Category Archives: Teams

Is Your Team Wasting Everyone’s Time?

Learn how to ensure your team is working on the right task at the right time.

What happens when uncertainty and risk are poorly handled during a project? Almost always, it results in missed deadlines, wasted time, and unhappy stakeholders.

I once took over a project that did not have requirements documents. The developers were writing code without a solid vision of what it should do. When they shared their results, the stakeholders would complain and send them back to rework the code, which wasted everyone’s time. Later, we discovered the hardware would not work, requiring them to start over with a new architecture. That wasted even more time, and the project took twice as long to complete.

That’s what happens when uncertainty and risk are poorly handled.

For projects like hardware product development, where there is a lot of uncertainty and complexity, it’s critical to understand which tasks are most important. Otherwise, your team will find much of their effort is wasted. Successfully managing these projects requires a delicate balancing act between removing uncertainty, reducing risk, and progressing along your critical path. I call this approach “adaptive project management”, which takes elements from both waterfall/standard project management (which handles complexity well and uncertainty poorly) and agile project management (which handles uncertainty well, but complexity poorly).

Removing Uncertainty

Early in an adaptive project, your focus must be on removing uncertainty. How can you write code if you don’t understand the needs of your end-users or build prototypes if you don’t know what technology best meets your needs? At this point your focus will be engaging with stakeholder or end-users, exploring the capabilities of technologies you’re considering, and understanding resource and budget constraints.

This effort will continue throughout the project, but can drop off once you understand the project well enough to build a work breakdown structure (WBS). The WBS will include tasks to remove the remaining uncertainty. The nature of adaptive projects is that you march on with some uncertainties rather than drive them all to zero in the beginning, as you would in a waterfall project. As your uncertainties drop, your plan should start looking more waterfall.

Reducing Risk

Risks are set in the future; issues are happening now. The problem with risks is that they can develop into issues. Solving issues takes time, which can lead to delays and increased costs. The sooner you can turn risks into issues or make them go away, the better.

Once you have a reasonable understanding of your project, you need to build a risk register. Make a list of what might go wrong, how likely it is (probability), how bad it will be if it happens (severity), and what you can do if the risk occurs (mitigation). I prefer a ranking from 1 to 5. For probability, 1 corresponds to a likelihood of < 20 percent, while a 5 corresponds to a likelihood of greater than 80 percent. For severity, 1 corresponds to a small impact on the project that is unlikely to put any milestones dates or budget constraints at risk. A 5 means that the entire project might need to be canceled, possibly because a critical feature is not possible or our cost-of-goods sold will be significantly higher than expected.

I also include a column for importance, which is the product of probability and severity, and rank the risks in order of importance (see Table 1). Some of your effort should always be spent on reducing the most important risks, either by testing to see if they’re real issues or building the mitigation. This effort should be part of your work breakdown structure.  I also build the mitigations of high-probability risks into the plan, with the goal of reducing surprises down the road.

Risk Probability Severity Importance Mitigation
Unit fails electro-compatibility testing 4 3 12 Build Faraday cage around electronics
Passive cooling isn’t sufficient 3 2 6 Add a fan

Table 1: This is a simple risk register. More complex versions include things like discoverability (how likely it is the risk will happen, but you won’t be able to detect the failure) and contingency (what you will do if the mitigation doesn’t solve the problem). I find a simple risk register sufficient and easier to keep current, which is more important.

Progressing Along the Critical Path

Once you have organized your tasks and time estimates into a work breakdown structure, you can use project management software like LiquidPlanner to build your schedule and a Gantt chart. You can then select a milestone and filter to those tasks that are on the critical path (i.e. tasks that will cause delays if they slip by a day). While all tasks need to be completed, those not on the critical path can slip without impacting deliverables.

Use your tool to determine if deliverables will be completed in time to meet stakeholders’ needs. If not, work with your stakeholders to understand how important this deliverable is and whether it can be descoped. Another possibility is to transfer resources from risk reduction to critical path tasks. If you go this route, explain to your stakeholder that this increases the chance of an issue appearing late in the project, when it’s harder to fix.

A Good PM is a Tightrope Walker

The job of the PM is to balance these three areas. Overtime the critical path will become more important and reducing risk and uncertainty less so. But there’s no formula to answer what you should do. A tool like LiquidPlanner is like the pole that helps the walker maintain his balance.

In the end, it’s up to you and your team to understand if: you’ve reduced uncertainty enough that you can start to focus on risks; that you’ve reduced risks enough that you can focus on your critical path; and that everyone is working on the most important task at that moment. When you get it wrong (e.g. a low probability risk turns into an ugly issue late in the project), just smile and focus the team on what are now the most important tasks.

