26 June 2009

Finalizing the "Never-Ending" Project

If you are similar to many of my clients, you may be facing the situation where you are deeply worried whether a critical project that has been going on for some time will end successfully. An example of such a project involved a client who was the CIO of a major energy company. This company was moving a key part of its business to another country. This part of the business relied heavily on its IT systems, and ensuring that the transferred IT-systems were working and were compliant to the local regulatory environment was therefore crucial.

The team had been working for several months, original deadlines had long since passed, but the team kept on requesting more time for additional analytics. Due to these delays, the IT-department was rapidly losing credibility, and was seen as representing a major threat to the move being carried out on time. Due to the commercial and regulatory advantages of the new location, each month delay would represent major financial losses.

The CIO's request to me was to help/force the team to finish its work within two weeks. While the initial reaction from the team was that this would be impossible, the team was able to deliver more than acceptable results within the suggested deadlines. The methodology that I used to achieve this remarkable turn-around is fairly straight-forward and easily transferable to other situations.

The starting point for my work was to sit down with the team and go back to the beginning of the project to discuss and agree the basic issues that needed to be resolved, and to develop a common understanding of the goals and general framework (including time pressure) for the project. In this case, as in many other situations I have come across, it was surprising both to me and the team how much the team’s perception of the goals and deliverables had drifted over time.

The next step was to quickly but thoroughly to review the work that the team had carried out and link the outcomes of this work to the agreed goals of the project. In this process it became clear that much of the work that the team had carried out was in the “nice to have” category rather than critical to reaching the goals of the project. In addition, the team agreed that the same could be said about a large portion of the further work that the team had planned to carry out. Based on this, the team agreed that with a minimal number of additional interviews it would be possible to finalize the project based on the results at hand.

The next step consisted of structuring the results of the work that had been carried out and getting a common understanding of what these results meant and signified. A very helpful tool that I used was the “Pyramid Principle” (see http://www.barbaraminto.com/ for more details). The next step was to translate the team’s conclusions into a communication plan. This involved understanding who had to buy-in to the recommendations from the project, and develop a plan to “sell” the key messages to these individuals (with a special focus on those who would be surprised and/or unhappy with the team conclusions).

In this case the communication plan involved a number of structured presentations and a written document outlining the overall conclusions with supporting arguments (again using the Pyramid Principle). Although there was considerable discussion related to some items, the overall recommendations were accepted and implementation started within an acceptable timeframe.

I have used similar approaches to help a number of teams that have this (fairly common) problem. I therefore believe that following the broad steps I have outlined here will help any sponsor and/or project leader facing a team that is having problems finishing its work in an acceptable manner. Follow the links if you are interested in more information on project planning or project management training.

24 June 2009

Team Building is a Waste of Money

You would think that one of the consequences of the current recession is that the demand for "team building" would decline. However, a quick search via Google seems to indicate that this industry is flourishing. This is strange, as my experience is that, even in the best of times, what passes for "team building exercises" is a total waste of time and money.

This is certainly the case if your goal for the "team building" is to help ensure that a team tackling a complex project is happy and comfortable in dealing with each other. There is a lot of research that shows that increasing the internal satisfaction of the team has negligible effects on the success of the team in reaching its goals. In my experience, the only possible useful outcome of such an event is that the team members get to know each-other better. It might be the Norwegian in me, but it seems that this same goal can be achieved by including a nice dinner with some bottles of good wine at the team kick-off dinner.

The question then remains: what can be done to quickly create an excellent team? Luckily, this is fairly simple. What you (as a sponsor) need to do is:
1) Set clear goals and targets for the team (if they do not know exactly what they need to do, they cannot be successful)
2) Bring together people in the team with the right knowledge, skills, and experience (the team cannot be successful if it is not able to do the activities required for meeting the goals and targets)
3) Give the team tough deadlines early in the process, and force and enable them to work together (this creates the required "us versus them" feeling that excellent teams often have)
My friends in the "team building industry" will say that this is exactly what they do with their team-building exercises. They may be right, but why spend money doing this temporarily in an artificial setting, when you both should and have to do this in the real setting in any case?

My recommendation is to skip the external team-building exercise, and put the team together in a room (preferably latish in the afternoon) and 1) give them a clear explanation of the background to the problem that they are being asked to solve, 2) present the goals and targets that they need to reach, 3) present a first-cut plan for how you believe that these goals and targets should be met (including a stretch initial milestone), 4) explain why each team member has been included in the team, and finally 5) ask the team to develop their own detailed approach and plan. When this has been developed and discussed, the final activity should be dinner (spending a small part of the money saved by skipping the "team building exercise".

Finally, there is one part of a successful project where the "team building industry" can play a role. A key part of building a successful team is to celebrate success. This means that after a team has reached key milestones, it may want to celebrate by going wild-water rafting or some other team-building exercise.