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Book review: Project Workflow Management

Summer of books 2014“Project management is indeed a very exciting and rewarding profession, but at the same time, it is one of the most difficult jobs, often misunderstood by project team members and management alike,” write Dan Epstein and Rich Maltzman in their book, Project Workflow Management: A Business Process Approach. I agree; it can be a challenge to get anything done as a project manager, and Epstein and Maltzman explain why:

“The project manager will never win a popularity contest, because even though he or she is not usually a personnel manager of team members, he or she nevertheless sets work deadlines, demanding status reporting and requests adherence to the project work rules and schedules. These demands – coming from someone who is not technically their supervisor – won’t necessarily win you any favours with team contributors.”

The concept behind this book is that it is a full project management workflow, covering the whole project lifecycle. The authors define ‘workflow’ as ‘a means to identify and diagram procedural steps and logic used to achieve a specific goal.’ They say that this step-by-step sequence is different from the process models in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and other project standards because it gives you the detail of how to do each step. That’s why the book is so chunky.

Running a project with the workflow

Project Management WorkflowYou can use the book to execute projects with very little formal project management training, but I think you’d find it easier to put the concepts here into practice with some understanding of projects. It’s very detailed and there are numerous tables, templates and diagrams. It would help to have access to the flow diagrams while reading the process descriptions and steps, and that’s hard to do on an iPad. You could print out the diagrams and have them with you if you wanted to get this book on an e-reader.

The explanations are comprehensive and there are worked examples where necessary to help you. For instance, there’s a step-by-step worked example of cost benefit analysis. Getting into this steps you out of the process so it’s a bit of a diversion from the flow of that section but the idea behind it is to ensure that you know how to do each step.

Useful pointers for project processes

The book includes a whole chapter on estimating and has a useful checklist for requirements. There’s a good section on earned value and another good chunk about training. Another thing I particularly liked is that the authors recognise that you don’t just work on projects during a normal day in the office – and even if you do, the chances are that poor planning makes you ineffective some of the time. They write:

“Delivery team members spend around 20% of their time on phone conversations…ad hoc meetings, conversations, coffee breaks etc…The efficiency of resource utilisation depends on the project manager’s planning skills. A skilled PM may reach 90% resource utilisation at best. In other words, 10% or more of resource time is often not productive due to inefficiencies in resource utilisation.”

They also recognise ‘project management time’ as an overhead. In other words, you have to ‘do’ the project management and this takes, they say, between 10% and 20% of the total project effort, so make sure you are adding that on to your task estimates.

A downside of this book is that I found it very technical and difficult to read in parts. There are also lots of acronyms, and if you miss the explanation not all of them are obvious, so you have to go back and check earlier in the text to find out what they mean.

Should you share your plans?

The authors advise project managers not to share their project schedule with the client “to avoid clients’ attempts to micromanage the project or request reporting the completion of every scheduled task.” They go on to write:

“If you admit them into this level of project detail, they may interfere with the project management processes, even asking to remove some quality or risk related tasks in order to save their costs. The second reason is that you cannot show the client some of the project tasks, like internal project reviews and meetings or tasks related to the containment of some negative elements related to the client in the project risk assessment. If the client is aware of those meetings, you cannot stop them from sending their representative.”

I don’t agree with this advice. I don’t think there is any reason not to share the plan with the project customer. If they don’t have the maturity and project management knowledge to know what the tasks are, then it’s your job to explain it. Of course there are discussions you have with your team that you wouldn’t have in front of them (mostly about how awkward they are being changing the requirements or how they are keen to push blame for delays on you when it’s really them causing the hold up). But you can have these discussions outside of the formal risk meetings. And surely if you are having these discussions about them it’s best to find a way to discuss it with them as well.

Overall, Project Management Workflow is a new approach to project execution. The supporting diagrams and tables make it possible for you to adopt this approach on your projects, and it would also be useful at a corporate level, especially for companies looking to formalise project management processes and methods within their teams. It is a comprehensive resource that walks you through the processes with detailed flow diagrams and clear guidance for making your projects a success – although like all project management processes and approaches, you can ultimately decide for yourself which bits to follow to the letter and which to adapt for yourself.

Buy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com

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Can you really manage with just 5 milestones?

Ninja book cover“A perfect project plan for regular, light-touch steering should contain no more than five milestones,” writes Graham Allcott in his book, How To Be A Productivity Ninja. “Too often, milestones become micro-management or seem to provide complication and confusion rather than clarity. So in each of your projects, you should look for between one and five milestones. Never more than five, never fewer than one.”

Do you agree? I don’t. But let’s put that aside for a moment and look at what he suggests those 5 milestones should be. “The five-milestone model of projects is all you ever really need,” he continues, going on to set out what those milestones should represent. They are:

Establishment: marking the fact that the project is now set up with a team in place.

