Friday, June 19, 2015

Conduct Learning-Based Reviews (part 1 of 2)

A previous story at this blog, Saving Lives: Expecting Problems or Burying Them (June 2014), highlights learning during the life of a project through a metaphor from the operating room. In this, the first of a two-part article, we will demonstrate how successful project managers ensure that learning plays a central role during project review. This month we focus on practices employed at NASA, while next month we will discuss examples from Procter & Gamble and other organizations.
Project reviews are seen primarily as a means of control by the client and upper management. Brian Muirhead from NASA, who led the design, development and launch of the flight system for the Pathfinder mission to Mars, describes the prevailing atmosphere during the review process:
“The routine is daunting. Members of the board sit at a horseshoe-shaped table, the chairman in the middle. A team member stands in front of them and launches his presentation. It usually isn’t long before one of the review board members interrupts the presenter with a question—rather like an attorney presenting oral arguments before the supreme court. The skeptical expressions, the intense looks, the scowls and smiles, are giveaways. And just as at the supreme court, the questions are generally polite, occasionally harsh, but all with a clear aim of probing for the truth. 1
Because project reviews are perceived as serving the needs of upper management, insufficient attention is paid to the overall needs of the project team, and in particular to the negative implications of the preparations required for the review. Brian Muirhead discusses the time leading up to a project review during the Pathfinder mission:
“Formal project reviews come with a clear, but unavoidable, downside. Done well, the preparations can take an enormous amount of time for the team. Preparations for a formal board review can take too many of us—me and the project’s top managers plus a number of key managers and engineers at the next level down—off the line for as much as six weeks. Necessary to the overall process, but a significant distraction; and even worse, a significant loss in momentum.”2
At NASA, two other project managers, dissatisfied with the perceived role vs. actual practice of project reviews, took steps to radically change the situation.
With his project up for another review, Marty Davis, a project manager at Goddard Space Flight Center, developed ways through which project reviews could benefit the person being reviewed more than the reviewer. Marty pushed for the creation of a review team, composed of internal technical staff and external specialists, who could provide feedback and joint problem-solving. In addition, Marty requested that, in order to provide consistency and eliminate the need to revisit issues, these same individuals participate in review milestones throughout the project lifecycle.
Marty was assigned an internal co-chair and recommended an external co-chair. He told both co-chairs that they could have seven members, and neither could duplicate the same technical specialties. Incorporating his approach into the review process, Marty’s next review lasted two days, with one day of presentation and one day of one-on-one sessions, followed by a caucus with the review team. The independent experts identified areas of concern, many of which, after one-on-one meetings with the specialized project staff and the review team’s technical specialists, were resolved. The issues that remained open were assigned a Request for Action (RFA). Eventually, Marty was left with just five RFAs.3
Susan Motil, another project manager from NASA, used Marty Davis's model after a bad experience with Concept Review. Desiring involvement in the review board selection, Susan wasn’t trying to take the panel’s independence or hide a problem, but rather look for particular expertise. She did just that, and acquired a panel with handpicked expertise and management approval. Her two sets of reviews – one for each subsystem, and one for the entire system – would have a dialogue with the engineers, who would show them the hardware and test data, and be open for reviewers’ questions.
Susan compared the direct outcomes of the initial, unsuccessful Concept Review, and the second review based on Davis’s model. Davis’s model allowed the team to spend significantly less time and effort on the RFAs, and it cost the project about $200,000, as compared to the $700,000 price tag for the initial review.4
Both Marty and Susan concluded that learning-based reviews are a must. They can help you identify problems in your project, which may make the difference between mission failure and mission success, and if implemented effectively, they can be accomplished without excessive interruption to project progress and with limited extra cost.
NEXT MONTH:  In part 2 of this two-part article we will look further at the role of learning in projects with examples from Procter & Gamble and others, concluding with a suggested practice for peer review.
IN THE MEANTIME:  Read more on integrating planning and review with learning in the recent article, “What Successful Project Managers Do,” published in the MIT Sloan Management Review.5

1.      B.K. Muirhead & W.L. Simon (1999). High Velocity Leadership: The Mars Pathfinder Approach to Faster, Better, Cheaper. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 23-4, 86-7.
2.      ibid.
3.      Davis, M. (2001). “Tangled Up in Reviews.” Goddard Space Flight Center. Ask Magazine 4 (July): 8-11.
4.      Motil, S. (2003).  “So This Is Knowledge Sharing.” Glenn Research Center. Ask Magazine 10 (January): 6-9.
5.      Laufer, A., Hoffman, E. J., Russell, J.S., & Cameron, W. S. (2015). “What Successful Project Managers Do.” MIT Sloan Management Review, 56(3), 42-51. 

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