Category Archives: Project Management

Project management issues

How important is a Vision?

Let me say this right from the top: there is no single more important factor to the success of a project than a clear, crisp, shared vision. Period. Now let me tell you why.

There is no single more important factor to the success of a project than a clear, crisp, shared vision.

I have seen a lot of projects. Big projects involving thousands of people over many years and with tens of millions of variables. Small projects involving a couple of people over a couple of weeks. And many in between. While it is self-evident that having a clear, shared vision isn’t a magic bullet that solves all problems, it is equally clear to me that every project without one struggles and often fails. To put it in science terms: having a clear, crisp, shared vision is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to project success.

There are a number of reasons why having a vision is so important:

  • A vision helps everyone on the team make decisions
  • A vision is a useful yardstick for project completion, success, and failure
  • A vision can form the basis for the promotion and marketing of the project
  • A vision is a rallying cry, greatly improving team morale

Helps the team make decisions

Without a vision, team members make many day-to-day decisions in a vacuum. Most of our lives are made up of hundreds of small choices, and a few large ones. What should I have for lunch? Should I take I-5 or the surface streets? Should I marry this person? In the workplace it is no different. Should we add this feature to a product? Should I do this right or just get it done? Should I hire/fire this person? Some context for making all these decisions is vital.

In our personal lives, we make these choices based on many factors, from our experience, our research, perhaps even our faith. Our work lives are very much the same, decisions get based on some framework. If we work for an organization where cost is the key concern, we make decisions in that framework and look for ways to make each choice be the one that is most cost-effective. If we work for a firm providing only the best products or services, everyone can make each of their myriad choices based on that knowledge.

Without a vision, everyone from the top of the organization on down is left to make decisions without a foundation.

Without a vision, everyone from the top of the organization on down is left to make decisions without a foundation. For example, let’s say you are constructing a new building whose vision is: create the tallest building in the world on this specific site in Tokyo for a budget of 750 million yen. With that vision, the architect clearly knows that anything less than the tallest building is not correct. They also know the parameters of what they can spend on materials, because they have a budget. The construction managers know precisely what the location is, what access to the site is like, and what they need to consider with respect to zoning laws. And each worker knows where to report.

But it goes beyond that. As the project progresses, questions will come up. Should we add this flagpole to the top? Having this vision helps make that decision — it adds to the height and furthers the vision, so “yes”, add the flagpole. The people working on the project know clearly the objective, so this decision doesn’t have to be discussed and debated to death. There are thousands of other small decisions that having a clear, crisp, well-communicated vision can help you with.

Is a useful yardstick

A vision provides often provides a clear yardstick for success. To take the previous example, if the building is 10 meters short of the tallest building in the world, you know precisely that it was not a success. As it progresses, and the budget is consumed, you can tell precisely how you are doing against the goal of 750 million yen. And so on.

The vision can illuminate well down into the organization as well.

The vision can illuminate well down into the organization as well. If you are working on a small part of the project, and what you are doing is not in concert with, or worse, in direct opposition to the vision, you know there is a problem. With a properly defined vision, everyone on the team can not only measure their part in the project, but also their performance against it. I made the decision to put on the flagpole, that pushed us over the top, my contribution to the project was essential.

Forms the basis for the promotion and marketing

Once you have a clear vision, it also can enlighten outside the organization. Again taking the above example, you know the promotional material for this building will trumpet the fact that it is the tallest building in the world.

Having the vision defined early in the project also allows the marketing development work to happen simultaneous with the project, instead of having to wait until later when the project nears completion. This head start can save months of headaches and can lead to positive feedback loops. As the marketing messages are floated early in the project, the team can even react to input from the initial customer reaction to the vision, instead of after the project is over and has been released to customers.

Great visions also lead to great marketing.

Great visions also lead to great marketing. If a vision is exciting and invigorating for the team, it can also be so for the customers. And some great visions have even made it into the real world from inside a company. Rumor has it that Wal-Mart’s “Always low prices. Always” was a vision established internally by Sam Walton, and it escaped into the wild… and eventually got plastered everywhere.

Is a rallying cry

Having a crisp, snappy reply can be extremely invigorating for people.

Perhaps the most important thing that a great vision can do is serve as a rallying cry for the team. Each and every member of the team will be asked by friends, coworkers, family, everyone, “what are you up to these days?” Having a crisp, snappy reply can be extremely invigorating for people. “Building the tallest building in the world” as a quick comeback to the question is enough to make most people extremely proud. Not only are they proud of what they want to do, but it enables them to speak spontaneously about their part in it, and to feel like what they are doing has some meaning.

Contrast this with the typical reply: “oh, you know, same ol’, same ol’.” Most people aren’t fortunate to go to work doing something they love to do, or can be proud to be a part of. Use the vision for your project as a way to communicate the importance of the project to every member of the team, and let them share in the passion you have for the objective.

Besides, if your vision is good, clear, and full of impact, you can use it at the end of every meeting, at the bottom of every slide, and even as part of a secret handshake…

Summary — Vision is Extremely Important

A clear, crisp, well-communicated vision that is shared by, and used by, the whole team can be the difference between success and failure of a project. You need to work on defining the vision early in the process, and use it constantly throughout the project to aid in decision making, as a rallying cry for the troops, and as a yardstick for success. Next up, how to define a great vision. More on that soon.

Pick a Variable, Any Variable

Signpost of Choices

Time, quality, price — pick any two.

When it comes to project management, truer words were never spoken. I know it sounds like a tired old cliché that people trot out at the first sign of project difficulty. And, sure, it sounds trite and even seems to violate my rant from last week about silly lists.

