Six Project Trends Every PM Should be Aware Of

This content is syndicated from LeadingAnswers: Leadership and Agile Project Management Blog by Mike Griffiths. To view the original post in full, click here.

Future As we start 2010, the second decade of the 21st century, project managers really should be embracing 21st century technologies and approaches. While developers and other project members have been benefiting from improved communication and collaboration via new technology in the last 10 years, project managers have been slower to adopt them.

The plus side of being a late adopter is that most of the kinks get ironed out before you experience them and all the features you may need have probably already been developed. So, time to get with it. Perhaps it can be a New Year’s resolution to at least examine these tools and approaches if you are not already using them on your projects.

The World Has Changed – Why Haven’t Your PM Tools and Approaches?
In the last 10 years many changes have occurred in the world of managing IT projects, yet we still see the same tools and approaches being employed. Is this because they are classic and timeless? Are the traditional PM approaches so successful that they do not need to be dragged here and there following trends and immature technology fads? No, I fear it is more that people are creatures of habit, and the usually more mature project management community, are worse than most at evaluating and adopting new approaches.

Also, project management is a largely individual activity, teams of developers and business analysts are far more common than teams of project managers, so peer-to-peer learning and tool support is almost nonexistent for project managers. Plus, project management can often be a reputation based market and to some people fumbling around as a beginner in a new approach is very uncomfortable to them. Well it is time to get over it, this is how we learn anything, and if you are concerned about looking foolish, just imagine how foolish you will look when everyone else has moved with recent trends and you are in the last stand of dinosaurs.

Recent Trends
Increased risk and uncertainty – Global competition means companies are no longer competing with the same old rivals. Now new competition can spring up anywhere and quickly reach customers via the internet. For projects this means the latest technology must be exploited quickly and new products and services developed in less time to remain competitive. This increases risk and uncertainty on projects and requires new tools and approaches.

Increased drivers to quickly deliver useful functionality – Since the internet is such an effective technology delivery platform and particularly such an excellent communication platform, people can find products and services easier than ever before. Thomas Friedman coined the term “Flat-World” to describe the ease of communication we have now compared to before; anyone can talk to anyone with little effort. Getting to market early is very important in the Flat World. Many companies cannot wait until a product is finished before they ship. Iterative and Incremental delivery of useful functionality is paramount. Google and Amazon have many products in “Beta” as they continue to develop them. For project managers, these increased drivers to quickly deliver useful functionality, and then iterate through new features are changing the way we architect project delivery.

Increased collaboration based decision making – more Generation Y workers entering the workforce and better tools for communicating about the good companies to work for are finally winning the battle for empowered teams and group based decision making. For project managers, making the most of the local decision making skills of team members has always been the smart thing to do, but now draconian practices like handing out task lists of work to be completed is simply no longer tolerated by motivated teams. Frankly people expect to be involved in decision making and will either rebel, or regress into low productivity, when these options are not provided to them.

The Modern Solutions
Fortunately the solutions to these recent project challenges are available for us to assemble if we just take a look around. If you are new to them, they may require some head scratching and perhaps asking of the “younger-generation” for some help. However, not to worry, people are genuinely happy to share these new approaches and while the terminology may be an initial barrier, the ideas and use of new tools and approaches are simple and intuitive.

1) New Project Management tools – “Rally”, “VersionOne”, “TargetProcess”, “Mingle”, plus many others. There is now a great choice of tools for managing projects that require incremental delivery, or have increased risk and uncertainty. They make reprioritisation of releases easier; provide visual planning tools for selecting work for iterations, and reporting tools to illustrate progress against evolving end goals.

No longer do we need to fight with our traditional project management tools using nested Gantt charts for iterations, or rely on Excel for list management, sorting, and graphing. Take a look at the new crop of project management tools, most of which have free evaluation versions, and select a tool more appropriate for the type of projects you now find yourself working on. 

2) Collaboration Sites – Project failures can usually be tracked to communication failures. Perhaps an issue was not communicated in time, an overrun or a bad estimate was not shared and addressed, project priorities changed but were not properly communicated. Throw in some geographically dispersed team members (a Flat World reality today), people spread across multiple projects, and the opportunity for communication failures skyrocket.

Collaboration sites like Wikis, Drupal, Sharepoint, Joomla, etc are great ways to communicate and collaborate more effectively with all project stakeholders. They are web based and so easily accessible for anyone with the necessary login credentials. They are available 24 hours a day and gather discussion threads, documents, ideas and tasks all in one place so they are a great central repository for geographically distributed teams, time shifted workers, or just those too busy doing stuff elsewhere to keep up to date with the daily project developments.

