Create a Culture of Urgency
Project managers are critical for ensuring team members and stakeholders are working together with a sense of urgency. There are several tools project managers have at their disposal to help with this.
- Project Vision – The project manager can lead the way by articulating the project’s importance and vision. Having a business representative or project sponsor explain the business need is very powerful. It helps connect the project goals with why we are assembled and the work about to start.
- Customer Focus – using tools such as customer personas helps keep the end-users and their needs in focus. It reminds us of who will consume the final product or service and why it is essential to complete the work to a high standard as soon as possible.
- Deliver early and often – establishing an early pattern of delivery on a project can help create a culture of delivery focus and accountability. It does not need to be a completed work product delivered to a customer. A design concept for internal review has the same effect. Establishing a cadence and expectation of delivery, evaluation and accountability towards the project vision helps prevent complacency.
2.1.1 Assess Opportunities to Deliver Value Incrementally
Incremental delivery is a strategy for delivering value to the customer before the project’s final release. This can be done by releasing several smaller deliveries throughout the project rather than one large one at the end. The benefits of this approach include:
- Early Feedback – Getting feedback from customers earlier in the process reduces rework if changes are necessary. It also provides confirmation of designs and development processes.
- Early ROI – By getting some functional elements out and being used sooner, there may be opportunities to gain early value and return on investment.
- Overcomes Student Syndrome – Student syndrome is the tendency for people to wait until near a deadline before working in earnest on the task. If a project has a one-year timeline, it might feel like we have plenty of time to settle in and then start. In contrast, if we have a demo next week, perhaps we should get started now and have something to show for ourselves.
- Increased stakeholder involvement – by frequently demonstrating increments of the solution, we keep stakeholders engaged. They get to see the team’s progress and the team learns more about the project needs and any changing market conditions. This increased visibility and transparency, improves project communications and lowers the risk of missed requirements or delivering unsuitable products.
Cycles, Iterations, Sprints and Timeboxes
Hybrid and agile projects break the project schedule into small (typically 1 – 2 week) iterations or sprints. In these short, timeboxed periods, the project team builds an increment of project functionality then demonstrates it to gain feedback. Working in 1-2 week cycles (called Sprints or iterations), the team is never far from a demo, and the tempo remains high.
Let’s take a quick refresher of the various development approaches and when they typically deliver value.
In traditional lifecycle projects, the major activities are conducted serially and value is delivered at the end of the project. Projects can be of any duration; in the image below, common durations ranging from as short as 3 months up to a couple of years are depicted.
Hybrid or Iterative Development
Hybrid or Iterative development approaches have more than one deployment. They may be able to implement some functionality early to provide a partial return on investment while the remainder of the project is worked on.
There is no standard, defined pattern for hybrid or iterative development life cycle projects. They may have a couple or many releases at varying intervals. In the example shown below, an iterative development life cycle is depicted, having two releases, each 1 – 3 months in duration.
Agile life cycle approaches have many short iterations. The duration of these iterations used to be anywhere from one week to one month, but during the last decade, most agile approaches have standardized on either one or two-week iterations. When using Scrum, these iterations are called Sprints.
Each agile iteration exercises all of the project execution disciplines. These include everything from planning through creating an increment of the project and gathering feedback on it. It also includes evaluating and reflecting on how both the process and the product are developing/performing.
While the result of every iteration should be a valuable increment of product, these are often batched up into more significant releases to manage the amount of change introduced. This is depicted by the intermittent currency sign milestones above.
2.1.2 Examine the Business Value Throughout the Project
Let’s take a moment to define business value. In a PM context, it is a quantifiable benefit derived from the project. The benefits might be financial, social, improved capability, environmental, or improved potential.
Financial – Earning revenue and profits for an organization or group. Some regulatory and compliance projects may not return a profit but are undertaken to avoid fines and costly restrictions.
Market share – Capturing some portion of the market, maybe even at a loss, so future benefits can be obtained.
Planet – Environmental benefits such as habitat or species protection. Greenhouse gas reduction and other pollutant mitigation benefits.
Social – helping groups and individuals with health, education and social wellbeing programs.
Grow Capability – To make research and product capability breakthroughs to gain new insights and data for future benefits.
Business value should be defined from the customer or sponsor perspective, not the team or project manager’s perspective. Just because we think a feature is cool, impressive, difficult to create, or elegant to in own view does not mean it is any more valuable.
Product roadmaps are high-level graphical summaries of planned release components for a product or service. They can vary in their presentation but act as a shared vision for the direction, priorities, and progress of a product over time.
Product roadmaps are progressively elaborated as more information becomes available. They can be used to align an organization around short and long-term goals for the project or product and how they will be achieved.
The figure below shows three example product roadmaps.
