A Simple Approach to Building Better Project Plans


WhyWhatWho5Often, new Project Managers, and even some experienced Project Managers, facing the challenge of planning a large, complex project, are overwhelmed by how to get started. I’d like to offer a simplified approach to this daunting task. There is clearly some risk in using simplistic models to perform complex tasks, but I adhere to the philosophy of the much quoted, Mr. George E. P. Box, when he said, “essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”.  So, keeping in mind, that the devil is in the details, I offer the following thoughts on a simplified approach to project planning.

Good project plans are the result of good decisions. Good decisions are the result of understanding context and marshaling, applying, sequencing and controlling the relevant knowledge resources that will execute the project. Understanding context, and bringing to bear relevant knowledge, starts by asking and progressively elaborating the answers to six simple questions.

Why? > What? > Who? > Where? > When? > How?

The following is a list of the five basic project context building question categories. I’ve also included some typical; but by no means exhaustive, sub-tier questions that should be asked and answered within each category.

Why? – Answers to these questions provide necessary market, business and personal strategic context for the project and help define the MISSION.
– Why does the customer what to do this?
– Why does the business want to do this?
– Why do I want to lead this project?
What? – Answers to these questions define scope and limits context of the project and establish the SCOPE.
– What are the customers project requirements?
– What else does the customer want?
– What don’t the customers want?
– What knowledge resources can the business bring to bear and what is lacking?
– What are the critical interim project decisions that must be made?
– What project baselines will be formally established and controlled.
– What performance metrics does the customer use to determine success?
Who? – Answers to these questions provide the needed knowledge and capability context of the project and define the PEOPLE RESOURCES.
– Who within the organization/business has the needed knowledge and capability?
– Who outside the organization/business has the missing knowledge and capability?
– Who makes project decisions, communications, and customer contacts?
Where? – Answers to these questions provide the location context for the project and define the PHYSICAL RESOURCES.
– Where are critical project execution and Supplier facilities located?
– Where are project deliveries to be made?
– Where is the project team going to be located?
When? – Answers to these questions provide the timing and sequencing context for the project and define the SCHEDULE.
– When must the project be completed?
– When must the critical interim project decisions be made?
– When are project resources available and unavailable?
How? – Answers to these questions provide the execution process context for the project and define the Execution, Monitoring and Control Processes.
– How will customer, business, and team communications be performed?
– How will decisions be made?
– How will project performance be measured?
– How will risks be identified and mitigated
– How will project baselines be controlled and changed.
– How will problems and conflicts be resolved?

The iterative elaboration of the answers to these, and other questions that may be relevant to your project, form the Project Plan. If your answer to any of these questions starts with “it depends…”, then you need more context.

A thorough and thoughtful plan is a necessary, insufficient, ingredient for a successful project. I’ll offer my thoughts on other critical project success ingredients in future blog-posts.

Posted in Best Practices, Better Thinking, Leadership, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Management, Project Planning | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Profound Knowledge & the Art of Project Management


SoPK_PM Art Logo

Successful Project Management is accomplished through the thoughtfully balanced application of leadership art and science. There are many excellent resources available for those seeking to improve their leadership science competencies. However, few experienced-based resources are available for those seeking to improve their project leadership art competencies. For some time now, I’ve been exploring the idea of using W. Edward Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK) as a thinking framework to provide such a resource for Project Managers (PM’s). In this blog-post I’ll share an overview of the results of that exploration to date.

