What are the 3 Essentials of Project Management?

Suppose you want to do something sizeable, which requires the collaboration of several people over a period of time.  Something like a Start-up, a software project, a process improvement or building a house. You will be creating something new. You get something from the status quo A to a new state B.

You need to start a Project. So let’s get out the toolbox of project managers!

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The danger with these tools – reinforced by the classical training of project managers – is that they tend to imply a”one size fits all” perspective. A good tool, like a work breakdown structure (a list of the activities that make up a project) used in an innovative, start-up context is likely to suppress creativity if it forces the project team to take the route to the solution prescribed in the work breakdown structure instead of giving them the freedom to choose their own path.

Tools used without wisdom are dangerous.

A “Fool with a Tool is still a Fool” (Bill Gates) – but that Fool that is now armed.

3 Types of Projects

To be treated as robots is a major part of the reason why some people really hate projects. They are forced by “fools armed with tools” into administrative nightmares,  while they long for the freedom to get creative.

So before you start “hitting away at a screw with your new Hammer”consider the project type you are facing:

  • Explorative: Start activities right away and deal with issues as they come up
  • Control: Plan ahead in detail, communicate and start once plans have been made
  • Loose/Tight: Start some activities right away and add a certain degree of planning along the way

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The middle ground between control heavy projects (e.g. building a bridge) or explorative projects (e.g. finding a minimal viable product in a start-up) is occupied by typical business projects.

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In a project falling into the “loose/tight” category there are a lot of tradeoffs that need to be made: Adding too much control to a supposedly agile software project will be as counterproductive as to forego any structure, reporting, and standards.

So the message is: Tune your approach to the type of project you are facing.

But isn’t there a set of common factors driving the success of any kind of project? I believe there is.

3 Essentials for any type of Project

All the complexities of a targeted business change and all the perceptions of what a project should be obscure the true essence of what it takes to get anything from A to B. There are really just 3 things that matter, everything else follows from that: A Just Cause, Alignment of People on the Target and Commitment to the Cause.

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1. A Just Cause

With a “Just Cause” the project team and other stakeholders have something they desire to achieve. A “Just Cause” gives the project team the very reason for being, the reason why their efforts and dedication to the project is making sense for the organization and themselves. It provides the “true North” to orientate all decisions.

The word “just” has a moral implication. After all, people aspire to do good and the Inspiration gained by a “Just Cause” is invaluable to a project. What is deemed to be “good” is, of course, depending on the values a person hold dear to herself. But as long as the project team and most stakeholders share the conviction of the Just Cause, the project is driven forward by it.

So how is one to shape a “Just Cause” out of a dry mission objective like “implement that system”? The key is to answer the question “Why?” for multiple times until you are at the essence of the project. Finally, a project is there to make something better, to help someone getting things right, to make the world “just” a little bit better. Identify what your project contributes. If there is really nothing, then just don’t start the project at all.

2. Alignment

Alignment has a strategic and a tactical side.

Let’s start with the strategic element. It’s not enough to have identified a Just Cause for a project, it needs to be shared by others. So get project members and stakeholders to think of the just cause, discuss it with them. Sharpen the mission. Put it in writing, visualize it, display it, give your project a name. Make sure that the “Just Cause” provides true North for the lifetime of a project for everyone involved.

But Alignment is more than just strategic. It is, on a tactical level, the day to day synchronization of activities: The avoidance of waste, the clearness of areas of responsibility, the awareness of datelines, the knowledge of what the other team members are doing, the knowledge of dependencies and risks, the setting of standards, even the provision of templates.

By aligning the team on a day to day level everyone works in the same direction, towards the true north without any unnecessary waste of efforts – and therefore with speed.

3. Commitment

Even if people share a certain sense of the “Just Cause” of the project and work in an aligned, concerted manner towards the goal, that is not enough to ensure project success: They need to be as deeply committed to the project as possible on a personal level.

A Just Cause might make a good reason for the company to do something, but Commitment can only be gained by addressing the individual needs of each project team member individually. The project leader needs to understand what make the person tick, what are his strength, his interest, his desires, his fears, his passions. The more he understands, the better. The only way to find this out is to spend time with the team member, listening and asking probing questions.

To gain Commitment, Emotional Intelligence is what is needed, rather than technocratic skill.

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Perceiving, understanding, using and managing emotions is key to gain and keep the commitment of team members. A committed project team working in an aligned manner is a fast and efficient project team.

Masterful Project Management

If a project manager is able to…

  • Conjure and uphold a Just Cause that is shared by team members and most Stakeholders
  • to align the team in detail on a day to day basis without interfering into their preferred individual work styles
  • and to commit each team member emotionally to the project

…she may consider herself a masterful Manager, as she gains the maximum of the contribution of the team. And all that performance comes by using unobtrusive nudges instead of strict orders.

After all, Management is the art to get people to do things. And creative things can not be ordered.

Good Managers – Good Teams: Lessons from Google

Is management important to a organisations success? How much hierarchical power is helpful? Where is the tipping point where too much power becomes detrimental to an organisations success? Let’s take a look what Google Inc. has found out.

Read more

Execute crisply with sharp tools

What is the use of having a strategy when you do not have the tools to execute it? Problem is: You can rarely buy those tools. You can not buy executional strength- you need to have build executional excellence over time. How?

