Are you shooting from the hip?

Shooting from the hip is fine when you are surprised with an unpredictable situation requiring immediate action. That is almost never the case in your project even though poor project planning might make it seem otherwise. Was the situation really unpredictable or would adequate risk management have shown you the possibility? Does it even require immediate action, or, do you just want to do something, anything, because you do not know what to do?

“Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression.” ~ Sir John Harvey

“Projecting” without a plan leads to surprises. Most people and most teams do not function well with surprises. Surprises make major mistakes more likely. Major mistakes make failure more likely. Sure, planning will never be perfect and will never account for everything that could go wrong. But a well-built plan, focused clearly on your project’s purpose, will better prepare you for the more unpredictable things that might go wrong because you understand where you are going and how you intend to get there, and you have already considered other things that could go wrong and planned for them. No plan leads to perfect success. But no planning is likely to lead to perfect failure. Don’t be a project cowboy and shoot from the hip! Plan your project. And get help if you need it.


Is your project about to be sick?

I hope everyone stays safe in this COVID-19 pandemic.  That said, if you have a critical project in your organization, you should be thinking about whether it will get “sick” as well and, if so, what you can do to ensure your project survives.  And if your project was already going sideways, then maybe the natural lull caused by shutdowns and remote work is the right time to plan for a stronger, healthier project once everybody is fully back to work.  Will you come out of this period with a stronger project, a better plan, and a fuller understanding of the risks and potential impacts that you face? Or will your project suffer more than it needs to or maybe even fail altogether?
Regardless of what type of project you have, new product development, construction, IT, or anything else, the pandemic is likely to pose significant and sometimes surprising challenges to your project’s success.  But thinking through these risks now will better prepare you for bringing in a healthy project or, at the very least, minimizing the impacts of any sickness it catches.  Significant project risks and risk categories include:
  • Financial
  • Supply Chain
  • Vendor/ Subcontractor Solvency
  • Personnel
  • Mandated shutdowns or closures

Financial risks might include impacts to your organization’s revenue, its ability to borrow, or even its continued existence depending on things like share price.  As we’ve all experienced, the market is down and there is a lot of fear and uncertainty around financial issues during this global crisis.  Financial risks could sink your project or even your organization.

I am sure you’ve noticed but China manufactures a lot of stuff.  Whether your project supply chain involves pharmaceutical ingredients, electronic components, machine parts, equipment, construction materials, or pretty much anything else, part of your it likely passes through China or another country impacted  by the pandemic.  This means possible or even likely shortages of key items that you need to complete your project.
One combination of financial and supply chain risks that is worth consideration is the solvency of your key vendors and subcontractors.  If you are shutdown now or they are shutdown now, will they be around to re-boot your project later?  If you shut them down, will they file claims against you later?  If they are not around later, then how difficult and expensive will it be to replace them?
Personnel present a range of risks during these uncertain times aside from obvious concerns for their health.  If your project requires a large labor force on-site, then it is quite possibly facing shutdown due to social distancing requirements.  But even if your team is virtual and can work remotely, can it do so efficiently?  One other interesting case I’ve seen is a scenario in which a project requires specific expertise and, if shutdown,  those experts might not be around when you are able to re-start the project.  Do you understand the critical skills of the people involved in the success of your project?
Governments are mandating closures and lock-downs of non-essential businesses in many jurisdictions.  How will this impact your project?  Does your project have work that can be performed remotely or will such an order close it down altogether?  Do you have the IT resources to work remotely and still work effectively?  Do all of your team members share your purpose, understand their role in it, and have the tools and accountability in place to ensure that they are achieving their necessary parts of the whole?
This too shall pass. Many projects are now experiencing a lull, a kind of pause.  Even if they are not shutdown completely, they might be slower due to the necessity of doing work remotely and the rapid way in which this situation presented itself.  But you can take advantage of this slower time to develop plans that identify and mitigate your risks and help bring your project back stronger than ever once this is past.  For some projects that were already veering off track, this might even be an opportunity to take a breather and right the project to prevent a failure that might have happened without the pandemic.
To minimize your COVID-19 impacts, or to even turn the lull into an opportunity, consider the following 7 steps:
  1. Identify which parts of the project can continue, which will be slowed down, and which will be shut down in the current (and possibly future) scenarios.  Basically you are performing triage on your project.  Which of these activities were on your critical path?  If they were not critical, how long will it take before they become part of your critical path once you’re fully re-started.
  2. Consider documenting your project’s status as fully as possible, especially if it is a project type that will be heavily impacted by shutdowns.  For example, a construction project cannot continue “remotely.”  So make sure to document your schedule, work completed, costs-to-date, and any issues that you were experiencing. Also, identify any activities that might be needed to stabilize your project so that it can be more easily re-opened after the shutdown.
  3. Carefully evaluate your project’s underlying assumptions.  Include your unstated but essential assumptions.  Which of these are still valid under the new circumstances?
  4. Thinking and planning are well-suited for lull times. Many project teams do not do enough project analysis during regular times as they get too busy fighting fires. Evaluate your project carefully. Are there any negative trends that you might not have noticed in the daily hustle and bustle?
  5. Do you have a project risk register? Is it collecting dust on the shelf or do you use it regularly? Now is the time to blow the dust off of it and carefully update it. Look at the new risks your project faces from
  6. If your project is a type that is heavily reliant on contracts, then do not forget to examine your contract risk. Force majeure is contract language that typically applies in situations outside of the control of either party. But look at the risks of literally applying your contract language. For example, your contracts may let you leave contractors or personnel hanging and may absolve you from any financial responsibility in this crisis. But will this further hurt your project if those resources are no longer available when you re-boot?
  7. Depending on the extent of the impacts and possible project shutdowns, you should plan your re-boot carefully. If your project involves multiple team members whose work requires the same space or resources, then you might want to plan a phased re-start to ensure that everything goes smoothly and you.
Regardless of what type of project you have, the COVID-19 pandemic could have a major impact. Be sure to use your time wisely over the next month or two to minimize impacts to the extent possible and to come out of this period with a stronger project plan than before. If you need help or have any questions, please contact me at msteele@quintainprojectsolutions.com.
#ProjectManagement #RiskManagement #Pandemic
Services, Uncategorized