Deming’s SoPK is a leadership competency framework consisting of four interdependent and synergistic elements: Appreciation for a System, Understanding Variation, A Theory of Knowledge, and Psychology. I’ve used these SoPK elements, in a project management context to develop what I believe are some powerful leadership art competency insights, project managers can use to enhance their success. The graphic used at the beginning of this post depicts the SoPK elements and my visualization of their interdependencies. Although no model is perfect, I’ve found this one to be useful as a guide for my thinking exploration and as a framework for documenting my observations and ideas.
Appreciation for a System, in the context of project management, is about the PM’s responsibility to define, and fully understand, the nature, scale, connections, complexity, constraints and cultures of the project, and take appropriate actions. Certainly, it’s no surprise that a PM must understand the scope and dimensions of their project, and it seems at first glance that that is leadership science and not art. The leadership art comes in when it comes to being able to see, and act on, some of the less obvious, but equally important characteristics of the project system. These considerations include:
• Projects are systems of people connected to other people for the purpose of achieving a singular objective. You can’t use mechanical thinking to lead an organic system. This means that the PM’s job is as much, or maybe even more about managing the relationships between the people in the project than managing the “stuff” of the project.
• Project system connections always extend beyond what you typically initially consider in your planning, communication and control thinking.
– Your customers have customers who have agendas, demands and pain thresholds you    must know about.
– Your Suppliers have Suppliers, who also have Suppliers whose performance are critical to your project
– If your project is in a business managed using a matrix organization, you have critical matrix connection obligations and risks to consider.
– Conventional project leadership science approaches cal for PM’s to keep their heads down and focus on their projects. Leadership art demand demands that you keep your head up and on a swivel to be aware of everything going on around you.

Understanding Variation, in a project management context is about the PM’s responsibility to define and detect, the rhythms and dynamic patterns inherent in the project and to take appropriate action on the differences from the program plan that matter. In this area, project leadership science will apply things like predictive metrics, schedule buffers, design margins, second sources, and management reserves to accommodate potential variations from plan. However, in applying the art of project leadership, PM’s should consider:
• The feelings, mood and morale of the project team as a predictor of human error
• Focusing on special cause versus common cause, or “natural” variability.
• Team thinking and style diversity as a deterrent to “group-think”

A Theory of Knowledge, in the context of project management is about the PM’s responsibility to marshal the relevant knowledge of the business, and to sequence and flow the knowledge through the projects people connections so that it is transformed into the desired deliverables. Not much leadership art science is directed at this effort, because most PM’s don’t understand that knowledge is the life-fluid of the project system. So those practicing the art of project leadership should consider things like:
• The PM’s role is a Knowledge Manager who executes the project across the knowledge domain. From the “Known-Knowns”, which form the foundation of the Project Plan, to the “Known-Unknowns” which are the project risks, to the Unknown-Knowns which are accommodated by buffers and reserves.
• Encouraging and fostering a “learning environment” for the project team that may find and avoid “Unknown-Unknowns” and reveal and exploit opportunities.

Psychology, in a project management context is about the PMs responsibility to develop and appropriately use the skills and behaviors necessary to successfully manage the relationships landscape and create a project environment that enables and nurtures the connections between people, and the flow of knowledge. For the most part, the tools that support the science of project leadership ignore this aspect of the job. A practitioner of the art of project leadership however would consider the following:
• The most important competency for a leader is social/emotional intelligence. The ability to sense the mood and motivation of individuals and groups and respond appropriately is critical to project success.
• Politics are inherent in any human system, including projects. As distasteful as it may feel for leaders, they must become politically savvy to navigate their project through this environment.
• In order to earn the trust and really be able to communicate with those whom you lead, you must be willing share your inner thoughts and feelings. As a project leader, your position alone can enable you to demand the minds and muscle of your team. But if you want them to put their hearts into the project, you must have the courage to make yourself vulnerable.

The following graphic is an attempt to bring all of these ideas together.  I welcome your comments and ideas for future exploration of this topic.

SoPK_PM Summary

Posted in Better Thinking, Deming's System of Profound knowledge, Leadership, Personal Development, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Management, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Building a More Robust Team Working Environment

Robust Team Env



Successful execution requires effective and efficient interactions between the people that make up complex organizational systems such as Project Teams. Project Teams perform work that is difficult, complex, often without precedent or examples to follow. They do it under the pressures of quality, cost and schedule constraints, for customers and sponsors who often have ambiguous requirements, high expectations, and a low risk tolerance. On top of all of these work related demands, each Project Team member must deal with their personal challenges of career, family and life in general. These pressures and distractions pose significant risks for human error of omission and commission.

