IT World’s Bob Lewis: 13 tips for turbocharging projects

To help shed light on where your IT organization should be heading, here are 13 tips and techniques for achieving shorter project cycle times, higher overall project throughput, and flexibility and adaptability throughout your organization.

Next-gen project management tip No. 1: Establish a project manager career track
Many companies use project management to try out promising staff members in a management situation. Those who succeed are promoted out of project management into the company’s management hierarchy. As a result, the company never develops a cadre of experienced, excellent project managers.

It’s a very bad way to staff the most important competency in most modern businesses.

Next-gen project management tip No. 2: Institute business sponsorship
Every project must have a business sponsor — someone who wants the planned change deep in his or her gut; has the authority to make decisions; and who considers the project manager a partner in making the change happen.

Next-gen project management tip No. 3: Foster a team environment
In theory, project managers should be able to allocate programming tasks to a developer pool. Among the many reasons this rarely works well, this one stands out: An engaged workforce always outperforms an uninvolved one. Without establishing a project team, those performing project tasks won’t become personally engaged in the effort.

Next-gen project management tip No. 4: Keep project teams small
If the core team has more than seven members, risk goes up for two big reasons. The first is that team members have to work well with each other. As teams grow in size, the number of interpersonal relationships — and therefore the possibility of dysfunctional ones — grows polynomially.

The second reason is that the more people are involved in an effort, the easier it is to hide behind the herd. Large project teams enable team members to create the appearance of productivity while actually relying on teammates to cover for their failure to deliver.

Next-gen project management tip No. 5: Keep project timelines short
Human chronology is nonlinear. Psychologically, a deadline two months from now is about four times as far away as a deadline one month from now.

In human terms, a project team whose completion date is more than about six months in the future has roughly forever to complete the project. That’s your maximum duration. Three months is better.

Or stop calling what you’re doing a project. Go “full agile” instead: Call the practice release management, and organize work into biweekly or monthly increments.

Next-gen project management tip No. 6: Cut big projects into small chunks
In six months, seven people can’t always accomplish everything that has to get done. Break any effort bigger than that into a collection of small chunks — projects seven people can finish in no more than six months.

Next-gen project management tip No. 7: Staff each project in full
A “fully staffed” project is one that never waits for a team member to become available. The alternative isn’t simply a delay. It’s a cascade of delays, as schedule changes make other staff unavailable when other projects are depending on them.

Next-gen project management tip No. 8: Juggle fewer projects
Fewer projects doesn’t mean fewer in total. It means fewer at any given time. If you have enough employees to fully staff three projects and have nine going on at any given time, the first business benefit won’t take place until more than three times as long as if you ran only three at a time.

Go further: Stagger project start dates so that different projects don’t need the same experts and resources at the same times (for example: your software quality assurance experts and testing environment).

Next-gen project management tip No. 9: Focus
Let employees focus on one project at a time.

It’s OK to assign them to more than one project, so long as they know which one comes first and can organize their time so that the needs of one project don’t interrupt their work on a different project. Every interruption wastes time and effort as team members get their heads out of one project and into another, as well as when they return to what they were working on.

Next-gen project management tip No. 10: Limit tasks to one week
This is how granular your project schedule should be. With one-week tasks, team members will feel a sense of urgency, and if a task is late, project managers will know early enough to recover.

One more tip: Insist that team members develop their own work breakdown structures and task estimates, in consultation with their project manager.

When the project team figures out the work and estimates it, they own the results and can commit to them. The consultation is to prevent both excessive padding and excessive optimism.

Next-gen project management tip No. 11: Manage progress — don’t just track it
When a team member misses a deadline, the right response is usually, “What are you going to do to get back on track?”

You should preemptively assume every team member is a professional. Expecting professionals to have a plan to get back on track is entirely reasonable. There are, of course, exceptions, when external circumstances make recovery an unreasonable expectation. It’s one reason among many that project management is more than just following a formula.

Next-gen project management tip No. 12: Consider the critical chain
The critical chain methodology recommends an alternative for task estimation and schedule management: that you estimate every task based on the most optimistic assumptions possible — in other words, that absolutely everything goes right. Take the critical path total, divide by two, and add that number to the end of the project as a “buffer” to be consumed at a reasonable rate throughout the course of the project. That’s the “critical chain.” There’s a lot to like about this approach.

But it also poses a serious challenge: By estimating each task as aggressively as possible, you can no longer expect team members to treat the estimates as deadlines.

And yet, as project manager, you need a way to spot nonperforming team members so that you can do something about them. It’s a subject that deserves a long discussion, but this space is far too short to provide it.

Next-gen project management tip No. 13: Know how to say “we’re done now”
Strange as it might seem, many projects fail to end because there’s always something more that might be done — especially in the sponsor’s eyes. Also, end-users very often insist on aesthetically desirable but functionally meaningless changes to the user interface, or project team members don’t realize they’ve reached the exalted state of “good enough.”

I might order these differently, and I have some ambivalence about #1, but these make pretty good sense to me. Especially #2. That one is major.

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