Grand Designs – Think again Kevin!



GrandDesignsI was watching Grand Designs. I’m a fan of Kevin McCloud and his show but this one episode struck an uncomfortable chord – which perfectly illustrates exactly what the book (What they didn’t tell you about project management in class) is all about.

It was a re-run of a 2006 episode where retired physicist Peter and his wife Christine were building a split personality house which was apparently going to straddle a hob courtyard wall. From the outside of the courtyard the house would have the appearance of a potting shed. From the courtyard side of the fence, it would look like a contemporary glass walled pavilion.

Throughout the show, Kevin criticised and even mocked Peter and Christine, firstly because they decided to manage the project themselves and secondly because as project managers (and sponsors) they were allowing the building to grow organically with significant changes to the plan.

“You are supposed to resist compromise” Kevin declared. He seemed incensed that, “Peter seems to embrace compromise”. At the end, even in acknowledging the success of the project, and that he ultimately liked the end product, Kevin’s praise was laced wit a catalogue of things he didn’t like.

There may have been elements of the outcome which were not to Kevin’s taste but at the end of a project what really counts is the client’s opinion which was that, “We got just what we set out to achieve”. What’s more they enjoyed the process and the final cost was less than 7% over initial estimates – despite all the plan changes!

Kevin: How many of the projects you’ve observed have had clients bemoaning the stress of the project? How many have delivered ‘exactly what they set out to achieve’? How many projects have come out within 10% of the original budget? Perhaps it’s time to re-think ‘the way it should be done’.


scaling down – if you want to read more, get the book – for free!

I decided some time ago that I didn’t want to do project management any more, but that I didn’t want to throw away what I’d learned along the way. Thus the book.  It’s been fun.  It’s paid me well but I want to start thinking about other things so I wont’ be posting so much from now on.  If you’re following the blog and you want to read more, contact me through the book website and I’ll send you a copy for free.  Perhaps you can take it further.

To Outsource or Not to Outsource That is the Question


outsourcing icon

So you’ve done the maths and you think you’re going to save 20% by outsourcing a function. Now ask yourself can they really do it 40% more efficiently? Remember that they’re in the business of making a profit so if they’re going to charge you 20% less than it would cost you do do it in-house then to make a 20% profit they’ve got to be doing it on a budget 40% less than yours. Are your guys that grotesquely incompetent that someone else can do as good a job for 40% less? Further more your in-house guys do not profit by cutting corners; the fixed price that made outsourcing so attractive encourages the third party to cut corners.

Am I anti-outsourcing? I don’t believe I am, as long as it’s done for the right reasons.

Does the function in question play any part in the definition of your brand? If X contributes to the appearance, reputation or public perception of your product in any way then outsourcing X to a third party who may well be managing X for your opposition too is at best unwise. You are effectively outsourcing your identity/brand, the point of differentiation between you and the others and your ‘hook’ in the market.

Can the delivery of the function in question give you competitive edge? Think of a Formula Ford racing team. All vehicles have the same engine so maintenance is not unique to your car but would you be outsourcing your pit-crew? They may well service your opponent’s car and I’m sure that the fact that one of the mechanics is your arch-rival’s brother wont matter at all. I may be highlighting my ignorance of Formula Ford but you get the idea re: outsourcing.

If you have a function which is not a core business function for you, it does not contribute to your brand definition and the delivery of the said function does not contribute to your competitive edge then outsourcing is an option but when you compare costs remember that a staff member might be enticed to come and help one weekend for time off in lieu (at your convenience). The outsourced service provider will not set foot in your office out of hours unless you’ve agreed to pay them penalty rates. That is the ‘professional’ way.

Am I anti-outsourcing? No. For years clients have outsourced project management to me. I saw myself as an administration mercenary. I provided a particular service for which there was no internal alternative or expertise (or because nobody internally would take the job). All I ask is that if you’re going to outsource, do it for the right reasons and not because you don’t know how to manage a particular group because if you think you’re being screwed by a questionably competent manager now, then the professionals are going to do you like the prison bitch.

Talking to the Information Overloaded



Lesson one: Know when to shut up.