Tools like Twitter and Yammer take things a step further and make short messages easily available to mobile phones too. People can follow along (or not) as they choose and continue to be engaged in project conversations even when not physically onsite. (If this sound like your idea of a nightmare, switch the device off, or do not check it outside of work time.)

Collaboration sites can “push” information to stakeholders if they subscribe to be informed of changes or new content that matches their search criteria, otherwise they act as “pull” mechanisms allowing people to pull content down whenever they require project information. This makes them great for project managers, we can communicate, communicate, communicate to avoid project surprises and help avoid communication failures, while giving stakeholders choices over how they prefer to consume the data. This may be as daily or weekly summaries, email alerts, or instant messages. We can also see who has not signed in or subscribed to any alerts and then talk to them about why we value their input and brainstorm better ways to collaborate and communicate with them.


3) Instant Messaging Tools – Baltimore, Bangor, Bangalore it makes no difference where people are located, if they are online and you have a quick question or want to reach out to someone, instant messaging tools like GoogleTalk, Microsoft Messenger, Skype, etc are a fast, and to most people free, way to do this. With a Skype headset you can chat away as if they were just a desk or two away.

It used to baffle me though, why someone 10ft away who can see I am available would send me a question via instant message rather than just lift their head and ask me the question? Surely the face-to-face interaction is more valuable? Surely, someone else in earshot might have something useful to add, or will benefit from the conversation? They must be socially incompetent, geeky types I thought, but many of them were not and slowly the subtleties of when Instant Messages are more useful than conversations became apparent to me.

Often these “instant” messages are not quite instant, they pop-up but it might be a moment or two before you reply. This has two benefits, first of all it is not as much of a distraction. If I am engrossed in something, the messages way off to the right on my widescreen monitor are not my focus I can finish that thought or sentence in a document/email. Also I have an opportunity to consider it before replying which can produce a better answer. Face to face questions are a real time interruption which is more disrupting and need an immediate answer. Interactions with my team are now about 50% instant message and 50% face-to-face. I still prefer face-to-face, you get the nods and other body language to detect understanding or issues, complex topics can be discussed far quicker, but for secondary level Q&A, instant messaging is more effective and conversational than email.

In fact for many of today’s younger workforce email is “that clunky old corporate system” where we hear about system outages and HR notices. If you are managing a team who communicate via instant messages, get with it, embrace the tools and give them a try – like any good tool they should not become the de-facto standard, instead just another tool in the tool box, for using when the need (person or situation) arises.

4) Empowered Teams and Complexity Sharing
– People are great at handling complexity, they juggle work life, home life, emails and phone calls expertly. Projects are really complicated, so why do project managers attempt to tackle project complexity all by themselves and hand people task-lists to complete? Probably because then progress is easier to track and measure, but it is missing a great opportunity to apply more brain power to problem solving exercises.

Instead of explaining the tasks that need to be done, outline the higher level objectives and ask the team how this should best be accomplished. The simple act of asking versus directing has a huge impact on morale, commitment and creativity. This is nothing new, leadership is differentiated from management by getting people to want to do what needs to be done rather than just telling them what needs to be done. One of the best ways to do this has always been to acknowledge that no-one has all the answers and so put it to the team. What is different today is that the younger generation of workers expect this to be the default way of working.

Rather than growing up being told what to do, schools and universities now promote and expect students to question approaches, form consensus with peers, and execute on shared plans. Social networking and online communities are driven by consensus views, voting and ranking. Project managers who by default use dictatorship, top-down, or command-and-control approaches will meet with more and more resistance. Of course you could be tempted to ignore these trends, and use positions of power to instruct people how to behave, but you would be battling an incoming tide of new thinking that is only accelerating. Besides, with more involvement comes more commitment and productivity.

So, embrace empowered teams, allow them to figure out how best to solve the problems. Provide support, but do not assign tasks by default, instead outline the big picture and ask people how best to tackle it, and let them volunteer for work. If nobody wants to volunteer, assign the work, ask how it can best be done, get people talking about it and repeat. Little by little people will begin to see how they can influence their work. Share the deadlines, costs, and mandates too. Solutions cannot be overly idealistic, but must be economic and responsible too. Everyone practises making tough choices against competing characteristics (features, cost, quality) when making a major purchase. Put these skills to good use on your projects and engage the people closest to the technical details in making the important project decisions.

