Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Project Performance – It’s time to Step out of the PM Cockpit

In our industry today we have a broad range of methods and processes to help us manage projects, and there is no question we have seen significant advantages through their implementation. Yet most everyone will agree that project performance is lower than we need and/or expect. There is something missing and I confident it has little to do with our formal project management processes.

It’s time to get back to basics, back down to the projects individual contributor level and see how project execution is doing there. I believe the individual level interactions have been unintentionally ignored and left behind due to a focus on the higher-level project. Consider the possibility that the project management emphasis may not be providing full value to the individual contributors needs for success on their project contributions. Could it be that all the team participants are not clear on their specific contribution to a project? Based on my work with a variety of teams over the years, the clarity of individual requirements is definitely an issue with most.

Are we truly addressing the individual participants needs in our formal project management practices? Project management methods tend to place emphasis on managing projects as a system, allowing individual interactions to remain out of view. This can leave the project open to individuals being self guided as to how they need to deliver the specific details of their tasks, a strategy that is fraught with task rework. A question that must be answered honestly is who is minding the individual expectations for a project? Technical leads, project managers or the individuals themselves?

Bear in mind that at any point in time during a projects execution an individual is either creating or receiving something for a specific project task. Optimal project performance will result only where there is perfect alignment between what is being delivered and what is required for each task, at the individual contributor level. Such an important alignment can’t possibly be left to chance.

If a new level of project performance is an objective it may be time for us to step out of the project management cockpit and gain the individuals perspective on what may not be working well. We must talk to project contributors and consider each individuals requirements for optimal performance of their activities. Are they clear on their specific project contribution? Do they see a deficiency that generates waste or confusion? Is there some additional information that would help them execute? If a heightened level of project performance is the objective, team members will have solutions; we must provide a forum where they can be heard and be prepared to act upon what we learn.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Removing the Requirements Closure Barrier

One of the most often mentioned challenges faced by NPD teams is the accurate and timely closure of project requirements. A deficiency in the quality of the requirements closure process is commonly accepted as it is, justified by a belief that it can't be improved upon. Left unchecked, weaknesses in requirements quality will quietly continue disrupting plans and causing activity rework due to inadequate information.

It's time for a change - time to stop accepting the status quo. Proclaim that requirements closure is not going OK, that it is not acceptable. Openly affirming this enables positive actions to commence in mitigating requirements limitations as a source of project impact. These actions will engage the process of removing what is most likely one of the top three barriers to ideal project execution in your organization. Avoid the temptation to believe ownership of "fixing requirements closure" should be elsewhere, since this type of justification has kept this project barrier cloaked by misguided acceptance. If it's impacting you or your team then take the ball and remove the problem. If you don't, nobody else will either.

Start by quantifying impact. What has been the negative influence to projects due to limitations in requirements? State the impact in terms of lost revenue opportunity and inflated development cost, the baseline criteria that should be used for measuring project execution. This must be answered before proceeding, thus setting a solid foundation upon which to construct genuine improvements. Skimping here will allow negative influences to crush the effort and diminish effectiveness.

The next step is to identify participants and objectives. Make no mistake - this must be a cross-functional activity that minimally includes design, marketing, sales, the business and project management. Assign a tenacious leader/facilitator that believes in the cause and will not be viewed as a threat to any one discipline. Consider the following questions to help define objectives:

  • What specifically needs to be different? ?
  • How will you measure progress and success?
  • What will success look like?
  • What will be the typical objections to this activity, who will display them and why?
And now it is time for the solution. Having done all the proper background work the solution(s) should be fairly straightforward, with proper guidance. I suggest a workshop type format with a facilitator in charge of the process, not the decisions. Have the workshop participants define their own rules of engagement, finalize objectives, define the decision process and track activities.

As with solutions to all project execution challenges, success will result only from a formally sanctioned project that has proper leadership in place. It must have a budget, sponsor(s), a leader, a plan, objectives, ROI expectations and a cross functional team. Solutions to project execution issues are not rocket science; they materialize out of a dedicated and well-managed effort. Anything less than full commitment will be wasting your organizations valuable time. It's all or nothing, and a choice of nothing should create a bona fide uneasiness regarding the requirements closure process.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Our New Product Delivery is OK

Has the dilemma that the US auto industry is facing stirred up any thoughts about the future of your business? Has confidence in your business wavered at all through any of this? News such as what the auto industry is facing should be a wake up call to all of us involved in product development. If we are not diligent in being the absolute best at delivering products, our business may be headed for trouble at some point down the road.

When querying organizations about project performance a common response I receive is that they are releasing products at an OK or acceptable level. We consider our project execution as being OK, while most projects in our industry are delayed in reaching a production level by somewhere in the 1-3 month range. Essentially it is accepted that projects will be late, supported with a surprisingly common list of reasons why it is the way it is. I have to wonder how long this type of "OK" thinking went on in the big 3 auto industry, while their business was quietly shrinking as their competitors was growing?

Consider that delivering products solely at an acceptable level of productivity may be paving a silent path to diminished business results. During the current business climate there certainly is no room for waste. If projects you are dealing with are plagued by an unpredictable element of any kind, it is essential to deal with the root causes and remove them. If you don't, your competition may be quietly gaining market share because they are. Many organizations have already identified the major issues with project execution, however, are failing to take the next steps by getting to root cause and final resolution. Reasons for a lack of action include a belief that project execution is OK or that it is already as good as it gets, a dangerous assumption that feeds complacency.

A false satisfaction with project performance fosters inaction in seeking root cause and resolution to well-known project challenges. Complacency also bestows a deceptive sense of calm, a quietness that veils the storm of competitive pressures. It is crucial to be able to frankly make a distinction between a misleading sense of contentment and genuinely acceptable project performance. A belief in continuous improvement makes this delineation a simple matter - acceptable project performance is a goal that is never attained and forever sought.

New product delivery must never be considered as "OK". Making a statement to the contrary will allow an organization off the hook for continued improvements to the process of delivering new products. There ought to be an assumption that for every project launch there will be something done differently, with an expectation that it will provide better results than the last project. The alternative to continually planning and expecting improvements will leave your organization to someday face the harsh reality that the big 3 auto is facing today - change immediately or become extinct.