Wednesday, November 30, 2022

A flat project no more?

The world was flat, but perhaps no more.
The same applies to projects.

In the flat system, we have these properties:
  • There is no "place". Anybody and anything can be anywhere that there is connectivity
  • Capital flows (largely 'cost' in the project world) are nearly borderless. They are quick, inexpensive transactions that can move the money to the cost center at a stroke
  • Cost centers locate to the most efficient areas, and such searches for cost effectiveness can be somewhat dynamic
  • Insofar as components have to have some 'national identity', assembly or manufacturing is "colored" by these requirements.
  • Supply chains (actually, not a chain but a mesh of nodes and links) link everything; nodes and links are optimized to provide maximum efficiency and fault resistance.
  • Supply, manufacturing, and assembly are anti-hierarchical. They are borderless-flat
  • The 'US dollar' is supreme, and safe; everybody trades relative to the dollar.
  • Labor is somewhat fungible. There are trained workforces, of course, but similar workforces are interchangeable.
  • Labor loyalty is weak; labor moves around, seeking maximum return on personal interests
  • Risks are global in their spread
The Covid crises emphasized many of these properties. 
But, as they say: 'Covid is over' (except perhaps in China)

Now, in the post-Covid world we see also some counter-forces to the flat world, and by extension, the flat project:
  • Return to the office
  • Dress the part
  • Work reasonable hours; rebalance work and off-work
  • Be a team player, less of an individualist
  • Set up borders and boundaries to 'contain' activity within a physical sphere or economic or national zone, as it were
  • Contain risks to the home front
  • Promote loyalty
  • Keep the money at home
  • Pay more as a cost input, but also expect the customer to pay more to the top line in the name of 'buy local'
If you see this coming, you may want to rebaseline for less flatness!

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Saturday, November 26, 2022

A leadership doctrine

When applying the principle of "calculated risk", leaders should pick subordinates with the intellectual subtlety to evalutate strategic and operational problems in their full context.

They should be given the latitude to judge just how much risk is appropriate given the value of the objective and the balance of resources.

Paraphrased from the writings of historian
Craig L. Symonds

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Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Layoffs in the middle of your project?!

Well, talk about cratering a schedule and resource plan!
Layoffs in the middle of a project will do it for you.

But wait!
There may be a silver lining here:
  • Communication complexity in and among project participants decreases as the square of participants. That could be a winner

  • You may be able to select the departees. That's tough in any circumstance, but it's also an opportunity to prune the lesser performers.

  • Some say that if you want to speed up a project, especially software, reduce the number of people involved (the corollary is more often cited: adding people to a team may actually slow it down)

  • There's an opportunity to rebaseline: All the variances-to-date are collected and stored with the expiring baseline. A new plan according to the new resource availability becomes a new baseline. Unfavorable circumstances can perhaps be sidestepped.
Of course, there are downsides:
  • If your customer is external, they may not relent on any requirements. You're stuck trying to make five pounds fit in a three pound bag.

  • There may be penalties written in your project contract if you miss a milestone, or overrun a budget. That just adds to the fiscal pain that probably was the triggering factor for layoffs.
Did you see this layoff thing coming?
  • On the project balance sheet, you are the risk manager at the end of the day. So, suck it up!

  • And there's the anti-fragile thing: build in redundancy, schedule and budget buffers, and outright alternatives from the git-go. And, if you didn't do those things in the first baseline, you've got a second bite at the apple with the recovery baseline.

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Saturday, November 19, 2022

Buffer your sponsor expectations

If you follow this blog you've read several references to the project balance sheet. So, is this about accounting? Yes, and no: Yes, it's about a double entry tool to keep track of "mine" and "yours", but no, it's not the accountant's tool used in your father's accounting office.

Take a look at this figure:

What have we got here?

First, the business and the project; but also what's mine -- the project stuff -- and what's yours -- the business stuff. Mine and yours!

First, the left side
On the left side of the balance sheet is the sponsor's investment in the project. Investment need not be all monetized, and it need not be all tangible. Sometimes 'good will' -- the accountant's name for the intangible gut feeling that this thing is worth more than book value (market-valued assets) -- counts for a lot. (Think: sponsor commitment, even when the going gets tough)

'Yours' simply means it's resources and commitments owned and given by others to the project. It's the 'your's side of the balance sheet that's somewhat akin to the right side of the financial balance sheet (money owed to creditors and money invested by owners).

Then, the right side
On the right side is the 'mine' side of the project balance sheet, akin to the left side of the financial accounting sheet (assets of the enterprise). The right side is the project side:
  • Estimates and evaluations of the project manager
  • Uses for the investment and resources to be entrusted to the project manage -- in effect deliverables and other artifacts, and perhaps some intangibles as well*
All about facts
 And, take note: the left side, the sponsor's side, is the fact-free zone: it's a top down allocation of resources to the vision. It is the ultimate utility expression of the sponsors: what's valuable, and how valuable, even if not entirely objective.

