Identifying Risks via Assumptions

It was some years ago, early in my project management career, and I was in the early stages leading a particularly challenging client engagement for a consulting firm.

I went to the partner, my boss, and told him we simply couldn't deliver the project the client had asked us to deliver due to information we had not previously been aware of. The project was to implement a supposedly already built system - but it turned out it was nowhere near ready, and was probably never going to be due to a fundamental flaw in how it had been designed.

While he understood why I was saying this he refused my request to pull out of the engagement. His view was that it was simply too late to go to the customer with such a high level analysis. Initially I was very frustrated by this response - why insist on continuing with a project that was going to fail? But my boss took me beyond that.

He challenged me, "if you make enough assumptions, do you think we would deliver the project for the client?"

I said I believed we could, but I that I didn't think the assumptions we would need to make were viable. Some, if not many, of them will fail - or, possibly already had (e.g. that the system was ready).

He said, "that is fine, for now, let's work out what the assumptions are and take them to the client. The client will then easily agree with why the project either has to be abandoned, or dramatically re-shaped".

So, we stood around a whiteboard and listed all of the assumptions we would have to make for the project to have a chance of success. It was a long list!

We then went through each and rated them as either having already failed (the assumption was no longer true, if it ever was) and for those that were still true (the assumption was still valid) work out the likelihood that each would continue to be valid for long enough to deliver the project, and what we could do to increase the likelihood of that being the case.

My boss then said to me, "there you are, there's your risk management plan".

Initially I didn't understand, but he then clarified it for me - each assumption was simply a risk stated another way.

It also happened to be his agenda for discussing with the client why the project either had to be abandoned or dramatically re-shaped.

We were so well prepared for that conversation that the client agreed fully with us, and agreed to re-shape the project based on de-scoping those parts of the system that were never going to be ready, adding some completion activity to the project to finalise those parts of the system that were close to ready, and re-doing the implementation plan to only cover those parts that were already ready or were close. We had a new scope, a new timeline and a new budget - all of which were achievable.

The client was happy because finally they had an achievable path forward, after many years (yes, years) of trying to implement this system themselves.

We were also happy because we now had a project we could deliver - which we did. On time, on budget and to scope.

By way of example, a classic project assumption is to "assume that the people required to deliver the project are available for their scheduled project tasks". Re-stating that as a risk turns it into "there is a risk that project resources are not available to perform their scheduled project tasks". The classic mitigation for such a risk is to communicate with sufficient notice when people will need to perform their scheduled project tasks so they can block out their diaries accordingly and schedule their other work for other times. Another mitigation is to have the project fund backfill staff to release the project team members to the project. Often you do both.


Surviving In The Freelance Economy

I refer you to an excellent article by Elaine Pofeldt on Forbes: Surviving In The Freelance Economy.

Firstly she discusses the benefits of flexibility and choice, alongside some of the risks like uncertainty of income and lack of employment benefits (in her case medical insurance).

Then she gives the following hints on how to survive as a freelancer:

  • Adopt the millionaire-next-door mindset
  • Look at other freelancers as your friends – not competitors
  • Never think like a short-timer
  • Recognize that you are running a business – and embrace it

I totally concur, having, like Elaine, been freelancing for coming up six years now - and using, in part, similar principles to guide how I run my career.

Go read Elaine's article.

Elaine also has some other good ones on freelancing in her library of articles.


Contracting or Consulting?

Earlier this week a colleague introduced me to someone who is considering going contracting or consulting. The request was to have a chat to guide him on becoming a freelancer. The freelancer's journey is one I have been on for 5 years now.

In discussion it became clear the first thing he needed to settle in his mind was to distinguish being a "contractor" from being a "consultant" - initially he thought they were the same thing.

A "contractor" primarily solves a capacity problem for their customer. The customer simply doesn't have enough staff, and brings in a "contractor" to get the work done.

However, a "consultant" also solves a capability problem for their customer, while sometimes also solving a capacity problem like a "contractor" would do. A "consultant" is bringing expertise (capability) that the customer's team do not have - even if they have the capacity to do the work.

Obviously it is not a choice between being a "contractor" or being a "consultant" as there is some overlap - but it is helpful to know where, as a freelancer, you will position yourself on the spectrum.

I have found that operating toward the "consultant" end of the spectrum gives you the opportunity to add more value to your customer due to the expertise you are bringing that the customer does not have - which means your work as a freelancer is likely to be more interesting, and satisfying.