Solve Real-World Project Problems!

How much can a major project problem cost your project, your company, and your career?  Have you ever faced a project challenge and didn’t know with whom you could talk?  You’re not alone, either with project challenges or in not having support in facing them.  Project managers face similar challenges regardless of their industry and project type.  How much is all that knowledge, experience, cross-pollination and the ability to fall back on a group of like-minded professionals worth?  To be part of a group that has your back?  That is why I’ve created Project Manager Mastermind!

What is a mastermind?  The concept of masterminds have been around for about a century and used for different purposes but, essentially, a mastermind is a small group designed to maximize learning and problem-solving by combining expert facilitation and teaching with the ability of members to honestly share their problems and brainstorm solutions.

Why should you join?  Do you have problems that might sink your project?  What will this do for your career?  Or do you just need personal development or continuing education hours to re-certify? The mastermind is an intense workshop that focuses on solving real-world, project-specific problems and sharing solutions from across different project types and, sometimes, even industries.  In addition, it is a group of like-minded project managers who can support each other in a community dedicated to solving real project problems.

In addition to possibly gaining an insight that saves your project, if you have a certification (e.g. PMP) that requires continuing education, the 20+ hours that you will spend in this mastermind group workshop will count!  So, for PMPs, one three-month mastermind will take you 1/3 of the way toward your required 60 PDHs for 3 years.  That’s a tremendous side benefit of doing this.  And how much of your continuing education in the past really focused on real-world problems like the ones you face on a daily basis?

How do you join? To get more registration, timing, and pricing info, or just to ask questions, contact me here and please put “project manager mastermind” in the subject.  Also, download this document: 19.10.04 PM Mastermind – QPS.

This mastermind group, limited to 10 real-world project managers, will meet each week via zoom for 90 minutes over a three-month period.  To share ideas.  To support each other. To brainstorm solutions.  And to learn what is working – and what is not working – for your project management peers.  Each session will also include a short talk on a relevant project management topic.  In addition, there will be special sessions to address larger topics or to have guest speakers.

About the facilitator: The facilitator for this mastermind is Mark D. Steele. Mark is an experienced project manager with over 30 years in leading and consulting on complex projects across a range of industries including construction, IT, new product development, and medical devices. He is the author of Projects on Purpose 2.0 and is dedicated to helping project owners and managers discover and solve their problems before they sink their projects. New registrants receive a free copy of the book. You can find Mark on Linkedin here.


Is your certainty justified?

People can have huge degrees of certainty about things which are not true.  You’ve probably seen this a lot in your discussions with others.  If you’re perceptive, you might have noticed it in yourself a few times.  When it comes to your project, is certainty ever justified?  Sure, you need to make the right decisions.  But are you better served by making a decision knowing that you are not certain or are you better served parading a false certainty?

Don’t fall prey to unwarranted certainty!  I came across a great phrase once, “strong opinions, weakly held.”  I’m not sure of the source but it stuck with me (if you know the source – email me below).  The idea was that you should develop the strongest opinion you can, one based on the best facts and logic you can muster.  But, and this is key, you should not invest your ego or your identity in that opinion.  Don’t make it so that if your opinion is wrong, you are personally crushed.  That is the “weakly held” part.  Have the best opinion you can have, but be humble enough to change it should new evidence come to light.  The same is true with projects and certainty.