Underway: checking the progress of the first few days to ensure that things have started in the direction that you expect and find acceptable.

Mid-way: checking progress at the half-way point to ensure you are still on track to achieve the objectives and that those objectives are still relevant.

Completion: marking the fact that the project is now complete, drawing on success criteria that you set at the beginning.

Celebration: a milestone to celebrate success, review learning points and say thank you to those involved.

On small projects this model will probably work quite well. I can see it being used in projects where the team is only a couple of people and the work will be done in a few months or sooner. But on anything that lasts over 6 months, has a sizeable budget or a team of more than 10, this model is inadequate. You would never be able to track progress or report effectively with so few milestones in your project plan.

How many milestones make a plan?

To be fair to Allcott, he does briefly mention the possibility that “there will be complicated projects with hundreds of inter-dependencies, where you need to find the ‘critical path’ through all of the detail and complication.” In those situations he recommends hiring an experienced project manager, someone, I assume, who can do all that for you. However, “old-style project management [whatever that is] rarely works well for day-to-day projects.” He doesn’t define a day-to-day project but he does talk about creating new brochures and websites so that’s the kind of thing I think he means. As a bit of a fan of ‘old-style project management’ I think it would work well for all kinds of projects, provided that you scale it appropriately, and that doesn’t mean cutting out all the milestones on your project plan so you are only left with 5.

So, what’s the smallest amount of milestones that you would have on a plan, or is the answer really ‘it depends’? Let me know in the comments below!


Social Media for Project Managers: Q&A

I gave a presentation on social media for project managers at the PMI Learning, Education and Development Community of Practice at the end of last year. They run a successful online book club and they were discussing my book on the subject, so it was great to be asked to go along and round out some of the ideas.

There were about 350 people on the webinar and we didn’t have the chance to go through all the questions that were raised, so I thought I’d address some of them here. Let’s crack on…

Our company is pretty concerned about using social media due to the security implications. Thoughts on that? (Angela)

This was raised by a number of people and there were several comments along the lines of ‘my company won’t let me use social media tools at work’. This could be because of non-disclosure agreements (mentioned by someone) or other concerns about privacy. However, my view is that if employees are going to use Facebook or Twitter, they’ll do so whether the company lets them or not – these days most people have a smartphone with internet access, so unless you check your phones at the door you can access these tools when you go to get a coffee. It is far better for a company to monitor and control access through policies and education than let employees do and say whatever they want on social media sites.

When it comes to using social media tools for project work, you can address the security concerns and manage appropriately. For example:

  • Using tools that you can host in-house behind your firewall so they are not available to external audiences e.g. Yammer, wikis
  • Using tools that enable you to export your data when you need to or when the project is over.
  • Using tools that do not host data overseas when this is in breach of your local regulations or contracts.

The short answer to addressing security concerns is that if you can’t address them adequately, don’t use social media tools. You can manage a project perfectly well without instant messaging or a wiki; people have been doing that for years. So for all I’m an advocate of social collaboration tools, don’t use them when it doesn’t make any sense or puts you in breach of agreements or policies.

How do you define Organisational Instant Messaging? (Daniel)

Tools like Skype, Microsoft Office Communicator, Spark, Cisco Jabber and Lync are all examples of organisational video conferencing. Some of these are available free, some as part of other software. My recommendation is that you try out a couple (of free ones) and see what sort of features you use regularly. Then if you want to invest in a paid-for solution you know what you are looking for.

Younger employees are more comfortable with social media tools. (Iain)

Actually, I don’t agree. I don’t think technical literacy (which is what I call the ability to use these tools, and any other bits of tech) is defined by age. There’s a growing group of ‘silver surfers’ who are just as adept at using them as some young people. And I know people younger than me who have chosen not to be on Facebook or to use social media products for various reasons so don’t have a clue how to do it.

Having said that, I can’t cite any research at the moment that backs up my anecdotal opinion. What I would say is that don’t let the age of your team members lead you to make unfair assumptions about their ability to adopt new ways of working or manage with new tools.

How do you manage the information overload? (Various people asked this)

This came up as we were talking about instant messaging and making sure that you can cope with the archive trail that it produces by being able to manage that sort of information and file it somehow.

Too many communication tools can result in more interruptions and therefore more distractions, so you need to think about how to manage the various streams of information that social media tools open up to you in order to avoid information overload. Generally, I would say that you should trust your team enough to not need to monitor all the communication or to push all the communication through yourself, or you will drown in the data and slow the project down.

When it comes to instant messaging, you can store the output from chats. Your IM tool may have settings that sends the chat to you as an email after the session ends, so check if this is turned on and use it if it is available. These can then become project documents and can be stored and archived in the same way as meeting minutes.

