in a time efficient delivery mechanism.

Checking our ego and embracing humility is also necessary for learning. We might be experts in horizontal development of the known, but no one is an expert in vertical development of the new. Instead, we must learn how to be collaborative problem solvers.

Harvard Innovation Lab expert Tony Wagner puts it this way. “Today because knowledge is available on every internet connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate – the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life – and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge.”

We cannot predict the future and that’s what makes it exciting. We may not know exactly what technical skills to pursue next, but a couple of quotes that seem to apply include: “Once we rid ourselves of traditional thinking we can get on with creating the future” - James Bertrand and “The essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail” – Edwin Land. So, go forward and experiment boldly.

  

References:

  1. Minifesto: Why Small Ideas Matter in the World of Grand Narratives, Magnus Lindkvist
  2. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Peter M. Senge
  3. The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, Eric Ries
  4. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, W. Chan Kim

 

 [Note: I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here – free sign-up required]


Agile Animations

Animation Film
Following my Agile 2018 conference workshop, I had a couple of people ask how I created the smooth PowerPoint animations. I have always liked using animations to explain ideas since they help me understand processes.

My logic has been, if they help me understand it, then they should help others understand it too. Visual learning, and especially animations, are valuable on knowledge work projects.

Animations help us overcome the three challenges of knowledge work:

  1. Invisible – designs and ideas are often abstract and hard to visualize.
  2. Intangible – bits not atoms. Since we cannot see or feel ideas there is a real danger other people might interpret them differently, leading to difficulties with collaboration and problem-solving.
  3. Transient – Our work is often novel and unique, the challenges teams face are often unique too. The solution to our last problem is unlikely to help us today.

Tom Wujec, the author of The Future of Making, has an interesting short Ted talk on how animation helps create meaning. He explains seeing an image triggers 30 portions of the brain to start working together to process information, solve problems and make decisions.

Visualizations address the knowledge worker challenges:

  1. Clarity through visualization – engage all those brain circuits, helping us comprehend faster and clarify ideas.
  2. Making concepts interactive – when we all see the same interaction of components, we build a common understanding as a group.
  3. Make permanent – Animations can be stored, shared, and replayed - capturing mental models of A-ha moments.

So, if a picture is worth a thousand words, is an animation worth a thousand pictures (a million words)? – No, but it is hard to beat visual storytelling.

Continue reading "Agile Animations" »


Creed Over Greed: Motivation and Purpose

SunriseThere have been a couple of stories in the news recently that reveal some important facts about motivation and purpose.

  • Ex-Tesla Workers Are Still Believers

Some people’s reactions over being fired from Tesla surprised many analysts. Rather than the normal angry barbs (and I am sure there were plenty of those) what made the news were the messages of thanks from, now ex-employees, explaining how they enjoyed their time there and were glad to be a part of it. Some of the Tweets included:

  • “Thanks for the opportunity, Elon! Eye on the mission. Will always be proud to say I worked for Tesla”
  • “I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed working for Tesla”
  • “I was laid off from Tesla yesterday and although it hurts (a lot!), it is the right thing for the company. I don’t regret giving all I had and in a way bidding adieu is my last contribution. I’ll be cheering Tesla on knowing I did my part. Thanks for the years of memories!”

A Bloomberg article Fired Tesla Workers Still Love Elon Musk recaps some of the comments.

  • Enlightened Pessimism

From a reverse perspective, a recent Science Direct article found that Employees who practice mindfulness meditation are less motivated, having realized the futility of their jobs. It seems that when people learn how to detach from sources of stress they are less likely to want to work towards goals they are not aligned with.

So, beware those corporate mindfulness workshops unless your organization has a compelling purpose!

The Importance of a Compelling Purpose

First, people want jobs that satisfy their physical and safety needs of having enough money to provide the necessary food and shelter. These are levels one and two in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. None of the later stages of motivation ever come into play until these most critical needs are met. However, once they are met, people want to work towards something worthwhile and motivating.

Tesla has never been about making fancy electric cars, that’s just a side effect of their real purpose. The Tesla vision and mission statement used to be: “To accelerate the world's transition to sustainable transport.” However, in mid-2016, the company changed it to “To accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy.” So, they are not building cars, they are helping save the planet for us and future generations.

That is a worthy goal. It is a purpose people can get behind, and a reason people were glad to work at Tesla, even if their role has now ended. They were never just car makers, they were game changers and that’s what people are grateful for.

Contrast it to the mission of BMW: “Strategy Number ONE aligns the BMW Group with two targets: to be profitable and to enhance long-term value – from a technological, structural and cultural perspective. The mission statement up to the year 2020 is to become the world's leading provider of premium products and premium services for individual mobility.”

While it mentions culture, there is a focus on profit, value and being the world’s leading… In other words, it is based on money and dominance, rather than a compelling purpose.

Creed Over Greed

Most organizations share mission and vision statements like BMW’s. They talk about generating shareholder value and becoming the biggest this or the leading that. This is understandable in a purely economic model, but as we saw earlier, once people have enough money they want something more - something compelling, something worthwhile.

When we can appeal to people’s desire for meaning, and when we can support them to make valuable contributions to a worthwhile purpose, they will experience motivation beyond the economics that dwindles over time. “Creed” means a belief system, it is more powerful than greed. Growing larger for the sake of profit and market share is unfulfilling, like a cancerous growth.

Having a worthwhile purpose people can unite behind is tremendously powerful. Organizations like TOMS Shoes and Warby Parker attract top talent not only because they are rewarding places to work, but also because they share a larger goal of helping others less fortunate. Studies show that contributing to good causes makes us happy so it should be no surprise that working for an organization that helps others should be the most rewarding and motivating.

Talent is More Mobile Than Ever

The internet has lowered the cost of communication. It is easier than ever to advertise jobs and share the corporate purpose. People tend to switch jobs more frequently now and the same tools that make advertising jobs easier, also make relocation easier. Smart, talented people are more mobile than ever. They want to apply their skills in worthwhile, interesting settings.

Given the choice of making more money for executives and shareholders or saving the planet, most people (thankfully) would choose to try and help save the planet. When Tesla was hiring last year, they received nearly 500,000 applicants for about 2,500 job openings. So, people only had about a 1 in 200 chance of being accepted – a  testimony to how much people want to work there.

With these odds only the very best people get accepted. This has a two-fold effect, 1) the top talent moves to the better companies, 2) lacklustre organizations get a higher concentration of sub-par people as the best move on.

Find the Purpose/Make a Purpose

If you are a CEO, aligning your organization with a higher propose will help attract top talent. If you are a leader in a traditional organization, then creating opportunities for employees to contribute to society is a powerful motivator.

We cannot all work for Tesla or Patagonia, but we can try to inject some worthwhile components into people’s work lives.  Hackathons for a good cause, Habitat for Humanity volunteering, they all help create more satisfied and motivated team members.

At various stages of people’s careers, they care about different things. Many people starting out just want the highest paying job they can obtain to get established in their adult lives. This is understandable and natural. Then, later they want to be part of something bigger, something more useful. Understanding and recognizing this desire allows organizations offering a motivating purpose the capability to appeal to the top tier talent.

 

[Note: I wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com first and it was published here]


AI Assistants for Project Managers

Robot hand
Predictions like “AI will take our jobs” sound scary. However, long before our jobs as project managers are taken, AI will help us. In fact, it already is, and we don’t think about it much. While writing this article, AI in Microsoft Word and the add-in Grammarly helped protect you from the bulk of my spelling and grammar mistakes. This is how AI will help us first, by doing small things we are error-prone with, before tackling larger tasks.

Like me, do you spend time booking meetings, finding rooms, and distributing information? Do you analyze backlogs and scope outlines for potential risks, or review estimates for commonly missed activities? Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help with these tasks and many more.

Imagine having a non-judgemental expert monitoring everything you do (and do not do) at work and making helpful suggestions to you in private. This expert is constantly learning, is plugged into all the latest research and works for free. This is the not too distant future of AI assisted project management.

June was Technology month at Project Management.com, and there have been a few articles about AI taking away project management jobs. This article focusses on ways AI can help project managers which will happen as AI develops and before it can replace jobs. It deals with automating the process and science parts of project management, leaving people more time to focus on the relationships, leadership, storytelling, empathy and emotional intelligence side of projects that are harder to tackle and are (currently) best done by people.

