Going solo: The project management way!

Last year I watched my daughter make her first solo flight in a light aircraft.  That means she took off in an airplane on her own, and landed it. She was just 16 and had ten hours training.  The first I knew it was happening was when the instructor said quietly to me,  “You might want to stay around to watch this lesson!”.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

If you haven’t experienced going solo in a airplane, this is pretty much how it works. After you’ve made three perfect landings in a row, the instructor casually remarks: “Not bad, why don’t you do the next three circuits on your own?”  They then climb out of the airplane leaving you alone with the engine running and ready to go.  At that moment the airplane seems tremendously quiet, the right-hand seat looks tremendously empty and the runaway looks tremendously short!

I was talking with a portfolio manager who was concerned about bringing on a new junior project manager.  She was worried; “I know she has done the course. And she does know about project management. But I just can’t let her on a project on her own yet. What if she’s not ready?”

That decision – the decision to let somebody ‘go solo’ – is one of the most difficult judgements made by any instructor.  How can you be sure the student is ready?  And it’s an important decision. Too cautious and the student becomes frustrated and loses heart; they don’t understand why the instructor is not letting them go, as they ‘know’ they are ready.  Too careless – well the consequences don’t bear thinking about.

From project learning to project execution

Project management is a core skill in many disciplines, and graduates I work with have often been exposed to it as a component of their course, or even as the main element of their degree.  However, when they get their first job there are a few surprises for them.  Firstly, what they have been taught is rarely the way it’s being done in the workplace.

What’s taught on courses is rarely what’s done in the work-place

On courses, students are taught the ‘know-what’ and to a certain extent the ‘know-how’ of project management.  They learn about life-cycles, about risks, about planning, about monitoring.  They may even have completed a mini-project, but they lack genuine experience in the ‘know-do’.  They have not had exposure to a sufficient range of projects to realise that their approach must be adapted to suit the differing contexts of their projects. 

A project life-cycle, which starts with a business case and is carefully stage-gated through to a formal closure, is a wonderful model.  But try applying that to a project to write a report, or to organise an office-away-day, or even to manage a simple office move.  You quickly begin to wonder what all this project bureaucracy is about and why on earth you need it!

Which brings us neatly to the second problem.  The projects that are typically given to new-to-project project managers are often so low in complexity that many of the principles and techniques they have been taught are neither applicable nor necessary.  The net result can be that they succeed on easy projects by discarding some processes – do you really need to plan in detail how to write a a person report? But this strategy, once learned, can be mistakenly applied to all projects regardless of their complexity. That means, while running simple projects does provide valuable experience, it does not expose the project manager to the range of challenges that are really the hallmark of professional project management.

When a pilot makes their first solo flight they haven’t finished.  It’s just the first significant milestone. There is much more to achieve; more knowledge, greater skill and proper attitude to demonstrate before they can join the ranks of qualified pilots.  So it is for the individuals developing into project management. The challenge for those responsible for the delivery of future project capability is to ensure that there are project opportunities that effectively and safely deliver the level of project management competence required.

Flight instruction has evolved over the past hundred years.  Today the training programmes are pretty much the same around the world.  That’s not true for project managers. Today there are three main entry points.

Being a project administrator

The project administrator (PA) role offers what appears to be a safe route into project management.  Often situated within the project management office (PMO), the PA role usually takes one of two forms:

  • Assistant to a project or programme manager – aiding the manager in administrative tasks such as meeting follow-throughs, report preparation and project data collection
  • Administrator in the PMO – supporting project office activities such as the collation of portfolio status information and PMO process improvement projects such as preparing templates and mini-audits

In both roles, the PA gets exposed to a variety of projects – they probably are exposed to more lessons learned than most project managers, and that’s a great start.  However, it still sits in the know-what and know-how range. 

There is also a potential catch-22.  If they are good at administration, nobody wants to lose them, and their progress into project management is held back.  If they are poor at administration there is an assumption that this means that they will not make good project managers, and their progress is held back.

The catch-22: If they are good, nobody wants to lose them and if they are not good, nobody will promote them!

So if the PMO is to use the PA as an entry point for developing project managers there needs to be a pre-figured set of experiences laid out with criteria that allows for the PA to take on responsibilities and have their performance evaluated as a precursor to taking their first solo flight in project management.

Being a junior project manager

Many organisations I work with have junior project manager (JPM) roles, sometimes referred to as project coordinators.  The JPMs lead small projects and often report into senior project managers who are expected to provide them with support and guidance. 

