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Author: Bruce Harpham

The Christmas Rule for Project Planning

Christmas is special, in part, because it only happens once a year. Building on that concept, Mark Horstman, co-founder of Manager Tools, coined the “Christmas rule”:

“If you do it rarely, and it’s important, you’re likely to underperform.”

Christmas is a major activity for many of us. Since we don’t look for decorations and cook a turkey every day, it’s no wonder that we struggle with planning Christmas. Planning projects have just the same difficulty.

The Christmas rule means we can’t expect to be highly proficient at tasks that we do infrequently. That’s why it feels so difficult when we move to a new house (but moving companies do it each and every day with a lot less stress).

Consider the case of a project manager who works on three to five large projects a year. She may have a major planning session in December or January and then move on into project execution. Many of us are planning our projects (and career objectives!) for next year right now. If your planning abilities are out of practice, use these tips to reinforce your planning capabilities.

1. Plan your relationship with the project sponsor.

Many projects fail as a result of disengaged sponsors. You can minimize that cause of project failure by writing a one page plan for how you will build a relationship with the sponsor. Start the relationship by determining what the sponsor values.

2. Plan training and development for the project team.

The productivity of your project team is a critical factor in project success. In reviewing your project team, ask yourself a question – do they have the skills to perform the work? If the answer is no, consider whether you can provide training and development opportunities to the project team. Professionals with the opportunity to grow their skills tend to be more engaged in their work.

3. Create a plan for how you will ACTUALLY manage change requests.

In some circles, change requests have a bad rap. In the eyes of some stakeholders, change requests represent bureaucracy and inflexibility. Yet we all know that change requests are essential to maintain control over the project.

Tell your stakeholders that all change requests will be evaluated and receive an initial response within a set time period such as five business days (or at every project status meeting).

4. Plan to review the Lessons Learned database for insights.

Well managed projects document lessons learned as part of the closing process. Assuming your organization has such an archive, what was the last time you accessed the database? If you’re like many busy project managers, you may not remember. Now that you have some time for planning, make a note to review the lessons learned database.

For added insight, pick up the phone and contact a project manager who documented a lesson. You will gain greater insight especially if you open the call by saying that you’re seeking to learn from their experience.

5. Build a standing agenda template for project meetings.

Many projects have a weekly status meeting to review the progress and problems of the project. The early planning stage of a project is a perfect time to create a template to run these meetings effectively. Once you have a template in hand, running these meetings becomes much easier.

6. Plan team building activities for the start of the project.

Assume you are bringing together a team for a twelve month project and the team members have never met each other. It is your responsibility as the project member to set the tone. By planning one or two team building activities early in the project, you will help the team members get to know each other.

7. Plan team recognition and rewards for the project.

Another planning task relating to people? Yes! People matter to the success of your project, more than any other factor. That’s why you can’t leave rewards and recognition to chance.

What does your reward and recognition plan include? If possible, assign part of the project budget to the occasional lunch or dinner (especially if you expect asking the project team to work overtime!). What if you can’t get budget for rewards?

Make a note to provide regular feedback and praise each project team member when they perform well.

Proactively planning and executing rewards and recognition will set you aside from other project managers who exclusively focus on deliverable completion.

What project planning tasks do you want to become better at? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

What project management skills are you out of practice on? How can you make a plan to get better?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Why Your Project Needs Momentum

Does your project have momentum? That sense of movement – and confidence – that you will deliver the project on time? If so, congratulations! Momentum is important in sustaining motivation in projects and other fields.

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop. — Confucius

Momentum Matters In Political Campaigns.

In American presidential elections, momentum has played an important factor. According to Winning Campaigns, new ideas are a key ingredient in fostering momentum. In the early 1990s, Newt Gingrich pioneered two new ideas: a nationally unified campaign for Congress and the “Contract with America.” Both of these concepts were new to the world of Congressional politics. Whether you agree or disagree with the Gingrich’s objectives, his campaign’s creative approach created a sense of momentum quite distinct from his opponents.

Lesson: New ideas can give your project team a renewed sense of energy.

Lack of Momentum Slows Productivity in IT Projects

The early days and weeks of your project set the tone for the rest of the project. Slow starts on projects have many explanations: poor leadership, anxiety about embarking on a difficult project or project ambiguity. If a project suffers from a combination of all of those factors, the likelihood of project failure increases substantially.

In seeking to understand and improve project momentum, you don’t just have to take my word for it. R. Ryan Nelson and Karen J. Jansen, researchers at the University of Virginia, researched 51 IT projects to look at the effects of momentum. I will be sharing some of the key insights from their article, “Mapping and Managing Momentum in IT Projects,” with you.

In an analysis of a $2.5 million IT project at the College Board, low momentum was “…attributed to team formation issues and spending too much time in the “fuzzy front-end” waiting for approval.” This poor sense of momentum can be addressed and improved – see the suggestions at the end of this article.

Lesson: Slow and uncertain project beginnings hurt morale on IT projects. Use the ideas from the “7 ways to add momentum to your project” section to ensure your project starts well.