While it is unrealistic to believe that Project Managers can eliminate these trying conditions, there are ways that they can build more robust team operating environments that make errors a little less likely and lower consequence. Here are a few ideas:

Create a Mutual Expectations Agreement (MEA) with your Team. Discuss, agree, document and sign an MEA with your team that clearly defines your expectations of them and their expectations of you. This should address communications, respectful behaviors, recognition, conflict resolution practices, risk tolerance, and making it safe to ask for help.
Project focus with peripheral situation awareness. Too frequently Project Managers and team members are told to keep their heads down and focused exclusively on the project objectives. I my experience, this is a bad, perhaps even dangerous practice. Projects are executed through productive interactions between people across a family of organizations, which also have their own mission, priorities and objectives. Certainly you and your team must understand and prioritize your efforts so that you will meet project objectives, but in doing so, care must be taken to be aware of, and empathetic to, the missions and objectives of other organization elements that are part of the collaborative effort. As the Project Manager, you must care, and be seen to care about other organizational element’s objectives. This will build critical relationships and social capital that you will need to use at some point to resolve issues and advance your projects interests.
Encourage and facilitate social interaction across the Project family. Building relationships through non-work social interaction, builds trust that will enable and lubricate the interactions they must have later in a work context. These social interactions don’t need to be elaborate or costly, but they do need to take place early so that the relationships are built before they are challenged in more trying circumstances later.
Walk, talk and listen to how people feel. Some used to refer to this as Management By Walking Around (MBWA), but I think its more than that. Project Manager walk-abouts, must also be talk-abouts in which casual conversation can be used to identify team environment issues, before they manifest human error. Move around and talk to people, not just about the work, but how they feel about the work and they way it’s being led. Ask open questions that start discussions. If you as the project manager don’t think you’re adept at talking about feelings, you’re at a disadvantage and you should take steps to enhance your skills in this area. You may be able to find someone within the team with those skills or bring in someone who has the skills and reputation to help you facilitate real communication within the team.
Be willing to be more approachable and perhaps even more vulnerable. To be trusted and get insight peoples real feelings and attitudes and the state of the work environment, you must be seen as safe to talk to. Let your team know how you feel, and be empathetic to their situations and feelings.

Human errors of omission and commission in a complex, dynamic, organic system, like a project, are unavoidable. The thinking activities related to life and work are intimately intertwined, interdependent and often distracting. Distracted thinking can lead to disrupted behavior and errors in judgment. It is unrealistic to expect that your team members, or even you, can leave the activities and issues of life at the door when you come in to work. But by implementing these suggestions, as well as ideas from your won experience, you may be able to build a more robust project organizational culture that will make it less likely for the ever-present work and life stress to manifest as human errors that impact your project.

Posted in Better Thinking, Leadership, Personal Development, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Management, Risk Management | 1 Comment

The Thinking Time Traveler

timetravelLast week I attended the 13th annual In2:InThinking Conference, “Succeeding with Inquiry – Insights, Knowledge, Action,” held on the campus of California State University, Northridge near Los Angeles, California. This conference is a gathering of people from around the country, and around the world, who are interested in, and dedicated to, the pursuit of better thinking in our work and personal lives. I’ve supported and attended the last ten of these conferences now, and each time I come away with more knowledge, inspiration and friendships. In reflecting on my experiences at the conference, it occurred to me that achieving better focused and creative thinking is a bit like traveling in time. Using the learning of the past, the possibilities of the future, and yet remaining mindful and engaged in the present. My reflection led me to write the following poem.

The Thinking Time Traveler

To think is to travel in time.
On a journey within our mind.
Wiser from lessons past.
Inspired by a future vast.
We explore, yet we must somehow,
Remain here and engaged in the now.

