Over the years, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve talked with customers about their ‘project management’ problems. We hear the following sorts of things all the time:
- Our PMs can’t manage projects
- We are terrible at project delivery
- We can’t estimate
- We need more project management training
- Etc etc
These sorts of conversations are almost always fascinating and here is how they often go:
Client: Our PMs can’t estimate or drive delivery successfully. They need more training.
Us: Are there just a few teams or PMs struggling or is this a more widespread issue?
Client: All of them! It is a problem across our organization.
This leads us to our first observation. If only a few people are struggling, then perhaps it is a PM training/skills/experience issue. But if almost everyone is struggling, then the problem isn’t the PMs. The system in which they are trying to operate is probably broken.
In most big organizations, the PMs are downstream of whole lot of other decisions: decisions about funding, timing, capacity, project sequencing, requirements, etc. They are frequently given a set of circumstances that makes it almost impossible for them to succeed. Many projects are set up to fail right from the start. When the projects are late and over budget, the problem is pinned on the PMs who are “unable to plan, estimate, and deliver.”
Imagine someone trying to learn to play a musical instrument … a wind instrument. If there are bad notes coming out of the far end of the horn, at the bell, should you focus the improvement efforts there? Or are the problems most likely way up front of that… at the lips, with the breathing, the tongue, the fingering?
Here is an actual dialogue between myself and a client manager a few years ago:
Mgr: We need training for our PMs on estimation and planning.
Me: Really! Why do you say that?
Mgr: We just can’t estimate anything. We estimate all the time, you’d think we’d be better at it by now but all of our projects are late.
Me: Hmm. What do you mean when you say that you estimate “all the time?”
Mgr: Well, we have new project requests coming in on an almost weekly basis. We need to provide quick estimates. Often, the projects are approved and we need to get started on them right away.
Me: Don’t you realize that every time you inject a new project into an already busy team, or pull them out to do unplanned estimation work, you are destroying all of the estimates they provided on previous projects that are already in flight?
Mgr: … silence …
I’m not kidding when I say that this was an actual conversation with a senior level manager of a large organization. Obviously, it turns out that the management team really didn’t have any kind of effective work intake process, any kind of real project sequencing, or any notion of the effects of WIP on throughput. They were maximizing the number of simultaneous projects. This is great for maximizing utilization but terrible for improving speed of delivery. It is in fact, the perfectly wrong thing to do.
We often talk of WIP at the team level:
We limit WIP either through explicit WIP limits or by throttling story commitment to past velocity in order to have fast and predictable throughput.
But WIP has impacts at the portfolio level too!
Too many simultaneous projects cause serious organizational delays. Projects can’t actually get to ‘done’ because they are all fighting for the same scarce resources: critical team members, approvals, business input, management decisions, test environments, etc. Not only does high project WIP lead to massive delays, it is also extremely costly. In most cases where this is an issue, and it is an issue in most places, there are huge numbers of people working on a huge number of simultaneous projects and spending a huge amount of money, but nothing is being actually being delivered very often.
Organizations need a strong and effective portfolio management and work intake process whose job is not just to provide funding but more importantly, to manage WIP and ensure the continuous flow of delivery into production.
If your organization isn’t achieving a continuous flow of delivery into production, the problem is probably not with your PMs … it’s probably with the management system.
I’d like to close with one last actual client dialog that I think explains the problem perfectly. This conversation was with a very smart Vice President who could see exactly what was going on:
Me: How was the portfolio planning meeting today?
VP: Ok, I guess. We fought about priorities and competing needs but we came to some agreements and made a few new commitments.
Me: That sounds great. What do you think it was just ‘ok’?
VP: Because after the meeting, I saw several people pull the CTO aside for some private conversations.
Me: What do you think that is a problem?
VP: I know what they are doing. They are asking the CTO to do things for them that we in the portfolio group did not approve. He is weak and he is going to say ‘yes’ to all of them like he always does. And so I know that the commitments that they just made to me in the portfolio management meeting are already screwed.
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