Friday, February 29, 2008

Evolution Story - Power of Need

The team that I inherited have many things in common - long time bonds of 3+ years with same company and almost all Maharashtrians. This would be the most ideal suited team for any manager - consistent performance, all good proven horses for longer races, great comfort factor and synergies within members, solid back up without expressing authority - What more could I ask for?

Isn't it the dream team that a manager would like who can spend time focussing on tasks at hand rather than work on individuals to ensure bonding and manage expectations and attrition which take time away from productive work ?

When such teams exist and you are new and want few tuning to be done for newer business needs, one long lesson I learnt after 1 year is to make the change a compulsion not through brute force or management decision but bring in the Need.

Case in Point: Because of the close knit nature, business was done as usual in tea breaks and regional language "talks" in canteen and numerous informal means. What this means to a manager is to be careful in bringing in fresh talent in the team and yet maintain the team spirit. Further with business expansion on the cards, there is always the lurking danger that the team will travel to various locations and still the "camaraderie" needs to be present from distance.

These required tapping the formal communication channels and utilizing them effectively. Making sure that formal communication means are practiced in a safe closed environment and improved, while informal channels will still act as life support system till the protocols and understanding is in place.

However, this realization seemed more compulsive only to me to ensure change happens and it happens fast. But moving from "comfort" zone of a well entrenched team (not just one but many) is a typical "new manager syndrome. It is tedious, pisses off most people and some consider it to be a case of "false alarm" or pressing the "panic button" too early.

The change happened recently when we were in fire fighting mode and the blame game started in a project. THe same project has panned many blog titles in last month :). The team members in the hidden firing line ( behind me), as if by magic were writing and sustaining themselves against the onslaught through carefully drafted emails, status updates, clearing the intent and scope of deliveries, making sure that "HELP" is duly recognized explicitly, telephonic talks, reference to discussions and surprisingly not wanting my interference.

The stress and strain of the entire episode led me to know the power of need and now our team have a couple of members who can be marketed on their own. I still have to work on the remaining team.

Can you help me with "NEEDS" you "CREATED" for change management?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Brand building by Project Manager

For my bread and butter, I remain a back-room person managing and delivering projects. This also helps my bank to recover their monthly EMI's promptly.

I never consider myself to be smart or creative or savvy of being on field. Hence sales and marketing will always remain an envy for me.

As said in my last post The best Marketing Tool - Projects the closest I can match my smarter friends in sales and marketing teams is to execute and deliver projects with "comfort" factor built in.

So how can project managers build brands.
1. Be the note taker.
  • Listen, Ask, Clarify and Summarize.
  • Document the meeting and share it with the customer.
2. Do not talk to customers about "a" solution. Engage a discussion.
  • Allow customers to "feel good" of having found their solution with you.
  • Toss up alternatives, to ensure that the "found solution" is the best possible solution with given cost, schedule and quality.
  • Provide for "hooks" that can be plugged in later if desired.
  • Document the meeting and share it with the customer.
3. Be the organizer
  • Ensure that clients and your team do their jobs with minimum efforts. This makes you the owner of taking care of managing calendar of all people involved, setting expectations, documenting facts, collecting feedback, preparing reports for clients and teams.
  • Document the schedule, expectations, feedback, reports and share it with the customer.
4. Be a domain expert: Project Management is about control of schedule, cost (effort) and resources for your employer. Project Management for your customer is to deliver on solution(resources), their relevance (schedule) and the suitability for their business(cost). This requires project managers to be domain experts in the field and sensitive towards business users.

While lot of project managers rise from programmer level or directly come from management institutes, project managers to build brands must be convinced enough of the delivery and solution themselves. This means that there needs to be a say of the PM in the overall solution. This is important to establish the credibility. Through project deliveries, project teams speak their
  • knowledge of the business solution
  • process of delivery together with
  • the power of the technology put to work.
Ensuring that the right mix of above 3 is effective and convincing, they must be tied together to coexist in Process Framework.

Process Framework is the tool of project managers to create their service brand. The tool ensures delivery of chosen solution through appropriate blend of technology, benchmarked best patterns, and business relevance of solution that satisfies the employer and customer.

5. Be Real if not Honest: While honesty is not always smart thing to do in business ( I cant say we are running 100% utilization and hence need time), but being real is a cardinal rule not to be missed (I need to say that the Project desires n number of resources who can deliver it in a planned time. Hence the delivery date will be dd.mmm.yyyy).

I have hurt and been hurt when I try to shield the reality or postponed the announcement of a bad news. Projects are open, transparent and deliveries reveal the "real story". Keeping "Classified, top secret" cabinets in projects do not deliver value and diminish the value of team efforts.

6. Practice "Cost-Value" trade off: Every marketing effort requires a budget(cost) and value is measured in capture of market share.

Projects too start with fixed account and value is to retain the customer's mind share for the service rendered. Hence cost-value trade off must be the guiding principle to enable conscious decisions about change requests, feature enhancements, business impacts, schedule changes.

Knowledge of cost-value trade off is essential to deploy the best candidates from available pool for the job and complete it at right time for bigger gains from the fixed account.