AI has come a long way since Microsoft rolled out the annoying and not so helpful “Clippy” Office Assistant tool in 2003. It was never tuned for project managers, but it if were it might have looked something like this:

ClippyInstead, AI is becoming more sophisticated and useful. Gmail will remind you to attach a file if you mention “attach” in the text of an email that has no attachment. Most people use personal assistants like Siri and Cortana on their phones, or Alexa in their homes. Voice recognition and comprehension are steadily increasing. Google recently demonstrated their new Google Assistant calling and interacting with a hair salon to book a haircut. Clearly, these tools will soon be ready for prime time and their use will be widespread.

Kevin Kelly, futurist and founding executive editor of Wired magazine, says in his TED talk: “Everything that we have electrified, we are now going to cognify”. In other words, we will add intelligence to devices and products. Kelly went on to say, “I would suggest that the formula for the next 10,000 start-ups be very, very simple: take X - and add AI.

To understand how AI can help project managers, let's examine its basic capabilities.

  • Knowledge Based Expert System (KBES) – these work from decision trees of IF - THEN statements to provide expertise. Gmail’s attachment reminder works with similar IF body_text includes “attach” AND Attachment = False THEN issue a warning.
  • Artificial Neural Network (ANN) – these systems model our real brains and consist of networks of weighted connections. They can be programmed to learn, recall, generalize and apply fuzzy logic. So, if we teach it someone 4ft high is Short and someone 6ft high is Tall it can generalize that someone 4ft 6 is “Not very tall”. Being able to make these types of generalizations are important for realistic interactions with people, such as Google Assistant making a hair appointment.
  • Machine Learning – this builds on Knowledge Based Expert Systems and Artificial Neural Networks to create predictive analytics that can provide validation and advice. In the project management space, this is the technology that can help with checking for missed risks, rebaselining plans, recalculating the Cost of Delay for waiting initiatives, etc.
  • Chatbots - AI powered programs designed to simulate a conversation with humans. Chatbots use artificial neural networks and machine learning to combine domain intelligence with natural language processing. This gives the impression of interacting with a (currently somewhat) knowledgeable person.

If these technologies sound far-fetched in the project management field, consider the quote “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed”. Agile tool vendor Atlassian, already provide project assistants that help with budgets, estimates, and sprint management. They also have chatbots to share project information and remind team members for estimates and status updates.

Moving forward, these tools will be expanded to help check our work for common mistakes, just as Word checks for common spelling errors. Every industry has catalogs of defect origins and removal methods (here is one for software projects) AI assistants can apply this knowledge and suggest steps to help avoid or reduce these risks. It is not an exact science and as a project manager, I may choose to dismiss potential risks flagged. However, having assistants available to highlight these risks or list the top 10 estimation omissions in my field is probably better than not having them.

AI assistants can also alert project managers to slowly developing trends that might otherwise go unnoticed. The old saying that projects become late one day at a time is very true. Optimistic project managers with “Can-do” attitudes often underestimate the impact of small setbacks and or hope that teams will “catch-up” later.  This hardly ever happens, and AI assistants can be programmed to alert early and avoid hope-based-planning.

Over-Reliance?

There is a risk that with expert knowledge systems, organizations may be tempted to use inexperienced project managers. Or project managers become reliant upon these tools and not think as deeply as they may otherwise. Like any technology, a fool with a tool is still a fool. However, tapping into standard risk lists from your industry, that gets augmented with those from previous projects in your organization is a smart move.

Having calculators has likely reduced our ability to perform long division calculations manually. However, I don’t want to go back to self-calculation just because I fear an over-reliance on technology. Instead, I want to use technology where I can and free up my time and mental capacity for other work.

Higher Value Work

The PMI Talent Triangle is a good model for thinking about all the work a project manager does. It includes: 1) Technical Project Management – the project mechanics described in the PMBOK Guide and Agile frameworks, 2) Strategic and Business Management – your industry-specific work, and 3) Leadership – the people dynamics of projects.

If we squash the triangle out and lay the pieces in order of how much impact the project manager’s contribution has towards project success we get: Technical, then Strategic, and then Leadership. By this sequence, I mean that if the basics of Technical Management are met then Strategic and Business Management work is more significant. Furthermore, good Leadership has an even greater impact on overall project performance than Strategic and Business Management Work, and Technical Project Management.

This sequence is shown below:

AI Focus

The good news for us as project managers is that (currently) AI is best suited for the lower value end of this work spectrum. It is already capable of assisting and saving us time with Technical Project Management work. Next, it should soon be commonplace to get AI assistance with Strategic and Business Management tasks. This will involve accessing machine learning focussed on our industry domains, like ROI models, common risks, and estimation omissions.

The last area AI will move into is the Leadership domain. Machine learning requires deep data sets in a consistent form to draw reliable conclusions. The people dynamics of motivation, conflict management, and negotiation are harder to classify and rank.  Currently, most people would rather work with a real person to solve issues or discover their calling. Who knows, maybe in future people will prefer to interact with chatbots who’s decision parameters can be shown to be neutral and fair. This might be preferable to dealing with people with all their inherent bias and gaps in knowledge.

All I know for now is that I currently welcome any AI assistance I can use. It is likely to safeguard me from making basic technical project management errors or omissions. It should also be helpful soon in providing industry knowledge and best practice – like having a seasoned professional in the industry available to look over your work. However, AI tools will check in real-time before you commit that decision or share a plan.

This leaves me more time to focus on the people. The people sponsoring the project, those working on it, and those who will be impacted by it. They will have their own AI assistants too. Booking meetings, getting rooms, and sharing ideas should become frictionless leaving us to work on the more significant issues.

My recommendation is to stay abreast of AI developments and remain open to trying the tools as they emerge. Standing still in an environment that is moving forward has the effect of moving backwards -which is not good. Where I should probably be more worried is in writing articles like this. It seems like a blend of domain-specific Strategic work with some Leadership based storytelling. Likely a candidate for an AI takeover long before the project manager. (My plan is to get in on the research and get a Chatbot writing this stuff for as long as I can get away with it!)

References:

  1. How AI could Revolutionize Project Management, CIO Magazine, Mary Branscome, January 12 2018
  2. 3 ways AI will change project management for the better, Atlassian Blog, April 7, 2017
  3. Artificial Intelligence in Project Management - Is Your Company Ready for it?, Teodesk Blog, Minja Belic, January 22 2018
  4. AI will Transform Project Management. Are You Ready?, PWC White paper, Marc Lahmann, et Al, 2018
  5. Artificial Intelligence in Project Management, Khaled Hamdy, March 2017

[Note: I wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com, it first appeared here – free membership required.]

 


Webinar – Solving Wicked Problems: What is Old is New Again

Problems
My PMXPO webinar has now been watched by > 11,000 people and received lots of positive feedback. It is hosted at ProjectManagement.com here.

(For people collecting Professional Development Units (PDUs), it also auto-records 1.25 credits for you.)

The webinar reviews problem-solving through the ages and shows how agile is the rediscovery of many old approaches. Wicked problems are those that cannot be solved with traditional methods or ways of thinking. They are the unique challenges never seen before in your organization, region or industry.

As companies race to innovate and compete in a global market, we are seeing wicked problems more and more often. While the solution may be new, some common steps repeat in the stories of novel problem-solving successes through history. This presentation combines a fast-paced view of wicked problems and solutions through history—with a slower reveal of the common steps for solving challenging projects.

It is ideal for anyone faced with managing projects with lots of uncertainty—or people looking to understand the links between lean, leadership, building collaborative teams and problem-solving.

Watch Now.


Agile 2018 Conference – Unraveling Team Dependencies

Agile_SD2018_600x100_Speaking_FM
I am excited to be presenting on the Enterprise Agile track at the Agile 2018 conference in San Diego, August 7. I have worked with several organizations this year that had issues with work dependencies between teams. My session called “Two-Pizza Team Heartburn Relief: Solutions to Team Dependencies” highlights the shift to global rather than local optimization.

We will investigate dependency problems through animations and simulations and then explore some candidate solutions. Each brings their own issues – if these problems were solvable they would have been already, but the suggestions do help considerably. Here is the description from the conference program:

Small teams are great - until they cause bigger problems than they solve. Small teams can communicate more effectively than large teams. They can leverage face-to-face communications more readily and share tacit knowledge without the need for so much written communication. However, for large endeavours, using many small teams present their own problems. Work dependencies between teams can cause major delays through costly hand-offs, mismatched priorities, and blocked tasks.

