Project Management Concepts Through Interview Questions for Project Managers – 3

The aim of this series of articles is to introduce project management concepts. Interview questions one may face for project Manager positions, are used as a vehicle to introduce these concepts. This is the third part of the series and covers additional concepts. The series is going to be in ten parts, and each article in the series will discuss five questions that you may get asked and explain the related questions. Concepts introduced should help you prepare for PMP certification that is often required for a Project Manager position.

Project managers need diverse skills besides being a professional manager.

What are the additional skills a project manager might need?
A PM needs to be skilled in all the knowledge areas required for project management. Strong leadership qualities are a necessity for the person. Planning, vision, leading the team and such skills are needed that make for good generals. He has to take a bunch of disparate people to a common goal. Business environment imposes other constraints like a given budget and time limits.

Processes and process groups are important concepts in project management.

How does one define a process and a process group?
The emphasis on process arises from the fact that when a process, or a clearly defined way of doing things, is used risks of making mistakes are reduced. That in turn, means that the end product of the process comes out with minimal flaws. A process needs to define not only the required actions but also the sequence in which they should be invoked. An activity as elaborate as a project needs to have processes defined for many tasks. Each of these processes should define clear inputs, defined outputs and the tools and techniques to be used on the inputs. As a process goes through various stages of its life, different sets of processes are required to get the required tasks done. These groups have been defined as process groups in the Project Management Book of Knowledge. Planning process group is one such example.

While discussing the qualities of a PM, reference was made to knowledge areas.

What specific knowledge areas apply to the successful execution of a project?
Communication management must be the most critical thing in any endeavor involving human beings. Management of scope of projects has to be next most important knowledge area. Keeping the scope well-defined is a necessary condition for its success. Executing a project in terms of its scope is not sufficient. Given enough time and money, possibly, any project of any scope can be achieved! Time and cost/budget management are two other relevant knowledge areas. Quality management knowledge needs to be added to the required knowledge areas as a defined level of quality is a must. Project integration knowledge puts it all together and thus is a necessity. These main knowledge areas are supported by a few more. Monitoring and controlling of risks, is vital as is procurement of material and at the right time. Since all of these activities are to be conducted by human being, human resources management is another required support area.

Project Integration Management covers activities that ensure all activities undertaken work towards success of the project. All the processes need to be geared toward that goal.

What processes are needed?
Project charter development is like an anchor point. That is what defines what exactly the project is. All the relevant plans are the next most important set of activities. These would include project management plan development, direct and manage project execution and monitor and control. The final set of activities is the closing of the project or the current phase. Changes are inevitable. What needs to be done is that an integrated change management is in place so that these changes do not cause any chaos.

What are the important check items a PM should keep in mind always?
A PM needs to be constantly aware of a few key issues. Risk is one such issue. A PM should be able to take lowest risk actions. That requires that he/she is constantly aware of the risks. Assumptions, issues and dependencies applicable to decisions taken, defined scope and just about everything else should be clearly known to the PM. RAID is a mnemonic applied to these factors. For a PM, being on top of RAID is vital.

Part 4 will take up another five questions. 10 articles will cover 50 questions between them.

Project Management Concepts – Why Do We Manage Projects?

I’ve been giving some thought recently as to what lies behind the work we do as project managers. Too often we get caught up in the tools and techniques, the how of what we do, without looking at the concepts and ideas behind it, the why of what we do.

Today, I want to look at something basic: Why do we manage projects?  What’s the reason for doing this?

The project management concept I am looking at today is: Project management is about making the project environment as stable as possible. What is possible varies.

Let’s explore what I mean by this. As we know, a business needs to embrace some change to make sure it continues to compete in its market, to stay relevant to its customers. But businesses in general try to be stable – to provide certainty to shareholders and staff.

These two competing demands come to a head in projects. Projects bring change into the business, which means they could be seen as threats to the business stability. Uncontrolled change has a name – chaos. So change can only be brought into a business in a controlled manner.

And this is what project management is about. Projects are about change, so the management of that change is an attempt to control it. It is an attempt to provide a stable environment within which change can happen. That stable environment protects the business from uncontrolled change, while providing a space for change to occur.

But, of course, how stable the environment can be depends on the specifics of the project. For example, a project to build a new office building needs a very stable environment indeed – an attempt to change the design after work has begun on construction is likely to be impossible, or exceedingly costly.

Alternatively, software projects can cope with a much less stable environment – yes, work may need to be done to ensure earlier completed sections are adapted to the new design, but this is much more possible, and cheaper, than with a physical product.

We can see, then that “as stable as possible” can vary widely. This is a natural consequence of the particular change being brought about through a project.

This gives us, then, one of our project management concepts: Project management is about making the project environment as stable as possible. What is possible varies.