It also means you have the opportunity to price your services at a higher rate, and thus be rewarded for the value you are adding, as well as the time you are spending.

By being able to charge more also gives you more income cover for gaps between projects - "contractors" rely on being 100% billable to a much higher extent than "consultants" should need to.


PM Tip: Ask Another Question

This is another in a series of Project Management tips derived from my experience building an enduring record as a Project Manager who leads business and systems projects from inception to successful completion.

PM Tip: Ask Another Question

Asking questions is one of the primary tools available to you as a project manager - what is the status of this? when will it be complete? what are you waiting on? who are you waiting on? are there any issues I don't know about? what are the risks to successful completion?

I learnt early on my career as a PM that all too often the real answer to such questions is not the first answer you get.

Colin Sander, a colleague in business coaching, who has mentored me regularly over the years, has written on this: Accountability, Closure and Performance: 

[The PM] asked a member of his project team a question relating to the level of progress with a project task.

A simple question: “when will task x be completed?”

The answer from the team member was: “I’m working on it” ...

In this example the response from the PM should have been another question: "that's good to hear, but when will it be completed?"

I happen to know that is exactly what the PM's response was!

And sometimes one more question is not enough.

You need to keep asking further questions until you are fully satisified that you have the full answer.

In my experience it is not that team members are usually being deceptive - if they are you need to hold them to account on that too.

Rather they often perceive such questioning from their PM as a distraction from their work, and will give enough of an answer to make you go away!

If you do go away after receiving an incomplete or even evasive response then you can expect to receive more and more of them.

Ask Another Question!

Prior posts in this series:

  1. Sometimes You Have To Pull An All-Nighter
  2. Look for Early Warning Signs
  3. Intervene Early

11 Leadership Lessons From Jazz Musicians

a good article from Josh Linkner containing 11 Leadership Lessons From Jazz Musicians, which builds on my blog post a few years ago on "Lessons on Leadership from Jazz"

Josh makes 11 points comparing Jazz to Leadership (read the full article for his explanations):

  1. Playing it safe gets you tossed off the stage
  2. There are no do-overs in live performances
  3. Listening to those around you is three times more important than what you play yourself
  4. There's a time to stand out as a soloist and a time to support others and make them shine
  5. Expect surprises and adversity, since jazz (and life) is about how you respond and adapt
  6. Know your audience
  7. It's always better leaving people wanting more, rather than less
  8. The best leaders are those that make others sound good
  9. Pattern recognition is easier than raw genius
  10. Shy musicians are starving artists
  11. Keeping it new and fresh is mandatory



PM Tip: Sometimes You Have To Pull An All-Nighter

This is the third in a series of Project Management tips derived from my experience building an enduring record as a Project Manager who leads business and systems projects from inception to successful completion.

PM Tip: Sometimes You Have To Pull An All-Nighter

As a Project Manager your credibility and integrity is perhaps the most crucial tool you have in your arsenal.

When times get tough on a project - and they will, if it is a project worth committing some of your career to - the ability of your client (the person/s sponsoring your project whether or not they are a client in a traditional sense of being someone you invoice) and your project team to trust you will often be the difference to getting through a challenge, or not.

Recently I committed to produce some critical project planning documents for a project - without factoring that the 4 days after the day I made the promise (a Thursday) were a long planned Friday to Monday family holiday during which I could not work - both in the sense of honouring a commitment to my family, and also I was holidaying in a location without power or internet so literally could not do the work.

The deadline for these documents was the Friday of what had suddenly become a short week for me. Especially as I had another client commitment, which included travel, for the Thursday and Friday of the week the documents were due.

I should have seen it coming, but I didn't. I made a promise I couldn't keep - while working a normal business day.

On the day I made the promise there was more than a week to go. But in reality I only had 2 days of normal business hours to do the work - which wasn't enough.

Maybe I could have reset expectations and pushed out the deadline as I had left myself too short a time to produce these documents - but the commercial reality was they needed to be produced when I had originally promised.

The only way through was for me to 'pull an all-nighter' - which I did.

On the Wednesday evening I worked until 4:30am on the Thursday and got the documents completed. I got to bed for about 1.5 hours then got up to catch my flight to meet the unrelated Thursday and Friday commitment.