Example 1) Is a Now-Next-Later roadmap showing a time-based view of what the team plans to work on and deliver. In this example, the yellow cards depict user stories, but they could be features, epics or some other unit of functionality.
Example 2) shows a Technology Stack view of work for upcoming quarters. For each technology group (Web, Mobile, Backend, and Integration), their major deliverables are shown in the planned time period.
Example 3) shows a Release based roadmap with functional groups going horizontally and necessary to more optional features arranged vertically. Colored groups of stories indicate which have been selected for the first, second and third releases.
Product roadmaps should be created in a format that is valuable and makes sense for the interested stakeholders.
2.1.3 Find the Minimum Viable Product
Support the team to subdivide project tasks as necessary to find the minimum viable product.
Simplicity, maximizing the amount of work not done
One of the 12 Agile Principles is “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.” It reminds us to look for the simplest solution possible. This not only reduces work, materials, complexity, schedule and costs, but it also increases our likelihood of project success.
Including non-essential scope or features extends project timelines and increases the horizon of risk (period for things to go wrong.) It provides more time for competitors to enter the market, to be leapfrogged by new technology and customers to go elsewhere.
Generating a return on investment is never a given. Focusing on the best options for timely delivery reduces complexity and risk. Project stakeholders and clients can leave, so simplifying what we deliver is often a smart choice.
Projects as Journeys and the Value of Scouting Ahead
One analogy for projects is “going on a journey.” If the project requirements and technology are well understood, this is like repeating a journey we have done before. We still need to plan for it, and there may be unexpected interruptions or events that occur along the way, but we do not anticipate too much direction finding or backtracking.
For projects with high levels of uncertainty or using new tools or techniques, we can expect some navigation challenges, issues and new discoveries as we go. When the territory is unfamiliar, it can be helpful to scout ahead. Pilots, proofs-of-concept and the lean/agile set of approaches known by their acronyms MVP, MBI, and MMF help explore the territory.
They are light-weight explorations to test approaches, gain insights into what is required and validate technologies, materials or ideas.
MMF, MVP and MBI
Some commonly used agile terms relating to testing increments of value include Minimum Marketable Feature (MMF), Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and Minimum Business Increment (MBI).
While they all share the first word “Minimum” and all relate to the smallest increment of something, that something varies, and so we should understand the definitions.
- MMF – Minimum Marketable Feature – A small, self-contained feature that can be developed quickly and that delivers significant value to the user/customer.
- MVP – Minimum Viable Product – MVP is about learning more about the ultimate product. It tests the “bare bones” or “no-frills” functionality required for something to be deemed valuable by a potential customer. An MVP could range anywhere from not having any MMFs, to having a single MMF, to having several MMFs.
- MBI – Minimum Business Increment – A MBI is a description of the minimum amount of business value realized from a business perspective. MBI is more related to MMF than MVP and was developed because some organizations objected to the term “marketable” since they did not sell products. MBIs help teams validate whether or not a useful element of functionality has been delivered or an improvement has been captured. MBIs enable teams to incrementally build on success or pivot as needed.
Guidelines to Optimize and Measure Ongoing Progress
In addition to delivering the core elements of a project as soon as possible, the following techniques can help ensure projects are executed with a focus on business value.
Value Stream Mapping
Value Stream Mapping is a technique for reviewing a process and identifying value-adding and non-value-adding activities. Teams can use it to improve their project workflow by finding delays, queues and works of waste (hand-offs, task switching, non-used talent, etc) and creating a more efficient process.
Measure what Matters
Use metrics that track and communicate progress towards value delivery. Metrics that measure attributes such as features delivered vs features remaining are more effective than, say, lines of code written since they focus on value and the end goal – finishing the project. Be wary of tangential metrics such as hours worked or lines of code written that do not focus on value and may lead to unintended side-effects (not rewarding code simplification.)
Show Progress and Trends
Present the team’s progress and show how it compares to baselines and expectations. Release burn-down graphs and cumulative flow diagrams are effective tools for showing progress and extrapolating trends.
Inspect and Adapt
Use reviews and retrospectives to consolidate successes and correct areas where progress is not meeting expectations. Keep a focus on delivering business value and frequently check with the team for ideas to improve delivery.
Deliverables and Tools
- Project vision
- Project kick-off
- Work packages
- Progress tracking
- Progress reporting
- 1.2 Lead a team
- 1.3 Support team performance
- 1.7 Address and remove impediments for the team
- 2.4 Engage stakeholders
- 2.6 Plan and manage schedule
- 2.7 Plan and manage quality of products/deliverables
- 2.8 Plann and manage scope
- 2.9 Integrate project planning activities
- 2.10 Manage project changes
- 2.12 Manage project artifacts
- 2.13 Determine appropriate project methodology and practices
- 2.15 Manage project issues
- 3.2 Evaluate and deliver project benefits and value
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