In a recent engagement with a government client, I came across an intriguing yet common conundrum regarding the enforcement of KPIs. Individual projects within their diverse portfolio were flagged ‘red’, signalling they were off course, yet the overall portfolio surprisingly reflected a ‘green’ status, implying smooth operations. This stark inconsistency, compounded by disagreements over the statuses of individual projects, underlined the critical need for a more sophisticated, adaptive approach to KPIs in project management.
Conventional KPIs in the realm of project management often bear resemblance to religious texts – unwavering and unchanging, even in the face of shifting project dynamics. This rigid constancy, while providing a sense of stability, may distort perceptions of project performance and overlook potential avenues for improvement. In this article, we delve deeper into these inherent limitations of traditional KPIs and champion a more agile, adaptive approach, one that aligns better with the fluid and ever evolving and unique nature of today’s project landscapes.
Let’s scrutinize the limitations of traditional KPIs. These conventional metrics, while offering a valuable framework, do exhibit certain drawbacks. They possess an inflexible character, condense the complexities of project statuses into a simplistic ‘traffic light’ system, and enforce a generic approach that overlooks the distinctive nuances of individual projects. Consequently, a sudden transition from ‘green’ to ‘amber’ might not truthfully represent a project’s actual condition. Moreover, ignoring key project-specific factors such as the project team’s experience and composition, and other complexities could thwart optimally project outcomes.
Envisioning a New Approach to KPIs
Considering these constraints, we advocate for a more adaptable approach to KPIs. KPIs should serve as flexible signposts, offering nuanced insights and evolving in response to dynamic project conditions. A ‘spectrum’ system could replace the binary ‘traffic light’ system to better encapsulate the subtle gradations between ‘good’ and ‘caution’, thereby enabling a more accurate snapshot of the project’s health and fostering tailored problem-solving and decision-making strategies.
Let’s illustrate this ‘spectrum’ grading: ‘Deep Green’ signifies a project operating ahead of schedule; ‘Light Green’ and ‘Yellow’ mark minor deviations that are manageable with slight adjustments; ‘Orange’ indicates a substantial deviation demanding dedicated intervention; ‘Red’ denotes a severe delay necessitating immediate action. This refined system facilitates proactive responses to project status changes and fosters a culture of continuous improvement.
KPI thresholds should be malleable, adapting to the unique context of each project and evolving in sync with the project’s progress to spur continuous learning and strategic adjustments. Influential variables, such as the project manager’s experience, sponsor involvement, project type, size, duration and team skillset, ought to be incorporated into the KPI thresholds to ensure a more precise and meaningful assessment of project performance.
Finally, KPIs should be viewed as living, evolving mechanisms, mirroring the project’s trajectory. This dynamic perspective fosters a culture of continuous learning, encourages periodic strategy adjustments, and aligns more effectively with the complex and fast-paced realities of modern project landscapes.
Advantages and Challenges of an Adaptive Approach
Adopting an adaptive approach to KPIs unveils several compelling benefits. Primarily, this method fosters a responsive and agile project management environment, enabling teams to adeptly navigate changes and maintain momentum towards their objectives. By embracing flexibility, teams are encouraged to continually learn, refine their strategies, and progressively improve. This learning culture not only nurtures individual and collective growth but also enhances the potential for delivering value and achieving project goals.
However, implementing an adaptive approach is not without challenges. Critics may argue that tailoring KPIs for each project is a burdensome task, especially for organizations handling a vast number of projects. Indeed, creating individual KPIs for each project may seem daunting and resource intensive. However, this concern often underscores a deeper issue of mass governance in project management, where projects are overseen in a bulk, uniform manner, neglecting their unique characteristics.
Counterarguments and Solutions
To address these concerns, it’s important to emphasize that while individualizing KPIs requires upfront effort, the long-term benefits—enhanced accuracy, improved decision-making, and ultimately, successful projects—outweigh the initial investment. It’s about quality over quantity, shifting the focus from managing a large volume of projects to truly understanding and effectively managing each one.
Technology can also play a pivotal role in facilitating this adaptive approach. Advanced project management tools and software can automate the process of defining and adjusting KPIs, making it a less labour-intensive and more streamlined process. Organizations can gradually introduce adaptive KPIs. Starting with pilot projects could allow teams to gain confidence and experience with the approach and help refine the process before wider implementation. This gradual integration can help alleviate concerns and demonstrate the efficacy of adaptive KPIs.
Ultimately, transitioning to an adaptive KPI approach should be a thoughtful, well-planned process, considering the unique needs and capabilities of each organization. By doing so, we can address the legitimate challenges posed, while still harnessing the substantial benefits of this innovative approach.
