Saturday, August 14, 2010

The personal touch

Most large organizations have jumped on the "virtual" bandwagon, ostensibly to save money, but they've bought in to a fallacy.  I'm going to open a big can of worms, but projects cannot be managed effectively in a virtual environment.  Can virtual projects come to a successful conclusion?  Absolutely, but at a cost.  The cost is time (read: money), quality, and organizational intelligence.  In a global environment, some components of a project will be virtual out of necessity; however, there is no need to codify and institutionalize the virtualization.

Just in the past two months I can give three specific examples of how communications were completely fouled up by my current client's insistence on virtual teams.  One instance had to do with an external vendor misunderstanding the release schedule and requirements which could have been catastrophic had I not met with them in person.  Folks, you cannot replace the value and effectiveness of working projects in person.  Don't fall in to the trap of the "virtual" project - put resources and effort into making sure that project teams are working face to face as much as possible. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Elegance of Simplicity

Project management is akin to a cattle drive. There is an ultimate goal, a deliverable - in the case of a cattle drive the deliverable is getting the cattle to market on time. In between are broken trails, lost cows, swollen rivers, bad weather, irritable cow pokes, busted equipment, and so on. A project is no different. As with the cattle drive, project managers deal with changing circumstances and conditions.

Often project managers will face a merry-go-round of evolving requirements that will drive the most sane among us crazy.  Decisions are made in midstream, sometimes at odds with the project's objectives, that require a project team to quickly change priorities and direction. This is the unpredicable world of project management.

In order to succeed, a project manager must be able to play in an ambiguous sand box. It requires creativity and a single minded focus on the end game. Our tendency is to try to solve problems with more control and complexity; however, the best solutions are generally the simplest solutions - there is an elegance in simplicity. Even the most elaborate endeavors benefit from simplicity born of a clear mission.

Case in point:

The new Hong Kong International Airport (Chek Lap Kok) was built on reclaimed land and was one of the most complex engineering undertakings of the late 20th century. Reclaiming land from the sea is a major task in of itself, not to mention the fact that they built an airport on the reclaimed land as well as an integrated transportation infrastructure to get to and from the airport. This project could not have been successfully completed had there not been some fairly creative solutions to daunting problems.

When land is reclaimed from the sea it tends to sink over time unless water can be drained from underneath the soil.  Couple this with the stringent ground compaction standards required for building airport runways and you’ve got quite a dilemma – how do you drain the water from beneath millions of tons of rock and soil? The engineers on this project used simple physics rather than intricate pumping methods to solve the problem. They designed porous tubes that were inserted
into the ground. The weight of the dirt and rocks pushed the water into the tubes which naturally forced the water up and out of the tubes. This solution was simple and did not require complex designs or technology to accomplish the task.

These engineers were free to make decisions on the ground based on the circumstances facing them. They were well aware of what success looked like, but diverged from common methods without fear of compromising the project. By the way, their solution was far less expensive and took less time. This simple solution can be a touchstone for project managers.

Always go back to the restraint and rhythm of simplicity.