All of your decisions rest upon assumptions.  You might not even be aware of some of the most critical assumptions.  But, even if you are, you cannot be certain that those assumptions are correct.  The key is to understand this and be able to live (and decide) with uncertainty.  Make the best decision you can based on the best assumptions you can make.  Identify those assumptions and understand them clearly.  And be ready to modify that decision as soon as you learn that a critical assumption is invalid.

If you are interested in learning more about these ideas, check out my book, Projects on Purpose 2.0, available here.

If you are are managing a project or projects and are interested in learning more about joining a project manager mastermind workshop – to gain professional development hours toward maintaining your certification (PDHs) and to work with other PMs and myself to learn to better overcome project challenges, email me at msteele@quintainprojectsolutions.com and put “PM mastermind query” in the subject line.  I am launching a new group at the end of October 2019.  Can you afford not to make better decisions on your project?  If we solve one problem together that you couldn’t solve on your own how much is it worth to your project and organization? What about to your career?  So hurry and sign up today!


Project Decision Jenga

You have probably played Jenga.  It’s a game in which players take turns pulling rectangular wooden blocks out of a stacked tower of such blocks until, eventually, one player pulls out the block that causes the tower to collapse.  They lose the game.  But there is a built-in, certain end to this game.  If you pull out enough blocks, the tower will fall down.  Each block you pull on might be the best choice you can make, but eventually the structure will fail.  Either by somebody choosing the wrong block or by a lack of skill in removing the block they’ve chosen or just because the tower eventually has to fall.

If you weren’t constrained by the game’s rules, and both players were considered losers if the tower falls, how could you make it a win? You could help each other hold up the tower while the other pulls out a block. You could decide together on the right block to remove.  You could build a cage around the tower to keep everything in place. You could superglue certain blocks together to provide structural stability to the whole and limit removal choices.  You can probably think of other ways as well.  Some of these ways modify the structure of the tower – what keeps it up.  Some of them address the decision-making process.

The same can be true with your project.  If you don’t have the right project structure, a cooperating team, and effective decision-making processes, your project will eventually fail or fall over.  Regardless of how good the individual decisions are.  In systems thinking this is called sub-optimizing the system.  I once assessed a project in which a handful of key decisions were made at the beginning of the project.  Each of those decisions seemed reasonable to the person making the decision at that point in the project.  Each decision could be justified.  Yet, because of their impact on the way the project was structured or the way it was executed, these decisions led to the same destiny as the block tower in Jenga.  The project failed.  The company eventually completed the project but with massive delays and a 300% overrun of the approved budget.  Part of this overrun was due to approval spin (read more about that here).  But part of it was due to these “reasonable” decisions.  It was not unreasonable to do what they did.  But it was unreasonable to expect different results than they got as a result.  This process of sub-optimized decision-making, in a project organizationally designed to fail, is unfortunately more common than it should be.  Projects are not designed for success because the emphasis of project management has been on tasks, forecasting, and monitoring rather than the design of the organization, the social system, that will be accomplishing those tasks.

If you are interested in learning more about these ideas, check out my book, Projects on Purpose 2.0, available here.

If you are are managing a project or projects and are interested in learning more about joining a project manager mastermind workshop – to gain continuing ed credits and work with other PMs and myself to learn to better overcome project challenges, email me at msteele@quintainprojectsolutions.com and put “PM mastermind query” in the subject line.


Questions to avoid “approval spin”

Children’s tops spin well.  But when the spin is spent they fall over.  Too many projects go the same way.  Estimates and schedule forecasts are the subject of “spin” to match the business case and receive approval.  This might be intentional or unintentional.  With intent, the one seeking approval wants the approval but knows their numbers are probably not accurate.  When the spin is unintentional, often, confirmation bias plays a role in that the organization’s management really wants to do the project and is looking for evidence to confirm that they can do it within the constraints of the business case.  Of course, the third option is that there is not even a solid business case for the project at all but that goes beyond the realm of spin and into mismanagement.

In order to avoid spin, ask the following questions and dig in to find solid, evidence-based answers:

1.  What are the assumptions included in your business case relating to project justification, scope, estimate, and schedule?  Follow-ups include:

  • Do you understand all of these assumptions?
  • Have assumptions, sometimes in the form of caveats or boundary conditions to estimates and schedules, made it all the way to the decision-making level?  Many times they are present in the actual act of estimating but get dropped off the reporting as it moves through the layers of an organization.
  • Are there any hidden or unidentified assumptions that are critical for success?
  • Are there implied assumptions that must be true for the project to be successful but which are not certain and have not been questioned?