I was exhausted - but I had honoured my promise.

The client (whom I subtly made aware of my 'all-nighter'!) now knows that when they receive a commitment from me I will do what it takes to honour my commitments.

And my project team know the same - and won't be surprised when I expect them to do the same.

The influence that flows from keeping my commitments will make me a much more effective project manager.

Sometimes You Have To Pull An All-Nighter!

Prior posts in this series:

  1. Intervene Early
  2. Look for Early Warning Signs

PM Tip: Look for Early Warning Signs

This is the second in a series of Project Management tips derived from my experience building an enduring record as a Project Manager who leads business and systems projects from inception to successful completion.

PM Tip: Look for Early Warning Signs

A few months ago a client went live on a new system for which I was the vendor side project manager.

They were a particularly challenging client throughout the three month project. They were always trying to push project activities back on to the vendor project team - even though they had accepted responsiblity for completing these tasks. This was so they would learn the system during the project so they could be more self-sufficient post-go-live. It was also to keep project costs down.

They were also not very good at managing their diaries. This became a frequent cause of frustration and sometimes delay on the project. We were regularly rescheduling meetings they accepted initially then declined just before the meeting, or simply didn't turn up for.

I had recognised this was probably going to be the case when for the very first project workshop (a whole day) they asked for it to be delayed late on the day before it was scheduled, even though it had been scheduled for weeks, and required travel for a number of workshop attendees (including me). Their excuse - a weekly team meeting within their organisation that they would have known about when scheduling our project workshop many weeks prior.

Apart from being rude we interpreted this as a likely ongoing behaviour, which proved to be the case.

As vendor project manager I became increasingly more active and direct, sometimes blunt, during the project when managing their delivery of their obligations to the project, and even simply turning up to meetings.

The lesson: look for early warning signs. People's behaviour is typically repetitive. If they do something early in a project, they are likely to keep doing it again and again during the project. In this case it was a corporate learned behaviour - the whole client team behaved this way. Sometimes, however, it is one individual who behaves a particular way.

Look for early warning signs!

Prior post in this series:

  1. Intervene Early

PM Tip: Intervene Early

This is the first of what will become a series of Project Management tips derived from my experience building an enduring record as a Project Manager who leads business and systems projects from inception to successful completion.

PM Tip: Intervene Early

One of my current roles is Project Manager for the implementation of a new system at a client organisation which is not accustomed to projects where technology is the primary enabler.

When they were presented with a requirements document, to review for sign off, that was by nature more technical than they are used to, they initially balked and started expressing reservations about their ability to understand the document, much less sign it off.

I have worked for global consulting firms where they would wait until the client didn't sign off the document to raise a formal issue about it - with the excuse that it was clearly pre-agreed that this was the client's responsibility.

But by then it is too late - the milestone has been missed.

Instead, on this occasion, I saw that unless we guided their review of the document they would not get to a position of signing it off. Possibly never, but certainly not within the project timeline.

So we devoted extra time to helping them understand and review the document. They still had to make the judgement calls, but we guided them through the process. More so than usual.

However, by intervening early, helping them understand the document and where they needed to focus their review, the outcome was that they signed off on the document - a day early.

Intervene early!


Red Rock has acquired Jireh Consulting

Red Rock (part of publicly listed UXC) has acquired Jireh Consulting.

My congratulations to my friend and colleague Mark Elley who built Jireh over the last seven years into a successful JDE consultancy with clients who speak very highly of the high quality services provided by the Jireh team.

The acquisition brings the Jireh and Red Rock teams together so as to better serve the market for JDE services, primarily in New Zealand (under Mark's leadership), but also in Australia where Red Rock is based.

I have provided JDE consulting services through Jireh since 2008, and will continue to do so through Red Rock.

As described here on here is a refresher on the services I provide:

  • Project Manager - I have an enduring record as a Project Manager who leads business and systems projects from inception to successful completion;
  • Business Analyst and Business Systems Consultant - I have extensive experience as a Business Analyst and Business Systems Consultant who can understand business requirements, translate them into clear requirements definitions with an appropriate mix of systems change & process change and then implement them;
  • Business Coach - I use my experience as a consultant and leader to coach others to increase their performance.

To discuss how I can help you improve the performance of your business please contact me using one of the contact methods listed at the top right.


Tui at Zealandia

Joel and I took his four year old cousin to one of our favourite Wellington Saturday activities today. Zealandia is a wonderful conservation story.