Looking for more tips to help you save time, increase productivity and motivate your team? Check out our guide, “5 Practical Habits for Today’s Project Manager.”
5 Practical Habits for Today's Project Manager

eBook: How to Manage Chaos: Advice on Project Management and Workplace Conundrums

Every month, project management expert Elizabeth Harrin fields readers’ questions about the challenges, risks, and rewards of project work on the LiquidPlanner blog.

We’ve compiled our favorite columns in this eBook. Over 30 pages, you’ll get Elizabeth’s take on a range of project management and workplace topics, including:

  • Ways to get more resources for your project
  • Strategies for juggling multiple project tasks
  • How to manage a micromanager

 

Download “How to Manage Chaos: Advice on Project Management and Workplace Conundrums.”

 

How to Run an Effective Meeting: Lessons from Pixar, Apple, and Amazon

Every day, millions of Americans lose precious minutes of their lives to meetings. Boring, unproductive meetings.

Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn estimates that Americans attend 11 million formal meetings every day, about 4 billion meetings a year. And over half of the people her team surveyed said the meetings were unproductive. Ouch.

Don’t despair just yet. Forward-thinking executives have found ways to make their meetings more productive, cost-effective, and efficient. Borrow some of their strategies for making meetings less of a timesuck:
 

To get the best ideas, invite candor and constructive criticism into your meeting room.

 
It’s a common refrain echoed in many corporate rooms around America: leave criticism and negative feedback at the door. The idea was first championed by Alex Osborn, an advertising executive who pioneered the brainstorm.

In his book “Your Creative Power” he writes, “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud.”

While it sounds good in theory, many researchers have argued that this approach often results in fewer ideas and less creativity. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney, would agree.

Catmull has built a culture where people feel free to share their ideas, opinions and even criticisms. In his book “Creativity, Inc.”, Catmull writes that candor is the key to Pixar’s success. Rather than checking opinions and criticism at the door, Catmull encourages his team to embrace and share them.

He writes, “Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck.’”

While Pixar president Ed Catmull uses the word candor to describe his meeting style, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s style could be described as confrontational. One of Amazon’s Leadership Principles sums it up: “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting.”

Bezos is well known for hating “social cohesion”, our human tendency to seek agreement and consensus. Like Catmull, he encourages his employees to call out bad ideas, disagree, and challenge each other.

In your next meeting, encourage open dialogue and embrace candor (and maybe even a little conflict). Don’t be afraid to debate ideas, ask questions, and push ideas toward excellence.
 

Keep it small, smart, and simple. (Or, would two pizzas feed everyone in this meeting?)

In his book “Insanely Simple,” longtime Steve Jobs collaborator Ken Segall tells the story of a weekly meeting with Apple’s ad agency. Jobs had just begun the meeting when he noticed someone new. “Who are you?” he asked. When her answer didn’t suffice, Jobs replied, “I don’t think we need you in this meeting. Thanks.” As she collected her belongings, Jobs continued the meeting as if nothing had happened.

This principle of keeping meetings small is part of Jobs’ larger focus on Simplicity, one of the driving forces behind Apple. “When he called a meeting or reported to a meeting, his expectation was that everyone in the room would be an essential participant. Spectators were not welcome,” Segall writes.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos follows the Two Pizza Rule. When you’re creating a meeting invitation, consider the number of people you can feed with two pizzas. That’s the most you should invite.

The idea is that smaller teams can help reduce groupthink, wasted time, and watered down ideas. Keep it small, simple, and don’t let anyone go hungry.
 

Ban presentations and replace bullet points with narrative.

 

Jeff Bezos doesn’t have time for PowerPoint presentations. He’d much rather read a 6-page memo.

Seriously. Executive team meetings at Amazon begin with everyone absorbing the written word – sometimes for 30 minutes. These memos, which the executives call “narratives”, have four main elements:

  1. The context or question.
  2. Approaches to answer the question – by whom, by which method, and their conclusions.
  3. How is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches?
  4. Now what? – that is, what’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?

While it would be easy to quickly gloss over these points in a presentation, writing a structured narrative requires the author to form coherent thoughts, dig deep into the subject, anticipate tough questions, and formulate responses. The narratives also give everyone a chance to be heard, especially those who prefer to “speak” through writing rather than an oral presentation.

If you start asking your team for 6-page memos before every meeting, you could have a mutiny on your hands. But, you can encourage your team to spend less time creating beautiful presentations and more time on thinking through the real meat of the subject they’re addressing.
 

More Meeting Tips from Executives

 
Here are some additional tips from America’s top executives:

Have a stated purpose or agenda. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer requires an agenda in advance of every meeting. By sending it in advance, participants can prepare, know what will be discussed, and see if they’re relevant to the meeting versus being part of a blanket invite. Sticking to prepared agendas during meetings helps attendees focus on the goal and what needs to be achieved.