This workshop introduces strategies for structuring teams to reduce hand-offs and dependencies that create blocked work and delays. By investigating the (lack of) flow through multiple teams we can diagnose the cost of hand-offs and culprits of delays. We examine tools for making hand-offs and dependencies visible to highlight and bring collective attention to the problems. We then explore resolution patterns and work structures that maximize small team communications but limit negative aspects of managing multiple, inter-dependent project teams.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the time and cost penalties of team dependencies and hand-offs
  • Gain tools for making dependencies, queues, and blocked work visible
  • Learn how and when to balance small team benefits with more dependency issues
  • Share implementation patterns and strategies to maximize team throughput
  • Examine the pros and cons of larger teams, feature teams, and product vs. project development.

That probably sounds more technical than it really is. It is a workshop to show people how teams often get stuck with work items when they rely on work from other groups. It combines anecdotes and experiences from 20+ years of agile consulting along with some insights from Troy Magennis on dependency delays, and Dominica DeGrandis, author of Making Work Visible.

Through case studies and exercises, we explore the hidden impacts of well-intentioned small teams. First, we’ll explore the “mostly harmless” two and three team dependencies, and then see the impacts when five or six dependant teams try to get work done. Please come along if you are attending the conference and have issues with dependencies between teams.


Post-Industrial Project Management

Old TractorIntroduction

We know old concepts that govern agriculture do not apply to industry. Engineers do not consult the weather or growing seasons before designing machinery. Yet many project managers who work in the knowledge worker domain still apply project management approaches developed for the industrial era. This mismatch of approaches wastes effort and misses important new risks.

This article identifies the mismatch of applying industrial project management in today’s post-industrial marketplace. We first examine how to determine if your projects are: industrial, knowledge work, or hybrid. Then classify project management tools and techniques. Fortunately, for every industrial focused approach, there are modern knowledge worker equivalents. Using this information, we can apply the right tools for the job or at least identify the risks of mismatched projects and techniques.

 

How We Got Here

Work, like people, has evolved. Humans started out as nomadic hunter-gathers following the seasons and game. Then, when they discovered farming, they settled and built permanent home sites. This change was christened the Agricultural Revolution and heralded a huge shift in how people lived and worked.

Next came the Industrial Revolution. Farmers and craftsmen (craftspeople really) moved from distributed communities to live in expanding cities where the industrial mills and factories were booming. Again, this was a massive change for humanity. Schools focused on timekeeping, rigour, and repetition to prepare children to work in factories. Conformance to schedules and plans made the scaling of a workforce possible.

Concepts like Taylor’s Scientific Management provided tools for tackling big engineering endeavours and applying specialized labour. Progressive decomposition of work and detailed scheduling of tasks allowed complex projects to be planned and managed. Techniques like work breakdown structures, network diagrams, and Gantt charts were taught to project managers to tame and track engineering work.

These techniques work well for tangible, stable and mostly predictable projects. As long as an organization has a history of building a similar product, then the gap to a new design or bigger scale can be reasonably estimated and planned for. Difficulties arise when we try to use these approaches on intangible, unfamiliar, and new environments. Differences in understanding frequently occur when we lack physical reference points such as “I want a wooden door like this one, but a foot taller”. These differences result in more change requests, more reported defects, more uncertainties and risks.

In novel, intangible environments like software development or filmmaking things rarely progress predictably enough to follow the “Plan the work, work the plan” mantra of industrial projects. New technology evolution accelerates the rates of change. Demands to deliver faster worsen the situation. Many of today’s projects fit this new breed of project that were christened "Knowledge Work" projects by Peter Drucker.

Also, many traditional industrial projects have been automated or offshored to cheaper labour markets. This leaves a higher proportion of new projects developing largely invisible, intangible, difficult to reference, products and services – knowledge work.

I am not suggesting all project work has changed. Just as we still have farmers - and hopefully always will, we still have traditional industry and industrial projects. So, while not all work has changed, the fastest growing segment has. The increasing role of software in business also means a larger proportion of projects have at least some knowledge work component. 

To help diagnose your project types, answer the following questions about the nature of projects you execute.

Table 1

If you scored more on the left-hand side of the table, you are engaged in mainly industrial type projects. This is good news for reliable execution, traditional project management tools and techniques should serve you well. If you scored more on the right-hand side, you are firmly in the knowledge worker domain. You should move from industrial project management approaches and adopt knowledge worker ones. If you scored equally from each column, you are in a hybrid environment. Here you likely need to draw on a combination of approaches to be successful.

 

New Territory, New Tools

The tools and approaches of the knowledge worker revolution address the complexity and ambiguity that accompany these projects. Let’s dig deeper to understand the characteristics and appreciate post-industrial project management techniques.

Knowledge work projects bring subject matter experts together to collaborate on new and unique products and services. This might involve scientists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, software developers, or web designers working with the business to build something new. Each of these groups has specialized knowledge, typically no single person knows everything needed to complete the project. What is being created is new or sufficiently different to the sponsoring organization that previous project’s plans and estimates are not particularly useful to predict progress.

Compared to traditional, predictable industrial engineering, complexity, uncertainty, risk and change rates seem very high. Without tangible reference work, it is necessary to use an iterative-and-incremental approach to determine fitness-for-business-purpose. Teams could attempt to analyze and predict all features and functions, but often initial use uncovers additional opportunities and requirements.

Trying to explain the nuances of iTunes or Netflix to someone who has never seen anything like it before is difficult. Incremental trial proves faster and more useful than speculative big-design-upfront that cannot anticipate every interaction with user behaviour or linked systems.

Tools rooted in big-design-upfront, predictable decomposition of tasks, linear progression of work, etc do not work well in these environments. These include detailed requirements documents, work breakdown structures, network diagrams, Gantt Charts and earned value management. That’s not to say you cannot use these approaches, just there are alternatives that better handle the high rates of change and uncertainty.

We still need to record requirements and the use of product backlogs containing user stories makes it easier to reprioritize when changes occur. We still need to break down work and help the business decide how to best divide a big project. Instead of looking at complex architectural component diagrams, the business can make better delivery decisions by using release roadmaps, and features lists.

In the face of high rates of change, averaging delivery rates to-date can give more reliable projections than estimating the durations for planned activities. Likewise, when work is creative or R&D type in nature, we often get nonlinear progression – in other words, some things go faster than anticipated while other items take longer. Approaches like earned value management that extrapolate performance to-date to predict likely completion schedules and costs assume a linear progression of work. Instead, tracking progress based on tested, accepted features only is a more reliable predictor of true progress.

Table 2 shows knowledge-work alternatives to industrial work project approaches

Table 2

Traditional project management approaches are built on the realities of predictable, industrial work. Knowledge work projects defy these traditional laws of physics since they operate outside the physical domain. Instead, they deal with ideas, people and collaboration, which is intangible. Traditional resource management suggests if we are digging a ditch with 10 people, then adding 10 more people would complete the task in half the time. Fred Brooks’ law of software development tells us that adding more people to a project that is already late will increase its duration.

Traditional project management approaches are not flawed or broken. They work great for the industrial world. In these environments, the best way to run a project is with detailed upfront planning, clearly articulated tasks and schedules, and careful granular tracking. However, if your results from assessing Table 1 indicate a hybrid or knowledge work environment then use the appropriate tools.

Trying to use the recommendations from a previous work era is akin to waiting for a full moon before starting your kitchen reno. At best you are adding wasted activities and at worst you are ignoring the realities of your environment that carry the risk of overruns and failure. 

 


The Truth About Transformations

TransformationTransformations are flavor of the month. It is no longer enough to launch “initiatives,” “programs” or “projects” to undertake work. Instead, we launch agile transformations, digital transformations and productization transformations. They sound more revolutionary, more dramatic and further reaching. Our organizations will emerge reborn, uniquely positioned to compete in a new world of opportunities and growth. Like a larva transforming into a butterfly, we can now fly!

Well, that’s the idea and the promise of the consulting companies that sell transformation services. However, what really happens? Can the average organization actually become a disruptive leader just by adopting the structures, tools and processes from the real disruptive leaders? Or, is it like buying the same shoes as our basketball heroes wear hoping they will transform us into slam-dunking superstars? The reality is somewhere between these extremes. Any company can improve, but we should not expect to become something we are not.

Let’s look at some of the popular transformation services on sale and examine the promise and truths they hold.

 

Agile Transformations Dandelion

The goal: Agile transformations move organizations from working with traditional project management approaches to using agile approaches. They also seek to change the way organizations are structured and run from a top-down, command-and-control model to a more business- and customer-led, value-driven approach.