You may invest more cost in the first project, but the order value of subsequent projects would cover the additional cost investment.

Have you created a brand with your project ?

The best Marketing Tool - Projects

Our main source of business is repeat orders. The nature of our work is to develop e-Learning courses. In India, this is a commodity service with lots of competition having similar offerings and at various price points.

When clients stick to a vendor, there is more to deliveries that would be required to bag the repeat order. One major area is "comfort" factor. So far, I believe the "comfort" offered by us is timeliness, quality(many deliveries are deemed accepted on delivery), support and thought alignment (more on this later). leading to trust and desire to continue with us when more projects are available.

As with marketing tools, projects enhances "recall" value of a service, and gains the mind share for future business prospects. This leads the customers to classify you as a chosen vendor in one area (in our case e-Learning) while an allied service that is offered by my company still requires a complete sales cycle.

This being the case, project managers do create a brand identity of their own and of the company through project execution.

Isn't projects the best marketing tool and project teams the best marketing team for a company ?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The price of Risk and wrong Risk

Taking execution risks is essential to our work model and sustain us as a core small enthusiastic group.

Risk related cases which are keys to our sustenance are:
1. Moving a team of 11 from using XML small time on a project to making it the primary core requirement of every design and delivery project.

2. Creating a seemingly simple system that plays the role of a mini learning management system- Enable registration, enrollment, scheduling and tracking reports of user assessments was conceived and planned in a car drive and executed in next one week.

3. Re-tuning a proven production process to achieve an initial imaginary 40% reduction in efforts through various tools that automate manual production work and achieving upto the trend.

4. Committing to deadlines in a R&D project is always a best probability risk game with unknown variables surfacing as result of own karma.

While these risks seemed foolish, the team I work with brought their implicit grit to the fore.

When risks meet success there is all round exhilaration of a visionary mission accomplished which will be short lived.

Taking risks for granted provides the wisdom not achieved when risks meet success.

Wisdom Nuggets:
1. Never work in a "rented" project. "Own" it. It is easy and better.
2. Draw your own periphery. Better still REMEMBER your circle WELL.
3. Technology unknown is better. No communication log is scary.
4. In a "rented" project, always ask the owner to document , document, document every time. In a "Own" project, self document your work.

The price of a wrong risk is always dissatisfaction, loss of opportunities, and disproportionate amount of wasted effort.

Are you taking risks for granted ?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

"Post Mortem Meeting" - Why do projects die.

This is my favourite phase of any project.

Delivering a project is a job half done. A delivery and project management is heavily numbers driven during the course of the project.

Can you miss numbers and manage
1. Efforts ?,
2. Variance ?,
3. Functional Points ?,
4. Cost ?,
5. Schedule ?,
6. Defects ?,
7. Enhancements ?,
8. People working time ?
9. Margins ?
10. Cost Outflows ?

Thus projects can be quantitatively managed and still be successful. However, as my second post on "E_learning maturity of Indian Companies" described, the qualitative aspects describe the deliveries that matter to the customer.

The outcome of any status update or meetings to resolve technical/business/people issues have a predicitive outcome - Find a solution or middle ground. Work designations , personal rapport, unilateral decisions can be utilized to reach the almost-suitable solution.

This gets to the question. Why do we have to dissect projects.

A "post mortem meeting" after completion of every project brings the team closer to their feelings, opinions and behaviour towards the project. The mood of the project deliveries to customer reflect the team's collective summation of their qualitative aspects.

Why I love this part:
It requires channelization of feelings, which cannot be managed. It is one meeting that cannot be controlled by numbers and time. The post mortem meeting outcome cannot be predicted or challenged. The project manager interference has to be minimum for the outcome to have credibility. The rephrasing of statements suiting the comfort of management by numbers has to be left out in the door. The statements have to recorded as expressed and documented. Any hard feelings needs to be listened to. The projectStand needs to have a "free for all" flavour which is drastically different from manager led meetings and yet be the "benevolent bouncer".

What a great situation to be in for a manager where there is no manager required or management control applicable ?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Urge to Work Crime

I have faced it in the past. Am facing it now. Think will repeat it in future also.
The Crime of a Project Manager: The urge to work and directly dive into the work specifics without stepping back a minute to document the scope, work definition and plan .

Inspite of a proven success formula in a number of projects that go well with planning, there is the occasional "fast drive in traffic lane" mentality that sets in. The projectStand gives a good ambience and inviting to dive into work and deliver fast, without scope, work definition and plan.

Typical ambience factors that sets up for fast drive in traffic lane are :

1. Project is already in advanced stage and you are invited to carry forward "a small" portion with special skills that team has.
Fast drive in traffic lane: Getting carried by the word "small" and committing in the impulse of the description of "small" happens many times.

Only to realize later that "small" is the reason the work has wriggled out of hand easily.

2. Project requires Integration work where same set of files are to be used by 2 different teams reporting to 2 different managers.
Fast drive in traffic lane: It is always found wanting in such projects that one person from either team needs to interface between teams catching the work that falls between the boundaries. Because project matters, my team ends up overstepping their border of work to ensure smoother hand off. In the cross-over the team find themselves in a different territory to help other team's work.