And on the right side, it's all about facts (benchmarks) and estimates (benchmarks applied to project circumstances). It's bottom up.

The gap (and the buffer)
Of course, there's the inevitable gap where utility collides with facts and fact-based estimates. The gap is the risk between expectations and capacity-capability. 

Ah! But the gap is also a buffer between the project facts and the limits imposed top-down by the sponsor. Like all buffers, it's designed to absorb shocks and unknowns on the project side that might drive actuals above the plan. 

And how large is the gap (risk) buffer? Only as large as needed to create a balance--that is, a deal with the devil--so that the project can go forward, and only so large as needed to absorb the shocks you would normally expect.

In other words, the gap (risk), shown on the project side, is only as large as it needs to be to close the gap. Usually, it's a matter of negotiation, but once the PMB is set, the risk is the PM's responsibility to manage.

Oops! the PM is the ultimate risk manager.

In a real world example, I had this situation:
  • We bid a job competitively in a firm fixed price environment. 
  • We offered a price that was equal to our cost; in other words, no fee (profit).  We just wanted to keep the lights on and keep barriers to competition with our customer as high as possible. 
  • We won! 
  • And, in  the next moment, my general manager said: "Your bonus depends on making 4% net margin".  I had my gap!  (oh yes, I made the margin and the customer was satisfied)

* Yes, indeed! Projects produce intangibles, even good will, but it makes for an accounting of project value all the less objective.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Proposals follow Strategy

Got your strategy in mind now?

It's time to implement. One way to do it is to propose the work to your sponsor or to your client.
So, now you need a proposal. 

Do you read Mike Clayton? You probably should.

Here is his idea of the 12 points of a perfect proposal:

What are the elements of a perfect proposal? Here are 12.
No one wants to hear all about you. See the next subtitle. That's who your audience wants to hear about... themselves. But (and it's a big 'but') they do need to know enough about you to know you are worth paying attention to. So, for a cold proposal, this means using the introduction or cover letter or some other means to establish your credibility - what my dad used to call your bona fides.

This is what they want to know... What's in it for them? Show how you have their best interests in mind with this proposal. You understand their needs and desires and know how to satisfy them better than any alternative solution can.

Keep your focus on the specific situation. Any sign of standard 'boilerplate' descriptions, arguments, or evidence will make it look less about 'Them' and more about 'anyone'. 

How will your proposal deliver and maximise value to them? The vast majority of business decisions revolve around the capacity to either make money or save money.

But there can be other benefits too. Describe the non-financial value your proposal offers - and what this means to them. This, of course, means you need to take time to understand them and their requirements and priorities. 

All that hard evidence gives them a reason to make the decision to accept your proposal. But it won't motivate them to do so. For that, you need to tap into their emotions. Find emotional hooks into pride, fear, duty, desire, ambition, loyalty, passion... Emotions drive decisions: reasons justify them.

So, you also need to show how your proposal will solve their problem, deliver their joy, or enhance their reputation. Make the link between what they want and what you are proposing as clear, simple, and short as you can. A 15-step sequence from the cause (your proposal) to the effect (their outcome) won't cut it. 

Next they need to know what will happen if (when) they say yes. What will you do, what will they do, and how long would it all take? For confidence that your is the right choice, they need to see a plan that clearly works.

This section lets them understand how your proposal fits into your life and theirs - your business and their own. This shows that you and they are compatible and is the equivalent of the more traditional (cheesy) 'how we are different to the competition'. Of course this differentiates you. It shows how this proposal is right for them and for you.

Don't go all techy on a technical proposal. Remember who you are speaking to. If your audience is a business person or a group of businesspeople, focus on the business. If your audience is software engineers, focus on the business of software engineering: not the hardware. What is their business? That's how to frame your proposal.

I get it. You have a lot of ideas to get down. But, before you start, develop a structure that makes it compelling for them to follow. If they asked six questions in a sequence, then a great structure is to answer those six questions... in the same sequence. Make it easy for them to say 'yes'.

Finally remember Mark Anthony's advice: 'The evil that men do lives on. The good is oft' interred with their bones'. People remember your mistakes and easily forget all the good stuff. Make sure you check the quality of your proposal, not once, not twice... Better still, get the pickiest, most pedantic person you know to do it for you. You invested all that time. Now add a little more investment, to avoid throwing it all away!

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Friday, November 11, 2022

Leading from the bottom of the funnel

This is about funnels, but we start with the concept of an apex.

In every book written about project management, the PMO is at the apex of a pyramid. Sometimes, as in Agile project methodology, the pyramid is flatter than most, but always there is an identifiable top figure.

Fair enough.

But Robert Gates, former Defense Secretary [and holder of many other government titles] writes that he often felt like the pyramid was inverted and thus took the look of a funnel. In the funnel model, the 'decider' is at the bottom of the funnel, with others pouring stuff in. 
Funnel v. Pyramid
How can it be that the top person is at the bottom, figuratively?