Create a list of action items at the end of every meeting. The follow-up memo was a go-to tool for Alfred Sloan, who ran GM from the 1920s to the ‘50s. After each meeting, he would send a memo to all participants that outlined decisions made, action items, deadlines, and the executives responsible for each item.

Set an end time. Constraints, deadlines, and limitations often lead to bursts of creativity, while a meeting with no end leads to…well, not much. Need help keeping yourself accountable? Try setting a timer.

Have you tried any of these strategies? If so, what has (or hasn’t) worked for you in the past?

Looking for more tips to help you save time, increase productivity and motivate your team? Check out our guide, “5 Practical Habits for Today’s Project Manager”, as well as our productivity toolkit.

5 Practical Habits for Today's Project Manager

How Market Research Firm PortMA Stays Organized with LiquidPlanner

organized

At LiquidPlanner, we love hearing how teams are benefiting from our project management solution. Recently, we came across an article written by Chris Clegg, President of PortMA, about how his team of remote workers stays organized when there are a ton of complex projects running at the same time.

PortMA, or Portland Marketing Analytics, is a market research firm that specializes in the measurement and analysis of event marketing return-on-investment and advertising communication. In this work, they service a number of marketing and advertising agencies in the U.S. with design, data collection, analysis, and reporting services, doing anywhere from 50 to 70 projects per year in a wide range of industries.

After reading Chris’ article, we reached out to find out more! We asked Chris how he found LiquidPlanner and how LiquidPlanner has helped his team.

What prompted your search for a new project management solution?

“We outgrew Basecamp. As that platform advanced, it moved away from what we needed. At the core, we needed templates, task dependencies, resource planning, and risk management tools. LiquidPlanner fit the bill on all fronts and has shown us a number of additional features we didn’t know we needed. We’re a better, stronger business because of what LiquidPlanner allows us to do.”

 How does LiquidPlanner help your team?

“We work entirely from within LiquidPlanner. All of our internal and external project work is spec’d out in detail with time estimates, assignments, and work orders within the LiquidPlanner system. And then our daily time tracking is submitted against LiquidPlanner tasks to help us monitor our progress against contract deliverable items in real-time. Research Managers and supporting staff are updating their projects and related tasks on a daily basis to keep things moving smoothly. At any given time, we might have 15 to 25 contracts running simultaneously, each with dozens of weekly task items. Without LiquidPlanner we’d be so lost in the weeds, we’d never get anything done. The flat resource planning model and how it defines deadline risks allows us to deal with reality and not bury staff under unreasonable deadlines.

Finally, I’d mention that the template function really serves as our playbook. We’ve built out detailed project templates with descriptions on what each task is, how it’s done, and why. We’ve then added extensive checklist items to define the specifics of what is expected on a given task. This services as our documented corporate processes that allows for work to be quickly handed off from one person to another seamlessly without cutting corners.”

Take a look at the original article “How To Organize A Team Of Remote Knowledge Workers” written by Chris Clegg, President of PortMA.

How do you know when it’s time to consider a new tool or process for your business? In the case of project management, here’s a way to find out!  Take our Project Management Health Check, a 9-question multiple-choice assessment of your project management process.  

Take the assessment!

The Real Story Behind Why Your Organization Wants You to Track Time

 

track time

For organizations that track time, there’s always going to be some resistance—or at least questions about it. Even if nobody says it out loud, I’ll bet your employees are at least wondering: “Why on earth is my company making me track time?”

It’s easy to feel like tracking time is a way for leadership to keep an eye on the rank and file. But that’s far from the truth—leaders are busy people. And remember, if you’re tracking your time, your managers probably are too.

Time tracking isn’t about keeping an eye on teams’ productivity as much as it is a smart business move. Think about it: Time tracking yields data that is critical for monitoring business and employee performance. Timesheet data provides businesses with the ability to not only benchmark, but even more importantly, to forecast. Time tracking data surfaces project cost, project profitability, employee availability, employee cost, and so much more.

Whether you’re a project team member wondering “why on earth…?” or a manager who needs to answer this question—here are some ways to talk about time tracking that will get your teams to understand, and feel good about starting their timers.

For projects, time tracking is important because it:

  • Surfaces key operational metrics that might otherwise remain hidden.
  • Allows businesses to measure the true costs of any project.
  • Offers real-time visibility into work that’s been done and work that’s left to do.
  • Helps companies stick to timeline or project budgets.
  • Enables managers to understand employee utilization and capacity—and allocate accordingly.
  • Creates a historical record, enabling you to estimate future projects with greater accuracy.
  • Can save you money especially when working on a retainer basis. Time tracking is critical for preventing over-servicing.
  • Helps answer the question: “Can my team take on this new initiative?”
  • Allows for continual processes evaluation and improvement.

