PM Tool Tip: Trello

Trello logoRecently I’ve been exploring a few online tools to use to assist with project management. One of those I’ve found particularly useful is Trello.

Trello is essentially an online version of a Kanban board. Like a Kanban board, it has multiple columns in each board, so that tasks can be created on the left hand side, and moved from column to column as the tasks are processed.

Obviously the most common use of Kanban is in software management, so development tasks, or user stories, would move through to development, testing, implementation, etc. However, these are not the only projects that can take advantage of this particular technique.

The replication of the usual physical Kanban board in a digital manner has some clear advantages. Teams which are not physically located in the same space can share the same board, and still be able to manipulate it in real time. Tasks can be assigned to particular people, and re-assigned simply. Extensive notes can also be appended to tasks, which in the real world would probably just make them fall off the board…

Security and privacy can be a concern when moving to using an online solution, particularly when the solution is hosted elsewhere. Trello allows you to create boards which only members of your organisation can see, and even to restrict access to named people. In addition, it is simple to allow certain people from outside of your organisation to use the boards, which has clear uses when it comes to projects across organisations.

The final advantage, of course, is that Trello is a free service. Take a look, and let me know what you think!

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Social Media: Delivering for Project Management?

Last week, I was fortunate enough to present to PMA Focus, a project management conference organised by Projekt Management Austria. My talk was on whether social media could really deliver for project management, and is above. I have included my planned transcript below.

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Are Project Managers Finished?

A rusty gate blurs out of focus

Boundaries between project and 'general' management are blurring

Last time, I wondered if the time of project managers has been and gone. You’ll be glad to know the short answer is ‘no’. The longer answer, though, is a bit more complicated…

As George said in the comments to the last article, the truth is, and always has been, somewhat more nuanced than I suggested. The cross-over between project management and the rather broad and ill-defined ‘general’ management has always been significant. After all, management in an organisation has always been about exploiting the resources of that organisation in as effective a manner as possible.

Effectiveness Varies

Naturally, what is effective varies depending on the particular situation a manager, and indeed an organisation, is dealing with. Project management sprang out of the realisation that large, one-off tasks needed different techniques than repetitive, smaller tasks. For example, one-off tasks are more likely to involve doing new things (at least new to the organisation), so are more difficult, and when large, you’re unlikely to get a second chance if you get it wrong (would you let a shipbuilder whose first effort sank try again?). Put together, this means the risk was much higher, and so ways of dealing with that risk were developed.

But these new methods of dealing with risk, and of allocating work, and so on, are not only applicable to project work. Their usefulness is broader, and so some of these techniques are exported back again to ‘general’ management.

This means that more managers have a wider set of techniques they can apply, and so smaller project-like work is not a problem for them. Essentially, the difference between ‘general’ management and project management begins to blur, with people on both sides of the line able to take on some work on the other.

Fewer, but better

This doesn’t mean that there is no need for project managers – there will always be a need for experienced specialists, able to take on the larger and more complex projects. But certainly it means that for some projects that would previously have needed a project manager, there is now an option to have a ‘general’ manager stretch themselves and apply techniques they already know in a slightly different situation.

And this is more and more likely to happen – put bluntly, specialists are expensive, and generalists are not. As project management tachniques also become mainstream management techniques, the pool of potential managers of small projects becomes much larger – and so the average cost of one falls due to the increased supply.

That leaves project managers with a choice – either accept a move to more of a hybrid position, which would mean more opportunities (both as a project manager and ‘general’ manager) but likely at a lower salary, or commit to specialising, meaning fewer opportunities (and a need for continuous and in-depth learning) but at a potentially higher rate.

Commodification of you

Business will always seek to commodify objects, tasks, and even techniques, because when something becomes a commodity, it is easier to produce and control, and thus generally cheaper. When what is being commodified is your skillset, the options are to accept it, or to become more specialised. Both have risks and downsides, and both have benefits and upsides.

Which one will you choose?

(Image courtesy of Rudoni Productions. Some rights reserved.)

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No More Project Managers

A group of women gather around a man cutting a birthday cake in a 1940s office

No more project managers? Time to celebrate!

Why do we still have project managers? Hasn’t their time been and gone? That’s not to say that project management isn’t important, but do we really need a specific role for it anymore?

Projects are Business As Usual

For many organisations, continual projects are the new normal. Often the same team will carry on from one project to another. While the end product and the client may change, the team works together for months or years at a time.

And that means the team’s manager is very far away from the common idea of a matrix-managing, temporary project management expert brought in to deliver the project that many think of as a project manager.

Project management becomes just one part of a manager’s role

In these situations, there’s little difference between a project team’s “project manager” and the manager of any other team in a business. While how they manage the workflow may be different, does it really make the role so different that we need a specific name for it?

Instead, isn’t it the case that the project management parts of their job are just one of the many hats they need to wear as a manager?

Project management is just a set of techniques, not a role

So do we really need so many “project managers”? Is there really enough difference between project management and general management to require a separate professional career path?