This is a great way of providing exposure to projects, protected by the oversight provided by the more senior project manager.  But ask any JPM and they will tell you that what they learn and how they develop depends entirely upon the disposition of the supervising project manager.  Some use the project coordinator as their personal assistant. Some willingly delegate away as much responsibility as possible, and some are at a bit of a loss as to what exactly they are supposed to do with a JPM!

Some project managers make great coaches but…

Not all project managers make great coaches.  Indeed, there is evidence that being a coach does not sit comfortably with other fundamental project manager traits such as being task-focused and achievement-driven.  Moreover, project managers are not instructors, so do they know how to recognise when it is appropriate to let their JPMs take the next steps, to move on to the next stage?

Once a person takes on a JPM role, the commitment to becoming a project manager is already made.  The question is now, where are the instructors?  What is the trigger to fly the first circuit without direct supervision?  Can this decision be left to the senior project manager or is this a decision to be made by an individual or process better equipped to make that judgment?

Learning on-the-job

The Hout Bay Young Adult Development Academy (YADA) is a skills link programme with the goal to help young people overcome barriers to employment and develop a broad range of skills and knowledge in order to participate in the current and future labour market.

Extract of sizing estimates from YADA plan

As a tutor on the programme, I took the group on a 12-week journey to develop project leadership skills.  This involved them in the tendering and planning of a fairly big refurbishment project – the restoration and external painting of a large coastal home.  If the quote was accepted, they were then to implement the plan they had created. 

There was a master builder available who validated the estimating and planning.  What was made clear to the group was that the responsibility for getting it right – getting the job, and getting it done – was theirs.

The students’ growth was spectacular.  They sorted out the techniques.  They sorted out the interpersonal issues.  They communicated with the client.  And they secured the contract!

In the end… it’s about giving responsibility

There is no substitute for placing responsibility on the shoulders of emerging project managers.  As with a student pilot making their first solo, it should not be a drama but a natural next-step – a positive indication of the increasing trust and belief in their ability to perform. 

The delegation of responsibility must be real – it’s not letting somebody walk with reins, or riding a bike with training wheels.  The project must be real – Mickey Mouse projects just make Mickey Mouse project managers.  And just like my daughter landing after her first solo – it is not the end of the journey, but the start of an even more exciting future!

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Being agile without a capital ‘A’!

My construction project management students will generally tell me that Agile has no place in construction.  Indeed, many feel that the PMI has alienated engineering and construction by their insistence of the integration of Agile in the Body of Knowledge.  When it comes to the Agile frameworks such as SAFe and Scrum maybe the students are right.

However, I do have a deep suspicion that construction does, and has for some time, used agile approaches we just don’t call them Agile!  Take the idea of ‘gamification’ which features in many Agile facilitation approaches.

Gamification is more than just playing games

Gamification at its simplest is defined as:

the application of game dynamics and mechanics into non-gaming environments

For example, the use of Planning Poker to improve estimating practices and encourage consensus building around the estimates.  Or Retropoly – a game based upon Monopoly which encourages open reflections during the retrospective process.  There are many others.

But gamification is not just about ‘playing games’.  It’s actually about generating game mindsets.  As we see in this definition here:

Gamification is a process of enhancing services with (motivational) affordances in order to invoke gameful experiences and further behavioural outcomes

It’s not the playing of the game that matters. It’s the generation of the feelings, behaviours and attitudes that come along with gameplay that makes the difference.

If you have never seen the San Diego 4-hour-house then it is definitely worth having a look at the short video clip.  In it, two teams compete to build a house from the ground up in 4-hours.  The winning team does it in two hours 45 minutes!  The causes of this amazing productivity are many, but one of the big contributors is the motivational impact caused by the introduction of the competitive elements between the two teams.  This is not just the construction of a house to them, but the participation in a big-time construction game league.  As commented by one of the participants: “

This is not the normal day-job. This is fun!

By the way. It would be tempting to look back on the four-hour-house and dismiss it as just a piece of publicity, with no real engineering or construction value.  However, it’s worth remembering, the application of the time-constraint on this project forced innovation around the construction processes which we can still learn from today.   For example, the use of chemically heating concrete to get it to set within 30 minutes is now a common practice where time is of the essence. 

Crossrail and the use of competition to encourage innovation

Earlier this year I wrote about the great project legacy sharing that has been occurring in the UK promoted by the Major Projects Association.