Be careful in this lane as this would be demoralizing if only one team knows what camaraderie is. The ignorance of camaraderie with other team is unpardonable.

Eventually it is found that the same time is used effectively by smarter colleagues who leave no time in redrawing the borders farther from the new territory. In eventual blame game, I get caught on the right side wrongly.

3. You consider your peer manager the lead on the project and expect to be accountable.

Fast drive in traffic lane: The biggest mistake is this one and the crime is that you do not trust your self. This is the worst trap that leaves a bad taste compared to the above two.

Begs repeating again: The biggest mistake is this one and the crime is that you do not trust your self. This is the worst trap that leaves a bad taste compared to the above two.

Trusting people is my forte and for few incidents like this, do you think I should be paranoid with general public ?

Why is it that Heroism in the world is potrayed as faster action doers and impulsive risk takers ?
While people who think fast, time their responses (plan), communicate with a humor sense (work definition) remain comedians and soldiers in the management game ?

Which side are you - Hero or comedian. Me prefers a comedian role.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

e-Learning Maturity in Indian Companies

My current project management is to execute e-Learning projects for couple of big Indian Automotive companies.

It amazes me to see the amount of maturity my client friends have displayed in the roll out and strategic use of e-Learning.

Consider the case:
1. The end audience is least savvy with computers.
2. Education background is mandatory but varies from school to basic degrees.
3. Their bread and butter work do not need computers nor do they require e-Learning.
4. There is no mandatory statuary provision to use the programs created in the day to day work and yet to realize the investment and time savings.

So what did we do that seems to work for my customers:
1. Passive Learning - Click on "BOLD" buttons which cant do anything else. Sit back, relax and view the animation.

2. Active Assessment - A drastically different approach for my other client requires users to spend active 10 minutes answering set of questions with increasing complexity levels. The Key: Marry the traditional study method in Indian college life of using question bank at last minute and allow to immediately take the exam.

3. No SCORM - but principles equally apply. Chunk into smaller units (maximum is 5 minutes continous running) and would be 5% of total modules developed.

4. Simplicity - Cannot stress this enough. Creating a simple solution that works is more tough that creating a solution to prove the prowess of creating a technology with snazzy front ends and best programming practice backends. No doubt they are required, but ultimately the projectStand must be reached in the time the usage would hit the peak.

In the words of one of my client's senior management executive - "Why did you take so much time to build this simple solution." I felt vindicated and never felt it as a critique.

So what did my customers do to make it work for them:
1. Motivation Models - Both my clients share a common bond in creating their own motivation models in their own true styles.

In Active learning project, the motivation is in-built in the system to score more than 90% in less than 5 minutes and to receive a soft copy certification with optional print out signed by the client company authority. A first attempt, score and certificate urges them to come back. But this time around, pleasantly the questions change making them read and score better. What a strategy to ensure dissemination of product knowledge.

In Passive learning project, having it as a tool for their IT roll out and directing queries to the e-Learning application drives users to use it more and more frequently for tasks that they need help. (Remember, 5 minute duration lessons) A strategic just in time tool appropriate for the role.

The commonality - Both my client deploy the program on their portal letting more than 1500 combined outlets access what we develop.

2. Care for the Vendors: As a vendor, there are so many times when we feel the squeeze from both sides - Control scope, efforts. Keep the "Wow" factor afloat for repeat business. The sweet hospitality whenever I visit their premises, the care of asking for features and the feasibility, the big heart of accepting an undocumented or unplanned feature or a change from original design always worked wonders in delivering a product which has our passion, commitment and best wishes for success.

3. Short Steps but Long term Work - The order value of my projects might be relatively small but the power of cumulative orders makes it a viable win-win. The projects are short and a commitment towards continuing in the direction learning along the way is a big recipe of success that can be exported from Indian shores.

It is personally satisfying to see me working for the success of India's most successful companies succeed in the new age learning medium.

My "project matters" to my clients and is now being exported which made me start work on Wednesday morning @ 11 AM and went home Thursday night 11:00PM

Would you want to share your best case e-Learning work for an Indian company ?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Dont Stack them Up

Well!! We have heard it many times over, but it begs to be repeated again and again.
Deplete your "task stack" starting from simple to complex in equal priority items.

Case Study:
Two varied skills are required to get a deliverable into the projectStand.
First is a graphic design skill and other is programming skill in a specialized language.

As with "routine" projects, both the skills need to be utilized in the same day to complete the deliverable.

Using traditional method, deliverables were to be created and received in a staggered manner so that both skills were optimally focusing on one task and time is utilized effectively.
A "task stack" was created for both the skills with receiving filters and priorities assigned.

Without abnormality, the top task in the stack had problem that was taking disproportionate time. Spending time again and again on the same issue resulted in no task getting completed in the first design resource task stack.

Would not the projectStand to gain if the task stack gets depleted with other activities that are simple to be delivered leaving one task to solve?

Is it in human mind that shift of attention to a simpler task is more complex than solving a complex issue?

What would be your solution?

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