I’ve got my own thoughts about this, but what do you think? Are you a project manager, or are you a manager who happens to do projects?

(Image courtesy of IMLS DCC. Some rights reserved.)

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Factors for Successful Projects (Presentation)

I needed to do a quick ten-minute presentation recently about the factors needed for successful projects. This is what I came up with – let me know what you think! What are your ideas?

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Better

Two workers compare mobile phones

Comparison and evaluation - "Which is better?"

Project management is all about making sure we have better projects. Sometimes a better project is one that delivers what is needed on time and on budget. (Or earlier and cheaper.) Sometimes the only thing that could make a project better is to stop it, so the business doesn’t waste any more money on something it doesn’t need, or already has.

But that’s all project management is about – better projects.

It may be you’d like to introduce new technology into your projects. Or perhaps you have some new management techniques you want to use instead of the old ones. That’s fine – if they produce better projects.

When you use these new things, do they make your projects better? Yes, this is hard to measure over individual projects – after all, each project is different. But over time, groups of projects will have enough similarities to be compared with other groups of projects. So measure to see if your projects are better – quicker, cheaper, or higher quality. (Though quality that goes beyond your specs may not necessarily make a project better.)

All of this takes work, and time. It takes work to deliver projects in your new way. It takes time to build up enough to be able to compare them to other projects – either your own from the past, or other people’s who aren’t using these new things. And it takes both work and time to analyse these results. But that’s the only way you can tell if you new thing is letting you deliver better projects.

And that’s all we’re here to do.

(Image courtesy of WhiteAfrican. Some rights reserved.)

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Book Review: Lean from the Trenches

Cover of the book "Lean from the Trenches"

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”
- Yogi Berra. Or Albert Einstein. Or Jan L.A van de Snepscheut. Or…

Sometimes, we all get too caught up on the theories behind project management. Which process should we follow? Do we need to get certification from PMI, or in PRINCE2? Should we be using Kanban, XP, Agile, all of the above?

But it’s important to remember that the theory is only important when it helps with the practice of project management – in other words, when it actually helps us get projects done, quicker, cheaper, better.

That’s why Lean from the Trenches by Henrik Kniberg is so useful. It isn’t trying to tell you the one true way of managing a project. It isn’t setting out exactly what you should do so your project can be classed as Lean. It isn’t a set of prescriptions on what you must do.

What it is is a description of one particular project, over one particular span of time, and the way that it was managed during that period. It lets you know the successes, and the difficulties, so you can see for yourself what worked and what didn’t.

And, as always, reality is much messier than the textbooks would have you believe. The project described, a large-scale software project for the Swedish police, is complicated and high-profile. The project team increases in size dramatically over the period this book covers. The release schedule doesn’t fit with the theories.

But… it works. It delivers. And that’s the most important thing for any project – delivery.

Kniberg explains what was done to help the project’s management, and how it worked or didn’t. It covers, very briefly, the key ideas behind Agile, Lean, Scrum, XP, and Kanban, but goes beyond them, showing you the way they were applied, tweaked, and adjusted to meet the needs of the project.

The story told of the project is interesting, and should spark ideas that go further than the theory alone. The way the principles behind the various Agile methods are applied offers greater understanding.

For myself, as a relative novice when it comes to purely software projects, I found it the most useful project management book I have ever read. If you want to get better by drawing on the experience of others, read this book.

Purchase on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk.

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Crunch Time

Man at a desk in a dark room, lit by two computer monitorsCrunch times are a sign of failure of project management, not a way of catching up.

I was bleary-eyed as I finished the last of the typing. I did a quick spell-check, and pressed print, trusting that the chugging of the printer working away would be enough to keep me focused as I prepared the binders and envelope.

I needed the printer to keep me focused as I was tired. Very tired. I’d worked until 5 in the morning, then got up and got back to work by 8:30. This was a tough crunch, a period of intense work to get something finished by the deadline.

I was doing this because I’d made a mistake. I’d misread the date this tender response had to be returned by, and thought I had two more days than I actually did. When I finally noticed my error, the only way I could make sure I was finished in time was to work very, very late.

Doing this made me think about the other crunch times I’d been involved in on other projects. I remembered the late nights working in an empty office building, because as the project officer the work of sorting, filing, and burning project documentation onto CDs had been left to me – but no-one had thought to finish all the documentation they were writing until the day before everything had to be done.

I remembered the nights we worked into the early morning in the boardroom, two sets of negotiators thrashing out a contract, the arguments for and against various clauses getting less coherent as the night wore on.

I remembered my first time as a project manager, demanding that my supplier throw more resource to deliver a complex infrastructure for the date marked on my plan, not a week later.

All these memories, and my current predicament, had one thing in common. They all happened because of a mistake.

As a project officer, I had had to work late because the project manager hadn’t considered the preparation time to ensure we could present our documentation for our project assessment – yes, he’d made sure there was time for the documents to be written, but there was a need for additional effort to deliver them properly.