They aim to instil lean concepts of respect for people, minimization of waste, and value delivery. They employ a more trusting Theory Y view of workers as willing contributors rather than the traditional Theory X view that workers need close supervision to work hard. They encourage workers through intrinsic motivators such as empowerment, autonomy of work, and belief in a worthy purpose rather than carrot-and-stick approaches.

The claimed benefits: Agility allows organizations to respond to change more quickly since plans and work are done in smaller batches with frequent checkpoints. This allows changes in direction to be made when feedback indicates it would be desirable. The evaluate-as-you-go and learn-as-you-go aspects of iterative and incremental development help organizations manage complexity and uncertainty.

Agile approaches allow for the delivery of value sooner since work is prioritized via business value. The empowerment and intrinsic rewards offered result in happier, more engaged employees. Allowing workers to design their own workplace and work practices results in a more loyal and productive workforce. A mantra of one agile approach is to “Change the world of work.”

The reality: Agile is much easier to implement at a team and project level than it is at an organizational level. Teams quickly see the benefits of frequent collaboration and business engagement. Tools like product backlogs, kanban boards and release roadmaps bring much-needed visibility to design work and problem solving that often manipulates invisible data and ideas. Iterative development of small batches of work, with frequent reviews, provides better insights into progress and issues than sequential, large-batch development. While some people find the “let’s try something” approach counter-intuitive to rigorous upfront planning and design, most understand the risk reduction and true requirements validation benefits.

At the organization level, it’s a tougher sell. The initial confusion and apparent chaos that comes with establishing empowered, self-organizing, self-managing teams can seem like the inmates are running the asylum. What happens to supervisors and managers? In some organizations, departments are built around functional silos. If I was head of the quality assurance group and now all my people report into individual teams, what’s left for me to do? How do I justify my yearly budget (and position) with my headcount down to zero?

Organizational structures often reflect their culture and decision-making style. This may be hierarchical, flat or distributed. Truly transforming the organization to be agile requires a change of structure, which means changing the culture. Not an easy task, and not something to be undertaken lightly. It requires sufficient buy-in from the very top through every layer to the bottom.

Agile transformations often stall at the organizational level. Instead, we see pockets of conversion and pockets of resistance. It often takes changes in roles for the transformation to occur. However, just changing the way teams operate brings many benefits. While not really an agile transformation, a “switch” to agile project operation within a traditional organization can still be very beneficial.

So, while true agile transformations are rare, agile implementations are common and still worthwhile. The organization may never grow wings and fly as promised by consultants—but if it learns to wiggle more efficiently, avoid danger, and eat faster, that might be all it needs.

 

Digital Transformations  Digital

The goal: Digital transformations aim to convert and grow business in the self-serve digital domain. They do not have to involve websites, but many do. Rather than visiting offices or calling in for service, customers self-manage through apps and websites that greatly reduce labor costs and offer almost unlimited scaling opportunities.

The claimed benefits: Cost reduction and closer engagement are the main claimed benefits. They use websites and AI-powered chatbots to handle the majority of customer questions and interactions. This reduces the need to have as many people employed at physical locations and answering phone calls. Banks and insurance companies are undertaking digital transformations to offer services in convenient formats for customers (mobile phones) as well as reduce overheads.

Encouraging customers to manage their services via mobile apps also opens up options to ping, notify and promote upsell opportunities. It is cheaper and easier to push promotions and “exclusive member benefit offers” to people who install apps than compete for attention in traditional advertising channels. Apps also let companies gather additional marketing intelligence like location, contacts, spending habits, etc.—all additional fuel for promotions and potential sales.

The reality: Building compelling websites, apps and AI services is no small undertaking. Many organizations go through the significant expenditure to discover that only a portion of their customer base embraces the new options. Organizations then try carrot-and-stick paperless discounts or paper-based account fees to incentivize the desired behavior.

These new websites and app projects will never be finished or done. Since they now represent the organization's face and communications vehicle, expect ongoing investment in their upkeep and technology refresh cycles. When looking at the potential savings, do not underestimate the likelihood of initial build costs to spiral—and integration into existing back-end systems to be orders-of-magnitude more costly and time-consuming than anticipated.

However, it seems an inevitable trend. Using established content management systems and app frameworks can help rein in costs. Being at the forefront of technological capability is only paramount if your core business is selling technology services (Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft). For everyone else, fast-follower (or even majority-adopter) is probably fine. Digital transformations are real, already here and unlikely to be fading anytime soon.

 

Productization Transformations Product

The goal: This is the transition from using projects to build software systems to building and viewing software as long-term products. As organizations realize software represents a market differentiator, they recognize their systems will never be “done.” If they were to finish, it means they are no longer innovating, improving or competing.

So, they move from the start-stop world of software development through projects and instead adopt continuous development and drip-feed funding models. Historically, organizations staffed and funded projects through vendors and contractors using capital expenditure models. The switch to software as a long-lived product or service changes both staffing and budgeting. The increase in cloud-based hosting also raises the question of opex (operating expenditure) versus capex (capital expenditure) funding.

Organizations often reach out for help making these changes to development, staffing and funding models. This is the new and emerging world of productization or “continuous digital delivery.” It involves restructuring and forming long-lived product teams with everyone present to develop and maintain the software products over its entire lifespan.

The claimed benefits: By eliminating the handoffs between development teams and sustainment teams, more knowledge about the system, and how to extend it, is retained. Fewer handoffs in general is one of the biggest benefits of switching to products instead of projects. Handoffs are very wasteful—they contribute to the eight lean DOWNTIME wastes…

Defects
Overproduction
Waiting
Non-utilized talent
Transportation
Inventory excess
Motion waste
Extra processing

…all of which can occur when one group hands off work to another group.

By creating stable teams that are aligned with developing and sustaining long-term products, organizations can wean themselves off unpredictable vendor models. From a budgeting perspective, estimating the burn rates and capabilities of stable teams is much more reliable than estimating how long a new vendor-based team will take to complete some work.

Stability, continuous development and better knowledge retention are all compelling reasons to trade projects for products. The difficulties come in the transition and available support.

The reality: Switching from running traditional stop-and-start software projects to continuous product development is still a new idea. Usually, organizations have a suite of currently executing projects that still need to be delivered on schedule. Existing vendor contracts may make it difficult to switch to the onsite execution approach favored by continuous digital delivery.

Finance departments are typically set up to evaluate and approve requests for expenditures based on one- or multi-year ROI projections. In the continuous development world of productization, the spending never stops.

Instead of project-based funding, small teams create minimal viable products for evaluation. If they show promise, they get additional funding in more of a venture capital-style model. New metrics like customer market share and profit-to-funding ratios are used.

The benefits are real and don’t require a major upheaval to organizational culture or structures. However, experience is thin on the ground along with books and training courses. It’s like using what we today call agile approaches in the 1990s. There are early adopters, conference sessions and blog posts, but far to go before the idea even approaches the chasm (let alone crosses it).

 

Summary

“Transformation” is probably too grand a word for the degree of change most organizations achieve. However, as so many ideas compete for our limited attention spans, it would seem crazy to merely name a change initiative a “rollout” or “improvement” these days. People have become desensitised to reasonable names and seek revolution and excitement to generate the interest they need to participate.

We should not expect traditional organizations to truly match digital-first companies like Spotify. They were founded to disrupt existing businesses and came without the baggage of a traditional client base to support. (Also, they are led and staffed by people that share different values than most North American institutions.)

Their ideas may be great for other organizations to experiment with and adopt what works, but what makes them truly powerful is that the ideas were created internally and vetted through experiments. Copy the concept (internally generate new processes to solve local problems), but not Spotify’s actual procedures.

There is nothing wrong with buying the same kind of shoes as Michael Jordan wore (heck, if the placebo effect gets you exercising more, they were likely a good purchase). However, don’t leave your day job to sign up with a basketball team until you’re sure you are world class. Today’s transformations bring many benefits—as long as you take the “transformation” claim with a grain of salt.

 

[Note: I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Mind Hacks to Make Studying Easier

Mind HacksWhat if you got a little buzz of guilty pleasure every time you thought about studying for your exam? What a difference that could make compared to a soul-numbing dread of having to do something you do not enjoy.

Our minds have systems to protect us and maximise our wellbeing. They do not always work, but overall, these mechanisms reinforce memories of good events and minimize negative ones. We can use these systems to make studying more enjoyable and effective.

By going out of our way to make studying pleasurable we begin to dread it less, then feel neutral about it, and eventually enjoy it. Things you enjoy are not chores, they are more like hobbies. But how the heck do you enjoy learning about earned value or resolving team conflict? To many people, these topics represent all the junk we deal with at work and what we try to escape in our personal time.

The key is to separate our emotions about the subject matter from the learning experience. Focus on making the studying enjoyable. Everyone likes different things, so chose what works for you. You could buy that indulgent chocolate that’s too expensive to justify and have a square when you start and every 15 minutes of study. You could get a fancy notebook for your preparation and a posh new pen. If you like working in social settings then find a great coffee shop and buy that mocha latte you know is overpriced, but oh-so-good.

Step it up a notch and form a study group that goes to a good restaurant after every meeting. Make the studying event good for you, don’t be afraid to indulge a little. The goal is to retrain your mind from “another 2 chapters, aarrg” to “great, seeing Alex again and trying that new Thai place”.

Obviously, some words of caution are necessary. If an excess of red wine or illicit activities are your indulgences then the subsequent hangover, memory loss, and guilt will have a net-negative impact. The treats must be defendable and morally acceptable. Things you are happy to discuss with family and co-workers. Beyond that, create a good environment for study, do what it takes to make it fun, use the very best materials and reward your hard work. This is a worthwhile investment in yourself and you should recognize it.

When we make a shift to positively associated emotions we remember and recall information much easier. Many people can recall vast amounts of information about their favourite sports teams, TV shows, or quirky hobby. They are not especially talented, instead, people remember and recall things they enjoy much easier than things learned under obligation - like perhaps details from the highway code for a driver’s test.

Being creative and doing what it takes to make studying enjoyable will not turn work topics into hobbies with effortless fact recall. It will, however, associate more positive thoughts to the overall experience and subject matter. This will help with making time for study, starting study sessions, and motivation to continue studying. These are important since most people give up on the process, not the material.

Another human nature trait we can use to our advantage is our brain’s association with locations and food. While we have evolved into complex creatures we still possess a primitive, reptilian brain stem. It is hardwired to remember where things can be found, sources of good food, and acts of sharing food. This deep but powerful association with food is why team building education often recommends bringing food. We are programmed to remember where we had it and build bonds with those we share food with.

Fine, but you may ask, how can I use these facts to help remember net present value calculations? We do so by making associations with locations and food memories. Memorization techniques based on location date back thousands of years and were written about by the Roman politician Cicero in 55BC.

Method of Loci (Loci is Latin for places) uses spatial memory to help us remember and recall information.

Using this approach, we take somewhere we are familiar with, maybe our house or local street and then associate items with distinct locations. So, imagine walking through your home in a logical sequence from your front door and then assign an item or concept to each location. Then, to recall the items or steps in a process in the correct order, we walk through our house again in our mind collecting items from each location.

There are many versions of Loci method. A popular one is called the Memory Journey and another is Roman Room - experiment and find one you are comfortable with. They all rely on our basic ability to recall locations and are often used by participants in memory competitions who compete at memorizing long lists of information. Personally, I like to imagine navigating a gourmet food store, associating things with the cheese, wine and chocolate collections which taps into our food and location aspects of our reptilian mind. However, unwanted weight gain might be a downside to this approach!

A 2017 study that used fMRI brain scans, found the spatial processing areas of memory champions were much more active than those in a control group of volunteers. The study went on to find that volunteers trained in the method of loci for six weeks saw similar brain function develop. The training-induced changes in brain connectivity matched the brain network organization that previously distinguished memory champions from controls. So, the good news is that in as little as 6 weeks of practice we can tap into these location-based recall techniques. Just don’t forget to start!

So, to help your studies make the process appealing. Make it social if you are a social person, make it silent and personal if you are a quiet person. Acknowledge and indulge your preferences to reward your study efforts. Next, don’t try to memorize things by just reading or highlighting, these have actually been found to be the least effective ways of studying. Instead, try location-based memory techniques that are proven to be effective and used by 90% of memory competitors.

 

[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Mining Bitcoins with Your InstantPot: Has Agile Popularity Gone Too Far?

InstantPot_Bitcoin_MachineI am excited to be presenting at next week’s PMI-SAC Professional Development Conference on May 2 in Calgary. I am looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new people at this new format conference.

My session “Mining Bitcoins with Your InstantPot: Has Agile Popularity Gone Too Far?” examines the hype, realities and use of agile approaches.  Here is the presentation summary from the conference site:

“The project world seems to have gone agile mad. The PMI has stuffed agile into everything in an attempt to stay current, but is it right or even helpful? Fear of missing out has vendors claiming to be agile and executives asking managers to be more agile. However, like InstantPots and cryptocurrencies, does the reality live up to the hype?  This session investigates the agile trend and looks at a new breed of agile suitability filters that help organizations apply agile approaches only when and where they make sense.

The presentation profiles organizations that effectively use agile approaches and how to build PMOs that support agile, hybrid, and traditional project teams. We look at the limitations and applicability concerns of using agile approaches. It would be naïve and arrogant to believe that agile (or any other approach) is universally the best way to execute projects. So, what types of projects do suit the approach (spoiler alert: novel, knowledge-worker projects) and what types of projects should best avoid it?

We will explore hybrid approaches where certain portions or periods of the project can exploit agile approaches. In these hybrid scenarios, we examine how to coordinate and integrate the agile work with the more traditional, plan-driven work. Also, we will examine the cultural fit of agile approaches and investigate how corporate mindsets and values effect structures and decision making. Trying to force fit a new mindset that is at odds with the corporate culture will inevitably be met with resistance. So, we need to be smart about what we try to introduce and how we plan to do it.

Our end goal should be successful projects and happy stakeholders. The approach we take should be appropriate for the tasks at hand, there are no points for style or conformance, since every project is different. So, learn how to analyze the project variables that include organizational, standards, technical and team components then act intelligently within that framework also guided by the inputs of the contributors.”

That description was for a 2-hour slot proposal and I was assigned a 1-hour slot so I will have to cut some material, but I will cover the highlights. The presentation title and outline are deliberately a little controversial to hopefully spur some reaction and interest in the session.

Having been involved in the development of the recent PMI standards, I personally do not believe “PMI has stuffed agile into everything in an attempt to stay current”, however, I can see how this may appear so to external parties.

As agile rides the hype cycle it is important to retain a grasp on where it can add value and where it’s use should be limited. This session aims to strip away some of the hyperbole and ground people with some practical application tools. Please come say hello if you see me at the conference!

PMI-SAC PDC Banner


Where Did All the Project Managers Go?

PuzzleSoftware is eating the world” claimed venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen in his 2011, New York Times article. Seven years on, the trend continues, and project managers are also on the menu. The next generation of project managers face new challenges but also new opportunities as organizations undergo a major transformation.

Software is becoming omnipresent, it is embedded and integral to all industries. Not just technology companies (like Google, Apple) but every sector is being disrupted by software including retail (Amazon), banking (PayPal, cryptocurrencies), transportation (Tesla, Uber), and travel (Airbnb).

As a project manager you may say “Great, just think of all those IT projects that will need project managers!” Well, that’s where things get interesting. First, today’s software teams don’t respond well to being “managed”, that’s old-school command-and-control thinking along with Gantt charts and calling people “resources”. Instead, they are led, empowered and supported by servant leaders. Next, the idea of a “project” with a defined endpoint is dissolving too.

As organizations realize their software systems provide the competitive advantage then stopping development equates to an end to innovation or competing. When organizations become more software-driven their systems are never “done”. As a result, organizations are switching from projects (that have a fixed end) to products - that continue to evolve. This movement popularized by the #NoProjects and Continuous Digital titles is growing exponentially.

 

 The Project Manager in a No Projects, No Managers Future

This double whammy of no more projects and no more managers likely creates heartburn for people with the job title “Project Manager”.  While this trend is clearly the future of work I believe there will always be a role for smart, cooperative people that can help with collaboration and development. 

 A quote that comes to mind is “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. The next generation of project managers will have new titles like “Product Leads”, “Development Team Coordinators” and “Digital Transformation Leaders”. They will help organizations build development capabilities around long-term products.

 This new generation will still communicate with stakeholders about status and risks. They will still facilitate consensus gathering amongst experts. They will still try to diffuse conflict and find common ground during arguments. The goals (satisfied stakeholders and value delivery) will remain the same but the tools, titles and processes employed will be vastly different.

 

New Tools and Approaches

Heavy upfront planning efforts and the use of tools like critical path network diagrams and PERT charts are not so useful when the input data is very uncertain. Tools like work breakdown structures offer great insights into sub-system assemblies but they are slower and more difficult to reprioritize than modern backlogs and release roadmaps.

As rates of change increase so too does early lifecycle uncertainty and the competitive need to start work quickly. The days of carefully analyzing work products upfront are dwindling. Instead, organizations build prototypes based on what they know right now and then iterate towards the final product. In the intangible world of software, the cost of experimentation is less than that of detailed analysis.

Also, using a software product provides better feedback on its suitability and possible expansion than reviewing a document or diagram about it. IWKIWISI (I Will Know It When I See It) becomes the new mantra, replacing the “Plan the work, and work the plan” ideas of old.

As organizations adopt a continuous delivery model that is focussed on products not projects then funding models change also. Instead of yearly budget cycles to fund entire projects, smaller tranches of funds are released to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Then, providing the product continues to return value, more funding is made available. A venture capital funding model lets product leaders focus on delivering a stream of high-value features that support continued investment.

Projects classically track metrics like on time/budget and Return On Investment (ROI). Products track customer satisfaction, market share, profit to funding ratios. They are similar concepts but a new vocabulary to learn.

 

Role Changes

Agile software development teams organize their own work, solve most of their own problems, and are empowered to experiment with new work strategies and approaches. They do not need (or want) to have work assigned to them, nor asked to report status. Instead, they make their work visible via kanban boards and new features.

They do however need people to remove impediments and chase up external dependencies. They also need investment in training, shielding from interruptions, plus regular encouragement and words of thanks to stay motivated. In short, all the servant leadership practices that good project managers did anyway still apply.

Project managers cannot be the center of work planning or task distribution. There is too much complexity to be anything but a bottleneck. Instead, we must trust development team members and product owners from the business as subject matter experts in their own domains.

Where these teams often need help is keeping the larger perspective on where it is we are trying to get to. When you are heads-down on solving a technical issue, it is easy to lose sight of the end goal. Having someone communicate the product vision reveals a beckoning summit towards which others can chart their own course.

In this way servant leadership and visionary leadership that predate modern project management are still valuable and needed. Yet the scientific project management that grew out of the industrialization of process is largely left behind.

 

The Future

In many industries, the classic role of projects and project managers will continue. I don’t see construction moving away from big upfront design and the reliance on project managers any time. In the software world though I think we are heading for substantial changes. Sure, some companies will continue as they always have with software project and project managers. However, most organizations will transition to long-term products with leaders and coordinators.

It is an exciting time for life-long learners willing to acquire new tools and approaches. There is no shortage of work for people who can collaborate with others and solve problems. The critical role of software will increase as organizations undertake digital transformation and adopt continuous digital strategies based on products vs projects. So, while the role “project manager” might be heading into the same category as “switchboard operators”, “human alarm clocks”, and “bowling alley pinsetters” the work and opportunities in this exciting field continue to grow.

[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


PMI-ACP Exam Prep Course with Mike Griffiths, Calgary, Alberta

Pmi-acp_exam_prep_cover_2nd_ed_updatedI am gathering names for my next Calgary based PMI-ACP Exam Prep course. Please let me know via email to Mike <at> LeadingAnswers.com if you are interested in reserving a spot on the next 3-day Calgary based PMI-ACP Exam preparation course held late May / early June 2018. We can do Wed, Thu, Fri or Thu, Fri, Sat – let me know your preference.

 

Evolution of the PMI-ACP Credential

Popularity has grown in the PMI-ACP from niche to mainstream with over 20,000 people now holding the credential. This makes it the most popular experience based agile certification and the credential of choice for hiring managers looking for the rigor of a ISO 17024 backed PMI credential. 

On March 26, 2018 the PMI updated the exam to align it with the lexicon of terms used in the new Agile Practice Guide. The course features updated materials and the new Updated Second Edition of my PMI-ACP Exam Prep book as an accompanying textbook.

 

My Involvement in the PMI-ACP Credential

I was a founding member of the steering committee that designed and developed the exam content outline for the exam. We based the exam on what agile practitioners with a year or two’s experience should know to be effective. We wanted a methodology agnostic credential that captured the agile practices used on most projects most of the time. The exam covers Lean, Kanban and agile approaches such as Scrum and XP along with servant leadership and collaboration. 

I worked with RMC to write their best-selling PMI-ACP Exam Preparation book. I recently updated this book to align it with the March 26, 2018 lexicon harmonization and change the chapter review questions to situational questions. The book is available from RMC here and is also included in the course.

 

Details about the Course

The course will be capped to 20 people for better Q&A and will likely take place at historic Fort Calgary which is close to downtown on 9th Avenue, has great catering and free parking. It includes the new Updated Second Edition of my book, colour printed workbook, sample exam questions, and additional materials. 

The course has a 100% pass rate and uses Turning Technologies audience response (clicker) technology to privately track your strength and weakness areas as we go. Following the course, each participant receives a personalized follow-up study plan based on their sample question performances. For more details see the Course Outline.

To express an interest and get pricing information please contact Mike <at> @LeadingAnswers.com.


Talent Management of The Future

Talent Management 2.JPGWe have shifted to Knowledge Work, but how do we find, develop and retain knowledgeable workers? This post examines Talent Management from two perspectives. First, what works well for agile teams. Second, how does the function change as organizations evolve, showing us how talent management may be done in future.

Let’s start by understanding what talent management covers. Talent Management is the strategy, planning and execution of everything needed to hire, develop, reward performance, and retain people. So, all the traditional Human Resources (HR) work, that we don’t call “HR” anymore because people are not resources.

The term talent management comes from research done by McKinsey in the late 1990’s and popularized in the book “The War for Talent” in 2001. At the time the authors were talking mainly about recruiting for leadership roles and the importance of finding people who possess: "a sharp strategic mind, leadership ability, communications skills, the ability to attract and inspire people, entrepreneurial instincts, functional skills, and the ability to deliver results." However, the term became so popular it is now used for the hiring and development at all levels, not just senior roles.

Why it became a big deal and the model organizations aspire to follow is because the McKinsey research found a definitive connection between top performers and superior corporate achievement. Not surprisingly, when you have the best people, you get industry-leading results. Not only that, but based on studying 13,000 executives in 27 companies, they identified how to do it and defined the following steps:

  1. Embrace a Talent Mindset
  2. Craft a Winning Employee Value Proposition
  3. Rebuild Your Recruiting Strategy
  4. Weave Development into Your Organization
  5. Differentiate and Affirm Your People
  6. Construct a practical framework for making this happen in your organization

When we read through this list anyone familiar with the agile mindset will likely see connections to agile and lean values. The recognition that people bring value and the need to respect, attract and engage people is central to the process. However, like agile adoption, just because organizations have known what they should be doing since the early 2000’s it does not mean they always behave that way.

Just as the agile mindset is sometimes paid lip service and poorly implemented, many organizations say they have policies for talent management but implement them poorly also. So, after recognizing why the process is a good one, even though it is often implemented less well (much like agile) let’s see how talent management operates for agile teams.

Agile Teams

Agile approaches recognize it is people who add value. They favor a Theory Y (people want to contribute and learn) approach to leadership over Theory X (people are lazy and need close supervision). Agile teams are built around intrinsic motivators such as autonomy of work, mastery of skills, and alignment with a vision and purpose.

Agile approaches encourage engaging the team in the recruiting process. So, while a hiring manager may pre-screen candidates for basic skills or security clearances, the actual evaluation of candidates and selection of the successful person is performed by members of the team itself. While this may sound inefficient, diverting attention from project goals, the negative impact of a poorly matched new hire is much greater.

When external people hire new team members without significant team consultation problems often ensue. This is then made worse because there is usually a delay in resolving the issue. People understandably want to give new hires “time to find their feet” and the “benefit of the doubt” before removing them from a team which aggravates the issue.

By contrast, when the team selects new members themselves they have already mentally prepared themselves for them joining. By asking candidates to perform tasks like coding exercises or a design-review, they test skills, get a feel of how candidates think, and how interactions may be.  There are fewer mismatches of talent or temperament and high performing teams are more likely to stay in the Tuckman Performing stage rather than churning back through the Storming and Norming stages again.

