Beware milestone convergence!

convergenceOne of the symptoms of lower organizational project management maturity is having more projects active than can predictably be delivered by teams.  Even if processes have been implemented for work intake or prioritization, if governance committees continue to accept all project requests presented to them (i.e. the project funnel is a tunnel) the likelihood of staff overworking but still under delivering is high.

In most cases, this may not be the worst thing that could happen – so long as project and functional managers are able to keep their team members focusing on completing the most critical milestones, delays on less important projects might be an acceptable inefficiency.

Where this does become more concerning is when there are multiple genuinely important projects underway and this gets coupled with a work allocation model that has most staff performing operational and project duties.  In such cases, there is a strong probability that at one or more times of the year, there will be a convergence of “can’t miss” milestones across multiple projects conflicting with the completion of one or more critical operational initiatives.

In an organization with lower levels of maturity, this situation can be similar to the chaos that would ensue if a half-dozen footballs were dropped in the midst of an unsupervised group of preschoolers.  In the organizational context, staff will focus on the project milestone or operational activity which has been given the greatest priority by their project manager (in strong or some balanced matrix organizations) or by their direct reporting manager (in functional, weak or some balanced matrix organizations).  Since not each team member will receive the same instructions or priority directions, the risk is high that nearly all milestones will be missed.

To avoid such entropy, the easy answer is for the organization to take on less work – they should cut their coat according to their cloth.  However, this requires a fairly detailed quantitative understanding of staff capacity and capability as well as a governance team that is judicious about project selection & scheduling – both signs of a higher maturity organization.

Failing this, what else can be done?  To quote Mr. Miyagi: “Best way to avoid punch, no be there“.  Try to avoid milestone convergence at all costs.

While the penultimate tool to help achieve this might be a detailed cross-project/operations schedule, this will take a tremendous amount of effort to develop and, in low maturity organizations, it will be out-of-date the moment it has been published.

A simpler approach is for project & functional managers to maintain a list of critical milestones for their project and operational responsibilities for the next few quarters.  The only information required to be captured is the name of the initiative, the milestone description, the true degree of schedule flexibility for the milestone (or rather, the impact if the forecast date slips) and the forecast date.  When developing project schedules or creating operational calendars, project and functional managers should review this list and if they are in a situation where a new milestone will conflict with existing ones, a quick meeting should be called to identify the “pecking order” at the milestone (NOT project or initiative) level, and rescheduling should take place on all other initiatives.  If this can’t be done for a particular convergence point, at least the organization will have a sufficiently advanced “head’s up” to assign additional staff or other such techniques of avoiding contention.

Reducing the number of active project and operational responsibilities for staff is a long term goal for lower maturity organizations, but a good short term objective is to shift focus to key milestones across concurrent workstreams to avoid perfect storms.

Categories: Project Portfolio Management | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Beware milestone convergence!

  1. Kiron,

    This is increasingly a problem that I see with larger organisations seemingly (in the eyes of their senior management) becoming more project management focussed. Phrases on posters saying ‘We are a Project Based Organisation’ are not uncommon but the reality on the ground is quite different – as you say, low levels of maturity and even, I would suggest, basic understanding (a PRINCE2 Foundation course does not a Project Manager make).

    Deciding what is and what isn’t a project isn’t that easy for some people even when those of us with more experience might adopt our more developed PM skills in normal day-to-day work, for less experienced ‘professionals’ the temptation to apply their newly acquired knowledge to all before them can be too great. Added to this, a poor understanding of WBSs and the interactions between related projects will lead to the milestone issues you describe so well.

    If only organisations would learn from their own experiences rather than getting into the blame game (another sign of low level maturity in PM, and leadership for that matter) their project performances might improve more quickly.

    Great post.

    Paul

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  2. kbondale

    Thanks for the detailed feedback, Paul. I believe the individual leaders within such organizations are well aware of what needs to be done to make things “better”, but either don’t feel there’s enough in it for them to justify championing real change OR are genuinely threatened by the transparency which an effective PM culture will bring!

    Kiron

    Like

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