The Mini-Project Manager Concept

“Manage from the bottom up; not just from the top down; this creates personal commitment and accountability.”

– Bryce’s Law

INTRODUCTION

A couple of months ago we started a free service to analyze a person’s style of management. Through our “Bryce Management Analysis,” a manager answers a series of questions (30 in all) and, based on his responses, we produce a report which assesses his style of management as well as other attributes.

The data collected from these surveys has confirmed a lot of my suspicions; that companies are regressing back to a Theory X form of management. Over the last twenty years we have witnessed a dramatic swing from a Theory Y or Z form of management, back to Theory X. Whereas workers used to be empowered to make decisions and tackle assignments (a la Theory Y or Z), managers today tend to micromanage every action or decision in their department. Workers are told what to do, how to do it, and when it has to be done, with little regard for their input. We see this not only in the corporate world, but in nonprofit organizations as well. The result is that organizations today are run by control freaks who would be more content working with robots as opposed to human beings. This mentality has resulted in an apathetic workforce that doesn’t trust management. It also breeds contempt and disloyalty for management, as well as making for some excellent fodder for such things as Dilbert and NBC’s hit comedy, “The Office.”

Although there are instances where a Theory X form of management can work effectively, it nonetheless represents a top-down unidirectional “master-slave” relationship. Theory X can work well in certain crisis situations, such as “crunch-time” projects, but it is hardly conducive for a normal mode of operation in today’s society. Let me be clear on this, under a Theory X form of management, project planning, estimating, scheduling, reporting and control is performed top-down. Instead, a bi-directional approach is recommended which is a critical aspect of the Mini-Project Manager concept.

THE CONCEPT

The Mini-Project Manager (MPM) concept is based on our experiences in several I.T. shops over a number of years and was first described in the Project Management activities of our “PRIDE” methodologies dating back to 1971. Unlike Theory X, the MPM concept seeks to empower workers and make them more responsible for their actions. It promotes more management and less supervision. Actually, under the MPM concept, the individual is expected to act professionally and supervise themselves.

There are still some top-down activities to be performed by management, such as project planning where projects are defined and prioritized. Further, managers select and allocate human resources to participate in project assignments. It also includes establishing project Work Breakdown Structures (WBS; e.g., phases, activities, tasks) and precedent relationships between such structures. Here, the manager relies on such things as Skills Inventories, Resource Allocations, Calendars, and Priority Modeling tools.

After projects are assigned, workers estimate the amount of effort needed to perform the work. This is a critical aspect of the MPM concept and is typically not found in today’s Theory X environments. Here, the worker is asked, “What do you think?” But understand this, the worker’s estimate is an expression of his personal commitment to the work involved. If the manager does not agree with the estimate, he may ask the worker to rationalize his estimate. If the manager is unhappy with the answer, he may elect to give the assignment to someone else (perhaps another employee or a contractor). Nonetheless, the estimate is an expression of commitment by the person.

Based on the estimate, the manager then calculates the project schedule. Whereas the worker developed the estimate, the manager computes the schedule. Here, the manager considers the project’s WBS and precedent relationships. More mportantly, the manager considers the Indirect and Unavailable time affecting the worker. This means the MPM concept does not subscribe to the “Man Hour” approach to project estimating and scheduling. I have discussed the differences in the use of time in many other articles, but in a nutshell we view time as:

AVAILABLE TIME – this is the time workers are available to perform work; e.g., Monday through Friday, 9:00am – 5:00pm.

UNAVAILABLE TIME – this is the time when workers are not available for work; e.g., weekends, holidays, vacations, and planned absences.

Available Time is subdivided into two categories:

DIRECT TIME – representing the time when workers are performing their project assignments and, as such, estimates are expressed in Direct Time.

INDIRECT TIME – interferences which keep workers from performing their project assignments. For example, meetings, training classes, reviewing publications, telephone calls and e-mail, surfing the Internet, and breaks.

The relationship between Direct and Indirect Time is referred to as “Effectiveness Rate” which is an analysis of a worker’s availability to perform project work. For example, the average office worker is typically 70% effective, meaning in an eight hour day a worker spends approximately five hours on direct assignments and three on indirects. Effectiveness Rate is by no means a measurement of efficiency. For example, a highly skilled veteran worker may have a lower effectiveness rate than a novice worker with less skills who has a higher effectiveness rate; yet, the veteran worker can probably complete an assignment faster than the novice. It just means the novice can manage his time better than the veteran worker. Again, what we are seeing is the individual worker being personally responsible for supervising his own time. Interestingly, a manager typically has a low effectiveness rate as he typically has a lot of indirect activities occupying his time. For example, it is not unusual to find managers with a 20-30% effectiveness rate.