When you’ve made a mistake and you know it, the last thing you need is your instructor lecturing you on the bleeding obvious. My dad was an old world colonial who frightened me until the day he died. However when I was learning to drive a car I was much more comfortable with him beside me than even my older brothers and sisters. Dad was a master of knowing when NOT to say anything.

My life coach has this expression which she attributes to her dad. Your words must meet at least two of the following three criteria. Otherwise keep it to yourself.

  • Criteria one: That it is true

  • Criteria two: That it is necessary

  • Criteria three: That it is kind

The answer to ‘does my butt look big in this?’ may not be true but it’s kind and the taxi is not going to wait long enough for another dress change (necessary). I once told my boss that he had a body odour problem. It wasn’t kind but it was true and his position put him in contact with clients and staff regularly (necessary). I started by telling him that ‘this is something that only a friend is going to tell you’. ‘This won’t hurt a bit’ is kind and necessary because you need the victim to sit still, even if it’s not quite true. Remember the criteria and before you speak, ask yourself does it meet two of the three?

Lesson two: Cut the volume (amount)

We’ve all been told many times to avoid jargon and use language which is going to be meaningful to your listener(s). The same could be said for levels of detail. If you’re explaining a technical problem to management, be careful to include every detail directly relevant to the decision at hand and only those details directly relevant to the decision at hand. Be prepared to explain technical concepts if necessary. Avoid tangents and back-stories. Be clinical, dispassionate and patient. How you respond to ‘how’s it going’ will depend on who’s asking. From a technician the question is about technology, perhaps an opportunity to help. From a manager the question is about confidence in the next deadline.

Happy project management. Remember your mission. Keep your ego in check and if it helps, think about how much they’re paying you 🙂

Anger Management


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Angry Goat

As a project manager you will be be dealing with people under stress – a lot. There’ll be nervous bosses, recalcitrant contributors, conflicting agendas and angry, fearful victims upon which you are about to inflict unwanted change. How you respond to aggression and bullying attempts will affect your ability to work constructively with the parties who, to all intensive purposes are trying to run out of town.

It is quite the challenge. From ‘What they didn’t tell you about project management in class’: If you are inclined to react or defend yourself when confronted with verbal (usually) abuse then perhaps project management is not the career for you. I’d like to expand upon that a little. So what are you supposed to do?

Susie my life coach has been telling me to ‘respond’ rather than ‘react’. The difference being that the former requires consideration; the latter is more of a reflex. Try this: before you respond consider the outcome that you seek. ‘Seek’ is significant because it can be confused with desire. Your assailant’s unpleasantness may cause you to secretly wish that they burst into flames – or perhaps that’s just me. Either way, satisfying as it may be in the short term, it is probably counter productive in the context of the project.

So before you respond, it helps to remind yourself that this is work and not recreation and presumably the annoying person has something to contribute to the project. Perhaps it’s your boss. What response on your part will get you closer to a satisfactory outcome? Let that guide your next move and how you articulate it.

Your bruised ego might need to take a hit for the project but a point worth noting is that while your ego might be currency for negotiation, the truth is not and neither are the core elements of project execution as agreed in the charter. Ie if you need to change direction in order keep the peace then you will need the approval of your sponsors.

A lesson I learned the hard way was to consult them early. Advise your sponsors of the disharmony and ask them what compromises will they accept in order to keep the peace. The response might be indignation and even anger at you for suggesting that their decisions be challenged. On the other hand if you escalate an issue to the sponsors and they do not back their original decision, ie if they accept a compromise, then your enemies have outflanked you. Either you misrepresented the boss to them or you did not represent their concerns adequately to the boss. The net effect is that you have been successfully opposed and future negotiations are going to get even more ugly.

Remember that anger is a source of physical energy but if your battle does not involve wielding swords then that energy can lead to hasty and counter productive reactions. So respond rather than react; stay focused on the required outcome; consider the nine steps to conflict resolution (in ‘What they didn’t tell you about project management in class’) and keep your sponsors informed. Consult them well before the need arises to engage them.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson of all is one I learned in martial arts classes. You can’t lose your temper and win the fight. I’m quite sure that not all of John McEnroe’s on court tantrums were about him losing his temper. He has as much as admitted that if he could get his opponent angry it would take the edge of their game and give him the advantage. You can’t lose your temper and win the fight.

