Thursday, April 13, 2017

Evolving Planning: The Rolling Wave Approach for Project Planning

Planning is a decision-making process whereby interdependent decisions are integrated into a system of decisions. What makes effective planning particularly challenging is that it entails an anticipatory process, as decisions are made on future actions and how to perform them. However, in today’s dynamic environment, characterized by frequent unexpected events and volatile information, anticipation becomes very difficult, and the key question faced by the project team is how far in advance of implementation they should make their decisions. Making them early provides more time to develop and coordinate these decisions with other interrelated decisions, and in general, to be better prepared for implementation. However, if decisions are made too early, there is a high probability that the changes that will take place between the time of decision making and the time of implementation will require that the decisions be modified. 

To cope with these conflicting considerations, project managers employ a “rolling wave” approach to planning. Thus, they develop plans in waves as the project unfolds and information becomes more reliable. They help develop Action Plans, which are detailed short-term plans with a one-to-two-week time horizon, usually the responsibility of low-level supervisors. Medium-term plans (e.g., 90-day Look-Ahead Plans) are less detailed in comparison, typically with a time horizon of two to six months. Being at the hub of internal and external project information, the project manager is in the best position to lead the periodic updating of the medium-term plans. Finally, long-term plans (Master Plans), cover the duration of the entire project and are quite general, presenting only aggregate activities. Through the rolling wave approach, project managers can ensure short-term stability and long-term flexibility (see Figure 1). 

 Fig. 1: Influence of planning horizon on degree of detail

This style of planning does not imply that decisions should be arbitrarily “put off until later.” Rather, it is an act of deliberately splitting off those planning aspects that can be acted upon more opportunely in the future. By applying this approach, two extreme situations are avoided. The first is the preparation of overly detailed plans too soon, which may lead to rapid obsolescence because some decisions are based on information provided by intelligent guesses rather than on reliable data. This is particularly the case when the project suffers from a high degree of uncertainty. The other extreme situation is delaying the planning until all the information is complete and stable. In both cases, project effectiveness will suffer. 

The benefits of this planning approach go beyond offering stable plans. When adopting this planning method, the preparation of plan updates shifts from the full time professional scheduler, who remains responsible primarily for the Master Plan, to the project manager and his/her team who now may assume responsibility for the short-term Action Plans, as well as for the mid-term plans. This approach may enhance the involvement of the entire team in the project planning process, creating a sense of ownership and promoting greater responsiveness to change.

Ray Morgan, the project manager of Pathfinder, a solar-powered airplane, used the short- and mid-term schedule as a means not only for communicating the overall picture of what needed to be done, when, and why; but also for actively engaging the entire team in updating and using their plans. He, therefore, put a graphic depiction of the schedule on the side of a large container right in the hangar, next to the flight test crew and the airplane. The team was encouraged not simply to adhere to the original plan but to add and delete tasks interactively. These changes were incorporated into a computer model and were reprinted once or twice a week during flight tests. The team often referred back to the chart to help redefine the importance of a current task and to see how it fit into “the big picture.” Thus, the plans resulting from the on-going learning was owned by the team.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Development of Valid Project Management Principles Requires Partnering with Project Managers

The upcoming several blogs will provide a brief overview of the new book: Becoming a Project Leader: Blending Planning, Agility, Resilience, and Collaboration to Deliver Successful Projects, to be published in 2017 by Palgrave. The book was written by the blog's co-authors Alex and Jeff in collaboration with Terry Little and Bruce Maas. These blogs will highlight the four roles assumed by successful project managers as depicted in the following figure:

Figure 1: The four roles of the project manager
Whereas the Industrial Revolution emphasized skill and task specialization, the current information revolution has led in the mid-1990s to the use of the project method as the predominant management strategy for structuring organizations. As summarized succinctly by Tom Peters in 1999, “All white-collar work today is project work.”1
Paradoxically, the sharp increase in the popularity of the project method has been accompanied by an increasing dissatisfaction with current project management results. As accurately summarized by the opening statement of a 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review, "Projects fail at a spectacular rate.”2 This point was emphatically remade in a recent issue of the same journal: “Why don’t most project managers sound the alarm when they’re going to blow past their deadlines? Because most of them have no earthly idea when they’ll finish the job.”3 And why don’t they have any idea when they’ll finish? Because prevailing project management principles and practices were developed by the research community without intensively involving practitioners. As a result, their prescriptions are not only inadequate but also misleading.
In one of our previous blogs published January 2016 we shared the story of Jim Carroll, a VP of a large industrial organization, who was a member of a group of experienced practitioners at the Construction Industry Institute who developed a list of nine principles they believed essential for project success. Alex argued vehemently with Jim that these principles were inadequate. Failing to convince him, Alex asked Jim to go home and reflect on the projects he himself had led in the past, to see if applying the nine principles could explain the success or failure of these projects. To his great credit, Jim took this assignment very seriously and the following day he humbly told Alex that there was no correlation between the nine principles and the success and failure of his own past projects. The important message of this story is that even when experienced practitioners attempt to develop project management principles, they may fail unless they systemically reflect upon their own experience.
The overall objective of our research has been to develop practice-based principles for managing projects. Believing that management is best learned by emulating exemplary role models, we’ve based this book on more than two decades of research that has attempted to capture the proven practices of some of the most competent project managers. Toward this end, we’ve used multiple, complementary approaches to collect firsthand data on the practices of successful project managers, focusing our studies on a selective sample of the best practitioners in leading organizations.
Our first approach consisted of field studies and structured research tools, which included two-to-four-hour interviews and up to one-week-long observations of practitioners from various organizations such as AT&T, Bechtel, DuPont, General Motors, IBM, Motorola, PPL Electric Utilities, Procter & Gamble, and Turner Construction Company. Our second approach involved facilitating reflective dialogues among project team members. We collected most of the cases, stories, and practices through our role as the facilitators of the project management knowledge-development and knowledge-sharing communities in three organizations: NASA (five years), Procter & Gamble (three years), and Boldt (two years). Overall, more than 200 project managers from over 20 organizations participated in our studies. To make sure the principles we developed were a valid interpretation of the stories we had collected, we adopted a third approach: testing our interim results in real-life situations through consulting engagements.
Our intensive collaboration with the best practitioners enabled us to define the four primary roles of project managers (Figure 1) illustrated by four metaphors (Figure 2). In the following blogs we will expand each of these four roles.

Figure 2: Metaphors for the four roles of the project manager


1.  Peters, T. The Wow project. Fast Company 1999; April(24): p. 116.
2.  Lundin, R.A., Arvidsson, N., Brady, T., Ekstedt, E., Midler, C., and Sydow, J. Managing and Working in Project Society. 2015, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3.  Klein, G. Performing a project premortem. Harvard Business Review 2007; 85(9): p. 18-19.

Terry Little was program manager for over 25 years at the Department of Defense, and is considered by many to be the best program manager in recent DoD history. Mr. Little served as Executive Director of the Missile Defense Agency—the senior civilian in an organization of approximately 8,000 employees—while also directing the $14 billion Kinetic Energy Interceptor Program. Previously, he was the first director of the Air Force Acquisition Center of Excellence, which enhanced all acquisition activities through streamlining contracts, devising incentives, and overseeing contractors.

Bruce Maas is the Vice Provost for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Maas has served as the director of the EDUCAUSE Leadership Institute, the leading professional association for information technology in higher education, and he is presently serving as the board chair. He is also a member of the Internet2 External Relations PAG and Co-Chair of the Internet2 Global Summit Planning Committee. In addition, Maas is a member of the Board of Directors of Unizin and is serving a three-year term on the Board of Directors of IMS Global.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Leadership Development By Failure: A Case Study

This month we feature a story penned by Jeff Russell, co-executive director of the Consortium for Project Leadership at UW-Madison.  Excerpt:
... Experience is an ongoing process, and good leaders need to make the most of it. Some look but don’t see; some listen but don’t understand. As T.S. Eliot said, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”
Experience necessarily involves failures, and you certainly shouldn’t miss the meaning of those. Failures can prepare you to be a leader—as long as you take the time to reflect on them. When you’re reflective, you think about outcomes and impact. You develop judgment.
By “failing,” I don’t mean simply “making a mistake. Failing can involve falling short in a duty or an expected action. It can also refer to a situation in which you don’t make the most of an opportunity. I’m all too familiar with both scenarios and can speak from personal experience about the benefits of failure. ...