Gates explains: 
In the pyramid model, stuff is either pushed up for political cover, or because protocol demands that the decision lies higher, or because the apex person is pulling stuff up that they want control or inspection of it.

But in the funnel model, the top person is like the paper at the bottom of the bird cage: everything is pouring in from the top; and everybody on the project is busy doing the pouring. 
Fortunately, only a bit funnels all the way through, but gravity seems to be in charge. 
It's inexorable.

Filters in the funnel
Fortunately, the funnel can work like the pyramid, only with gravity. There can be and should be filters in the funnel. The minor stuff is trapped early and doesn't make it through. The top person -- at the end of the funnel -- can pull stuff "down", and there is some gravity effect: stuff naturally falls to the bottom for action.

And so for the PMO, the management points are:
  • In the funnel model, things move by default.
    There's an expectation on the part of anyone pouring stuff in at the top that it will eventually come to the attention of those 'at the bottom of the funnel'.
    Gravity is just the consequence of applying energy to get stuff up to the top of the funnel and pouring it in.

  • But in the pyramid model, gravity works against you.
    The default is: nothing moves to the top.
    If you want it to move up, there's work to be done!

If you like the idea of a funnel, how would you create it?
Just open your door! The funnel model is somewhat like "my door is always open" (even if virtual) ; anyone can "pour" something in. 
Anyone 'can' or Everyone 'should'?
Another funnel strategy is move from "anyone can"  to "everyone should" pour something in. 
Mind you: filters are needed.
And to mitigate frustration, if something is filtered out, some feedback to the initiator is required as to why it got filtered. (Crap! Don't you hate those form letters!?)

As the 'decider' you don't have to pull very much in if you operate like a funnel; stuff will get to you. If you like the funnel effect, you say that's good.
Perhaps, but only if you have the methods, tools, discipline, and staff to sort it out.

If you don't, turn things upside down and operate like a pyramid. Gravity is your friend; a lot of stuff just won't rise to the top

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Friday, November 4, 2022

Threat unknown

Most of the postings on risk management don't deal with the post-risk consequences that befall the people who are charged with managing risks. 

But guess what? Very often the axe falls, even though a best effort was given.
So what are some of the human factors of risk management?

Of course the stress level rises when the stakes are amped if there are life-at-risk possibilities, or bet-the-business risks. Consider space launches, deep sea dives, major construction or demolition, or even some military project with lives at risk. And of course there is the ever present cyber threat to business continuity.

Reasonable protocol
Put yourself in this situation, following this protocol:
  • As an experienced PM, you are aware of the nature of certain classes of threats that could affect your project, perhaps catastrophically. 
  • And as an experienced PM, you've asked for any specific knowledge available about these classes. After all, many threats are reducible by acquiring more knowledge about them.
  • But what if nothing has arisen or been reported about any specific threat for the foreseeable future? Is there anything to do?
  • And so, you put these classes of threats on the back burner among the "aware but unmanaged" 

Then, stuff happens!
From the class of the unmanaged, a threat pops up and becomes real; the project is impacted, perhaps severely.

The human factors questions:
  • Are you culpable for this most unfortunate outcome to your project -- you are the PM after all?
  • Were you negligent for not managing this threat? 
  • Can you be negligent for not taking action to mitigate a threat about which you had no certain knowledge? 
  • Does negligence always require that you willfully ignore facts given to you?
  • Even if not negligent, are you still responsible and accountable for the outcome?

It depends:

 Strictly from a legal point of view, there are four common elements to negligence:

  • Duty
  • Failure to perform your duty
  • Damages 
  • Causation
The latter is the most difficult, of course. Causation is often confused with coincidence and correlation. The idea that separates causation from correlation is the so-called "confounding factor": Something that influences or connects, but does not directly cause an outcome. If the confounding effect is "1" on a scale of 1 to 0, then correlation becomes causation; "0" is coincidence; everything in between is correlation.

But the issue in the this post is around the second point: Failure to perform your duty.
  • You asked for knowledge to reduce the threat; none was forthcoming.
  • You were told that nothing was forecast for the foreseeable future.
  • You chose to "be aware but not actively manage"
Did you do your duty?
In part, you will be judged on what-came-next. What did you do when the threat emerged?

Tricky business, this. There's no clean answer.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2022

NSA warns about Taiwan tensions

Does your project depend on supplies from Taiwan?
Is your project doing project work in Taiwan?

You should be thinking about how to be anti-fragile (*) if the balloon goes up according to national security officials.

NSA Director of Cybersecurity Rob Joyce has some critical lessons on how companies can withstand an escalation in China-Taiwan tensions and what such conflicts matter in the first place.

"We had advance warning of the Russia invasion" of Ukraine, said Joyce during a keynote at Mandiant's mWISE security conference today. "What would you do if tomorrow you got advanced warning of a China-Taiwan conflict? What business decisions would you have to make?"

(*) Anti-fragile: able to sustain and survive shocks to your plan without catastrophic failure of the overall project

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