Thursday, May 18, 2017

The project manager’s chief daily task is communication, not decision-making

 (Image: free use under CreativeCommons, no attribution required)

Jim Wink, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander, reported that his team had encountered over 200 unexpected events during the life of a schedule-driven project.1 The sources of such events may vary from one case to the next, common examples being design errors, the failure of a contractor to show up, the bankruptcy of a supplier, and changes in the customers' specifications. Indeed, recent research repeatedly stresses that the key challenge facing the project manager in our present era of high uncertainty is coping with numerous unexpected events.  In turn, disseminating information frequently and routinely is probably one of the most effective means for project managers to ameliorate the negative impacts of such unexpected events. 

Fredrick Brooks, best known as the “father of the IBM System/360,” argued that “the project manager’s chief daily task is communication, not decision-making.2 Hugh Woodward, a project manager from Procter & Gamble, reached a similar conclusion through trial and error. His assignment was to secure an environmental permit for a new product.  While several groups of people distributed over a wide geographic area were involved in the project, the product was fairly routine, the participants involved had some experience working with each other, and the responsibility of each participant was clarified in a preliminary planning meeting which generated a detailed list of action steps and responsibilities. No hitches were expected. 

Yet the schedule was slipping continually. A second planning process was initiated with all involved parties, resulting in a revised plan. Action steps, responsibilities, and deadlines were drawn. Assurances were given that the process flowsheet was now stable and that the formulated strategy for approaching the state regulators was valid.   Yet within days, the schedule was slipping again! 

The solution was simple. Hugh initiated weekly video conferences with all the key participants meeting to share the latest information and to assess the project's status. Through these weekly virtual meetings, the team members were able to quickly collect missing information, identify changes, and solve problems as they were still emerging. It turned out that these weekly video conferences were all that was needed to assure the smooth progress of the project.3

What matters is not only the frequency of the communication but also the spirit of it.

NASA’s Tony Schoenfelder describes some of the communication practices employed by John Hodge, the first leader of the Space Station Task Force:

Hodge combined a number of practices and innovations that led to a unique and uninhibited atmosphere. Each day started at 8:15 AM with an unstructured 15-minute all-hands stand-up meeting. Only those who had something important to say took the floor, while everyone else crowded into the office or hallway to listen. It turned out to be a useful device in that it not only conveyed information, but also physically reunited the team each morning to reinforce the spirit of camaraderie and the sense of shared purpose.… Hodge didn’t believe in secrets. He was completely open with the staff. What he knew, they knew. Members appreciated this unusual candor and reciprocated by keeping him and the leadership well informed…. Hodge was liable to pop up unannounced anywhere at anytime…. He not only got to know each person as a person, but also received an unfiltered heads-up as to what was going on.4

Matt Peterson, at the Boldt Construction Company, used a similar practice.  All on-site team members (the superintendent, field engineers, project coordinator, safety officer, etc.) participated in “daily 10-minute huddles.” Matt reported that these informal morning meetings not only ensured that the team members understood one another’s current workloads and constraints, but often enabled them to identify and resolve conflicting priorities before they became problems.

But effective communication should not be limited to the project's team. Insufficient communication with the client is one of the more prevalent causes for unexpected changes. Yet, project managers tend to communicate with their clients primarily at the early stages of the project, while the project’s requirements are first formulated, saving subsequent communication only for crisis moments. Don Margolies, a NASA project manager based in Maryland, set up a schedule to talk on the phone every week with his client, Dr. Edward Stone, who was based in California. As reported by Don, "In the early stages of the project, much of what was about to unfold was still up in the air. You might say the spacecraft itself was about the only thing not in the air." Yet, they stuck to their weekly schedule and talked over the phone even if it meant just reporting the weather. The benefits of these routine and brief weekly phone calls became evident more than a few times during the project. Their ability, for example, to identify in advance possible cost overruns, enabled them ultimately to complete the $140 million project at $30 million under budget!5

Effective communication can thus reduce costs, prevent problems, and help create a cohesive team. Indeed, disseminating information frequently and routinely contributes to both flexibility and stability. That is, the team’s ability to adapt and solve problems as soon as they occur enables it to quickly regain stability. It therefore behooves the project manager to prioritize communication for the benefit of the team and the project.



1.        Laufer, A. and Hoffman, E.J. Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders. 2000, New York: John Wiley & Sons: p. 76-8.

2.        Brooks Jr, F.P. The Mythical Man-Month. 1995, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley: p. 40.

3.        Laufer, A., Volkman, R.C., Davenport, G.W., and Terry, S. In Quest of Project Excellence through Stories. 1994, Cincinnati, OH: Procter and Gamble.

4.        Schoenfelder, T.E. The idyllic workplace. Ask Magazine 2002; 7: p. 22-26.

5.        Laufer, A., Post, T., and Hoffman, E.J. Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects. 2005, Washington, DC: The NASA History Series: p. 31.

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.