In our rapidly changing project environment, the steadfast, conventional KPIs may no longer suffice. It is high time we welcome a shift towards an adaptive KPI approach, one that truly echoes the unique fabric of each project, appreciates the diverse shades of project progress, and continuously evolves in tandem with the project’s trajectory. This approach not only amplifies our project management effectiveness but also ensures that our success metrics are as diverse, resilient, and forward-thinking as the projects we orchestrate. By advocating this change, we lay the groundwork for a more realistic, precise, and insightful method of tracking project performance, fostering an environment that champions continuous learning, innovation, and strategic flexibility. With this, we can confidently navigate the complex waters of project management, steering our projects towards their destined success, one adaptive KPI at a time.
Is it too much to ask that decision makers make use of a collaborative goal and values-based conflict resolution approach to come to effective resolutions that satisfy needs?
Whether decisions are made in socio-political, organizational, and personal realms we all know that they are important. They direct action, resolve and cause disagreements. Decisions, if carried out, have physical, financial, emotional and relationship impacts.
Decisions are most likely to be “good” ones when disagreements or conflicts are well managed. The best decisions are made with clear objectivity and lead to achieving goals.
In my article Arguing to Learn and to Win I described a hybrid approach between arguing to learn (ATL) and arguing to win (ATW). This article focuses on ATL and how winning can emerge from learning through a collaborative approach like the Evaporating Cloud (EC), one of the six thinking processes in Eliyahu Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints.
The process is a technique designed to cut through disagreements by turning attention to fulfilling all parties’ goals rather than seeking only what each person wants.
In short, EC works on the premise that conflicts can be resolved when the parties get what they need. They satisfy their goals and values.
If the overarching goal is prosperity, peace, health, freedom, and happiness, decision makers must have an accurate sense of what each term means in concrete practical terms.
In the world of projects, goals like prosperity are expressed in terms of cost savings, revenue, and profit. Happiness is satisfying stakeholder expectations. Health is about the goal of sustaining the wellbeing of project performers to enable effective performance over time.
With an understanding of goals, we can identify relative weights. For example, are financial goals more important than employee health and wellbeing? Are the weights negotiable?
In projects it is much easier to attain consensus about goals than it is in social and political disagreements. Projects are objective focused and, assuming the project is a healthy one, the objectives align with organizational goals.
When there is no consensus on goals and values, we have a zero-sum game with winners and losers. Handling those is a subject for a future article on arguing to win.
The Evaporating Cloud (EC)
Now, back to the Evaporating Cloud (EC) technique and finding win-win resolution.
“If you really want to remove a cloud from your life, you do not make a big production out of it, you just relax and remove it from your thinking. That’s all there is to it.“
“The Evaporating Cloud tool is intended to similarly “vaporize” difficult problems by collaboratively resolving an underlying conflict. “[Goldratt teaches] that every problem is a conflict, and that conflicts arise because we create them by believing at least one erroneous assumption. Thus, simply by thinking about the assumptions that enforce the existence of a conflict, we should be able to resolve any conflict by evaporating it with the power of our thinking. “
Though the power of thinking has its limitations. To use a collaborative approach, at least one of the parties must step back to objectively perceive the cloud, and their place in it:
- Needs vs. Wants
- Willingness to negotiate and collaborate to face the issues not the opponent.
In addition, the parties’ goals, values, and priorities must be compatible. For example, is getting elected or promoted more important than deciding on an optimal decision to serve the organization? Is your goal to have your design selected or to achieve project and organizational goals. Is one design demonstratively better than another? Is objectivity and telling the truth a shared value?
To answer these questions you must identify, understand, describe, and prioritize goals and values. What would happen if your goals weren’t met? Can you live with a negotiated compromise solution? Will the other parties agree to a solution that doesn’t give them everything they want?
Mutually exposing goals makes negotiation easier. Though, without open sharing it is still possible to use EC by subtly facilitating a discovery process. It is important to consider that sometimes openly sharing one’s goals may not be possible or desirable. There may be hidden agendas and motivations. Cultural norms may not support such openness. There are trust and personality issues.
Addressing the Wants
Knowing the goals, attention goes from Needs to Wants. Wants are about the way to achieve the goals and get what you need. For example, in projects a key goal is to satisfy stakeholders’ expectations. There are several ways to do that and there are often conflicting views on which is best.
If one way is as good as another, what does it matter which you choose? Flip a coin. Decision made. Can you and the others give up getting what you want if you get what you need? If one way is best, what makes it so? What are the criteria for deciding? Who will decide and how and when will they do it? Will they rely on emotional rhetoric, hierarchy, or analysis?
A collaborative approach makes resolving conflicts a game that you can both learn from and enjoy while you find an optimal resolution and promote healthy ongoing relationships.
Relationship health is an often-overlooked benefit of collaborative decision making. “Don’t burn bridges” is good advice. Winning is great but if you are not playing the long game, you are likely to have a Pyrrhic victory. You win but at a price that is so costly that victory is tantamount to defeat.
For example, you or your team win an argument by undermining and alienating another team that you must work with to implement the decision or collaborate on future projects. How will that affect the organization’s goals? You may think you will never see your opponents again, but you never know if you will encounter one of them in an interview for a job you have applied for.
