New Year Resolution – work with the big picture!

Picture courtesy Michael Henderson from Brisbane (Bardon), Australia [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Life may be a bowl of cherries, but projects are much more dynamic!

Reading about the recent APM awards reminded me that managing a successful project isn’t about excelling at any one element, but about keeping all the many elements working together in concert. This reminds me of an act that was once popular on variety shows but seems consigned to history – spinning plates.

As you can see from the video, it’s comparatively easy to get the first few plates spinning, perhaps staffing the core team, roughing out a schedule and first cut of a cost estimate, but as more and more elements are added, the project leader has to keep pulling their attention back from the latest “plate” and make sure that all the other plates keep spinning.

It’s all about the big picture – though there’s a real temptation to get sucked down into details, taking your eye off the big picture leads to plates slowing, wobbling than falling and smashing.

To avoid this, it’s vital to understand the correct “big picture” early – in the Concept stage of its lifecycle – and Systems Thinking is a valuable approach to get that right. Getting the big picture wrong dooms you to endless changes, delays and cost over-runs.

In particular, it’s essential to verify that the proposed solution will satisfy the business outcomes intended as early as possible – there is no point delivering a solution on time and on budget if it’s not fit for purpose!

I once delivered a predictive dialler to the debt recovery team. Sadly (as predicted by one of my team) in the meantime some minor changes to the operating procedures of the team had so improved their performance the dialler delivered little business benefit.

Yes, the devil is in the detail, and these must be bottomed out as soon as possible, but the project leader must keep their eyes on the big picture too. If the Titanic had changes course just 2 minutes earlier, it would have missed the iceberg comfortably.

Confirmation bias – sleep-walking into the same old problems

I was watching an episode of “Air Crash Investigation”, a great programme for understanding what can go wrong and how, in the  very public and challenging world of civil aviation.

An airliner ran out of fuel and crash-landed more than 700 miles from its destination, having flow in the opposite direction to its destination.

The pilots blamed technical failure, but there was none – they had mis-set the autopilot and set off in completely the wrong direction, and when they realised they were really lost, instead of asking air traffic control for help, tried to sort it out themselves, making the problem even worse, because they interpreted what they saw as what they wanted to see, not what was really there (confirmation bias).

Many project teams start with a low expectation of success because they have always fallen short of delighting the customer. Repeated failures confirm their bias that they will always fail, so why bother?

Since they are not expecting to succeed, they don’t look how they could do things differently to improve their chances of success. I had a very serious argument with the existing team I inherited when asked to recover a failing programme. “We always do it this way” they said, to which I replied “and you always fail!”

I won the argument, losing one team member in the process, and we tried a completely different approach, very focused on customer experience, and succeeded beyond all expectations.

Taking a fresh look at the complete problem, understanding the true success criteria and designing the whole approach to achieve success, quickly transformed project performance, lifting the team’s self-esteem in a virtuous circle!

This isn’t a one-off – tackling the root causes of frequent problems in a railway infrastructure company saw a 25% reduction in recurrent problems in just 4 weeks!

Is there a problem with project quality? Let’s use a “canary” for early warning.

In general the quality of products is vastly better than in the 1970s – they do their job well , are reasonably reliable and tend to last, rather than not working at all, or breaking quickly, or just rusting away (in the case of cars). This is less true for projects, and my personal experiences make me concerned that today business leadership takes quality for granted, and in the continuing drive to cut costs and improve efficiency, has turned the tide against good quality by cutting investment in it.

To test this we need a “canary” (miners used this sensitive creature as an early warning of toxic gas) for projects to see whether a decline in quality focus is really happening, and what its consequences are.

I suggest we use the air transport industry for this, where quality and safety are tightly coupled, so is high-profile, transparent and familiar to nearly everyone.

This NOT an aviation-bashing article – air transport is still a  high-performing industry.  I want to use its experiences as a warning to the rest of us.

The Boeing 737 Max crashes seem to result from quality failures in Boeing design and test processes – it would appear that the system design that kept pilots from having to requalify for the Max version wasn’t fit for purpose (i.e. safe) and the training didn’t meet the requirements (i.e. for safety).