ASSUMPTIONS (Thinking like a project manager – part 4)




When I began the ‘think like a project manager’ theme, I was talking about a particular client who had an issue with installations taking much longer than they should. I narrowed it down to to main causes. The first and most significant was that the expectations set by the sale staff were somewhat rosier than reality. The second was that implementers making the transition from ‘doing’ to ‘managing’ were making assumptions, based on their experience about how and when things should happen.

If money is the root of all evil, then assumptions are a close second. I remember my first ever university class. It was the autumn of 1981. The class was Ph101 (Physics) at the University of Queensland. The lecturer was Victor Metchnick, a larger-than-life character, obviously passionate about physics and teaching. He wrote on the whiteboard:


In a booming voice he announced with the projection and vaguely the same accent as Hitler, “In my class you will never assume because…”. He began underlining, “when you assume you make an ass out of u and me”. So it is with project management. Assumption is the mother of all evil.

If you are a carpenter then you probably have a good idea of how to build a bench. You would have a pretty good idea, if you were building the bench, of how long it would take, what tools you would need and what it would look like when completed. If you task someone else to build a bench then how long it takes, what tools are needed and what it will ultimately look like will depend on the knowledge and experience of the carpenter tasked with the job and not yours. If your timelines and budgets are based on how you would do it then you will come unstuck quite quickly.

The consequences of assuming how your sponsors are going to react are even more spectacular. In both cases, don’t assume, ask; and of course keep a record of the response, either in meeting minutes or a simple email ‘confirming’ the discussion you’ve just had.

Happy Thoughts: Think like a PM (Part 3 – Expectations Management)



Happy Thoughts

Happy Thoughts

In an earlier post I talked about managing expectations – a central theme to ‘project management according to Robin’ (The book is called ‘What they didn’t tell you about project management in class’ – click ‘home’). It is a sentiment worth revisiting. In the previous ‘expectations’ article I was in fact talking about this particular client (story continues from previous post). They started me thinking: ‘good products, good people, what’s the problem?’ I narrowed it down to two main contributing factors, expectations management and assumptions. I’ll talk about assumption – being the mother of all evil – later. Now, once more with feeling, lets revisit expectations management.

The issue with sales people is not just what they promise but the perception that, should the client buy the product, the product implementation is going to be a doddle. After all you’re not going to sell a product by telling the potential client that the implementation is going to be a nightmare.

As the project manager, your view of the world is a bit different. You know that there will be unforeseen obstacles and there will be trauma. This is a problem because if all they’ve heard so far is ‘It’ll be fine!’ then the first obstacle will sound alarm bells instead of a call to arms.

If they’re less worried than you then you’re deceiving them which is not only ethically wrong but impractical. They need to be nervously waiting on the sidelines for the opportunity to leap into the game. The alternative is that they’re sitting in the boardroom prematurely sipping champagne and when you do need them, the engagement begins with the the presumption of incompetence on your part. Yes you’ve done this before and yes you’re confident of success, but every project is a new adventure. There will be obstacles and some may well need intervention at the executive level and this is the message that you have to get across before you begin. The challenge is to do so without directly contradicting the sales person and without scaring the client to the point of undoing the sale – but it cannot go unsaid.

Talking about, and documenting, risks, contingencies and escalation procedures comes under the heading of ‘project management methodology’ but the primary benefit to the project manager is that it enables you to adjust sponsor expectations; to have them understand that there WILL be bumps in the road and their involvement with the project extends throughout the implementation and not just the decision to proceed and the sipping of champagne at the successful conclusion. If you’re still having difficulty or if you are uncertain that the message is getting through, then say it plain. For example:

‘I bet salesman Sue told you the implementation would be easy. Yes we have done this dozens of times but every implementation comes with its own unique problems. Make no mistake, this is going to be a nightmare, but a manageable nightmare and in the end the benefits will be enjoyed long after the pain has been forgotten. ‘

<sarcasm> you can see why I’m such a popular project manager </sarcasm> My first project with the company was quite traumatic. Unfortunately the CEO was a personal friend of our company managing director. The first call my boss received went along the lines of ‘Is he mad?’. Luckily my boss weathered the storm and did not intervene, instead replying, “He’s doing his job”. After a week of kicking and screaming on both sides of the fence the product was installed and doing its thing. My presence was not exactly welcomed at first and despite the implementation success I was not sure if my intervention was appreciated. I was in the kitchen sipping a cup of tea contemplating my future when the chief implementer (the real project manager who I was mentoring) walked in. “Damn!” Irene exclaimed as she dropped her work bag on the table, “Smoothest implementation we’ve ever had!”. The memory of that moment is one of the happy thoughts I draw upon if I’m feeling low.