Read the rest of the story over at The Lifelong Learner blog.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

How a Pickup Truck Taught Us That Research Can’t Be Detached from Practice

In 2001, the British management business leader and philosopher Charles Handy vividly described the pace of change: “All of the world’s trade in 1949 happens in a single day today, all of the foreign exchange dealings in 1979 happen now in a single day, as do all the telephone calls made around the world in 1984. A year in a day is exactly how it feels sometimes.”1

In spite of these vast world changes, the theory of project management has remained largely unchanged. As noted by P.W.G. Morris: “Modern project management… emerged… in a period that was more inflexible and less complex and where events changed less rapidly than today…. It [the theory of project management] is in many respects still stuck in a 1960s time warp.”2   

Practitioners must recognize that the prevailing theories and the basic assumptions of their discipline have a great impact on their own thoughts and practices. Albert Einstein explained it very succinctly: “It is the theory that describes what we can observe.” Indeed, in his 2005 seminal article, Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices, Sumantra Ghoshal cites Kurt Lewin’s argument that “nothing is as practical as a good theory.” Ghoshal stresses, however, that the “obverse is also true: Nothing is as dangerous as a bad theory.”3 Management theory stuck in the 60s may not only be old and irrelevant, it may also adversely affect our performance in terms of cost, time table as well as quality.

If conventional methods of project management can exacerbate rather than alleviate project problems, then we should not be surprised to learn about the widespread poor statistics of project results. One key reason is that the research is detached from practice.4 Attempting to respond to this concern, Cicmil et al. suggest that “what is needed to improve project management practice is not more research on what should be done” but rather a better understanding of “the ‘actuality’ of project-based working and management.”5  

We attempted to follow this recommendation and to develop a “theory of practice” by studying the “actuality” of projects. However, as Alex learned in one of his first studies, learning from practice requires more than just going out to the field. In this study, Alex examined the factors affecting the optimal size of a construction crew. His list of factors was very elaborate, and included among others the worker's experience, foreman's training, and complexity of work.

He collected data via field interviews and on-site productivity measurements both in Texas and Israel. However, only after he completed collecting the data did he learn that he failed to include one simple but sometimes very crucial factor. It turned out that for some trades in Israel, the deciding factor for the size of the construction crew was no more nor less than the size of the pickup truck carrying the workers from their remote villages to the site. Literature surveys and field pre-testing of the interview guide were insufficient. Deep acquaintance with the phenomena under study is the key.

Only when the researcher acquires a rich and intimate knowledge of the subject, or when the practitioner serves as an active partner in helping the researcher formulate the right questions and design the right research tools, will any of us learn something meaningful.6

1.          C. Handy, (2002). The Elephant and the Flea: Reflections of a Reluctant Capitalist. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 101.
2.          P.W.G. Morris (1994). The Management of Projects. London, UK: Thomas Telford  Services, p. 217.
3.          S. Ghoshal, (2005). Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices. Academy of Management Learning and Education 4, 1 (March): 75-91.
4.          Sandberg and H. Tsoukas (2011). Grasping the Logic of Practice: Theorizing Through Practical Rationality. The Academy of Management Review 36, 2: 338-360. 
5.          S. Cicmil, T. Williams, J. Thomas, and D. Hodgson (2006). Rethinking Project Management: Researching the Actuality of Projects. International Journal of Project Management 24, 8: 675-86.  
6.          Laufer, A. ASK Magazine, NASA, Issue 8 May 2002