5) Team based decision making tools
– Building on empowered teams, if we are going to get everyone more involved in the decision making process then we had better acquire some effective tools for quickly making decisions and identifying where further discussion is required.  Simple Voting “For” or “Against” by a show of hands is easy, but often misses an opportunity for decision refinement. It may strive for a result too quickly and can miss a better third alternative. Perhaps someone has a suggestion to tweak the options being voted on? A simple “For” or “Against” vote omits refinement as an integral step. As a partial solution we could agree to all discuss our thoughts before voting, but for the majority of no-brainer decisions this is time poorly used.

Thumbs Up/Down/Sideways Using a simple show of thumbs up, down, or sideways around the room is a fast way of achieving a simple vote. People with a thumb sideways are then asked why they could not make up their mind. Sometimes they are just neutral, other times they have a conflict, concern or questions that needs further investigation. This approach is quicker than polling everyone for input, as most people will have no concerns and just want to move forward.

A Decision Spectrum is a board marked off from “Fully in Favour”, through decreasing levels of agreement, neutrality, and opposition, all the way to “No, veto”. Team members are asked to indicate with tick marks where on a spectrum they feel about the decision at hand. This is an effective model because it allows people to indicate support for a decision and air their reservations at the same time. Giving people an opportunity to register their concern is an important component of achieving agreement to go forward while respecting dissenting views and keeping everyone engaged. People indicating they are not entirely in favour are then invited to share the concerns, but often just being able to register reservations is enough to allow people to commit to a new direction.

The Fist of Five approach combines the speed of thumbs up/down with the degrees of agreement from the Decision Spectrum. Using this approach people vote using their hands and display fingers to represent their degree of support. A quick show of hands around the room shows who is (5 fingers) fully supportive and happy to lead or help lead, (4) who supports the proposal, (3) who accepts, (2) who has some reservations, (1) who has an issue, (0 fingers, a fist) who is opposed to the proposal. If people are in agreement (5, 4, or 3) we can accept and move on, for those with reservations or opposition (2,1, 0) we can then ask them to elaborate and refine the proposal.

Many decisions will not require team input, but I’d rather over consult and retain buy-in from the team. Simple mechanisms like these allow the process to go quickly and can be offered online for remote team members.

6) Risk Tolerant Planning – Since we acknowledge that today’s projects often have high-risk, high-uncertainty, high-change then it is smart to do some more risk tolerant planning activities. If we anticipate requirements may change, let’s not invest huge amounts of time in upfront planning and estimating. I am not advocating insufficient planning or an “it will end when we are done” attitude, quite the opposite, let’s do more planning and estimating, but not reserved for when we know least about the project (at the beginning), instead frequently throughout the project and mindful of the quality of our input data.

All projects should frequently revisit plans and estimates, but pressures and issues can crowd out these activities just when we need them most. Iterative development lifecycles schedule re-estimation and planning every iteration (2-4 weeks) making them harder to miss or postpone.
Rather than spend days or weeks estimating work for a release upfront, I would rather spread that time out and revisit estimates every week or two based on real progress. Yes, we need responsible initial estimates, but given the uncertainty of unprecedented work, it is more responsible to frequently revalidate estimates. Comparison based estimates via Points (for example call the development effort for a simple screen 2 points, then get the team to estimate new chunks of work in Points). A simple change might be a 1 point story, a complex task 10 points. These T-Shirt Sizing estimates (S, M, L, XL) are quick to generate, deliberately a little vague so people are not too reluctant to provide them, yet can be easily aggregated and validated against project timelines.

Team based estimation approaches such as Wideband Delphi and Planning Poker combine consensus building and course grained estimating to quickly produce reliable estimates. In studies by Motorola the estimates obtained via Planning Poker meetings were found to be at least as accurate as their previous, much slower, and unpopular formal estimation approach.

Any project attempting to quickly deliver business benefits in an environment of changing technology and required features will be challenged to produce good estimates. So learn and practice some of the newer approaches that acknowledge the likely uncertainty in tasks and speeds the process up so it can be applied repeatedly to more successfully manage risk and variation.

Hopefully these tools and approaches are already familiar, if any are not then set yourself a task to investigate and try them out because they are not going away. As we move into the second decade of the 21st Century global communication and collaboration tools will continue to develop, and the workforce will expand with more young workers expecting involvement. Now is a great time to embrace these developments in project management and benefit from their offerings while evolving as project work transforms. 

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