Working in the boardroom into the early morning happened because we hadn’t included enough time for negotiations in our project plan. We were carrying out negotiations with four possible suppliers at the same time, and that meant to meet the timescales that had been set for us, we either shortchanged each supplier, or the project team had to work into the early hours day after day, week after week.

My demands to a supplier that they throw more resource, of people and money, at a delay to make sure we met the date on my plan was due to my earlier mistake of letting my executive, and the rest of the business, believe that a project plan could be written that predicted the definite end date of a project a year in advance. I was too inexperienced to realise I needed to go back and explain the changed end-date – after all, a week’s slippage on a year long project is not bad at all.

And that’s the thing with crunch times in projects – usually, they are caused by a mistake. Sometimes, like last week and my tender response, they are caused by a mistake that you can’t do anything to fix. Then you can’t get away from the crunch, but you can learn from it to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Other times, like when I demanded the supplier put in more resource, the mistake can be fixed. In that case, it was a matter of realising much earlier that our plans and schedules need to be flexible, and adapt to changes on the ground. A plan can’t be a prediction of the future, it can only be a guide to our route – and one that we need to adapt as we go along.

Avoiding crunch times means you are less likely to burn-out yourself or your team, and that your work will be of a higher quality – if you’re working on something when you’re tired, you are more likely to make errors. Sometimes you’ll catch them, and end up doing even more work to fix them. Sometimes you won’t, and they’ll end up in a poor quality output.

So the next time you feel like you, or your team, have to start putting in more hours, coming in at weekends, or otherwise somehow putting in extra effort, ask yourself what the root cause of this is. Is it something you can’t avoid this time – but can learn from to avoid in future? Or is it a case of not realising the deadline can be moved to reflect reality?

(Image courtesy of timsackton. Some rights reserved.)

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Professional Project Managers

Close-up photograph of suit and tieAs I mentioned last time, the company that looks after PRINCE2 for the UK Government, the APM Group, has announced it will launch a new PRINCE2 qualification on 30th January (next Monday). This new qualification will be called PRINCE2 Professional.

I’ve written before about my mixed feelings about the attempts to professionalise project management (using ‘professionalise’ here in a precise manner, not as a proxy for ‘improve’) and this new qualification seems another step along the route.

I’m not convinced, however, that it makes much sense for this type of qualification to be coming from the APM Group. While there is a demand out there for a qualification that asserts it proves ‘competence’, that demand is already well served – both the Project Management Institute and the International Project Management Association (through its national member associations) provide global coverage of such qualifications.

The PRINCE2 qualifications were always something different, in that they aimed to measure knowledge of the methodology, and not experience or competence in project management. This means that APM Group are making a significant departure from the previous qualifications.

Naturally, this makes commercial sense for them, but does it also help project managers? On the one hand, an addition to the alphabet soup of possible qualifications is probably a bad thing, in that we will likely end up with yet more culture wars about which one is best. On the other hand, where PRINCE2 has been successful, it tends to push out the wider ranging PMP and IPMA Level C/B qualifications, so an acknowledgement, from the PRINCE2 world, that sometimes more than knowledge needs to be assessed could be a good thing.

In other words, I’m staying firmly on the fence on this one. I’ll be interested in what extra information we get when the qualification is launched, particularly around the pre-requisites before you can apply. If they end up merely replicating what is already needed for the PMI’s PMP, or the IPMA’s qualifications, I’ll be a little disappointed at what would then look like an unnecessary rehash of what is already available.

What do you think? Is a PRINCE2 qualification about competence a good thing? Or are there already enough choices for project managers in this area?

(Image courtesy of karsten.planz. Some rights reserved.)

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PRINCE2 Professional

PRINCE2 LogoPRINCE2 Practitioners now have an advanced qualification to aim for – and one that tests competence, not knowledge.

APMG-International announced last week that they would be launching a new PRINCE2 qualification at the end of January. PRINCE2 Professional is aimed at assessing the candidate’s ability to apply the PRINCE2 method. This is in contrast to the current PRINCE2 qualifications, which are purely about showing a candidate knows the methodology, its terms, and its processes.

PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments 2) is the de facto project management standard within the UK, and is used extensively in Western Europe and Australia. Recently, the Project Management Professional (PMP) qualification from the US-based Project Management Institute (PMI) has been making some inroads into these areas.

It’s clear that APMG-International are reacting to pressure from PRINCE2 Practitioners and industry for a qualification that is explicitly about competence. The PMP qualification is often cited as being more about competence as candidates must have a certain amount of project management experience before they can actually take the examinations.

It’s not clear what minimum experience level is required to take the PRINCE2 Professional assessment – the press release states that Accredited Training Organisations (i.e. who you will pay for the testing) will advise candidates on whether the qualification is for them. An early pilot of the assessment centre used three years of project management experience in the last five calendar years (so very similar to the PMP requirements).

Either way, it’s worth noting, for both PRINCE2 Professional and PMP, that having a certain level of experience doesn’t guarantee a certain level of competence.

More on this later in the week, I suspect.

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