Early on in my career I was always nervous about engaging the sponsors. No one likes to be the barer of bad news. What I’ve found since then was quite a surprise.

If you have managed your sponsors expectations well, then they will be pleased to hear from you. Even business executives need to feel needed and coming to them for help will give them the opportunity to flex their political muscles and do the management thing that they’re paid to do. It also makes them feel like they are still ultimately in control, at the top of the tree; and that you are working for them; and that if there is bad news they’ll hear it from you first – which is a trust thing. On more than one occasion when I’ve nervously gone to the sponsors with bad news they have reassured me that ‘it’ll be OK, we’ll sort this out’. At the time I found their enthusiasm slightly disturbing. It was like giving a pumped warrior the command to engage the enemy. In any case they weren’t mad at me.

It’s so much easier it is to stick to timelines and budgets when the company executives are on the roller coaster with with you instead of sitting in a padded board room imagining plain sailing. If there is a big picture reason why your project has to wait, they’ll be the ones explaining it to you instead of blaming you.

Think like a project manager (part 2: the Salesman sponsor)



Uncle Sam,  sales icon

Uncle Sam the persuader

My apologies to sales people for mocking you in the previous post. I’m sure that IT people and project mangers get mocked in sales publications all the time. I have in fact worked with some excellent sales staff, but that’s not to say you’re not entitled to some payback for all the times you promised the client vapour-ware and then expected me to install it.

Such was the case with my client (story continues from previous post). The poor unfortunate project manager trying to install the system was left to contend with any discrepancies between what was promised and what was going to get installed. It was usually about features that were still being developed and not quite ready but it invariably required senior management to become involved to pacify the client and resolve the matter while the sales people were busy seducing the next client. This is not good use of company executive time; it’s not good for implementation projects which start off on the wrong foot; and it’s not good for the reputation of the company.

The sales force is the face of the company; they are the ones making the promises; they have the contacts in the company to stay abreast of what can and can’t be sold. They should answer to the client if the promises can’t be upheld.

The simple answer is to appoint the sales person as the (vendor) project sponsor. The commitment is little more than attending a few meetings and acting as a buffer between the project and the company executives on matters that cannot be resolved with the scope of a ‘normal’ implementation.

What it means is that the sales person represents their company from initial contact to completed implementation. It means that if it gets to the stage where company executives are drawn into the fight, and the first few times it probably will, the salesperson will be in the room. It means that the lessons learned about sales from implementation and vice versa are inherent and not just a footnote from an annoyed company executive who was drawn into a project to resolve a conflict.

It is a brave move but the long term benefits to the sales force, the implementers and to the company reputation will by far overshadow any initial pain.

Think like a Project Manager


Think like a PM

This post is about the transition from being a project contributor to the project manager. It is a summary of a talk I prepared for a client who had employed me to teach their project managers about project management.

The company in question had excellent products and excellent staff. Working for them was a real joy although I wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms at first.

The current project managers earned their stripes by slaving away on numerous installations before being given an installation of their own to manage. They were good at what they did and were rightly proud of themselves. Suddenly the owner saw fit to employ a ‘Senior Project Manager’, with absolutely no knowledge of the products being installed and limited knowledge of the target environment. There were a lot of noses seriously out of joint. They made no secret of their displeasure at my appointment but they did so openly, dispassionately and honestly; and that allowed me to respond.

Their problem was that they would quote 45 hours to install their product and more often than not it would take closer to 150 hours. While they were very good at installing and integrating their product into their client’s workplace they had not had any management training. That’s what I was there for.

Rather than turn it into a narrative. I’ll let you see the mind map, which I used to construct my talk. I will summarise some key points in my next post.

mind map of thinking like a project manager