Getting the teams involved in hiring is part of the talent management process Step 6 “Construct a practical framework for making this happen in your organization”.  Agile approaches adopt many of the other steps also, they support Step 4 “Weave Development into Your Organization” and Step 5 “Differentiate and Affirm Your People” through empowered teams and adaptation.

Agile teams are empowered to make local decisions and encouraged to self-organize about accomplishing work. Shifting ownership and decision making down to the doers of work is more respectful of their talents and a more rewarding way for people to work.

Encouraging inspection and adaptation through product demonstrations, retrospectives, and experiments develop employees. It demonstrates trust in their opinions and allows them to better advance in their careers through experimenting with new roles.

Finally, the emerging practice of keeping high-performing agile teams together and bringing new work to established teams, values employee contributions. Rather than disbanding high-performing teams when the project completes, keeping that integrated unit together and giving them a new challenge to work on.

Organizational Evolution

Some progressive organizations have dropped hierarchical, command-and-control structures in favor of flatter, empowered teams. Coming from a background of agile development it is natural to think this is the broadening of agile thinking into the larger organizational landscape and the growth of truly agile organizations. However, while this observation matches our worldview, it is a flawed perspective of a bigger picture.

When we start examining organizational evolution from primitive gangs to the most sophisticated egalitarian organizations we discover that the agile mindset and principles are stepping stones on a journey that goes further. Agile approaches, that started out in organizing knowledge-work teams, are not the best tools for examining organizational structures and strategy.

Social researcher Frederic Laloux, a former associate partner with McKinsey, literally wrote the book on organizational evolution entitled “Reinventing Organizations” in 2014. In it he charts the development of organizational types in a progression from the most basic to the most advanced. Each stage of this progression has an accompanying color associated with it as a shorthand for the more descriptive titles. A summary of these stages with their color names is listed in the table below:

Teal Organizations

Laloux is careful to point out that organizations may straddle categories. Some departments in the same organization may be more mature than others. Also, one level is not necessarily better than another, they are just different and hold different values as their guides.

40 years ago, most companies were Amber with inflexible hierarchies and they struggled to compete with the emerging Orange organizations that valued and rewarded talent more. These days most organizations are Orange and are struggling to respond to the challenges of competing with the growing number of Green values-oriented organizations.

What is surprising to some agile enthusiasts is that agile is not the latest stage of development. Agile values and principles align most closely with Green organizations that emphasise empowerment and a value-driven culture – like maximizing for business value.  However, there is a stage beyond Green called Teal. It breaks apart the family mentality that uses centralized operational functions and empowered teams and instead encourages small communities of practice in more of an organism/ community-based model.

Laloux’s Red to Teal model is very useful for agile teams. The characteristics of Amber and Orange organizations nicely summarize most corporate companies today. The challenges of implementing agile approaches successfully involve the struggles of moving a traditional Amber or Orange organization to Green. Not an easy task.

However, Teal organizations are more advanced than agile Green and their approaches to talent management may reveal the future of recruiting and retention. In Teal organizations small, self-managing groups are given autonomy to do what is necessary to be successful. Each group contains all the decision-making power it typically needs, supported by a very light-weight group that provides templates and services. People are encouraged to find where they can add value and roles change frequently.

Attributes of Teal Organizations

An example of a Teal organization is Buurtzorg, a Dutch nursing organization whose name means “neighborhood care” in Dutch. Grown from the idea of its founder and nurse, Jos de Blok in 2007, who had become frustrated at the bureaucracy and “machinification” of nursing care. Buurtzorg is now the largest nursing organization in Holland. It has over 10,000 nurses and assistants working in 850 self-managed teams of 10-12 people and routinely wins awards for Best Employer of the Year.

Buurtzorg has organized around autonomy, not hierarchy. Teams make nearly all their own decisions and are supported by a bare-bones staff of 45 in the back office and 16 coaches. While they conduct over 280 Million Euros of business each year, they have only 6 people working in finance and no CFO. Without this hierarchy, their overhead costs are 8% compared to industry average of 25% which provides more funds for care and innovation. People enjoy working there too. Their staff sickness rate is 4% compared to industry averages of 7% and staff retention is the highest in the industry.

Talent Management in Teal Organizations

For a start, they don’t call it “Talent Management”. Just as “HR” is a throwback to Amber thinking of organizations as machines and people as interchangeable parts in that machine, “Talent” is also a throwback to similar thinking about skill trumping values and integrity. An unlucky/insightful choice of companies to profile in the book “The War for Talent” that give rise to the term “Talent Management” focussed on how Enron selected people based heavily on their intelligence.

Subsequently, the book and movie “The Smartest Guys in the Room” recounts how prioritizing intelligence over integrity can lead to poor choices, scandals and downfalls. Instead, Teal organizations just call the hiring and care of its staff process “growth and looking after its members”. They do not have a centralized HR department; each local group practice self-organizes and recruits as the business expands.

Work structures change quickly in Teal organizations. People may see an opportunity for improvement and partner with other team-mates to tackle it. Roles and functions come and go frequently. People are not bound by job titles and may be working on many different initiatives. In such a dynamic environment, it makes little sense recruiting for a single role, since that role may not exist for long. Instead, people are recruited for fit by their peers. Their skills are still checked, but it is much more important that the values of the new hires align with the organizational values.

After hiring the onboarding process in Teal organizations differs from Traditional/Orange and Agile/Green organizations. Since values and working co-operatively are so integral to Teal organizations, significant training in relationship skills are common after joining. It is normal for Buurtzorg staff to undertake extensive training on how decisions are made, how to resolve conflict, and how to collaborate effectively.

Training and performance reviews happen differently as well. People in Teal organizations have personal freedom and responsibility for their training. Employee’s at FAVI, a metal manufacturer in France also using Teal approaches, decide what products and techniques would best benefit their group to learn. Once mastered these skills are then used to enhance services or open new product offerings.

Instead of traditional performance reviews that try to take an objective view of past performance, more holistic reviews of one’s learning journey and calling are undertaken. They focus on wellbeing in addition to skills acquisition and growth. This may sound “Foo-Fooey” to employees in traditional organizations used to leaving their emotions at home. However, the mid-life crisis is the classic result of a life in traditional organizations without emotion.

All too often in traditional organizations people play the game of success and run the rat race. After 20 years when they realize they will not make it to the top, or the top is just as bad, but now with fewer friends, they question Why? After chasing targets and numbers, surviving yet another change program for so long people cannot help but wonder about the meaning of it all and yearn for something more.

So, What Does This All Mean?

Organizations are evolving. HR practices became Talent Management and will likely evolve into something else. We currently exist in a landscape where most organizations are run as machines prioritized for growth. However, we are seeing changes in more employee engagement and autonomy. As these changes continue work should become more meaningful, personal and rewarding. We need to embrace these changes, after all, "When you're finished changing, you're finished." -Ben Franklin

 

[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Project “You” and Project “Two“


We work hard in our organizations on projects to build new products and services, or affect some kind of change. We are also constantly on the lookout for ways to make the work go faster, by removing impediments and improving efficiencies. Techniques like Value Stream Mapping analyze the value-adding activities and the non-value adding activities to identify queues and waste in our processes that can then be eliminated. Looking at our contributions and opportunities for efficiencies is like considering our work as a machine and trying to lubricate it so it will go faster and run more smoothly.

Cog 1

However, this view misses who is driving your work - you. In effect we watch the work, but not the worker. It is you that drives the contributions you make on the project.

Cog 2

Attempts to improve and optimize the project may not be as productive as improving our own performance. So, instead of oiling the process, increasing our capability is a great way to improve output.

Cog 3

Now with a bigger and better you, your project performance will improve.

“Project You”

This is “Project You”, the improvement and investment in yourself. “Project You” should come first, but often it is relegated to second or third choice, or forgotten completely, as work and home pressures take over. However, I invite you to consider “Project You” as your first priority and your regular project work as “Project Two”.

This may seem selfish, but it is not when you consider what is powering your project contributions – your capabilities. Investing in yourself will help your employer and project, it will increase your competencies and capacity to do more work.

More than Just Skills

Skills are just one aspect of you. Your Health, Happiness, and Relationships with others are also critical parts of your makeup that will hurt performance if they are not attended to and in good condition.

Cog 4


All too often people focus on work performance or skills to the detriment of another aspect such as health or supportive relationships. When this occurs your work and project performance will eventually suffer also.

 

Cog 5

Like having a faulty or unevenly developed cog wheel, mismatches in these quadrants will in due course limit your effectiveness at work. People cannot go on if they are unhappy, unsupported, or sick. Just like learning new skills, we need to invest in our well being and the well being of those close to us to remain productive.

A New Year, a Better You

As we start the New Year, now is a great time to assess our overall work engine. To perform a review of “Project You”, recognize and celebrate what we have working in our favour and make a commitment to improve the elements that are our weakest.

Focussing on “Project You” now will bring dividends to your “Project Two” and “Project Three” in 2018. Look beyond the usual sphere of just work and ask: “Am I happy?”, “Am I healthy”, ”Am I in and creating strong relationships?” Then, just as we would for planning the acquisition of new skills or certifications, create a plan of action for addressing the areas that need the most work.

It Nests Infinitely

Of course, the idea of “Project You” applies to all the team members on our project also. It is common to view teams as the interaction and sum contributions of the team member efforts. Then, as good servant leaders we attempt to remove roadblocks and communicate a clear vision of where we are trying to get to.

Cog 6

However, a better view of projects is to see the people components driving these contributions. When we consider our team members as more than just their skills and effort, but also take an interest in their health, happiness and relationships we discover more places we can help.

Cog 7

I remember working on a software project where a developer came up to me and explained he had just received a call from his wife who was sick, and he wanted to go home to see her. I could have just said: “Sure, no problem, go home and see her”. However, because I knew he walked to his nearest train station and took the light rail network to get into the office, I asked if I could drive him home, since I drove to the office and had my car there. He was very appreciative, he saved 30 minutes on his journey home and I was back in the office in under an hour.

It was no big deal to me; my team was very self-sufficient and diligent, and I was glad to help. However, that simple gesture to help with his relationship and the health and happiness of his wife was not forgotten, it helped strengthen our work relationship and was repaid many times over.

Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask Before Helping Others

It would be hypocritical of us to try and assist with the health, happiness or relationship success of our colleagues if our own lives were steaming piles of self-loathing and depravity. We don’t need to be saints, but we should try to get our own lives in order before helping others.

We will also be viewed as a more credible source of council if we have a healthy, balanced home and work life. So, start where you have the most influence, in your own life. See how we can address any imbalances and then look more holistically at your team members. Maybe share the “Project You” and “Project Two” concept with them and see if there is any way you can support them as they grow also.

Summary

Projects, by definition, are temporary endeavors, people, however, should take a longer-term view of their success. Our achievement on our current project and the projects to come will in large part be driven by our full-spectrum wellbeing.  The same goes for the colleagues we work with. So why not use this year as the opportunity to examine “Project You” and invest in your future?

[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com, available here]


Government Lessons in People Over Process

CubicleMy first opportunity to create and run a large agile team did not start well. Having had good successes with small to medium sized agile teams I was keen to unleash the benefits on a bigger scale. I was working for IBM at the time and was able to persuade my account manager to pitch the approach on one of our government projects. A clean-sheet development opportunity with a smart team and engaged business group – what could go wrong? As it turns out, plenty due to my ill-advised approach.

It was the early 90’s and we were trialling techniques that would later become the agile approach DSDM (Dynamic Systems Development Method). Taking ideas like James Martin’s RAD (Rapid Application Development) and active user involvement from Enid Mumford’s Participative Design Approach, we had already dramatically reduced development time and improved acceptance rates on several projects. I was convinced collocated teams with short iterations of build/feedback cycles were the future. We were all set for a big client success and who better than the British Government for good publicity! My enthusiasm was about to be tested.

I was given a full rein of the project, or as I would later realize, just enough rope to hang myself with. Having struggled to get dedicated business input on previous projects I commandeered a large boardroom to collocate the development team and business subject matter experts (SMEs). It was awesome, everyone was together in one room and we had direct access to the business representatives for requirements elicitation, clarification, and demo feedback. We were working hard and getting lots of features built but the business representatives hated it.

At first, I thought they hated me. I think that is a common mistake, we internalize changes in behaviour as attacks or criticisms of ourselves. What have I done? What did I say to upset them? - all of them! I recall wanting to write on my internal project status report to the IBM PMO that “the business is revolting”. However, that is what occurred, starting as cordial and helpful, the business SMEs became less helpful, then uncooperative, and finally hostile. I had a revolt on my hands that I did not understand.

This was my first introduction to organizational change. Luckily for me, I had access to many people in IBM smarter and more experienced than I was. I was given a book called “How to Manage Change Effectively: Approaches, Methods, and Case Examples” by Donald Kirkpatrick that changed my career. In it Kirkpatrick outlines circumstances where people will resist change. These include:

  1. When people sense loss in: security, pride and satisfaction, freedom, responsibility, authority, good working conditions, and/or status
  2. It creates more problems than it is worth
  3. Extra efforts are not being rewarded
  4. Lack of respect for those initiating the change
  5. The change initiative and its implications are misunderstood
  6. Belief that the change does not make sense for the organization
  7. Change is misdirected, current state or alternatives are better
  8. A low tolerance for change in our lives
  9. When change violates a principle or commitment that the organization must stand by
  10. Exclusion from the change initiative
  11. Changes viewed as criticism of how things were done in the past
  12. The change effort occurs at a bad time, other issues or problems are also being handled

Something I was not aware of at the time is how the career development process works within the government. The most junior new hires work in open-plan cubical offices. Then as you get a promotion you get moved to bigger cubicles with higher walls that are more like mini-offices. Next, you get promoted to a real office, then an office with a window, and eventually a corner office. In short, your workspace defines your status, responsibility and authority.

By bringing these business representatives into a shared boardroom to work on the project I had unwittingly generated change resistance scenarios 1-3 and probably triggered many others also. Making them sit and work together like the most junior recruits had caused a loss of good working conditions, status, freedom, pride, satisfaction, and perceived authority. A bad idea when hoping to develop a productive working relationship with someone.

Luckily for me the Kirkpatrick book also lists circumstances when people do accept change, which unsurprisingly are the opposite conditions and include:

  1. When change is seen as a personal gain: in security, money, authority, status or prestige, responsibility, working conditions, or achievement
  2. Provides a new challenge and reduces boredom
  3. Opportunities to influence the change initiative
  4. Timing: the time is right for organizational change
  5. Source of the change initiative is liked and respected
  6. The approach of the change and how it is implemented appeals to us

So, equipped with these ideas we changed our approach. Instead of the business SMEs being collocated with us they returned to their fancy corner offices, long lunch breaks, and afternoons spent reading the newspaper - none of which they could do when they all sat together. Instead, we reserved their mornings for questions, review sessions, and demonstrations. This was better received because their morning calendars were blocked with important project meetings, but we rarely called on all of them at once unless it was for a business demo.

Now they had their offices back, a little more free time, and were engaged in a more respectful way. The team were sceptical at first. However, it really is much better to have one hour of someone who is cheerful, engaged, and helpful than eight hours of someone who is bitter, obstinate and causing issues. The project went much smoother after these changes and it taught me an important lesson in never trying to introduce a process or practice without considering the people elements first.

We completed the project early, largely due to the input and hard work during acceptance testing of the business SMEs, and IBM got their successful case study. I learned to temper my enthusiasm and consider other stakeholders who will undoubtedly have a different view of the project than myself. Individuals and interaction are indeed more important than processes and tools, even if they are your own pet agile processes and tools.

[I first wrote this article for the Government themed November issue of ProjectManagement.com, available to subscribers Here]


PMI-ACP Training Partner Program

RMC TPP ImageWhen I travel I often meet people who say they used my books or other training materials to help them pass their PMI-ACP exam. Plus, I’m also asked by others how to get permission to use my book as the basis for their own PMI-ACP training courses.

So, I am excited to announce the new PMI-ACP Training Partner Program from RMC Learning Solutions. For an introductory low price of $500 per year you receive:

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Note: These slides are an outline of our book. Our Training Partners use them as supplemental, reference slides as they develop their own course.  You can use some, or all, of these slides in your course.

  1. One Instructor License for the PM FASTrack® PMI-ACP® Exam Simulation Software – v2 (Downloadable exam simulator. This is a $199 value)

Note:  This exclusive Instructor License allows you to use pre-configured exams to focus on/test a specific knowledge area.  The Instructor License is not available outside of RMC and our Training Partners.

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Note: This enables you to include our training materials in the price of your course. It also includes discounts on my brand-new PMI-ACP Exam Workbook.

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If you would like to learn more about this program and take advantage of savings of 35-55%, please contact Marcie McCarthy at mmccarthy@rmcls.com