For employees, time tracking is important because it:

  • Gives insight into how much time is going into different tasks and projects.
  • Yields data that can be used to ask for more resources, a raise, even a promotion.
  • Fosters autonomy.
  • Helps keep track of remote or freelance workers.
  • Provides insight into what an ideal work process looks like.
  • Helps stay in a productivity flow, and limit interruptions.
  • Empowers employees to use their own data for goal setting and/or decision-making.
  • Provides data that can be used to reward employees who meet or exceed project deadlines, budgets and goals.
  • It keeps employees from being overschedule and overworked—which improves engagement, boosts morale and increases productivity.

Let your employees in

Time tracking comes alive when teams feel like they play an integral part of the work being accomplished. So, if you’re a team leader or a manager, provide knowledge. This means letting your team in on the story of why everyone’s doing the work they’re doing: what the purpose is and how a particular project moves the business forward. Address what’s in it for them and their career, too. Empower individuals—give each person the right amount of autonomy to make decisions, so team members feel like they’re contributing to the momentum of this larger story. Make people feel that they’re a key to success. Once team members feel like they’re part of things, they can begin to understand the value of tracking time—because it will matter to them as well.

Time tracking is a common project management challenge. Want solutions to more? Download our eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”

An Introduction to Dynamic Project Management

How to Create an Innovative Project Team

Innovative project teams are increasingly becoming an invaluable asset for corporations. Not only is it becoming vital that project teams make use of the latest technological advancements in the products and services that they’re developing; it’s also vital that teams continuously improve the way in which they work—and that they find new and innovative ways of cutting costs in order to stay competitive.

product team

Not long ago I went to China to coach a team from a global electronics firm. They are market leaders, renowned for their quality and cutting-edge products. Still, this organization is facing strong competition on price from other players. Consequently, each year the head of product development challenges the teams to cut costs—sometimes by up to 20 percent—to stay competitive. When looking at how to cut costs, the teams have to be exceptionally innovative in the way they approach the design and production of their products.

Continuously coming up with new ways of working and developing products and services is a skill—a dynamic property that all successful teams will need to develop to lead the competition.

How do you create an innovative team, and encourage cutting edge ideas? Here are five ways to play the innovation game:

1. Seek inspiration from outside the team

Innovation isn’t necessarily about inventing something that’s totally unique and has never been done before. Instead, it could be leveraging an existing idea or technology from another industry and embedding it within the team’s products and procedures.

As the artist Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists copy; great artist steal.” Most industries are advancing at a faster pace than ever before, and there are lots of ideas that can be transferred if you keep your fingers on the pulse. Innovative teams keep abreast of what’s happening in the world around them. They read blogs and trade magazines, attend conferences and trade shows and spend time with other teams who they might learn from and get inspired by. If teams work in silos and rarely get exposed to other ways of working, they’re a lot less likely to come up with new ideas. Innovative teams and people look outside of themselves for inspiration.

2. Share information effectively inside the team

It’s not sufficient for teams to get inspired by new ideas from the outside world if the information isn’t shared with the rest of the team. It’s the team that has the power to collectively do something with an idea—from improving it to ultimately integrating it.

Every team member plays a pivotal role, and every team member is kept in the loop of the latest thinking so that they can be effective in their roles and further develop the ideas. Innovative teams are great communicators and have an effective way of disseminating information between its members. It’s been proven that one of the most efficient ways of encouraging the flow of information is by spending time face-to-face. And this is exactly what innovative teams do. They physically sit next to one another where possible; when it’s not possible, these teams spend time on video conference, sharing what they know.

3. Be a leader who stimulates creativity

Innovative teams are led by someone who recognizes that if you don’t enable people to innovate then it won’t happen. We could call such a leader a Multiplier. A Multiplier is skilled at getting the best from people and at creating an environment where the best ideas surface. These leaders stimulate creativity by asking why and what-if questions and by shifting the burden of thinking onto the team. Multipliers want to learn from people around them, so instead of providing the right answers they simply ask the right questions. In other words, they create debate and invite the team to fill in the blanks.

Teams who are led by the opposite type of leader – a Diminisher – will feel stifled. Diminishers tend to be controlling and want to take the credit for innovative ideas themselves.  Instead of shifting responsibility to the team, they stay in charge and tell others – in detail – how to do their job. Invariably, innovative teams would never be innovative if they were lead by a Diminisher.