Sadly, that isn’t Boeing’s only major problem. It’s reported that:

  • Their 787 production line in South Carolina has attracted considerable criticism about manufacturing quality, with airlines complaining due to the high level of defects
  • The US Air Force’s KC 46 Pegasus tanker transport was first accepted  18 months after the first 18 aircraft were planned to be delivered, due to quality issues with the wiring and refuelling system, the key new parts in this 767 conversion
  • In recent structural tests, a 777X cargo door blew out from the fuselage, probably delaying the programme further (after engine-related delays)

It’s not just Boeing that are facing quality challenges. Rolls-Royce has suffered from chronic problems with its Trent 1000 engine family where innovative components haven’t met durability requirements, grounding many 787s and resulting in at least one serious in-flight failure.

Recently, Emirates’ President was highly critical about the lack of reliability of products it was receiving from Boeing, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and General Electric. As reliability is a requirement, this implies an industry-wide quality issue. All of these problems are taking $100 millions to resolve, and are potentially disastrous commercially.

There is always a tension between time, cost and quality in projects, but I suggest that the growth of monetarism has driven Executive focus onto cost without appreciating that the investment in quality up front is vital to delivering on time and budget. Good quality minimises redesign, rework and delays, with their attendant costs.

As our canary, the aviation industry, seems to warn us all, cost-cutting on quality results in delays, cost escalation and, potentially, fatalities.

I wish the aviation industry every success in recovering from these issues, and suggest they look at quality first.

Leadership plus good management?

I’ve recently been working with two groups from the same organisation, and there was a huge contrast between them. One group was outspoken, enjoyed active learning and working in groups, the other group was almost silent, expected to sit and listen, and resented the “wasted time” of working on exercises in groups.

This was a surprise to me – I had expected to work with both groups in the same way, but it simply didn’t play out that way.

This led to a lot of soul searching – what was the critical difference between the groups, and why did the difference result in such different responses?

The conclusion I arrived at was that the first group was primarily composed of leaders, in a wide range from very junior to very senior; they were prepared to voice their concerns and make the most of the situation when it wasn’t what they expected. The second group, though in management roles, were more operational, mature and, apparently, less willing to make the most of things. Expecting a dull workshop, that is what they wanted; they were unwilling to engage in something more interesting and productive.

This highlighted a lesson I have learned throughout my career – leadership is a characteristic that is not strongly correlated to seniority.  There are many middle and even senior managers that lack leadership drivers and motivations. Conversely, there are many young, energetic people that are active leaders.

Management is a skill that usually improves with experience, but the same is not necessarily true of leadership, which demand energy and stamina. The best business leaders are also good managers, because they need to deliver results through others, but they have the energy and stamina to create the vision and inspire their team through the rough patches.

When an organisation engages in major change, it faces many challenges, both foreseen and unforeseen, and dealing with these requires skilled management, but it needs more. Leadership, with clear vision and the energy and discipline to address the issues that arise and “keep the wheels on the wagon”, is essential through the project/programme.

Leadership is more than pointing at the map and sending off the wagon train – it’s scouting, riding shot-gun and fighting off the bandits to make sure it gets there.

A lot of change initiatives fail because the executive “leadership” start it off then lose interest, moving onto the next idea, leaving managers to deal with the problems without the leadership that is essential for success. Fewer ideas, fewer initiatives and sustained leadership  transform the success rate of business projects.

Coping with disruption!

Took another look at this post as I’m working with innovative products. Disruption isn’t just in IT – new legislation and changing political environments are putting massive evolutionary pressure onto businesses. The thoughts below are still good, just more general that when originally written!

We live in an age of disruption, where new IT-driven models of commerce are ripping the heart out of the High Street, and transforming whole markets. What makes this possible is the rapid development of new IT solutions, linked to businesses that are adapting to the new technology; they are ready to deliver value.

Many of these disruptive organisations are new, though – starting from scratch, with the business built around a new, technology-driven business model.

Are existing businesses like dinosaurs, doomed to extinction as this comet of disruptive technology hits their world?

Some have already died out, and others will follow, but it’s a big world, and those organisations willing to evolve quickly can still prosper, I believe, if they address business change in an integrated way.

I was recently asked to help the University of Cumbria develop a new project management course for a major client, and in doing so I reread a lot of published wisdom on project management, illustrating it with case studies from my own experience.

The mismatch between the published wisdom (around which that client operates) and my experience of successful projects, is in business readiness to create value from the project. This is CORE to success, not a bolt-on at the end, I have found.

The published project management bodies of knowledge mention business engagement in the right places; it’s the emphasis that is wrong, as they are largely derived from major engineering activities. In the world of business change, the short timescales and return demanded on investment put business readiness at the heart of all successful change, and quite quickly, corporate survival.

Solicitors, accountants – take a look at estate agents!