Key content for project kickoffs

imageHolding a formal project kickoff is generally considered to be a good way to get everyone aligned to a set of common goals and practices at the start of a project.

I’ve always found the word kickoff to be somewhat inaccurate as that brings to mind the organized chaos which ensues in a football (American or otherwise) once the referee blows their whistle. I prefer to use the analogy of runners in a relay race waiting at the start line for the starter’s gun to be fired – a high-level of activity, but everyone running in the same direction and focused on getting their sprints completed as quickly as possible with highest quality.

If you are preparing for your project’s kickoff meeting, it can be daunting to come up with a short list of topics to cover – for many attendees, it might be their first formal exposure to the project so there is so much you will want to share, but you only have an hour or two to do so.

Here’s a short list of some questions which you will want to answer.

Why are we doing this project (and what’s in it for me)? A kickoff meeting is not the only opportunity to answer these two questions, but you’ll fail to kindle the enthusiasm so desperately required at this time if you don’t help everyone understand the rationale behind the organization and the team investing in the project.

What’s my role? Depending on how many projects they’ve been on, team members and stakeholders will join a project with a pretty clear idea about how they will engage with others and with you. The kickoff meeting is the right time to clarify any questions or misconceptions regarding roles and responsibilities, as well as some very basic rules of engagement. The objective is not to “lay down the law” as team dynamics need to be developed not enforced, however you do want to establish a framework or set of values that will help to guide the process of working through the details.

What’s for real? It’s rare that someone comes to a kickoff meeting without some preconceived notions so take the time to debunk myths and confirm assumptions. It can be hard to distill all the data you’ve gathered, but you’ll certainly want to share any key decisions made as well as any hard constraints which will impact the project.

What’s next? If you cover all of the previous topics but fail to answer this question, the kickoff meeting will have failed to generate action. You will hopefully have team members and stakeholders alike walking out of the meeting eager to get started, so take advantage of this early momentum by providing some early work assignments.

Cover this content, and you won’t need to worry about your kickoff meetings looking like an episode of the Keystone Cops!

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Reduce risk by enhancing estimation!

imageI’ve frequently said that project management is about bringing predictability to uncertainty and while a lot of my writing focuses on managing the impacts of uncertainty through effective risk management, estimation is another area where uncertainty needs to be addressed.

If you are fortunate enough to be managing projects where sufficient historical data exists to account for nearly all sources of variation then I envy you.

For the rest of us, here are some estimation principles which should be applicable regardless of the project’s domain or specific context.

  • Use more than one estimation method: Consider this a form of hedging your bets. If you derive close to the same estimated value using different techniques, the likelihood that your estimates are significantly incorrect drops. Consider combining bottom-up and top-down methods.
  • Document and share assumptions related to the estimates: It’s always a good idea to have a second pair of eyes review estimates, but without understanding the underlying assumptions which those estimates were based on, it can be very difficult to provide quality feedback. If the assumptions are not documented, it eliminates your ability to identify proactively when internal or external changes might invalidate the assumptions & their associated estimates.
  • An estimate should never be provided as a single value: Without some understanding of the variation in the stated estimate, it’s impossible to manage the uncertainty resulting from it. This variation could be stated as a range or a confidence level.
  • Discourage multitasking during estimation: Estimation takes significant mental effort and if the subject matter experts involved are distracted, the quality of your estimates will suffer.  Consider breaking up the estimation process into more short meetings as one way to overcome this.  Also, avoid estimation right after lunch time or at the end of the working day as your team might be less focused.
  • Evaluate estimates across multiple dimensions: Just as it is helpful to use more than one estimation technique, it’s also valuable to analyze estimates in different ways to try to identify flaws. For example bottom-up activity estimation will give us detailed effort data at the work package level. But aggregating these estimates by resource role or by project phase will enable us to evaluate whether the ratio between roles or phases is logical.
  • Remove the person from the evaluation: It helps to have peer-level reviews of estimates without knowing who produced them. This sounds wrong, but no subject matter expert is omniscient and our positive biases about them might cause us to unconsciously miss estimation flaws.

Improving estimation is not a silver bullet to slay all sources of project schedule or cost variation but elevating project management capability is about evolution, not revolution!

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Who should track project benefits realized?

imageConsistent measurement and reporting of the benefits realized from projects is a key step towards portfolio management maturity. While it’s good to improve practices around identification, evaluation, selection and prioritization of projects, the proof is in the (benefits) pudding!

This is easier said than done.

It’s hard enough when the business cases for projects don’t clearly identify the expected benefits or when those benefits are intangible or difficult to measure. But it can be even more difficult when the sponsor and other stakeholders who were directly responsible for development of the business case or realization of the benefits are in different roles or are no longer with the organization.

There’s a lot to be said for requiring benefits reporting periods to be as short as possible – one year or less. However, sometimes even in that time period the individuals most closely associated with the project’s outcomes might have moved on.

This is why I recommend that the reporting of realized benefits be centralized within a portfolio support, finance or similar team outside of the original sponsoring department. That way, should a reorganization occur or the original sponsor move on, there is continuity and consistency of reporting.

There’s another reason to consider centralizing the benefits reporting function – independence. Don’t get me wrong – I am not impugning the integrity of sponsors. The way in which benefits are reported and analysis done against original business cases can vary widely. Given this, centralizing this function might help improve the quality and consistency of information reported.

The other benefit of such centralization is that identification and analysis of root causes for variance can be done at the portfolio-level resulting in practice improvements which will have a more immediate and broader benefit than if this activity was distributed.

Realizing the benefits of benefits realization requires careful consideration of the “who” as well as the “how” and “when”!

Categories: Project Portfolio Management | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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