4. Take time to experiment and play

Put a value on taking the time to come up with new ideas! Teams that work to a tight delivery schedule and who are frequently being monitored and controlled will tend to come up with fewer new ideas because there’s no time devoted to them. Innovative teams, on the other hand, create the time and the space to consider how something can be done differently. They take time out to experiment and to play; their physical work environments will often stimulate idea generation.

In some cases, innovative teams are given an amount of unstructured time where they can work on anything they like, as long as there are results to be shown—made famous by Google back in the day. When teams play and experiment, some ideas will invariably fail—something that innovative teams see as a necessary part of the process, which helps guide them in the right direction.

5. Hire a mix of skills and personality types

Innovative teams are made up of people with a range of personality types and a mix of skills. When teams become too uniform they don’t have enough breadth to fully develop and implement new ideas. An innovative team isn’t just composed of creative types, but also of people with deep technical knowledge who have a more pragmatic approach.

Generating new ideas is one thing, but choosing the best one and successfully implementing it is something entirely different. In spite of their diverse strengths and skills, innovative teams are exceptionally supportive of each other, and are what psychologists call, socially sensitive. This means that not only do team members respect each other and make space for each individual to contribute on equal terms, they are also sensitive to each other’s moods and behaviors. This sensitivity creates a safe space for people because they know that their thoughts and ideas will be encouraged and listened to.

Step bravely and uniquely into the future

Increased competition and technological advancements mean that it’s becoming more important for successful teams to be innovative. Forward-thinking teams are aware of the world around them and willing to take risks; they know how to move on from mistakes and keep executing until they hit on a new market need or improve on an existing one.

Put these five practices into action and you could be surprised what your team is capable of. This might be your best year ever!

The future of industry is changing. Innovative teams are turning to new dynamic processes and software to support the speed of doing business. To learn more about how LiquidPlanner supports innovative teams, read our eBook, “An Introduction to Dynamic Project Management Software.”

An Introduction to Dynamic Project Management

Advice for Project Managers: Preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Setting Goals

Advice for project managers
 

Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: marketingteam@liquidplanner.com. Anonymity included.

 

Dear Elizabeth: My company’s management team is talking a lot about the incoming Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0. I’m hearing a lot about how we’re going to have to increase productivity and flexibility in our processes. As a product team manager this sounds exciting but I’m not sure what to do to prepare. Advice? –Lagging Behind

Dear Lagging: Industry 4.0 is all about the Internet of Things and bringing computers and automation together in an entirely new way. It’s pretty cool, and it’s great that you are thinking about it now.

Being more flexible and increasing productivity is something that managers through the ages have aspired to. The reason we have robots on manufacturing lines is because someone wanted better productivity than what could be achieved with human workers. So in many respects, the ideas are things that you’ve been subconsciously aware of for some time.

I would start by looking at the flows of work in your area and around your product. Approaches like Six Sigma and Lean can help here: Ultimately you are trying to find duplicated effort and waste in the process so that you can strip it out. I’ve always thought that was a good starting point but it doesn’t go far enough. Sometimes you’ll need to totally re-engineer a process to make it incrementally more productive and your team might already have some ideas about how to do that. Why not ask them?

Aside from that, think about the tools you use and how they are going to support you. Software like LiquidPlanner allows you to stay flexible and shift between priorities, so make sure that you have the underpinning infrastructure and systems to meet the demand for flexibility when it comes.

Dear Elizabeth: It’s that time of year again—reviewing the year gone by and preparing for 2017 goals and commitments. I could use some new ideas to get myself and my team excited about reviewing what they’ve accomplished and using that to set up some goals they’re excited about. Any tips? – Goal Tender

Dear Goal Tender: First, congratulations on caring enough about your team that you want them to be excited about the coming year and what they’ve achieved. Far too many people in your situation see end-of-year reviews as a bureaucratic process to get through before they leave for the holidays. So, kudos to you!

I find that team members have short memories and will often only bring to the table things that they have achieved in the last few months. You could give them a template that says things like:

  • In March I achieved . . .
  • In April I delighted this customer . . .

And so on. Ask them to go through their project plans, notebooks and emails to find the examples if they don’t immediately spring to mind. There are a ton of achievements stored in their project management software so they will be able to find something, I promise.

As for 2017, you could think forward and ask them to imagine what their 2017 end of year review would look like. What do they hope they have achieved? What projects would they like to have worked on, or what skills would they have developed? This can help build a sense of interest in the coming year.

Finally, use the end of year conversations with your team to share with them as much as you can about the wider business plans. People are inspired when they know they are part of a company that is going somewhere. Talk about the plans you have for new clients and new projects and business developments. Show them what they could be part of over the next 12 months.

Have a question for Elizabeth? Email:  MarketingTeam@liquidplanner.com with the subject “Advice Column.”