What is your strategy?

First a reality check: According to leading strategist Richard P. Rumelt most companies do not have a strategy, some might have intentions, at best.
Think of your own company: Do you know its strategy or do you just guess? Is it really a strategy or just stated intentions: “We want to be within the top X of…”, “We will grow consistently”, “We are proud to deliver outstanding customer service” or similar. Do you know why this strategy is chosen? Do you know how – by which actions – it is brought into execution? Do you know exactly what results are meant to be achieved and when?

A strategy can not be executed if not defined, nor if it is not communicated. Most employees and manager suppose that there most be a master plan somewhere in higher management and lower echelons just do not know it. They are – according to Rumelts studies and my experience – wrong. A well formulated, shared strategy – even if not communicated is a very rare thing.

This is quite unsettling. Organizations are drifting in time through the ocean of daily work, without a clear purpose and direction. But they are earning money and provide livelihoods. And that is not a achievement to be belittled.

Managers blues & Workers limbo

One common complaint often heard by managers is: “Who should do it? We do not have the kind of people around here to do things like that. If only we could have more people like person X, we could achieve so much more.”

On the employee side, not a few are feeling that work do not bring out the best of them. How many of your co-workers seem to go to work because they seem to be inherently motivated by their jobs, the tasks they are accomplishing or the social team spirit? Most people are there to earn money in a sometimes engaged, sometimes demotivated, most of the time neither engaged or demotivated way. Employees are drifting – just as a company without a strategy that is actually executed does.

Execute with sharp tools

Strategy is the application of strength versus weakness. The way that this strength is applied is by people grouped in organizations, acting in unison towards a single purpose. Organizations are the prime tools to execute. Every action of a company is either improved or attritioned by a good organization or by a bad organization. The organization is the tool . this tool can either be sharp or blunt.

Heinz Guderian, who had a major influence on german army operations before during and after the second world war, described his job as Inspector General of the Armoured Troops: “Provide the german army with the sharp tools of their trade“.  This encompassed every aspect: Organisation, Training, Processes, Logistics, Material.

This way of thinking was prominent in the german general staff. Erwin Rommel has once been questioned about his seemingly overly risky strategies and replied “I am seeking to create complex situations willingly – in the clear conscience to have the means available to use that complexity to my advantage“.

Both strategists, Guderian and Rommel, were quite aware that any strategy needs to have the sharp tools to implement them and even more: With sharp tools, whole new strategies are possible that could not even be dreamed of, without having entered complex situations.

To enter a complex situation with blunt tools is folly. To enter them consciously with sharp tools is mastery.

Complex situations – like the business environment created by digitalization.

Crisp execution

It seems that having a strategy is not necessary for survival of companies. But it is absolutely necessary to outperform the market systematically.

To win in the digitalization age, transform your organization into a sharp tool, so that execution can deliver decisive results. So what to do? Hire lots of outperformers? Get consultants in to draw up transformation plans?  Find a dynamic setting offsite and motivate your management team?

Whatever you do to get your organization into shape, you need to shape it with a purpose. A tool needs to be applied to something. It is not enough to hone a sharp edge on it, you need to have the right tool for the job, too.

But organizations are made of real people. You can sharpen tools – but how to sharpen people’s resolve, their individual ability to execute? That is were purpose comes into play. It is simply impossible to get individuals to focus their energies on the task at hand without giving them a purpose. Maintaining human resolve – a main part of the ability to execute on individual level – requires shared purpose. Shared purpose can not possibly created without a communicated strategy down to the individual level.

So here is the full circle:

  • You need a strategy to know what tools to use and sharpen.
  • But a strategy can be such a fickle thing in the dynamic ever changing world of digitalization.  It might change.
  • And building and honing tools is so time intensive. A dilemma.

Here any waterfall model will fail, e.g. step one: Get a strategy – with the help of lots of highly paid strategy consultants. Step two: Align the organization. Step three: Execute. Step four:  Oh wait, situation has changed lets go back to step one again.

The answer to this dilemma is: Preparedness and agility at all times.  

Be prepared: Sharpen your tools

Moore has shown in his work on Management Zones (see previous posts) that preparedness means quite different things in different parts of the organization. It really helps, for example to have a very well ordered and disciplined logistics departments. It might not be good idea at all to apply he same degree of discipline to marketing, design or even sales departments. Here efficiency is a secondary concern.

But it definitely helps to build up and maintain some standards of conduct on micro level at all time in all parts of the organization:

  • Ensure that meetings have an agenda and actions are followed up
  • Monitor and analyze quantitatively
  • Tolerate failure, but make sure that learning follows
  • Insist that managers improve their understanding and practice of their craft
  • Organize with a purpose, do not drift with events – use events, always look out for opportunity
  • etc.

Not every behaviour of an organization is strategy or situation dependent.

Focus on getting invariant behavior, the healthy habits of good organizations, right at all times.

Be Agile

Hey stop! Preparedness is fine, but how to build an agile organization? Preparedness can be worth nothing, if you prepare for the wrong kind of battle, where your strength are irrelevant, or if it takes too much time to muster your organizational strength.

One way to achieve organizational agility is to adapt a  team based management approach in some parts of your organization – as displayed in my last post.

Be prepared, be agile – or be late.