Don McAlister
24 June 2014

Posted in Better Thinking, Life, poetry | 3 Comments

Knowledge, Truth and Power

JDPOWER“They say that knowledge is power,” I said, beginning my introduction of the guest speaker at a recent Rotary Club of Moorpark, California meeting. “And,” I continued, “ I think you will also learn today, that Power is Knowledge.” “Power, in this case, is of course our guest speaker today, J. D. Power III, founder of one of the most recognized company brands in the world, J. D. Power and Associates.” “Dave Power is a man who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge and truth as it relates to the interaction between the businesses who make and sell products and their customers who buy and use them.”

Mr. Power, or Dave, as he prefers, had graciously accepted our Rotary Club of Moorpark invitation to speak about how and why he started his company, back in 1968; the principles, and practices he put in place that provided its foundation for success; and the key events marking the rise of the company to its current globally influential stature. He sold his company to McGraw-Hill several years ago, but of course he still maintains great pride in its accomplishments, a heart-felt fondness for its people, and a strong interest in its future.

Dave Power_030714Dave Power, 83 years of age, as of this publication, is a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman, with a clear voice and a quick sense of humor. His presentation to our members was arranged as kind of a “coffee table conversation”, moderated by one of our Rotary members, who himself was a retired auto-industry executive. Dave spoke about his upbringing, education, military service, and early business career and how it shaped his character and led him to start his company. J. D. Power & Associates was a family business throughout its history and during the conversation Dave shared vignettes highlighting the sacrifices and contributions of his wife and children to the business. He also shared fascinating stories that marked both the challenges faced and breakthroughs achieved in building the credibility and customer base that the company now enjoys with the auto industry in particular, but in other industries as well. Those stories, and many more, are described in an excellent biography published in 2013, called “POWER – How J. D. Power III Became the Auto Industry’s Adviser, Confessor, and Eyewitness to History, ” written by Sarah Morgans and Bill Thorness (Fenwick Publishing Group Inc., 2013).

The business model he used, when he launched J. D. Power & Associates was that they would plan, fund and execute independent customer satisfaction surveys of auto industry products and services. He would analyze the survey response data, identify issues, create reports and then sell those reports to auto manufacturers, so that they could understand their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of their competitors, and take action. Up to that point, auto manufacturers had been using their own “in-house” marketing organizations to do customer satisfaction research, and Dave was convinced that that process was not providing the unbiased knowledge that was needed. In the early days of the business, J. D. Power & Associates faced a lot of resistance, especially from Detroit automakers. But with good ideas, hard work, persistence and integrity they achieved both the attention and respect of the auto industry, and gave voice to its previously unheard or ignored customers.

I doubt whether Dave Power would describe himself as a leader in the pursuit of knowledge and truth, but as I read his biography and did other research in preparing my introductory remarks for his presentation, it occurred to me that he is, in fact, the epitome of a knowledge leader. Each of us, create our own subjective “truths” based on our knowledge, experiences, values, biases, beliefs and hopes. The same is true of our businesses. With these “truths” we build personal and business decision-making models, which we use to interpret what we see and hear and then make decisions on we will respond. The problem is that the “truths” that these models are based on, can be wrong, or at least insufficient. They create blind spots and a set of beliefs, assumptions, and biases disguised as truths that cause poor decisions. Over and over again, those false-truth based decisions have brought business to the brink and sometimes over the brink of disaster.

As Rotarians, we use our Four-Way Test to ask ourselves:
• Is it the Truth?
• Is it Fair to all concerned?
• Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

So, although J. D. “Dave” Power III is not a Rotarian, and may not even be aware of the existence of the Four-Way Test, has nevertheless epitomized its principles and objectives throughout his personal and business life.

Posted in Better Thinking, J. D. Power, Knowledge Sharing, Leadership, Life, Program & Knowledge Management, Rotary Club | Leave a comment

If Only We Knew What We Knew


If only we knew what we knew,
And it wasn’t locked up in the minds of so few.
If only we’d captured the knowledge and shared.
If only we’d done that, we might have been spared.
All of the time and all of the cost,
And all of the promise and opportunity lost.
Ah…if only we knew what we knew.