Henrik also raised a good point: since e-mail (almost) can’t be avoided, multiple ways of communicating by also using other social media tools may result in multiple paths i.e. dilution and confusion in the project. Kumar pointed out that email can also do that, especially if you take people off the circulation list (or add them on halfway through the discussion).

It isn’t always easy to get the balance right but it’s good practice to ensure that your messages are always consistent. Sometimes people do need to hear the same thing several times before they believe it so using several channels to repeat the same (consistent) message is appropriate. Of course, if you say different things through different channels, expect total confusion!


Angel Berniz

Angel Berniz, Director of ProjectManagers.org, is speaking at Nordic Project Zone later this month. He’s talking about ISO 21500, the new project management standard. I caught up with him to find out why this new standard is important and how it will impact project managers.

Angel, tell me why the new ISO 21500 standard is important for project management?

The ISO 21500 is the recognition of a profession that has been developed within the last four decades. It concentrates, into nearly 40 pages, all the knowledge that can be accepted as standard on project management.

It is been accurately developed by the international community with volunteers from more than 40 countries, with no commercial intention. ISO 21500 is the umbrella over all the rest of the project management bodies of knowledge and methods. It is important because in a globalized world, where anyone can be asked to lead a project in any location, one needs to apply the worldwide accepted International Standard project management framework.

Did you find anything surprising in the standard?

I strongly believe that ISO 21500 will forever change project management. Angel Berniz

Yes, there were some new points. The most important one was the incorporation of Stakeholder Management. Later, PMI’s A Guide To The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) – 5th edition added this as well.  At ProjectManagers.org, we celebrated this renewed focus towards people, because this is a value we also share (we are not a project management community; we are a project managers community).

Where do you see individual standards like PMBOK® going now? Do you think they will all be brought in line?

Project management is evolving to become more Agile. PMI has done it, with a new Agile Certification scheme. The problem is that now PMI has two worlds: the waterfall PMBOK® framework and the Agile Methodologies. Of course, PMI was influential in the ISO 21500 implementation and they coordinated the dates between the ISO 21500 implementation and the PMBOK® 5th edition. I am sure they will always be brought in line.

How will it impact project managers?

I think there are still companies nowadays that don’t apply formal project management. They only manage initiatives and execute various tasks. Others only apply project management for big projects, but not for projects of a month’s duration. Others apply some kind of project management methodologies, but they are not international standards and depending on the country where they need to deliver their project they could be asked to manage their project using other frameworks. No matter what approach a company uses, the new ISO 21500 will be the solution.

I strongly believe that ISO 21500 will forever change project management. It can be applied very easily by any kind of business (from small to big companies).

There is something amazing about this new ISO 21500. It defines the Processes, Inputs and Outputs but not the Tools and Techniques. And this is just where Agile fits in. We can use Agile ISO 21500, without needing to choose between waterfall and agile anymore. So, using this approach, ISO 21500 can have wider applications than PMBOK®. Of course, if one wants to apply only a traditional waterfall approach, ISO 21500 can be complemented with some of PMBOK® Tools and Techniques. But the real power will be adding Agile to ISO 21500.

If a project manager wants to adopt the new standard, how easy will this be?

Nordic Project ZoneAdopting ISO 21500 is very easy, in fact the guidelines are about 40 pages. So there are no excuses for not reading and trying to apply it. Beginners will find it an easy way to implement project management. PMI practitioners will find the outline reference necessary for guiding their projects.

OK, so what’s your advice for putting it into practice?

My advice for applying it is to look at your project stages and the required project management deliverables that are required in each phase. That is, don’t blind yourself by having as reference the subject groups (PMBOK’s knowledge areas), but focus on progressing your project in its lifecycle and be aware that in each of the steps (processes along the workflow) you have all the required outputs from the subject group.

I expect this has been a hot topic for the ProjectManagers.org community. Can you tell us more about it?

ProjectManagers.org was set up to fill the need of having a community of trusted and reputed professionals sharing their knowledge with the project management community. The concept is a PLC (Professional Learning Community). The difference with other organizations is that ProjectManagers.org is only about people. This is not a company nor a business and I set it up because I saw that other organizations are always focused around local chapter interactions. My purpose was to share and interact globally. We collaborate on a voluntary basis to develop the project manager’s profession with a method of direct knowledge transmission from professionals to professionals.

Who can get involved?

Everyone is invited to participate and collaborate in the community. We write about everyday project management situations, lessons learned, tips, advice, concepts, frameworks and best practices, software tools, etc. Our readers are worldwide, but there is a high concentration in the United States. And I must say that I am meeting very interesting people and it’s an amazing experience that opens your mind. I hope to see you soon.

Thanks, Angel!

Nordic Project Zone is being held in Copenhagen between 25 and 27 November. Find out more on their website here.


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