But the hard truth is that this is the essential choice to be made when managing any project. Even when a project doesn’t have limits to these variables (a case I’ve never seen), these are the three key variables. As I work further on my book on project management (read more about it here), I find that the tradeoff among these variables comes up all the time. With that in mind, let’s look at these variables more closely.

Time. This is clear, it is the amount of time available to complete the project. This is also the variable that proves most frustrating to project managers. Since its consumption rate is invariable, there is nothing you can do to change it. You simply have to add more when you need more. Because of this, time is the variable that gets played around with the most. It is also the variable that is most visible — everyone inside and outside the project knows when you change the date.

Quality. This is less clear, it is the measurement of the end result of the project. It is not only how good the result is, but it also encompasses what the result is. If you add or remove features from the project, you are adjusting the quality of the end result. Very often, especially when it refers to the “goodness” of the result, this is a subjective measure, which doesn’t make it any easier to adjust. All too often this is seen as fixed by the leadership, and yet the only real variable by those doing the actual work. They can’t change the project date, they can’t choose to spend more money on the project, but they sure can effect what the end result is.

Quality is the first variable that people downgrade

Quality is the first variable that people downgrade; some do it so easily and quickly it never even makes it to the table as a variable to be considered. They simply do their task in the easiest, quickest way they can, and before you know it, all the platitudes from management about quality being “job one” are tossed aside. Unfortunately this is also the variable that is least visible to anyone outside the depths of the project. The customer, and even the project leadership, often never know up front when this variable has been compromised.

Price. This is the cost of the project, but it is much more complex than the raw dollars, euros, or drachmas to get the job done. It is the cost of the materials, to be sure, and the cost of the wages when you throw more people at the project to try to meet the deadline. But price also should be looked at much more broadly to include the cost of relationships with dependents and suppliers, the cost on morale of the team, even the cost of casualties and/or lives if the project is that kind of project. Too often these variables get overlooked, or are considered peripheral damage, when in fact they can and should be considered when any project tradeoffs are made.

Too often these variables get overlooked

I find this set of tradeoffs to be the most valuable variables for a manager to consider when thinking about making any changes whatsoever to a project. I find it useful to sit back in a chair, stare at the ceiling and carefully consider what happens if you play with any one of these variables.

Think about what happens when you slip the date on this project. You may get more done, you may get things tidied up more. But it will also cost more in wages. And it will keep project pressure on the team for longer. If you decide to add features, it will cost more and it will take more time. Perhaps you could throw more people at the problem to solve the time equation, but as Frederick Brooks highlights in his wonderful “Mythical Man-Month” (ISBN: 0201835959) you certainly won’t get a 1 for 1 benefit from those helping hands. And if you decide to do it cheaper, something has to give, and it almost certainly will be quality — in both the ‘features’ and ‘quality’ meanings of the term.

So as you think about your project, remember this triad. It has never served me wrong, and will always provide a wonderful context for even the most complex of project management tradeoffs.

Reality TVs Teambuilding How-NOT-To

Boyd Coddington

It’s my guilty pleasure that some reality TV shows draw me like a moth to a flame. One of my favorites is Discovery Channel’s “American Hot Rod”. The show ostensibly chronicles Boyd Coddington and his team while they build world-class custom cars. For anyone who knows much about cars (and I speak as a reformed addict), Boyd’s name is well known. He was one of the originators of the over-the-top custom car back in the late seventies, and is an icon in the field. But you don’t have to even care about cars to gain huge insights into team building and management from this show.

I’m sure the creators of the show (including the reknowned Thom Beers who discovered Jesse James) went into it expecting simply a spin off from the world of custom motorcycles that made them, Jesse, Monster Garage, and other shows like it huge hits. These shows are among the most profitable for DSC.

But they got much more than they bargained for with American Hot Rod. Boyd and crew are perhaps the most disfunctional team since the Bundys of “Married with Children”. The show features such teambuilding highlights as:

  • A CEO (Boyd) who is gifted, revered, an industry icon, and a teddy bear, but who also micro-manages, sets ridiculous schedules with no input from below, ignores criticism, changes his mind depending on who he last spoke to, won’t admit when he’s wrong, and thinks everyone with a differing opinion “has a problem”.
  • A line manager (Duane) who is a worse micro-manager, has little patience for the challenge of managing his team, treats everyone like dirt, curses like a sailor, blames everyone but himself for the problems, and lets Boyd walk all over him.
  • Projects that routinely are underscheduled by half, causing the team to have to work 18 hour days seven days a week on a routine basis.
  • Line employee turnover that is terrible, with the team going from 20 to 5 in the most recent episodes — with people leaving for lousy reasons, and leaving to no other job (a clear sign of major cultural issues).
  • A business model that clearly is bankrupt — the only new customers are Boyd’s old friends, and the shop is always half-full.
“Can I think of five better ways to have handled that?”

I watch on a weekly basis as these factors collide in fantastic displays. Of course, they always finish the car, and of course the team always is smiling on conclusion, but the show couldn’t be a better teambuilding course without resorting to PowerPoint slides. I find myself pausing the Tivo about every five minutes: “hmmm, let’s see, can I think of five better ways to have handled that?” Usually the answer is “yes.”

I watched an episode from a week or two ago last night, and I caught myself screaming at the TV. The team lost two members, one who actually called Boyd and Duane on their ridiculous behavior, and another long-time, well-respected member left “to freelance”. Boyd’s response to the former was “he really must have some problems” and to the latter it was “well, he had made up his mind”. And to top it off, Boyd had to shut down his wheel business due to poor sales. I was in pain, as I always am when I watch teams disintegrate due to lousy managment. I wanted to call him up and offer my services for free… but I guess I’ll wait for him to find me.

Anyway, if you are looking for a guilty pleasure, and some killer lessons on how NOT to run a team, catch Discovery Channel’s “American Hot Rod”.