Less likely to be overlooked is the benefit of finding an optimal solution, whether it is a blend of elements from alternatives or choosing a demonstrably more effective outcome. Of course, there is no guarantee. But if people commit to an analytical process, collective intelligence and multiple perspectives should result in higher quality decisions.
Taking It Home
Assess your personal approach to conflict resolution, disagreements, and decision making? Assess your team’s and organization’s approach? Is there room for improvement?
Share this article to start a conversation as the first step in adopting a collaborative approach and adapting it to your situation.
There are many references for EC, Wikipedia is a good place to start for further information. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evaporating_Cloud
 Scheinkopf, Lisa J. Thinking for a change: Putting the TOC thinking processes to use. CRC Press, 2002.
Whenever you take on a project, you are taking on some level of risk — a chance that the project might fail.
No one is perfect, not even highly trained project managers; but you do have a responsibility to do all you can to ensure your project doesn’t fail. After all, your business is counting on this to work. When you propose a project, you are essentially promising to execute it successfully, and failure to do so for any reason will reflect poorly on you. While you can only control your part, careful planning and strong leadership can go a long way in ensuring the success of a project.
Here are some tactics successful project managers use to avoid failure:
Know What Causes Failure
In order to avoid failure, you first have to have an understanding of what most often causes project failure. Some common reasons are: lack of communication, poor planning or risk management, or a lack of discipline. Bringing a project to successful completion is hard work and requires someone who’s willing to roll up their sleeves and stick with it, meticulously, until the end.
But don’t just look at general reasons that any project might fail. Look at the weak points within your own organization. If you’ve been there for some time, you may already have an idea of the pitfalls into which your workplace tends to fall. If not, keep your eyes open. It’s good to know your specific weaknesses so that you can think of a way to avoid or strengthen them.
Enhance Your Strengths
Strong management is an absolute must for successful project management. If the project manager isn’t up to the task, it’s doomed from the start. Part of this is in knowing the weaknesses of your team and your organization. Another part of this is in knowing your team’s strengths, and how to best bring out those strengths to finish a project efficiently and successfully.
Being a project manager is more than just overseeing the project. It’s also motivating those working on it. Again, projects require strong discipline. Lead by example with your own strength of discipline and encourage that in your team. If you can bring the best out of a good team, they’ll be strong enough to handle any obstacles that your project throws their way.
Too often, project managers don’t dedicate enough time to planning. Maybe this comes from over eagerness to get started, or maybe project managers and stakeholders worry that if you’re planning, you’re not actively working towards the goal. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If it’s done right, planning is at least half the work. Before you begin putting your project into action, you should have every nuance planned. What is your strategy to finish the project? How do you plan to minimize risk at each step of the way? What is your goal at every milestone and how can you best reach it?
Some people become frustrated and bogged down by spending too much time in planning, but this shouldn’t be a problem for a project manager. It’s your job to be able to look at the big picture. If you have a solid, thoroughly thought out plan, the execution of the project should be smooth and easy. Think of planning like a garden stream: with the path already set, the water will naturally flow in that direction.
Keep It Realistic
Many projects begin in an optimistic light…perhaps more optimistic than they should be in reality. In excitement, it’s easy to set too-short deadlines or over the top goals. Don’t let eagerness determine your goals. Take a step back and look at this project and your team realistically. Don’t think about what you want to achieve here, but what you can feasibly achieve and give yourself enough time to achieve that. You may want to impress stakeholders with goals and timeframes that wow, but they’ll be more impressed in the end with a project successfully and realistically managed.
Don’t trust anything to memory or verbal conversations. Everything to do with your project needs to be written down and stored in one place. This could be a log that you keep or a project management software, and the log itself will depend on the size and scope of the project. You should have your progress tracked, an index of your performance so far, and all of the goals you’re striving to reach or have reached. This will make it easier, too, in case you need to adjust goals or deadlines. The more you track, the better prepared you are.
Keep the work stream running smoothly with open and available communication. You should communicate regularly with everyone involved in this project, and encourage others involved to do the same. This will keep stakeholders from worrying about the status of the project and keep the team encouraged and knowledgeable. Poor communication can lead to misunderstandings and little mistakes that can snowball into big failures as the project goes on. As we discussed before, it’s one of the biggest culprits when it comes to project failure. Avoid it by making sure everyone has a part in tracking progress and keeping everyone posted regularly.
Expect the Unexpected
Even with careful planning, you may hit a curveball along the way that threatens to set back or harm your project. You can’t account for everything, so you should definitely prepare to hit an unexpected roadblock along the way. Maybe this means giving the budget a little padding in case of trouble or having a risk strategy in place. Maybe this means having a plan B in case plan A falls through. But no matter what, you should expect to be surprised at some point along the way.
Life isn’t perfect, business isn’t perfect, and you should probably expect that your project won’t be perfect, either. However, a prepared project manager who knows their team and communicates thoroughly can ensure that the project weathers any storm and ends successfully.