Simplicity: What’s Left When You Hide Everything Else

Have you ever stopped at the supermarket to reflect on the constantly improving state of the art in maximizing grain yield per acre? Of course not. You simply grab a loaf of bread, glance at the “Sell by” date, and put it in your cart. You don’t feel a sense of gratitude that you and your family probably won’t die of starvation, as was so common for earlier generations. You don’t feel a sense of wonder that so little labor is now required to feed seven billion people. And you certainly don’t notice that, adjusted for inflation, you pay less for that loaf of bread than your grandparents did. You just move on to the next section, which was carefully organized to make it easier for you to find everything without assistance from the staff. You benefit from that simplicity because others handled the complexity. And that is a large part of a project manager’s job: to enable simplicity by allowing others to ignore the underlying complexity that makes it all possible.

Simplicity Is Expensive

If you want simplicity, you have to be prepared for a lot of capital expenditure. Whether it’s a manager’s dashboard or microwave popcorn, someone had to expend a lot of money on experimentation, development, productization, and rollout. Good project sponsors understand that; the rest need to have it pointed out to them. Simplicity costs more than complexity in almost every case, although the incremental cost may be spread across a larger market. If you have a fixed market, like “the managers in my company,” then cost per manager will increase. That said, a solution that isn’t used is a complete waste of resources, so good project managers are advocates for optimizing allocation of resources to get the expected (or at least desired) benefits.

Simplicity is the New Baseline

Twenty years ago, you could download files containing a movie. It took a long time, you’d need special software to view it, it would eat up a large share of your hard drive capacity, and technically speaking, it was illegal. But a funny thing happened when business people noticed that they couldn’t make a dent in piracy with public service announcements or occasional prosecutions: they changed their business model. So now, anyone who wants to can stream videos on demand, for anything from cheap to free. From the consumer’s perspective, it’s simple; the problem has become about what to watch, rather than how. But when playback pauses due to connectivity issues, the consumer gets upset. They expect reliability, not just simplicity. The cautionary lesson is simple: good project managers work to temper the pursuit of faster-better-cheaper with constraints of scalable-sustainable-supportable.

Simplicity Redistributes Risk

One of the common side-effects of simplicity is a change in the risk profile. GMOs have helped reduce crop yield uncertainty (although not necessarily increased yield) but there is concern among consumers that their health might be impacted. Self-driving cars are represented as safer, eventually reducing the number of accidents, but not all accidents are preventable by software. Good project managers ensure that sponsors and other decision makers understand the real and perceived implications of their actions when shifting risks.

As we continue to reduce the degree of engagement and commitment required of the end users of our products, it is necessary to continuously reassess the business model that delivers it. The project manager is increasingly expected to be an active participant in that reassessment, and the wise project manager will embrace that expectation. The days of the project manager as administrator and status reporter are in the past. Going forward, we will succeed only to the degree that we adopt the more expanded vision of an executive.

Aligning Projects with Organizational Strategy

PMI Talent TriangleEvery three to five years, Project Management International conducts a role delineation study. The 2015 project management RDS led to development of what PMI calls the “Talent Triangle.” This is a list of competencies in three groups: technical project management, leadership, and strategic and business management. While most professional project managers “get” the first two, many are dubious about that last item. But employers expect us to think beyond our immediate responsibilities. In talking with business and government leaders, PMI found a recurring theme: Project managers need to take an active role in aligning projects with organizational strategy. The most recent RDS reinforced that finding.

The Project Manager as Reporter

“[M]ost companies see ‘project trees’ rather than ‘strategic forests.’ Only a minority attempt to balance key attributes of strategy implementation across the portfolio, such as alignment to different strategic priorities (47 percent) and risk and reward (35 percent). Worse still, a large number of firms that do seek such balance fail: only 32 percent of respondents believe their organizations balance the relevant portfolios against strategic priorities; just 22 percent say the same of risk.”Implementing the Project Portfolio: A Vital C-Suite Focus

One of the recurring themes I’ve seen on my consulting projects is the difficulty of harmonizing processes and systems after a merger or acquisition. Executives negotiate these strategic deals without bothering to sweat the implementation details, because that’s the job of middle management. Of course, much of that sweat falls from the brows of project managers, who typically work across domains to implement that strategy. Few of those middle managers are positioned to see what’s going on outside their domain. They aren’t aware of conflicts, don’t realize what is being done to work around resource constraints, and may be oblivious to critical risks the organization is exposed to. This is especially true for middle managers who are stakeholders, but not sponsors of the projects under way. They are parties in interest, but not participants. It falls to the project managers to keep them informed, and sometimes to prompt them to action. And in the best case, get everyone pulling on the same end of the rope.

The Project Manager as Counselor

Project managers have little direct authority, but the good ones cultivate influence. Sales people and consultants aspire to be “trusted advisers,” who can point out strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. But in order to become a walking SWOT analysis, you have to be perceived as knowledgeable, trustworthy, and collaborative. And as a project manager, you additionally need to be perceived as an agent of change – which you are, courtesy of your projects. Influence comes from perception.

Your stakeholders need current, actionable information, but they also need someone who will listen to their concerns and respond to their requests (even with “No”). You need to be able to frame conversations with your stakeholders in the context of the organization’s goals and the strategy to reach them, rather than your project’s goals. That requires hard conversations about priorities and risk tolerance with your project sponsor and senior folks who can put that strategy in context. You need to be able to facilitate conversations and guide decisions that are focused on the stated direction of the organization, rather than the personal goals of one manager. I’ve seen too many projects get bogged down delivering a scope change that never should have been approved, because it was considered and rejected by the portfolio manager before funding was approved.

A Strategy Provides a Structure for Decisions

A strategy isn’t magical, nor is it a guarantee of success. But it provides a structure for making decisions and taking action. Strategy depends on execution, and modern organizations are holding their project managers accountable for execution in alignment with strategy. Project managers who deliver on these expectations will be recognized for it, and those who don’t will be recognized for failing to deliver. Plan and act accordingly.

New PM Articles for the Week of August 19 – 25

New project management articles published on the web during the week of August 19 – 25. And this week’s video: Mike Clayton summarizes a few of the key points of his new book, Project Governance: A guide for project managers. 10 minutes, safe for work.

Information protection has become more central to the practice and knowledge base of IT project management. I’ve been linking to at least two or three related articles each week under various headings, so I’ve replaced the section Research and Insights with a new topic heading: Cybersecurity and Data Protection. I’ll include content links related to news, techniques, trends, and legislation. I’ve also resurrected the Pot Pourri section to replace Working and the Workplace; expect to find interesting things that didn’t fit any of the more specific headings.

Business Acumen and Strategy

  • Bob van Luijt explains how the notion of an API—an interface for delivering digital services—became the basis for entire business models. 7 minutes to read.
  • Jasper Dekker justifies the requirement for autonomous cars to drive like a local. If people in Taipei don’t drive like people in London, why should robots drive like people in California? 3 minutes to read.
  • Vanessa Bates Ramirez summarizes Peter Diamandis’s presentation on meta-trends at the Singularity University Global Summit. 6 minutes to read.

Managing Projects

  • Emily Peterson selected some of the Q&A following Steve Marjot’s webinar to discuss the Royal Bank of Scotland transformation journey from traditional project portfolio management to Lean portfolio management. 7 minutes to read.
  • Ronald Smith follows up his article on misconceptions about Critical Path with a lesson how to avoid a slippery 5 minutes to read.
  • Kiron Bondale answers the rhetorical question: Does closeout vary between projects following an adaptive, rather than a predictive life cycle? 3 minutes to read.
  • Luís Gonçalves presents the business case for outsourcing software development, with options, potential mistakes, and management best practices. 16 minutes to read.
  • Elizabeth Harrin shares her thoughts (and a template) on benefits management. 3 minutes to read.
  • The nice folks at Clarizen describe the seven integrated characteristics of high-performance agile IT teams. 3 minutes to read.
  • Leigh Espy shows how to create a Pareto chart, one of the most easily understood visual tools for decision support. 4 minutes to read.

Managing Software Development

  • Stefan Wolpers curates his weekly list of Agile content, from enabling engineer decision making to estimation to tracking value in an agile transformation. 7 outbound links, 3 minutes to read.
  • Kristin Jackovny continues her series, explaining how HTTPS works, from encryption to cookies and tokens. With more to come next week! 3 minutes to read.
  • Johanna Rothman concludes her series on where agile is headed; 8 minutes to read. Her summary of the series is here; 7 minutes to read.
  • Ashan Fernando describes web application security with a broad view—from external requirements like PCI and GDPR to assessments, code reviews, and audits. 7 minutes to read.
  • Sounderrajan Seshadri suggests an approach to budget management for agile projects. 4 minutes to read.

Applied Leadership

  • Alison Coleman coaches us on uniting the multi-generational workforce. 5 minutes to read.
  • Emily Luijbregts shares four tips for dealing with difficult team members. 4 minutes to read.
  • Tom Cagely continues his series on saying no, including five prerequisites for safely saying no and a simple process for saying no. About 5 minutes to read both.

Cybersecurity and Data Protection

  • Bobby Allyn reports on a ransomware attack that hit 22 municipalities in Texas. And Nalneesh Gaur recommends a decision framework for deciding whether to pay. Each 5 minutes to read.
  • Joan Goodchild tells us about cyber-risk insurance, another component of a comprehensive risk management program that is growing in acceptance. 4 minutes to read.
  • Mariarosaria Taddeo and Francesca Bosco make the case for treating cybersecurity like a public good, where the public sector shares in the cost and responsibility.
  • Ben Dickson reports on the impact of flawed disclosure and reporting of software security flaws. 4 minutes to read.

Pot Pourri

  • Andy Jordan coaches us on dealing with the disappointments that will come along with our career successes. 7 minutes to read.
  • Darius Foroux lists seven professional skills that we should develop in order to maximize both our effectiveness and our income. 5 minutes to read.
  • Esther Cohen tutors us on retention marketing: How to get clients to stay. It’s not just about delivering on time and on budget. 8 minutes to read.