Don McAlister, 20 March 2014

Posted in Better Thinking, Knowledge Sharing, Life, poetry, Program & Knowledge Management | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Exploring Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge – Appreciation of a System

SoPK Diagram

For many years I’ve been interested in the work of W. Edwards Deming. In particular, I’ve been interested in Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge. For convenience, in the remainder of this post, I’ll refer to it as SoPK. While I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on SoPK, I think I get it, and I believe it lives up to its “profound” billing. I’m convinced of its relevance to the field of project management, and its value and promise as a framework for assessing and enhancing leadership skills in general. In this blog post and ones that will follow in later weeks, I’ll describe my exploration of SoPK and share my personal interpretations, insights, opinions and application recommendations in the context of project management.

SoPK has four intimately interdependent elements: Appreciation for a System, Understanding Variation, Theory of Knowledge, and Psychology. In this initial post, I’ll focus on the first element, Appreciation for a System.

Appreciation for a System. Dr. Deming viewed an organization, whether it’s a business, or a project within the business, as a system. Every person in the Project network is connected to, and in some way dependent on, every other person in the network. The goal of the system will be achieved, he argued, with healthy, effective, and efficient interactions between the interdependent elements of the system.

After a career in Project Management, one of the many things I’ve learned, is that understanding the project context is critical. More often than not, the real scale and complexity of the system in which my Project had to execute, was larger than my original expectations. There are always connections, influences, constraints, agendas and risks beyond the originally conceived boundaries of the project. Literally, everything in this world is connected to everything else, and you must look beyond the original boundaries to find the others that are always there and likely to impact your success. The better you understand this concept, and learn to make decisions based on it, the better you will be able to lead your project team.

How do you get started on this? I suggest you work with your team as well as a couple smart, independent colleagues to map the external supplier and customer connections as well as the internal connections within the business that are essential for successful execution. When you think you’ve got them all identified, then re-look at it by thinking about your supplier’s suppliers and your customer’s customers. They too can have a powerful impact and must be considered in your planning, communication, control and risk management activities. Failure to properly understand the system environment surrounding the project is often the source of later problems related to requirements definition, resource availability and adequacy, and communications.

As I have discussed in other blog posts, I have come to view a Project as a knowledge transformation system. This system takes the knowledge of the customer wants and needs, applies the knowledge that is the expertise of the business and it’s employees, and creates a new knowledge set that becomes the product and/or services delivered to the customer. The delivered products and services may take a physical form, but essentially they are artifacts of a knowledge transformation project system. I believe that Project Managers who think about their projects as knowledge transformation systems, will make better decisions on marshaling resources in their project plans; on measuring what’s important to assess real project execution performance; and on finding and mitigating risks that could threaten the success of the project.

The first job of the Project Manager, in working with this knowledge transformation project system is to be aware of all of its parts, and by that I mean its people, but even more importantly to focus on the relationships between them. My greatest insight into the art of project management and leadership, was that more than anything else, it was about managing relationships. So, although the people are the heart of the project, the real job of a project manager is to focus on the connections between the people to strive for better alignment, tempo, effectiveness and efficiency.

One other thought I’d like to offer about a project system is that it because it’s dependent on people and their relationships, it should be understood as an organism and not a mechanism. Organisms have feelings, values, biases, distractions, good days and bad days. Leaders will not be successful over the long term by using the logic, rules and science of a mechanism to inspire, direct and control the behavior of an organism.

My next blog-post on mapping SoPK to project management will address Understanding Variation. I’ll share my thoughts on the nature and influence of natural or common cause variation as well as induced, or special cause variation and how we can use that knowledge to be better project managers.

Posted in Better Thinking, Deming's System of Profound knowledge, Leadership, Personal Development, Program & Knowledge Management, Project Management | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment