Friday, July 11, 2014

Prince2, PMBOK and all that project management stuff

I have been on a two day advanced project management training course delivered by Patricia Healy from Marana Consulting. Some of my colleagues were surprised I went. They know that I started studying project management in the 1980s, that I have managed hundreds of projects and indeed delivered project management training. I went because I wanted a refresher. In this regard, I have to say that it was a very good course.

One of the difficulties for someone with my experience is that our knowledge is gained partly by doing. Some of the big things now were simply not invented when I started. The early days of Prince2 date to 1989, although it would be many years before the current version emerged. PMBOK started in 1996. All this creates a number of difficulties.

First, there are subtle shifts in jargon. While the concepts actually remain the same, their naming shifts. Take a simple example. When I started learning project management, we used the term parametric pricing to describe comparisons based on historical data and comparisons with other similar projects. Parametric because these comparisons set estimating parameters. However, the terms top down or analogous estimating appears to be the current use to describe the same process. Now the problem is that if you use the wrong jargon, people don’t know what you mean.

A second difficult is that we now live in a credentialed world. If you don’t have formal qualifications in project management and the capacity to talk learnedly about, say, Prince2, then your experience counts for little. Unless you can drill through and get people talking about specific things such as estimating problems, your knowledge will count for little.

To add to the problems, the actual project management capabilities in many areas of Government are limited. There are very particular reasons for this. A key one is the focus on form rather than function or purpose. You do this and that, create this and that, but it really doesn’t matter. You have an implementation plan, a communications plan, a risk management plan because you must have these things. The plan as an action device is neither here nor there. You just have to have the plan.

This may sound jaundiced and indeed it is. This was the area where Patricia was remarkably good. She showed us, and we were all project managers at different levels, how we might use the project management process to achieve our objectives. It became a tool for our use, not one imposed from on high. None of us were blind to the practical application issues, but we all saw how we might improve performance.

And then from a purely Jim perspective, she gave me some tools and techniques that I actually didn’t know, despite all my experience. One was the way to crash a project, the term used when you must shorten the time frame and provide advice on the costs of so doing. I thought that this technique was bloody brilliant.

Anybody involved with projects will have experienced either a project over-run or a demand to shorten time horizons. We all have techniques for managing in these circumstances. The technique that Patricia demonstrated centred on critical path analysis. It’s advantage from my perspective is ease of application in smaller projects; you don’t need a computer application, but can use a simple working sheet.

We all use project management techniques. It’s called planning. Project planning takes that a step further by creating a degree of rigour. When my daughters were at primary school, the curriculum included project management. In my naive way, I was surprised but thought that was good, that the techniques learned would carry through.

It didn’t quite work like that because the real world isn’t like that. Both girls are good planners when required, but I doubt that they use many of the techniques taught then. De Bono’s hats, a problem solving technique, would be an example. Part of the reason for non-use is that the the techniques were not integrated into the later curriculum. They lacked relevance as a consequence.

A second and more important reason lies in the very nature of project management. Project management takes time. It is a set of processes and tools whose relevance varies depending on what you need to do, If you blindly apply the whole process, use every tool, then planning comes to dominate doing. This is what often happens in government where the tick box approach becomes all. This doesn't work.

If you think of project management as a process and tool kit that you apply to the degree that it’s relevant when it’s relevant, then it becomes very powerful. That is the reason why Patricia’s course was perceived as good; it was personally useful.

Do I feel another Belshaw reform program coming on? Perhaps at a very micro level. 

A number of my colleagues have done or are doing either the certificate IV or diploma courses in project management. They find, will find, that much of what they learn simply sits on the shelf because its just too difficult and time consuming to apply. Maybe, just maybe, it might be possible to create an environment that will encourage selective use.

This environment will not come from on-high. The higher up the food chain people go, the more disconnected they become from working realities. They simply forget or acquire different priorities. Meantime, the worker bees have to get on with their jobs. Change might come if enough of the worker bees adopt the techniques on a selective basis as a way of both managing their own work and managing up. 


This post was picked up by Greg Sealby’s Project Management News. Through that, I picked up this post by Ben Horsman, PRINCE2, Waterfall, Agile, and PMBOK. It’s not a bad summary.


Anonymous said...


I see Marana Consulting has two blog posts since last December, and seven tweets.

Compared to your own stats, I would be interested to hear Ms Healy's opinion of the usefulness of social media in a business environment. It may well be that the people involved are heavy personal users of such platforms, but the (lack of) use in their business is quite intriguing.


Anonymous said...

Actually, I think I have sort of half answered my own query. Doing some searching around I see that there's something called "Project Management 2.0" (a rip of Web 2.0) which tries to make a case for the incorporation of collaborative social media within a project management framework.

I just think that it would be wise to establish some sort of control or recognition within the overall exercise of the worth (and dangers) presented/posed by use of such tools. For example, in some ways the encouragement of informal group-response and feedback via, say, Facebook could tend to undermine the benefit of the "official" reporting, feedback and response mechanisms?


ps Jim, perhaps you should offer to provide a seminar to Marana of how to improve their own utilisation? :)

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. Sorry for the slow response.

Dealing first with marketing, I suspect that Marana is not an active user because their existing marketing channels bring them enough work.

Oddly, we dud talk about the use of social media and especially in the context of virtual teams. The bigger agency that covers the place where I am working is into social media. One side effect is that I can suddenly access twitter and FB from work again. It also has its own yammer network.

The interesting thing in the discussion on virtual teams was the opposition to the use of social media that came not from Patricia but from the staff. I advocated the use of the yammmer system, it's like FB, via a closed group. No go from the others.

Of the group there, I was the only one using social media for professional or quasi-professional purposes. Every one else seemed to judge it by FB, a personal tool.

I might carry out a work experiment tomorrow, posting on the course to see what response I get. Yammer usage is very very patchy at the moment.

John Stitch said...

Having worked in the Public Service for over 20 years I have never, not once, ever seen a project brought to its conclusion. They usually start off with great fanfare and gusto and then quietly die out as team and committee members move on or as the need for the original project becomes redundant. New fads spring forth and a conga line of sales people trot out the latest must haves in PM software. Who can forget such offerings as Basecamp, Atlassian, MS Project,Smartsheet and so on.

I would sit bemused through countless PM meetings watching the same old rubbish being presented by the Team leaders as the consultant who sold them the stuff in the first place enthusiastically expounded the virtues of their product.

As a public servant I couldn't care less. Bosses will be swayed by the clever talking dolly in the natty navy pantsuit rolling out the big guns "It's best friend is a deadline!", "This software puts the People back into Project management!"

Well I have a few of my own PM quotes "The first 90% of a project takes 90% of the time the last 10% takes the other 90%",and "To estimate a project, work out how long it would take one person to do it then multiply that by the number of people on the project".

And that's the end of this project.

John Stitch

Anonymous said...

Nice to know that our tax dollars are hard at work! More, PM, I say.


Anonymous said...

John Stitch, there seems to have been a few freeways, Sydney Harbour Tunnels, bridges et al which are definitely nearing completion. And hospitals, Opera Houses, Olympic Statiums.

One may certainly question the particular worth of such projects and inevitable cost overruns, but they look fairly complete to this member of the public :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi JS and DG. I think that we have all been through that, John. I hate to think of the number of implementation plans that I have written that essentially went no where! I, too, have sat there and listened to the latest craze. Sometimes, I have presented it!

That doesn't make pm less important, simply that you have to select the best to meet the particular circumstances. It's the rigid mandating from on high that most of us struggle with.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but Sharon - the BOK part is nothing more (nor less) than a Methodist or Sunni would consider the Bible or (mhnbp) Allah's writings to be.

There is nothing magical or mystical added by reducing "body of knowledge" to "BOK". If you will pardon me, the most interesting, most probably relevant, section of each is the "whwtshtf".

Acronyms don't build bridges, or tunnels, or run the Olympics. All they do is provide a sort of shorthand for those in the know, to speak more quickly, and to exclude those who are not.


Jim Belshaw said...

Except perhaps in Springbok?

Winton Bates said...

Hilarious! Can't stop laughing.

The exchange makes me glad that I already know more than I will ever need to know about PMBOK.

Jim Belshaw said...

Winton, Winton, you must keep in touch!

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1. Plan your day using time management techniques

As a project manager, time management skills are essential because you are dealing with a wide range of tasks that demand a quick turnaround time. Planning your day will go a long way in keeping you organized and increasing your productivity. Assist your task planning by using project management software which helps you track the work of you and your team.

If you are not very tech savvy, a simple to-do list can also be a great organizational tool. Prioritize your most important tasks by putting them at the top of the list and less important ones at the bottom. Having a visual plan of your daily tasks helps to keep you on track and aware of time.

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2. Include stakeholders in important project conversations

While you will have plenty of responsibilities regarding the project, don’t neglect your clients.

Good communication is essential is keeping both parties informed of project progression, curtailing scope creep, and apprised of changing requirements. Some clients may have different expectations when it comes to communication, so make sure to establish the frequency and type of communication (like emails, phone calls, and face-to-face conversations) at the beginning of your project.

Establishing communication expectations early helps alleviate stakeholder uncertainty about communication frequency and delivery.

3. Regularly communicate with your team

Daily team communication helps keep misunderstandings and unclear requirements under control. Keeping your team informed in every step of the project is essential to project management success.

For example, a study published by Procedia Technology found that good communication skills were the cornerstone of project management. The study examined over 300 “construction project managers, architects, construction managers, engineers and quantity surveyors” and their successes and failures on various construction projects.

4. Anticipate project setbacks

Even the best-laid plans often go awry.

Remember that even with a high amount of planning and attention to detail, your project may still encounter some challenges. Pay attention to complaints from stakeholders or colleagues, and other warning signs, like a missed deadline or cost overrun, that there may be a problem.

Preventing a crisis will keep your project running smoothly, save you a lot of time, and keep you, your team, and your stakeholders confident in progressing with the project.

Unfortunately not every complication can be avoided. Crisis management skills are essential for dealing with the unexpected. Project managers need to be flexible and pragmatic. Improvise and make sharp decisions when needed.

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5. Stay focused on the details

A common problem project managers encounter is having the project aims not aligned with the organization’s objectives. A great project manager will strategize a plan for the project to lead back to the overall success of the business.

Know your project’s scope by heart and avoid wandering outside of the project’s requirements. It’s too easy to get lost in minor details and forget what your focus is, so a well-planned project scope is essential for success.

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