Roadmap

I’m working one for the evolution of our intranet/digital workplace. I need to think about all the activities people do online, all the tools that fulfil those needs and what development is being thought of for the tools. For added fun, quite a lot of these tools aren’t strictly speaking my responsibility.

Roadmap sounds a bit buzzword-y, but a roadmap is just a high-level plan that sets out the major steps on the way to a strategic goal. It might cover more than one project and indicate dependencies, it should show phases and expected release dates. A technology roadmap will lean towards process steps, and it can be used to communicate across project teams for all steps in the all projects.

My need is a little different, I want to communicate with a wider audience, for stakeholders and end users who are outside the project teams. I’m trying to bring clarity to a diverse group who haven’t got time to read a lot of detail, but need something more specific than a beautiful  vision. It should convey what they can expect to see and when – and give some idea of where they can give input. A roadmap has the right level of detail, and if I can make it visually appealing people will understand what to expect almost at a glance. For a project like putting a new publication environment in place for digital channels it will look something like this.

I used to joke about how my answer to any work question could be given with boxes and arrows. It’s time to bring out those boxes and arrows in a big way.

Image via pixabay 

Zombie Project

If you’ve ever been in a project that limps along with extended deadlines, never taking off but never quite failing you may have been on a zombie project. I admit I’d never heard the term until a friend used it in a bit of a rant recently.

Projects are started with the best intentions; a good idea, a business reason, feasibility analysis, management sign off and resources allocated.  Some projects never really take off and make the expected progress, for a multitude of reasons – I’m sure you’ll recognise one or two of these;

  • a change in the business environment affecting the company’s finances or priorities
  • a competitor does something unexpected
  • management support dwindles
  • technology doesn’t work as planned
  • a key stakeholder withdraws
  • legal/regulatory/risk concerns start to slow progress and/or outweigh the project’s potential benefits.
  • competing priorities from other departments/teams

Often the momentum of a project will carry it on through some of these setbacks and it will go on to be successful – even if it’s delayed. Sometimes the delays accumulate and the momentum drops, progress meetings become further apart with much less to report. But the optimism behind the initial idea makes it hard to kill the project and it lives on in a strange half-life – your project just became a zombie.

We’re good at ignoring bad news, and bad at acting on what, to an outsider, might seem obvious. Our initial optimism and emotional investment in the idea make us reluctant to point out when something is not working. In addition failed projects have a way of being penalised when it comes to performance review time.

However zombie projects consume resources, and therefore have a drag on the companies bottom line. Logically companies will want to review their project portfolio and kill any zombie projects. One way to do this is to hold a “zombie amnesty”, where projects are reviewed and if they no longer promise value to the company are killed. In one HBR report a company found 20% of its IT projects fell into this category. For this to be successful you will need;

  • transparent criteria for the assessment of each project, you should ignore sunk costs and look at the cost and benefits from today
  • an independent reviewer or review team, it’s hard to be objective from inside the project
  • a “celebration” of the projects that are closed, you need to communicate the reasons for stopping the projects, and the benefit to the company as part of the no penalty clause and as a way to encourage future zombie killings.

In your assessment you may find some projects that are languishing on the border of the zombie zone but they have potential to provide value. You then have a choice to kill or relaunch.

Don’t relaunch just because there is value, check all the issues that led to the project failing. Change it up, add resources, tighten the governance, get a new – more demanding – executive sponsor. It needs to feel like a new project.

If the project is killed it may be resurrected in a shiny new form in a year or two. Try not to be the person that says “we tried that already”, but examine it as a new project.

I’ve talked about this from a manager’s perspective, but I promise you the people on the zombie projects already know that their work isn’t valuable to the company. If you can edit the projects and focus on the ones that will provide value they’ll thank you for it.

From the perspective of a project team member try to avoid these projects, they’re draining and will never reflect well on you. If it’s unavoidable then be brave enough to call time on the half-dead.

 

Image: Businessman Zombie  |  Lindsey Turner   |   CC BY 2.0 

 

Lessons from Science – Metabolic Pathways

As part of a course on system management and process design we had to read the book “The Goal” by Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt. I found it easy; not just because Goldratt does a terrific job of explaining the concepts, and not just because it’s presented as a novel.  The concepts are familiar, they map to similar concepts in metabolic pathways.

