Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for January 2008

Project banana skins

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The discarded peel of the fruit of musa acuminata  has been used by many cartoonists and animators to extract a few laughs while making a point about unexpected and unforeseen dangers. Project management jargon refers to such hazards as unknown unknowns, a term that got some media attention a few years ago through the the near-poetic utterances of an erstwhile Secretary of Defense. The perilous peel provides an excellent metaphor for unknown risks that can cause project managers to slip up.

What I like about the banana skin metaphor is that it suggests ways in which  project managers can prepare for unforeseen events that could derail their projects.  These risk mitigation strategies, as they are referred to in the  Advanced Project Pedant’s Dictionary, are well known. However, the analogy affords  an  opportunity to view these from a different perspective. So here they are – simple strategies for avoiding project banana skins:

  • Watch where you’re going…: This has got to be at the top of the list. If you don’t look ahead, you’re definitely going to make  involuntary metatarsal contact with any peels that are in your path.  Yes, I know it’s impossible to foretell the future, but it is often possible to foresee potential problems by staying in touch with what’s going on on your project. This includes being aware of status of deliverables, potential problems (as seen by indivdual team members) etc. etc. 
  • …but look around too: Perhaps you see no peels in your path at present. However, that doesn’t mean one won’t appear later – people eat bananas all the time, and not always within range of a garbage bin. Often project managers focus on their work to the exclusion of all else happening in the organisation. Always remember that there’s a larger world out there, one which can affect your project in unexpected ways. An example: a senior developer defects to the competition unexpectedly.  It is therefore important to stay informed of developments that could have consequences for your project. A good way to do this is by developing informal channels of communication within the organisation.
  • Pad your posterior: Despite your best efforts, you will at some point go heels-over-head on account of a fruit peel.  Padding your rear can help reduce some of the nastier consequences of the encounter. Such protection against unforeseen occurrences is sometimes referred to as management reserve in project (and risk) management jargon. This usually amounts to a monetary allowance for the adverse fallout – for example, funding for a contractor to replace the disloyal developer.

An authoritative source claims that present-day pedestrians possess immensely improved peel perception. It now remains for project managers to follow suit. The foregoing suggestions may help.

Written by K

January 30, 2008 at 6:48 pm

Posted in Project Management

Collaborative project sales and implementation

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Many businesses implement their IT projects with the help of external parties such as consulting or software firms.  In these projects, the eventual outcome – success or failure –  depends critically on the relationship between the business (the customer) and the external party (the vendor).  At one extreme, the relationship could be almost adversarial – which happens quite often.  At the other, it could be collaborative – which happens not often enough.  A recent paper entitled: A negotiation approach to project sales and implementation, published in the Project Management Journal provides a framework to support  and enhance the latter approach.  In this post I review the paper from a practical perspective , asking the question, “Does the paper offer any insights or ideas of immediate value to a practising project manager?”.

The short answer is a qualified, “Yes”. Read on for more.

The authors contend that project related negotiations typically  suffer from the following shortcomings:

  • Negotiations between the customer and vendor, which take place at various stages of the project, are typically “local” – i.e. they’re made in isolation, without much regard to possible consequences on subsequent phases of the project.
  • The parties approach each of these local negotiations with only their own interests in mind, leading to a win-lose or distributive approach wherein one party gains at the expense of the other.  
  • People involved in the discussions are typically not trained negotiators. Consequently they approach the negotiations in an unsystematic manner. 

 To overcome these shortcomings the authors suggest the following:

  • A project be viewed as a  continuous process of joint decision-making that lasts through the project. The operative words are the italicised ones – emphasising that optimal outcomes can only be achieved through:
  • The discipline of  negotiation analysis  be used to analyse and prepare for negotiations.  

Negotiation analysis combines techniques from game theory, decision analysis and behavioural decision analysis . Additionally, negotiation analysis also includes subjective information, such as perceptions etc.,  that do not have analytical backing. It also  acknowledges that negotiations often end up leaving both parties with sub-optimal (or inefficient) outcomes. This essentially because the negotiating parties do not exchange information that would enable them to reach efficient agreements – i.e. the parties do not collaborate. The goal of negotiation analysis is to improve collaborative (or joint)  decision making to the benefit of all parties involved.

A large part of the paper is devoted to discussing the authors’ conceptual framework for project negotiations.  I suspect many practising project managers will find the treatment a tad theoretical and somewhat idealised.  That said, the authors do make practical suggestions on how a qualitative application of negotiation analysis can assist in managing project negotiations.  I found the paper interesting, and recommend it to practitioners, if only for the suggestions it offers in improving ad-hoc approaches to project negotiations.

References:

Kujala, J., Murtoaro, J. and Artto, K., A Negotiation Approach to Project Sales and ImplementationProject Management Journal38 (4), 33-44(2007).

Written by K

January 29, 2008 at 1:30 pm

Positive negatives

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The stereotypical corporate IT employee has a reputation for uncooperative behaviour. The most common manifestation of this is his tendency to turn down requests from the business with a resounding “NO!”1.  Unfortunately, this trait doesn’t endear him to the folks upstairs2, and a few such refusals soon translate into a company-wide negative perception of the entire IT crew. 

Now, as some say, perception is reality3. So, the employee, despite his ever-mounting frustration with (what he perceives to be)  ever-increasing workloads,  needs to handle his customers with a little tact. He needs to learn how to say “no…” in a softer, exclamation-free, corporately-acceptable manner.

How so? Well, by using positive negatives – i.e. by putting a positive spin on the refusal. There are two ways to do this. By presenting:

  • Alternatives: This essentially amounts to saying, “No, but how about <insert alternative here> instead,” or
  • Compromises: This is a qualified “yes”. For example, “Yes, but not before next week.”

In either case, our unnamed protagonist would want to ensure that he can actually deliver on the alternative or compromise.

Obviously, the technique of positive negatives works in any area (consultants use it all the time), and the naysaying, nameless IT hack is merely a straw man to  illustrate my point. So – and particularly if you’re a present or erstwhile colleague of mine – be assured that he’s a figment of my imagination.

Footnotes:

1 Some members of this mob are known to issue relatively verbose refusals such as, “No, that’s impossible because  <insert random reason here >”.

2 We are talking stereotypes so the person’s a male, he’s overworked, and the IT department is in the basement – safely quarantined from the rest of the business.

3 See this post and the accompanying discussion for an interesting, if somewhat philosophical, counter-view on perception and reality.

Written by K

January 22, 2008 at 11:20 am

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