7 Ways to Add Momentum to Your Project

1. Add “easy wins” early in the project.

Assign easy tasks to your project team members in the early stages of the project. This will give your project team positive feelings about the project – vital goodwill that you may need to call on later as the project becomes more demanding.

2. Launch The Project With A Bang!

Have you ever watched how major Hollywood movies are marketed prior to release? There are trailers, interviews with the actors, and reviews. These efforts are designed to maximize box office earnings in the first week (or weekend). Hollywood understands the importance of momentum.

Sending out an email is not enough to give a project momentum. According to the University of Virginia study, you can start a project with strong momentum in several ways: “kickoff meetings, announcements, endorsements by executive sponsors, and social interactions.”

3. Improve your habits for daily momentum.

As the project manager, your personal leadership and habits set the tone for the project. For more consistent results, I suggest developing new habits that you practice every day to improve your results.

I recommend designing the first hour of your day with care. You can start the day by taking care of yourself (e.g. get exercise or read a book that you enjoy) or working on business goals. If you choose to work on business for the first hour of day, choose an important task (i.e. do NOT catch up on email when you start the day).

4. Plan to improve project social cohesion.

Despite the abstract models used in some project management software, project team members are not robots. Our feelings and relationships influence our performance. As you design the project’s launch, look for opportunities to build social cohesion – for example, organize an off-site lunch so that everyone can get better acquainted.

If your project brings together people who have never worked together, giving attention to social cohesion is even more important.

Tip: Your project team can also bond over shared training experiences. Take a course or read a book.

5. All deadlines matter.

Delivering work to deadline is a fundamental project discipline. Yet, how often do we see that discipline violated? Not surprisingly, the University of Virginia study found that missed deadlines tend to undermine momentum. Reiterate the important of deadlines on each and every project you lead.

6. Set a positive tone for your project.

Leadership includes setting the tone and expectations of your project. This involves resisting the urge to join in complaints and gossip from others – there’s no need to add fuel to that fire. Instead, you can set a positive tone by smiling more (simple, effective and free) and offering solutions rather than getting fixated on problems.

7. Be ready to rescue a project that starts to lose momentum.

Few people enjoy planning for the worst. Nonetheless, your project may encounter so many challenges that you lose momentum. You may start to see everyone become discouraged. When this happens, take action to foster a new sense of energy or momentum.

You can also the project sponsor to give a presentation reiterating the project’s benefits, for example. You can also take an individual approach and visit with each person on the project – a great approach for those with strong people skills.
Lack of project momentum increases the chances of project failure. On the other hand, a sense of project momentum not only improves the project’s chance of success, but it also makes everyone happier. Project team happiness is not necessarily the goal of your project but let’s admit that we all enjoy working with happy people.

How did you harness the power of momentum in your projects? Was it a factor that you planned from the beginning or an opportunity that you took advantage of when it occurred?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Why Project Brainstorming Is Broken and How To Fix It

“The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.”
Pablo Picasso

Brainstorming is broken. You know it and I know it. How many unproductive attempts at corporate creativity do we have to sit through before we admit the truth?

Let’s consider a typical session of brainstorming in the project management world.

The project manager calls together the project team, project sponsors and stakeholders. The business problem is outlined at a high level by the project sponsor. Everyone nods in agreement, acknowledging the severity of the problem. What happens next?

The project manager says, “Ok, we need some creative ideas to solve this problem. Let’s have a brainstorming session.” Silence falls on the room for several seconds. Everybody looks down at the table, straining to avoid eye contact.

Once again, the effort to summon creativity to solve a major project has failed.

What’s Broken in Brainstorming

There are two basic problems in project management brainstorming: volume and self-restraint. Grappling with both of these creativity challenges is necessary. If you avoid growing your creativity skills, your professional growth will stall.

Simply demanding more money or staff on your projects whenever you face a roadblock is not good enough

Delivering a large volume ideas is the first quality of brainstorming.

Author and entrepreneur James Altucher recommends writing up at least ten ideas every day. He argues it is a key way to strengthen your creative capabilities. One iteration of the ten ideas approach is to come up with the titles of ten books you want to write. The first five titles are easy; the next five force you to think. Just try it!

Overcoming self-restraint is hard.

Steven Pressfield’s book, “The War of Art,” explores this concept in detail. The Resistance is what Pressfield calls our internal critic. Before contending with critics in the meeting room, it’s important to realize that self-censorship is a powerful foe. Breaking the habit of self-censorship requires regular practice. The creativity exercises in this article will help you to establish a creativity habit and win against the Resistance.

The Purpose (and Limits) of Brainstorming

Our concept of brainstorming dates back to a 1948 book called, “Your Creative Power” by advertising expert Alex Osborn. When I discovered that fact, it all made sense. Advertising agencies face the challenge of producing a large number of ideas for their clients: different images, various headlines and offers are just three of the variables they must manage. Whether you work in advertising or not, this productivity practice can help you.

Brainstorming in the project management context has two objectives. Defining the problem accurately is the first job. Often, a project sponsor may describe a problem in broad terms: “customers are upset because of late product delivery.”