In our latest eBook, “Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” we take a look at what it means to thrive in Industry 4.0, and what tools are necessary to keep up with new world market demands. We’re going there right along with you!

Download the eBook now!
Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

How Project Management Accelerates Product Development

Long ago, in a city not far away, I worked for a very profitable company that got its start in the garage of one of its founders. We had grown to about 120 people with worldwide sales. Our products were the undisputed gold standard of the field. The employees were well paid and generally quite content. What’s not to like?

project management

But if you looked closer, there were some problems. Our product line had never been refreshed; 12-year old designs were getting harder and harder to build as components went end-of-life; the manufacturability and reliability of our flagship product was poor; new product development was sluggish and unfocused.

I joined the company as an engineer, but it was obvious that we didn’t need our twentieth engineer; we needed our first project manager. As such, I wrote the company’s first requirements document, and got the stakeholders to agree to the product definition. I did what I could to add rigor to the development effort.

When I took over the project to write the software for the refresh of our flagship product, I created a giant flowchart that showed every possible interaction that a user could have with the product.

This story almost had a happy ending

In the end, I couldn’t get any of the other project leads to follow my example and use a project management process. As a result, a redesign project that should have taken less than three years to complete took seven.  Sure, there were challenges getting the hardware to work, but these challenges paled in comparison to the delays caused by the lack of project management and a product development process.

My experience at this company served as both a motivating force and a warning for the importance of applying project management practices to the product development process.

If your team struggles to develop new products in a reasonable time, you could be missing a simple tool: project management.

Here are four ways to incorporate project management into your product development process.

1. Have a requirements document

Every project should have a requirements document that describes what the goals of the effort are and what “done” looks like. The flowchart I mentioned earlier served as our requirements document: If it was on the flowchart, we’d implement it, otherwise we wouldn’t.

Your requirements doc can be short and simple or long and detailed, depending on the situation. More importantly, it should be approved by all of the stakeholders.

By putting requirements in writing, you can avoid false consensus, where everyone thinks they know what the end product will look like, and someone has a different idea. You will also need a process to update this document, because there will be changes as you progress. All of the stakeholders should understand what these changes are and why the requirement is changing. In the end, it’s much easier to move an arrow on a flowchart than to change code and retest.

2. Have a process to start and stop projects

Just like people, healthy companies must grow and mature. They go through stages of development, and project management should grow along with the company. Too often, as companies grow, project management is one or two stages behind where it should be.

As you grow, you’ll need a process to green light new projects, making sure you have a requirements document and the resources to do the work. You also need a way to kill the projects that don’t make sense as soon as possible. Having a prioritized list of every project will help when there are resource conflicts.  Finally, have a list of pending projects, so that good ideas have a place to wait until you have the resources to start the effort.

3. Treat project management like your other disciplines

You want to grow your company’s project management maturity along with the size and number of the projects that are happening. If your company is big enough to have a director of mechanical engineering, it’s probably big enough for a director of project management who is responsible for mentoring the project managers and developing good process.

You should also make sure you have top quality tools. I’ve seen companies skimp on this one, and it just doesn’t make sense. If you’re paying your project managers and engineers a good salary, a tool that increases everyone’s productivity will have a positive ROI.

4. Always focus on adding value

You need to guard against process that doesn’t add value. To do this, update your old processes to make sure they fit the reality of what the company is and will become—not the company that was.

One process that always adds value is bug tracking. If you find a bug that you can’t fix right away, you need a proper database to store it. It’s better to ship a product with known bugs that you’ve decided are low enough risk than to ship with unknown issues. The truth is, there are always some unknown bugs. What’s unforgivable is when you ship with bugs that you’ve just forgotten about. All of the bugs in the database need to be prioritized. Prioritize them as compared to the other bugs, as well as to new features.

Conclusion

Proper process is critical to running a healthy company. If you just let everyone do what they want, a rogue trader may cost you two billion dollars. If you run a multinational corporation like a startup, there’s no way for management to say, “We need to focus on the internet” and make things happen. The key is to have the appropriate level of management that allows people with good ideas to bring value to their projects and the company while still allowing the management to set priorities and direction.

Is your project management process holding you back? Find out! This 9-question multiple-choice quiz will diagnose the health of your PM tool and process.

Take the assessment!

Project Management in Manufacturing: Solving the Resource Management Issue

resource management

If you work in manufacturing, you’re likely familiar with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Materials Resource Planning (MRP)—the system used to manage product planning, inventory management, production, fulfillment, and other aspects of production management and control. What’s more, you probably have a decent appreciation of how ERP/MRP systems have enabled manufacturing companies to optimize core business processes.