Conditions were great today for photography of the birdlife that is thriving in the sanctuary. Joel took this photo as I was focussed on hosting my nephew. He has a good eye for a good photo.

Today it seemed much greener for this time of year. Usually it is starting to brown off by now with the drier conditions heading into summer. The birdlife seems to be enjoying the abundance of food on offer. Lots of skinks too.

This is the iconic Tui, a bird native to New Zealand, and increasingly prolific around Wellington since the sanctuary was formed. Tui love flitting around on these flax flowers slurping up the nectar and are so fast moving it can be very difficult to get them all in focus - hence the slightly blurred beak which is on the move hunting out even more nectar!

A high quality version of this image can be found in on 500px.


Collaboration Roadmap: You've Got the Technology - Now What?

I just ordered my copy of Collaboration Roadmap: You've Got the Technology — Now What?; the fourth book written by my friend and professional colleague Michael Sampson (@collabguy) - this time to address the following business challenge:

Many firms are struggling with collaboration technology. Either it's been installed and is not being used, or they are not sure what to do. How do you make great decisions about collaboration technology and its use within organizations? Collaboration Roadmap answers both questions.

Have you ordered your copy yet?

Michael also consults, runs workshops and speaks on these and related collaboration topics.  You can contact Michael here.

Or, you can contact me if you need more general assistance with choosing or implementing technology, or your use of it, so that your business is more effective.


Grumbles with the Finder in Mac OS X

I'm generally very happy with my switch to the Mac, but have a couple grumbles with the Mac OS X Finder:

  • I can Copy a file, but not Cut?
  • I have to use the File menu to open a new window (not the Window menu)?
Maybe I should be using an alternate file management application?

Yes, the Flower was that Yellow

Since I moved from Windows to the Mac a couple months ago I've been trying out various Mac applications. I'm particularly enjoying the range of photography apps I now have access to.

One app I like is iSplash (US$0.99 in the Mac App store) which makes a photo black & white except where you choose for the original colours to remain. It only takes a minute or two to process a photo.

It creates simple yet astonishing effects like this. Yes, the flower was that yellow. But how much more yellow it looks with the surrounding colour removed.


Solar Eclipse from Titahi Bay

So the Solar Eclipse on Friday evening was a bit of a fizzer.

We abandoned going up Mt Kau Kau as it was simply too windy and headed to Titahi Bay instead where it was still quite windy but at least we could stand up!

The eclipse itself was only a very partial eclipse, and occurred right on dusk when there was a cloud layer on the horizon over the South Island so some of the eclipse happened behind that cloud from our vantage point.

Here is the best of my photos of the eclipse. The eclipse is the small slice missing from the sun on the upper left hand side.

A high quality version of this image can be found in on 500px.


Sunset Makara

At around sunset today we will be able to see a Solar Eclipse from Wellington, and I will be heading out with my camera to try and get a decent photo of it.

Makara is a candidate for my shooting location. It is where this photo was taken 6 months ago, so the sunset tonight should be roughly similar - with the added effect of a solar eclipse.

A high quality version of this image can be found in on 500px.


South Wairarapa Coast

Another photo from my recent photography excursion to the South Wairarapa.

This time of the coastal scenery which clings to the small gap between rolling green (at this time of year) farmland (of which there are hints in this photo) and a very rugged coast (off to the right).

You can see the dramatic effect of numerous earthquakes over many centuries which have progressively lifted this coastline out of the sea.

A high quality version of this image can be found in on 500px.


Porpoises at Paremata Bridge

Driving over Paremata Bridge we saw what we thought were Dolphins but TV3 News says they are Porpoises.

Friends who live nearby say they've been there since yesterday.

A high quality version of this image can be found in on 500px.


The Seagull is such a common bird

The Seagull is such a common bird, a bit of a nuisance actually.

But also quite photogenic.

A high quality version of this image can be found in on 500px.


Derelict House in South Wairarapa

I took the day off work yesterday as it was my birthday.

During the day I went with some friends to the South Wairarapa to enjoy each other's company and some photography.

This is one of my favourite shots.

A high quality version of this image can be found in on 500px.


Fishing Waitarere Sunrise

We're heading into summer.

This is where I plan to be spending a lot of weekends with my son.

A high quality version of this image can be found in on 500px.