In brainstorming, you can consider numerous aspects to the problem: customer perceptions, managing customer expectations, shipping department efficiency, and relationships with shipping vendors. The second objective is to consider possible solutions. By writing every possible suggestion down, it becomes easier to develop other ideas. Eventually, you may develop ten, twenty or more ideas to address the situation.

Brainstorming does have some limitations and you need to understand the limits of the technique. According to Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts,” brainstorming can discourage introverts from contributing. Conversely, the more outgoing staff on the project team may recoil at the thought of having to sit at their desk and develop new ideas. Brainstorming is a useful creativity tool but please understand it is not for everyone.

Creativity Exercises To Improve Brainstorming

According to the Martin Prosperity Institute, openness to new ideas is a key component of innovation. These creativity activities will help you see new perspectives. If you avoid innovation, sooner or later your organization will face dire, possibly fatal, threats from competitors.

Consider these three exercises to expand the creativity capabilities of your project team. For best results, use only one strategy at a time. If you are new to these exercises, start slowly and explain them to your team. The goal is to help everyone be more creative and achieve better project results.

Exercise 1: Role Play The End Customer

Let’s say that you’re on a project team that is designing new features for your company’s website. The project team has two web developers, a marketing specialist, a public relations expert, a business analyst and the project manager. Each person is likely used to arguing for solutions based on their expertise. This

Here’s a practical example on how to role play the customer. The design firm IDEO was once called upon to assist a hospital. In order to understand the patient experience, a designer checked in as a patient and went through the entire process. In essence, the designer applied the anthropologist’s keen observation skills to capture every aspect of the process.

You can apply this approach in your project by asking someone to play the end customer. Remember – that person has no stake in an organization’s internal politics: they simply want the product or service to be delivered.

Exercise 2: Use Mind Mapping To Develop Multiple Ideas and Possibilities

A mind map is a type of diagram or drawing that makes it possible to express your ideas visually. Tony Buzan, an author and consultant, is generally credited with popularizing the mind map methodology. A mind map is designed to be broad rather than following a linear process. You can create a mind map by hand on a whiteboard for groups. Individuals may prefer to use mind mapping software such as iMindMap.

You can use mind mapping to explore a topic. The example below shows how one can apply a mind map to William Shakespeare, the English playwright and poet. As a Shakespeare fan myself, I enjoyed this diagram. If I were to do this mind map, I would add a biographical node to the mind map. Over the course of a brief meeting, a mind map makes it easy for you to understand a situation from numerous dimensions.

mm shakespeare

It’s easy to translate a problem or situation mind map into specific project management tasks and ideas. You can use a mind map to identify stakeholders you may never have thought of before. A mind map also uncovers threats to your project’s success. If you include images and drawings, you may also feel a greater sense of connection to your project’s ultimate results.

Creative Exercise 3: Invite An Outsider To Spark Creativity

“Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.” – Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society, 1895

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are important to most projects. Depending on your objectives, you could invite experts in database development, online marketing or taxation. Experts can save you from making expensive mistakes. Expert participation also makes it easier to persuade others about the merits of your project.

The blessing of expertise requires a heavy price. Michael Michalko, author of “Thinkertoys: A Handbook Of Business Creativity,” points out the weakness of experts:

“Some social scientists believe that the more expert you become in your field, the more difficult it is to create innovative ideas- or even obvious ones. This is because becoming an expert means you tend to specialize your thinking. Specializing is like brushing one tooth. You get to know that one tooth extremely well, but you lose the rest of them in the process.”

To implement the outsider creativity technique, invite an intelligent friend from a completely different industry. For example, if you’re working on a medical technology project, seek input from an investment professional. They will question basic assumptions for your project team. Those questions will help you see your work in a new way.

Facilitating The Brainstorming Meeting

Follow this step by step process to facilitate a successful brainstorming session the next time you start a new project.

  1. Choose a focus.
    Pick a topic that can be reasonably discussed in twenty minutes or less.
  2. Choose a creativity exercise for warm-up.
    Select one of the creativity exercises outlined above to help your project team get into the brainstorming mindset.

  3. Set the parameters of the brainstorming session.
    Explain that every idea will be written down. All ideas, no matter how strange, are welcome. It’s important to reassure your project team that you are open to a variety of ideas.

  4. Start the brainstorm with an outlandish idea.
    To signal your openness to new ideas, seed the brainstorm with an outlandish idea. Think of an idea that will make your team laugh.
  5. Record the ideas.
    As the brainstorming session draws to a close, make sure to capture the ideas for later analysis. You can ask a team member to take notes, take a photo of the white board or apply other capture techniques.

Maximizing Your Brainstorming Results By Following Up

Have you ever been to a project where plenty of new ideas were developed only to see nothing happen? Lack of follow through is demoralizing to your project team. Don’t let that happen to you. Simply schedule a reminder to revisit the ideas the next week. You can share your reflections at the next project team meeting.

When you drop the ball on follow up, you send the message to your team that creative ideas are not valuable.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.