But what about the rest of the picture? Contrary to the “R” in the name, most modern ERP/MRP systems fail to fully address a key type of resource—namely, the people whose work supports and feeds into your core manufacturing operations.

Why an Optimized Manufacturing Floor Isn’t Enough

To remain competitive, you need to continually improve your products and optimize your manufacturing processes. Regardless of where an idea originates, the “heavy lifting” to make it happen isn’t done on your manufacturing line; it’s done by the engineers, designers, technicians, and other skilled professionals whose work supports—and feeds into—your manufacturing floor. And therein lies the problem that many companies face: after handoff to manufacturing, things go rather smoothly. Before that handoff, however, it’s likely to be much more of a free-for-all, with each person’s immediate priorities often based on who’s yelling the loudest.

More often than not, this is due to a lack of proper project management. Many companies still use spreadsheets to plan and track peoples’ work. Rarely does this yield more than a static, infrequently updated list of tasks.

While this approach may be OK for initial, high-level planning, it quickly falls apart as the rubber meets the road. Tasks take longer than estimated; customers submit change requests; team members get pulled off projects; budgets change; corporate priorities shift; and so on. There are endless examples. Regardless of the specifics, without proper project management, as things change, people waste time spinning their wheels—and decisions are made without full visibility into how they may affect other commitments.

Boosting Productivity

The fact is that you need to treat each team member like any other enterprise resource—possessing a finite amount of output over time. And like any constrained resource, to get the most out of it, that resource’s output must be optimally orchestrated with respect to the work done by other resources.

While people aren’t machines, and the information or inputs they need to start a task are different than the raw materials that land on your loading dock, you can still think of the collective results they produce as a system of inputs, outputs, dependencies, units of effort, potential bottlenecks, and so on. Of course, unlike a machine that produces widgets at the rate of 600 per hour, when it comes to people, you’ll also need to take into account the uncertainty that comes along with estimating how long a task will take.

Given this, how do you best allocate the efforts of all team members to maximize your overall business throughput? That’s where the right project management tool can help.

A Better Way

You wouldn’t try to optimize your manufacturing operations without your ERP/MRP system, would you? Then why not take advantage of the same computational power that makes this possible to optimize how the people who support your production processes work, letting it do the “heavy lifting” (i.e., algorithmic optimization) to determine the optimal path forward?

A good project management tool, applied within a proper project management framework, can help you to:

1. Manage your team as a set of constrained resources. You need to apply the same discipline to planning and orchestrating peoples’ work as you do to optimizing your supply chain and production floor. This starts with realizing that, just like the machines on your production line, your team members are constrained resources—capable of doing one thing at a time, and capable of only so much output (or effort) in a given unit of time. A plan that’s effort-based (as in “this task will take between 35 and 40 hours”) instead of date-based (as in “management wants this finished by the end of the month”) will make sure your plans are grounded in reality instead of wishful thinking.

2. Create realistic schedules based on availability. Given the effort required for each task in a project, a project management tool that incorporates resources and availability into its scheduler across all your projects can help you estimate realistic delivery dates across your team’s entire workload. Delivering by the end of the month may be key to your job security, but without a plan that’s based on the actual effort involved and the availability of the people who will do that work, how much confidence will you have in hitting your date?

3. Handle the uncertainty of innovation. Unlike the amount of time required for a machine to crank out a widget, the effort required for an engineer to first design that widget is less deterministic. You never know what can happen, and a good project management tool can help you take that uncertainty into account. Look for a project management tool that lets you input task estimates based on best case/worst case scenarios—or, even better, one that lets the people who will actually be doing that work estimate the effort involved. This helps lead to a project schedule that’s grounded in reality, taking into consideration that you’ll probably encounter a few unexpected issues along the way—a common occurrence when attempting to innovate.

4. Make your team a part of the process. Modern project management tools are designed to tie team members into the project management process—enabling them to see their individual tasks (ideally in priority order); take ownership of that work from start to finish; and see how their efforts relate to the efforts of others and the bigger picture. Many collaborative project management tools also deliver other team-centric functionality, such as commenting, document sharing and notifications.

5. Monitor progress. As team members mark tasks complete, your project management tool can use that information to recalculate delivery dates in real time—provided you’ve chosen one that includes this functionality. This will help you quickly identify potential issues, such as a late task that’s threatening your delivery date, so that you can investigate further and take any necessary actions. Remember that, no matter how much you plan, things won’t go exactly as expected. The question is: Do you want to know about potential issues as soon possible, or do you want to hear about them for the first time in your weekly status meeting—if they get brought up at all?

6. Track time. In many companies, tracking time to project codes (think timesheets) is mandatory. Some project management systems have this built-in, eliminating the need for people to use a parallel process. Even if this isn’t required for your organization, the ability to look back on past projects can be invaluable when it comes to refining your task estimates for the next project.