Metabolic pathways are a series of chemical reactions that occur within a cell, examples include photosynthesis, glycolysis (the breakdown of glucose to release energy) or the Citric Acid Cycle (the energy producing pathway used by all aerobic cells, shown above).

Essentially a set of processes in a certain order convert a set of chemicals or metabolites into something else, with either a release or absorbtion of energy. It’s a lot like a business or manufacturing process, except that it’s generally energy absorbed.

Bottle Necks

In talking about process design the concept of a bottle neck came up, this refers to any step in a process that takes a long time, and slows the whole overall process. If you’re looking at improving a process this is a good place to start. Sometimes adding more equipment or resources can remove the bottleneck, sometimes a better solution is to move the bottle neck in the process. Many years ago I was overseeing the assessing of residence applications and it turned out that doing the qualification checks first (the bottleneck) made the overall process faster since we could begin working on whichever case had cleared that step.

In biochemical terms this is usually called a “rate limiting step”, and exactly the same thing happens, the total time of the whole process is dictated by the rate limiting step. Adding more metabolites (resources) or increasing the concentration of the enzyme can increase the overall rate, but these are not easy steps for an organism to take.

Catalysts

The rate of chemical reactions can be altered by adding catalysts, or in biochemical reactions enzymes.

In project terms this could be the endorsement by upper management, which suddenly removes a number of obstacles and releases resources in support of the project.

I don’t want to stretch an analogy too far, but a concept developed to understand one area can easily be applied to another. It certainly made the process design concepts easier for me to learn – although I did get some flashbacks of memorising the complex pathways that keep organisms working. Far more complex than any business process I’ve encountered so far.

images; chemistry

Citric acid diagram found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Citric_acid_cycle_with_aconitate_2.svg / CC BY-SA 3.0

The Downside of Being a Manager

Resignations.

On my first day back at work this year my very bright, highly competent, smart, funny, great to work with, project manager resigned.

I guess there might be occasions when a resignation is welcome, so perhaps the fact that this one wasn’t is a “luxury problem”, we worked together for two and half years and it was good. Her role was internet manager and she ran ING.com in terms of operations and development. She’s moving on to a great role in a company with far more of a “cool factor”. I’m proud of her and pleased for her.

And now I have to find a new bright, highly competent, smart, funny, great to work with, project manager.

It turns out to be a difficult task, I am looking for a generalist; someone with a combination of project management, communications/marketing and technical knowledge. Someone with a bit of a design eye, analytical skills and an ability to think strategically. Someone who will fit into a small team of project managers and geeks.  I know – it’s a long list and the job vacancy included it all.

I got a range of CVs, and I didn’t really expect all applicants to have everything on the list. But I was a little shocked at one application that really didn’t have anything on the profile, but cheerfully stated that he’s hard working and client-friendly. In his role as a swimming trainer at the local public pool.

However there were at 8 strong applicants, 5 of whom came pretty close to ticking all the boxes. After an initial interview round I have 3 really great candidates any of whom I would be happy to have in my team. In fact it’s really tough decision to know who of the three would be the best choice.

It’s a luxury position to be in.

 

Milestone

In projects, particularly change management projects the term “milestone” comes up a lot. It’s a metaphorical marker for some measure of progress, usually a marker with some significance. For example in the Obama campaign they needed to get to 1,000,000 calls up from 700,000 so asked their supporters to make five calls. They reached the 1,000,000 milestone within 24 hours.

To be successful the milestone needs to be ambitious, and a round number – aiming for 746,000 is a bit more difficult to promote. It needs to be widely communicated, along with the rationale for getting it. Importantly, once achieved it needs to be recognised and celebrated.

The term comes from physical milestones, used to mark the route from one city or town to another and often including the distance – measured in miles. So on a  journey you could note the distance covered so far, and check that you were still on track to reach your final destination. Not very different from its current metaphorical use.Milestones are old, they were used in Roman times when a “Golden Milestone” was erected in the centre of Rome from which all distances in the empire were measured. They were used throughout Europe and many are still visible, and in some cases still used as the point from which distances are measured.

Milestones are still in use, but in most countries are more likely to be metal plaques along a highway rather than the stone markers. Sometimes the markers don’t exist, but their theoretical position is used to create a grid framework for naming roads or highway exits.I hear the term used fairly frequently at work, but usually with a meaning that is metaphorically close the original.

image Milestone /Tim Green/ CC BY 2.0