Returning to scheduling, the manager uses the worker’s effectiveness rate when calculating project schedules. If the worker’s estimate is such that it greatly impacts the schedule, the manager may consider alternatives, such as influencing the worker’s indirect time (eliminating interferences) and unavailable time (work overtime or on weekends, possibly cancel vacations, etc.).

This brings up another important aspect of the MPM concept, the manager is responsible for controlling the work environment. In addition to the physical aspects of the job such as the venue and tools to be made available to the worker, it also includes managing Indirect Time. For example, if a worker is working on a project assignment on the critical path, the manager may elect to excuse the worker from meetings and training so that he can concentrate on the project assignment. Whereas the individual worker is concerned with managing his Direct Time, the manager controls the Indirect Time. It is important to understand that nobody can be 100% effective; for nothing else, we as human beings need breaks so that we can refocus our attention on our work.

The “Effectiveness Rate” technique serves two purposes: it builds reality into a project schedule, and; it provides a convenient mechanism for a manager to control the work environment. For example, a manager may decide to send someone to a training class to develop their skills (representing Indirect Time). By doing so, he is weighing the impact of this decision against the worker’s current assignments.

As workers perform their project tasks, they report their use of time (representing another “bottom-up” characteristic of the MPM concept). In addition to reporting time against assignment, workers are asked to appraise the amount of time remaining on a Direct assignment (not Indirects). This is referred to as “Estimate to Do” which is substantially different than the “Percent Complete” technique whereby workers are asked where they stand on an assignment. The problem here is that workers become “90% complete” yet never seem to be able to complete the last 10%. Under the “Estimate to Do” approach, the worker estimates the amount of time to complete a task. To illustrate how this works, let’s assume a worker estimates 30 hours to perform a task. During the week, he works 15 hours on the task. He is then asked how much time remains on it. Maybe its simply 15 hours (whereby the worker was correct on his estimate) or perhaps he determines the task is more difficult than he anticipated and 25 hours remain (15 hours performed + 25 hours “to do” = 50); conversely, perhaps he found that the task was easier than imagined and only 5 hours remain (15 hours performed + 5 hours “to do” = 20). Either way, this will affect project schedules and the manager must then consider the repercussions and take the necessary actions. “Estimate to Do” is another example of where the individual worker is asked, “What do you think?”

Although the reporting of time can be performed in any time cycle, we recommend a weekly posting. This can be performed either with Project Management software or using a manual system involving Time Distribution Worksheets. Either way, it is important for the manager to review each worker’s distribution of time (including Direct, Indirect, and Unavailable time) and their effectiveness rate for the week. This review should not be considered frivolous as the manager should carefully scrutinize the worker’s Direct and Indirect time as they might impact project schedules.

A good Project Management system should have the ability to “roll-up” time reports into departmental summaries for analysis by the manager. For example, a departmental effectiveness rate can be calculated thereby providing the manager with a means to study which workers are working above or below the departmental average. Again, you are cautioned that this is not an efficiency rating and workers should not necessarily be competing over who has the highest effectiveness rate. Accurate time reporting is required to make this work properly.

Both the individual and departmental effectiveness rates should be plotted on line graphs to allow the manager to study trends, as well as determining averages over a period of time; e.g., three months (quarterly) or annually.

IMPLEMENTATION

Implementing the MPM concept requires a good Project Management system (either automated or manual) and a good attitude by all of the participants involved, both managers and workers alike. Some people resist the concept as it forces accountability. Now, instead of the manager making an estimate, the worker is charged with this task, something that doesn’t sit well with some people who shirk responsibility. Further, some Theory X managers falsely see it as a threat to their control and authority. However, most people welcome the MPM concept as it represents more freedom and empowerment. This helps promote project ownership by the workers as they now feel their input is heard by management, which leads to improved corporate loyalty, trust, harmony, and teamwork.

By encouraging worker participation in Project Management, they tend to act more professionally and responsibly in project activities. Interestingly, as workers are given more freedom, they are forced to become more disciplined and accountable at the same time.

CONCLUSION

It was back in 1982 when Dr. William Ouchi wrote his popular book, “Theory Z,” describing Japanese management practices empowering workers. And it was in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan advised, “Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere.” Keep in mind, this was twenty years ago. A lot has happened in the last twenty years; the Baby Boomers have been succeeded by Generation X, who is also being succeeded by Generations Y and Z. In the process, socioeconomic conditions have changed as well as the management landscape. Frankly, I think a lot of the management practices of today are dehumanizing. There is little concern for the people side of management, only numbers and technology. Its no small wonder that workers are becoming more socially dysfunctional.

To change this, I recommend that managers manage more and supervise less. And this is the heart of the Mini-Project Manager concept.