7. Adjust to changing priorities. Everyone working on the right tasks at the right time is essential to optimizing team output. A project management tool can help you easily prioritize (and re-prioritize) peoples’ work, in a way that’s clear to everyone on the team. While this can be invaluable within a project, with the right project management tool, as overall project priorities change, individuals can see this shift in their task assignments across all projects—and know that, every day, they’re focused on the same number-one priority as the company as a whole.

The above capabilities can help you apply the same discipline to managing peoples’ work as you do to your core manufacturing processes—think of it as “ERP for Your Peeps.”

So if you’re still using Excel to manage your work, it may be time to dump the spreadsheets, find a real project management tool, and put it to proper use. Before long, your schedule estimates and project plans will likely improve. And with team members tied into those plans, you’ll likely have a more accurate picture of project progress and potential threats to meeting your deadlines. Best of all, you’ll eliminate a good deal of the chaos, churn, and frustration that often accompany a lack of proper project management.

To learn about how other manufacturing companies have met their project management needs, read one or more of these customer stories: Rex Materials Group, bf1systems, and ETEL

There’s more! Managing resources is a tricky business—and well worth doing impeccably! To learn more, download our eBook, “5 Best Practices to Manage Project Resources Effectively.”

5 Best Practices to Manage Project Resources Accurately

Customer Story: How bf1systems Adapts to Change in the Motorsports Industry Using LiquidPlanner

bf1systems

What’s the most advanced, technically and physically demanding event on the planet?

It’s motorsports. The machines are purpose-built, designed to last for only one race at a time (a few hours). Manufacturing tolerances for these race cars require an insane amount of precision, to both increase power and reduce weight. Furthermore, in a motorsport series like Formula 1, the difference between winning a race and losing it can be measured in one-thousandths of a second.

How bf1systems Shows up on the Race Track

While fans and viewers are focused on the flashy drivers, their colorful cars, the loud noises and potential death-defying crashes, the race teams and factory engineers are focused on other details—like the amount of pressure in an F1 tire and how it helps or hampers tire performance throughout a stint. In order to get reliable data on tire performance, teams throughout major race series, from F1 to NASCAR, Formula 3 and FIA World Rallycross, turn to the engineering team at bf1systems.

The #1 Challenge for the bf1systems Team: Responding to Change

The bf1systems team juggles up to 40 projects at a time. These range from one-month projects (such as designing a new housing for an existing sensor) to major 18-month projects with multiple deliverables. One example of a major project is the development of an entirely new wheel sensor system for a Formula One Team, which might include sensors, control modules, antennas, embedded software and diagnostic software.

For years, the business struggled with managing fast-paced, highly design-driven projects.

For Peter Harris, Electronics Project Manager at bf1systems, the biggest problem this presented for his team was an inability to accommodate change.

“We have a huge push at the start of the Formula One season, when things can change on a daily basis,” he explains. “Without proper project management, if a customer wanted a change on Project A, we had no way of evaluating the impact on that project—let alone the effects it would have on Projects B, C, D, and so on. The lack of a consolidated view of resource usage across all projects only exacerbated this pain.”

Time to Find a Better Solution

With a list of requirements in hand, Harris considered a new list of project manage­ment solutions. “After I had a clear idea of what we needed, LiquidPlanner really stood out,” he recalls. “It was the only affordable solution that ticked all the boxes. It was also clear that LiquidPlanner had the right product direction: an effort-based approach to project management that could help us address rapidly-changing priorities and keep everyone on the team tied-into the current project plan. With the case for LiquidPlanner clear in my mind, I sat down with our Technical Director and Operations Director and got their buy-in.”

Benefits of Using LiquidPlanner

Harris’ team isn’t just using LiquidPlanner to capture hard data, such as task estimates versus the actual time required to complete that task. The team is also using it to capture “softer” aspects of project history, such as the email thread that may have led to a change in the plan. And because this information is accessible to all, it keeps everyone up-to-speed and on the same page in the face of continual change.

“We’re using the community tools in LiquidPlanner more and more,” says Harris. “I love the space it provides for notes; in fact, the extent to which team members are using the commenting features in LiquidPlanner has been a very pleasant surprise.”

For a data-driven engineering group, LiquidPlanner has enabled bf1systems to get a solid grip on historic project data and use this information to shape future projects. In addition, the team is able to deal with rapidly changing requirements and ad hoc projects throughout the race season in a more efficient way.

For more, you can read the full bf1systems customer story here.

Interested to learn more about the methodology that helps bf1systems manage continual project change? Download our eBook, “Introduction to Dynamic Project Management.”

An Introduction to Dynamic Project Management