2.  How sensitive is your decision to changes in any one (or, most likely, more than one) of these?

3.  How quickly can you discover whether your assumptions are valid?  Schedule a decision point and plan to make a tough decision if needed.

4.  What is your walk-away number for your project?  Ensure that you know at what point it is not worth it to continue this project based on your business case justification.

5.  Does everybody involved in this process share the same agenda?

  • How committed is everybody to the organization’s overall goals?
  • Does everybody understand the full ramifications if this project is tried and is not successful?
  • Is everybody trying to contribute to a rational, objective decision?
  • Can anybody still win if the project turns out to be a loss?

If you approve a project based on the way it’s spun, you are likely to be unsuccessful!  Make sure you are asking the tough, right questions about your project.  At a high level, these are some of them, but it can also help to have an objective and experienced team member capable of asking more detailed questions and digging more deeply for answers.  If you need help, reach out to me.




Are you ignoring key system elements?

What happens when managers ignore a key element of a system?

If you visit the Sequoia National Forest in California and spend any time walking around, you will see that the lower sections of many of the giant redwood trees are charred.  The history behind this provides insight into what happens when managers ignore a key element of a system.

For decades, the forest service attempted to prevent and put out forest fires in the sequoia forests.  Then, a survey by biologists discovered a disturbing fact.  The forest was not reproducing itself.  There were very few young redwood trees.

Further investigation revealed that by eliminating fire, the forest service had eliminated a key element of this natural system.  Heat from the fire enables Sequoia pine cones to open.  The fire burns away the underbrush that would prevent light from reaching the Sequoia saplings.  In addition, the chemical properties of the burnt soil provide the right environment for the growth of the Sequoias.  Furthermore, the more mature Sequoia trees themselves are almost impervious to fire.

The forest managers had attempted to remove a perceived “negative” and had, instead, removed an element integral to the effective functioning of the system.  Other examples of this abound in nature.  Remove gravity (in space travel for instance) and the body atrophies.  Remove common germs and immune systems remain undeveloped.

How many times do project managers remove a critical system element, one previously ignored or unidentified, only to wonder why their project fails?


Are you investing in project kryptonite?

Are you investing in project kryptonite that will kill your investment?  Do you even know?  How certain are you?  And, if you are certain, what evidence supports your certainty?  People feel certainty all the time about things that prove to be wrong.

Watch my short video on how you can avoid investing in project kryptonite!


Are your critical assumptions valid?

Project decisions are fueled by assumptions. But are they valid? One of the keys to project success is to make each critical assumption transparent and then to try to validate it or invalidate it as quickly as possible.

When you’re using a map and a compass to get from point A to point B, you also rely on assumptions. But the map and compass provide you with a way to confirm or deny those assumptions if you know how to use them. Am I really traveling on a 175-degree azimuth? The compass can show you. Is this the east-west trail I was seeking? The compass tells you that it’s going roughly east-west into the wood line on each side. The map tells you that if you go west, and you are where you think you are then the trail will curve to your right. The contour lines on the map tell you that it will begin to go up a gentle slope. And, if you travel a few hundred meters, you should see a small stream on your right going down the hill and at an angle away from the trail.

So you head out. You think you are going west. And you think you were starting from the right spot on the right trail. Your job at this point is to confirm or deny those assumptions as quickly as possible. If you go into the wood line and the trail begins to slope downhill and curve to the left then something is wrong. Continuing to go that way will not get you to the point you are trying to reach.

In orienteering, the sport of finding points in the woods with a map and compass, one of the problems competitors face is that they try to make the landscape around them fit the map. They might be completely turned around and going the wrong direction, but that’s sort of uphill with a right curve. Sure, it curved a little to the left but then came back, didn’t it? It’s a form of confirmation bias to try to conform what you are seeing with what you thought you would see. But it will get you lost.

Project teams can do this too. They look for the facts that support the narrative they thought they would see and miss the danger signs. This sort of confirmation bias can be dangerous to your project because it prolongs the effect of flawed decisions based on invalid assumptions. You keep going toward what you think is point B, but it is not. One of the ways to overcome this is to get an objective assessment of your project from somebody that knows how to identify and question your basic assumptions. And the sooner the better. The more time and money you spend going in the wrong direction, the less ability you have to change directions and salvage your project.


Recognizing dangerous patterns!

Putting the right shaped piece into the right hole of a children’s puzzle is a matter of recognizing patterns.  Project problems often come in patterns of their own that are recognizable to the trained eye across multiple project types and industries.  Are you able to recognize the problematic patterns in your project?  If so, do you know how to fix them?