Crossrail is probably best known as the 15 billion pound railway that is going to be severely over-budget and over-time.  What is refreshing however is the transparency of the operation of the project and its determination to ensure a real learning legacy.  You can find many useful reports and insights on mega-projects on the Crossrail Legacy site.

Crossrail is a large infrastructure project creating an east-west railway line across London and its surroundings. The line will be 73 miles long including 13 miles of underground line under central London. Crossrail brings together numerous contractors working over a dozen of sites.

In the early stages of the Crossrail project, it was recognised that innovation would be critical to finding appropriate solutions.  That meant both encouraging the generation of new ideas as well as having the mechanisms to select and exploit the development of the new solutions.

Invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process, while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out into practice.

A three-year open innovation programme was funded to encourage the sharing of ideas.  Crossrail adopted an open approach to “create an innovation ecosystem around itself and to foster collaboration among contractors”. 

The innovation team set up the Innovate18 platform where every employee could submit innovative ideas, which it evaluated.  And guess what?  For those ideas which looked promising, the team helped individuals to prepare an entry for the innovation competition.  

Innovate 18 has been very successful with over 800 innovations submitted to the platform since it first went online in 2013 with the support provided by the innovation programme team contributing to a high level of engagement with the platform. The innovation competition aims to promote the submission of early stage ideas to the platform by offering the possibility of financial help to further develop the idea and in doing so overcomes one of the challenges faced by innovation submission platforms which is a tendency to mostly receive submissions for incremental innovations.

Researchers at Imperial College London evaluated  the success of the Crossrail innovation programme and you can find the full report on the Crossrail website.  There is lots of learning to be found here about how to promote usable innovation.  For me, I feel that creating the change in mind-set, promoting sharing between suppliers who don’t normally share and encouraging the follow through of potential new solutions.  Well, that culture change could at least partially be attributed to gamification – creating that game mindset which encourages individuals and groups to just have fun!

Agility is all around

Agile and its related frameworks have created energy and excitement around the techniques that they espouse.  That energy to do things differently, and hopefully to do things better, is an important positive force. 

It would be a shame if this energy led to insularism and ‘methodologist terrorism’.  Perhaps the real lessons are that when we look through a different lens we can and must learn from every discipline.  Maybe our plea to those working on the next PMI Body of Knowledge, which promises to integrate Agile into the very way projects are managed, is that we need to be:

small ‘a’ agile in our practices, welcoming of learning from all disciplines and wary of imposing prescriptive methods.

For further information

  • Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014, January). Does Gamification Work? -A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification. In HICSS (Vol. 14, No. 2014, pp. 3025-3034).
  • Koivisto, J., & Hamari, J. (2019). The rise of motivational information systems: A review of gamification research. International Journal of Information Management45, 191-210.
  • Worsley, L., & Worsley, C. (2019). Adaptive Project Planning. Business Expert Press.

Project management: Have we lost the plot?

So, these two people meet.  Discovering they were both teachers, the woman from New Zealand asked of her male English colleague, “What do you teach?”. “Mathematics.” he replied, “How about you?” “Me”, she replied, “Oh, I teach children!”.

How we frame what we do, the way we describe ourselves, what we do, and what we do it with, fundamentally affects how we manage ourselves.  That’s just as true in project management as it is in education.  As a professional project manager, what is it we say we do, what is it we say we are, and why does it matter? Continue reading “Project management: Have we lost the plot?”

Renewing your PMO

If you are lucky enough to have attended the PMO conference in London in June then you may be already be reflecting on:  How could the PMO improve?  How can we increase the value of our PMO?  What kind of PMO should we be?

A view that PMOs should not be permanent structures has gained ground recently.  Todd Williams, in his insightful book on “Filling Executive Gaps”, suggests that PMOs are perceived as essentially bureaucratic and they all tend to outlive their usefulness.  The need to re-invent and re-align the PMO every few years to remain valuable has almost become a mantra in PMO circles.

John McIntyre at the 2017 PMO conference talked about “How to survive that tricky third year”: and described how the PMO at Ticketmaster managed by doing more with less, deciding what to continue to provide and what to drop.

Continue reading “Renewing your PMO”

From right-size governance to agile governance

If you’re working in a structured project environment with a project office, the chances are that you are using a right-size governance approach.

What does that mean?  Essentially, the level of management attention and oversight varies appropriately, depending upon the characteristics of the project, such as size and complexity, or the level and significance of the impact of the project on the organisation. 

Continue reading “From right-size governance to agile governance”

What learning legacy are you building?

Project learning legacies

I’ve just returned from a week in the UK having had some great project conversations.  One thing that really struck me was the emphasis on learning legacies.  This has particularly taken off in the engineering and construction industries where learning legacy portals are being made publicly available. 

These legacy learning sites aim to share knowledge and insights across the profession. As the Crossrail legacy site so aptly puts it – they want to promote a

‘pinch with pride’

attitude to encourage projects to learn from what has happened before.

Our work on lessons learned, which came out of the Success Stories Shared initiative in South Africa, suggested that:

Despite 80% of projects running PIRs, less than 20% of PIR reports were ever re-accessed, and there was little evidence of organisational learning.

Lessons identified only become lessons learnt once the collected knowledge is used in current or future projects. There needs to be a transition space created where a shift takes place, and vital knowledge is not simply stored away in files, not being accessed, but rather becomes implemented on a practical project level. But who is responsible for this shift from lessons identified to lessons learnt and how can it be facilitated?

It is interesting to see in sites such as the Major Projects Knowledge Hub that there is an emphasis, not only on sharing stories but also on connecting networks of experts across the industry.

Perhaps there needs to be a conceptual shift between the process of identifying lessons and actually learning lessons. If learning results in change, then what usually takes place at the end of a project would be the identification of a lesson. Rather than having lessons identified as one of the outcomes of the project, it should be seen as the start of the process that develops the lessons that are genuinely learnt and thus, by definition, implemented.  

In one retail company in South Africa, we have seen this approach embedded in the process of starting a project.  The project motivation documentation requires the project manager and sponsor to agree on which previous projects the new project is most similar.  There must be some evidence that information and learning from these projects have been taken into account.  After four years of this in action, both sponsors and projects managers are unanimous in their view – it is crazy not to do this!

Learning legacy portals

Perhaps the best known and earliest portal in the UK was that set up following the 2012 London Olympic games:

This is now in an archive state but here are some others that are very much alive and worth following:

I’m sure there must be more across the world.  Please do share information about any others you know.

Our new book, Adaptive Project Planning, uses stories gathered from lessons learned in projects across the world. It is now available on Amazon.

Be a Project Management Professional Learner

Your development journey

The Future Work Skills 2020 report identifies six drivers for change in our learning practices and ten skills for the future.  What are these skills? How can we as project managers use them in the way we define and follow our professional career path in 2019?

Future work skills 2020

Continue reading “Be a Project Management Professional Learner”

Lessons from the best PMOs in the world

This year I had the privilege to be involved as an international judge in the PMO Global Alliance Awards and as the chairperson of the judging committee for the South African PMO Awards.  So, for my end of year reflections, I want to share the lessons I learned from some of the best PMOs in the world.

I would love to hear from you, so please share your insights by adding to the post.

Continue reading “Lessons from the best PMOs in the world”

Is Agile a planning-free approach?

The introduction of Agile as a software product development approach is having a significant and positive impact upon the way IT projects are delivered. However, in our coaching interventions, we are finding some confusion among project managers. Some experienced project managers quickly learn how to adapt and integrate Agile practices into their toolset. It is just another approach, which used appropriately in the right projects increases their ability to deliver. Others move straight to denial; change-weary, they avoid or downplay the usefulness of the Agile framework– “It’s nothing new.” That is their loss! Of greater concern are the more junior project managers who, faced with Agilists, lose their bearings. “What is my role in this?” “How does the governance work?” “How do I plan?” And most worrying–“Do I need a plan?”.

Continue reading “Is Agile a planning-free approach?”

Stop looking for a superhero project manager

I have a memory passed down via family members that as a 9-year old when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I responded that I wanted to be an expert!   I’m sure my parents find it a very irritating response and would have preferred an answer like doctor or engineer or lawyer!

Whatever I meant at that time, I am pretty clear now, that this is just not possible. Today there is so much information, so many insights and experiences that we need access to as project managers–this cannot possibly dwell in the body and spirit of one person. Karen Stephenson captures it perfectly in her phrase,“I store my [know-how] knowledge in my friends”.

Continue reading “Stop looking for a superhero project manager”

The myths of stakeholder management

Project stakeholder management has borrowed many of its concepts from other discipline areas. This cross-usage of wisdom is helpful but its application in projects is still to be proven and bedded-in to the way we do things.  After all, it’s only in the last few years that stakeholder management has been recognised in project management bodies of knowledge.  In the meantime trial and error application has resulted in a number of myths about its application to projects.

Continue reading “The myths of stakeholder management”