What they don’t teach you about managing Projects

Aug 23 2011

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In my life in information technology consulting I have had multiple roles and responsibilities. I have been the developer, the analyst, the designer, the project manager and, yes, the scapegoat. I have a healthy disrespect for leaders who believe that project teams can deliver anything that they can sell. My views and opinions on projects have been developed in the trenches over the last couple of decades. I have tremendous respect for the wisdom of the trench rats who survive great wars over and over again. Stuff that goes on in projects makes one wonder whether projects are destined to auto-destruct half way through. It must be the work of miracles and alchemy that projects conclude with reasonable results with such regularity despite all the efforts of the stakeholders to help. Here are some interesting observations that I have made when I have had a chance to reflect. At least, I find them interesting. I hope you would too.

Whatever you do is either a lesson learned or a best practice
Tasks and activities come out of guidebooks or a body of knowledge that is often labeled as the methodology. These methodologies are distilled out of experience of delivering projects over the years. The intent is to lay out the best way(s) to get the job done. They also reflect the work ethics and values of the delivery organization. But a project is, well, a project: “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service”. The keyword is “Unique”. Project participants, consequently, believe that the gospel, guidebook, or methodology does not quite apply. It has to be fine tuned, modified and adapted to the ground realities of the project.  The resulting misadventures seem to make up for the vacation rides that project members fore-go in the name of the project, the greater good, the resolution of issues like world hunger and global warming. At the end, the job is done. Or, player fatigue or fund leakage or the departure of the guardian angel renders the project deemed completed. Then everyone gathers round a campfire and recounts the glory of battles recently past. A pattern emerges, Common Sense if rediscovered. On closer inspection one would realize that anything that worked probably worked in the earlier projects too; and can be found in The Guide and are Best Practices. Stuff that did not work, where people became lemmings, are listed as Lessons Learned. These are flogged to death or till people are tired of them. Most of the times they are ashamed to admit to these temporary lapses of sanity. These are forgotten and slink into the Lessons Learned lists, bidding their time to be called to action in the very next project.

Project conclusion is independent of Project Status
Most projects go-live. I said “most”, as calling off the siege due to fund exhaustion or a new toy in town is a possibility. Most projects, if not all, are known to be flagged off as being in the Red at some point of time in its life. But project status is most often a morning news item that isn’t really relevant during the day. How often does a status report call out a 9/11 event? So life goes on. I have been in projects that have been in the RED on the day of a software release or go-live. I have been in projects that have a jaundiced Yellow status throughout its life time. The beauty of project health is that the color of the status lies in the eyes of the beholder. Behavior of information coming forth in status review meetings is also very interesting. New inputs tend to explain away – or present the proper context – data points behind the project health color. And then there is the Hawthorne effect. One would expect that it would have nothing to do with projects, or status, or project status. But it seems the act of being observed does funny things to the project status. It changes on you and what seemed yellow seems green from one angle and red from the other, while it takes on a deeper green hue to some. I would like to submit, please do away with the traffic signals in the project status report, steering committees jump red lights all the time.

Go home plans are more important than Go live plans
Project managers know how important the critical path is. If anything in that path is delayed then the project is delayed. Anything as in “anything” – ranging from sign-offs, to server availability to solving all problems within three days of being discovered. By “project” everyone off course means the “Go Live” – that moment of truth, that achievement of the Nirvana. But who doesn’t also know that “Go Live” is also a state of mind. The decision to go there is more often a political decision than a technical one. Those most impacted by whatever is to “Go Live” have the least to say about it. Assessing the Readiness of the Organization is a tricky thing. Who believes in the status reports anyway? So the project goes Live. The poor consultants, the delivery organization personnel, get into a phase where they have supposedly delivered, but are indispensable to the healthy continuity of the solution that some one else had deemed seaworthy. They are, in a word, stuck. Individual consultant often quit and need to be back-filled by fresh blood. These souls become the Dead Man in Yossarian’s tent; the replacement pilot killed in combat before he had officially reported for duty. Since he was never there, his personal effects (in this case the consultant) can not be removed from Yossarian’s tent, in this case the project. Those folks some how do not find the eject button continue to live in a construct, like the train station in Matrix, that is almost impossible to break out of. So I hold that “Go Live” plans are necessary but not sufficient. Those plans keep the wolves at bay while any project manager worth her salt continuously keeps working on the “Go Home” milestone.

Early project escalations on trivial but quantifiable issues are Early Warning Signs
The client project manager of an automobile major had raised an issue with my boss. He had observed all the project team consultants were leaving for the day at the close of stipulated business hours. ERP projects, he knew, seldom got delivered successfully without the project team stretching a bit. This happened early in the project. Empirical facts support the client manager’s contention. But he did not have any information that would let us “correct” anything that was going “wrong”. The project was at a stage where the consultants were getting to know the “as is” processes. A deliverable from the ERP software vendor was on the critical path. The project would be in no way threatened if my team took more time than planned to turn in their deliverable, as long as they did not let it get onto the critical path (or critical chain in the Goldratt world) by dint of this delay. On the face of it this was a trivial flag raised too early calling attention to the wrong shadow. I have, however, realized that when the client is uneasy and cannot articulate why, they tend to choose the most quantifiable item irrespective of its relevance or significance. It is an indicator of the shape of emotions and issues to come. The easiest, and entirely defensible, thing to do would be to shrug it off. But the project manager would have to deal with the latent grudge that the client will bear even when they have forgotten why.

Testing is the first casualty of schedule slippage
Conservative project plans are a thing of the 90s. Most project managers inherit aggressive project schedules from the bid team with unrealistic assumptions about the skills levels available to staff the engagement team. As a result the project managers become slave drivers. In one of my projects the team was kind to me, they used to call me the ring master. So. Slippages happen. I do not love deadlines as Douglas Adams did. I am, however, familiar, with the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. They sound like a shell approaching the trenches. After they explode the damage recovery squad gets into action. They requisition a war room with the white boards, markers, a large table and all the other instruments of war. The latest project schedule is dusted and laid out on the said table. The unrealistically aggressive project schedule becomes an impossibly unrealistically aggressive project schedule with the help of innovative thinkers thinking under influence. The first casualty is always the integration testing or system testing. People forget that the intent was to add a performance testing piece that would have taken more time. Then there are assumptions thrown in that reduce the user acceptance testing. Finally plans are drawn up whereby the testing track falls off the critical path. Often with the sanity of the test cycle compromised the rush to recover and stick to deadlines resembles the Charge of the Light Brigade.

These were just five of the laws of projects that I thought I would share here. I am afraid that I have stretched the patience of readers and don’t want to risk losing whatever little audience I have. There are also other observations that you may have and may want to reflect on. To start you off, here are two such points to ponder. The extent of adoption not correlated to quality of solution. In designing software, usability and response time are always afterthoughts. I would enjoy hearing about your thoughts on these.

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Privacy violation: Are Facebook and us equal partners in crime?

May 24 2010

I am somewhat aware of this issue of privacy at Facebook and a couple of thoughts passed by mind. I think they are slightly ironic. So for once I am tempted to air my thoughts without the “research” and analysis that I normally expect of myself.

The first thought is around Corporate Social Responsibility. The phrase takes on a lot of meaning when one is dealing with or dabbling in a social subject area. What can be more “CSR” to the universe of internet users than when it is in relation to social media?

So when Facebook gets itself into a controversy of the current intensity, it seems that they could have done this differently. What they have done is a bit obscure to me. If they have shared my information without my knowledge then they have surely violated the agreement.

If they have “notified” me in obscure terms and then gone ahead and shared my personal information then they have also violated the agreement. This is like Arthur Dent finding the demolition notice “displayed” inside a locked file cabinet in the dark basement of the local planning office. Not only do such notices not count, they indicate mischievous intent.

Am I qualified enough to form an opinion on whether Facebook has indeed stepped out of line? May be not. The world has made up their mind, and the majority rules – whether you call it crowd sourcing or whether you go by democratic polling. But while we are busy ringing in the end of privacy as we know it, we may also want to introspect a bit.

How many times have we forwarded jokes or appeals that have amused us or struck a chord? While doing so do we ensure that all the recipients can see others email addresses only if they know each other? Or, do we delete the countless email addresses that have the last few forwards have been gathering?

When we post pictures of friends in, say, Facebook, do we get approvals from those friends? Should we not at least ask them before “tagging” them in the photos that we post? I myself have been guilty of this. So do I really have the right to crib when Facebook gets strays into the twilight zone?

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Breadcrumbs in Cyberspace

Jan 11 2009

I was initiated to the internet some time in 1996. I took to it as a duck to the water. I figured out the freebies real quick. Even if the coffee mug did not survive the flight to Calcutta a ten dollar made it to my door step through the snail mail.

It was a matter of time that the novelty wore off. I started concentrating on using the web in ways that resulted in better satisfaction for the time and efforts spent. During the early days I was unguarded and ignorant of concepts like identity theft.

Awareness of risks came with watching movies like “The Net” that was made in 1995. My personal experiments have been largely been positive. There were some situations that left a bitter after taste, but that did not deter me from the experiments and forays to this new world. Tracking down lost contacts was a favorite pastime and has remained so till date. It makes me feel like a distant disciple of Sherlock Holmes.

The first success was tracking down Sumantra Chattarji. We had been to the same college and the last I saw of him was when he was down with jaundice and was being served glucose drinks by his fiancé. That was twelve years back. This was 1997 and I was in my first ERP implementation in Calcutta.  One evening I was waiting for my colleagues to wind up and decided to try searching for this Chattarji.

This was a somewhat rare strain of the otherwise abundant Chatterjee’s of the world, and interestingly Yahoo came up with a result. This was a woman living in Boston. I emailed a friend and asked him whether he could call up this number. The following morning there was this email from Sumantra bursting at its seams with joy and surprise. It was amazing; especially in India in 1997.

Since then I have routinely used the cyberspace to trace people in the brick and mortar world. Tracking down some is easy and uneventful.  But I got a kick out of rediscovering Shankar Acharya. The name isn’t a rare one and is ethnic to a populace spanning over half of the country. The Shankar I was interested in went to school with me. 1976 was the last time we met and this was the summer of 2006.

Google presented a number of Shankar Acharyas to choose from. The ones that did not fit the age group were easy to discard. After a day or so I realized that the economist that cropped up in each search was also not the one I was after. Then someone told me Shankar most probably lives in Delhi.

I dug up the electoral records of a Shankar that tagged him to the M.C. Primary School, Pitampura polling station. I learned that his father was 77 in 2003 and Antaryami was his grandfather. I even got names and ages of a brother and sister-in-law; but I still did not have the information needed to contact and validate whether this was the correct Shankar.

Then someone told me he was a medical doctor and I knew that I was close. I zoomed onto this “senior spinal fellow” at a Delhi hospital. A photo on the website looked like him. There was an email id that I immediately wrote to. I could not get through to the phone number so I asked a friend to also try.

He was luckier than I was and the following day I had the pleasure of breaking the news to a crowd. I have not been as lucky always. Some trails have gone cold; some have been non starters. After two years of searching I once found out my subject has passed away. Once when I searched for Sandip Samanta, Google asked me “Did you mean: sandip samantha?” Move over Fox, there is a new Samantha in town.

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Anything logical will most probably happen

Dec 31 2008

Whose law is it anyway?
Civil society expects us to obey the law. The premise is it is right to be on the right side of law. The law and the rules dictate what one needs to do in a given situation. This works most of the time and society functions. Or societies function. Each society has its own set of rules that members are expected to abide by. Most of the time these rules are applicable to all in a given geographical region. When folks move from region to region they know they are expected to follow the law of the land.

Most do. But then there are always some who feel that these rules are not for them. They then become the outlaws. The law gets into a conflict with the outlaws and people are led to believe that the law always wins. As “good” always triumphs over the “bad”.

But then not everything is as black and white. There are various shades of grey. There are unforeseen situations and actions that cannot be labeled as legal or illegal. Then people get into great debates on what is right and therefore legal and what is not.

Ethics and morality
There are great epics and ballads that set up elaborate plots and situations that look at human relationships, society, commitments and pose questions on what is the right thing to do.  These draw upon various lines of reasoning to establish the concepts of a greater good. The lay down guidelines to decide on what is right and what is not.

The results are often bizarre. The Mahabharata is packed with such dilemmas and paradoxes. In the modern day there are questions on the legality and righteousness of suicide and euthanasia.

How do you know what is right?
So how do you know what is right? Do you say that if it is legal then it is right? But isn’t the law formulated by some men with some ideals, values and standards? If the standards change then what is right changes.

There are certain events that do not lend themselves to the debates of right and wrong, good or bad. We do not ask whether gravitation is right or wrong or whether it is good to breathe or not. These are natural laws and consequently beyond debate.

If it is logical, it will happen
I similarly feel that if something is logical it will happen. The human mind may not be able to comprehend the totality of a problem or an issue and thus may not be able to deduct the next logical step in the process. Consequently we act at times in an illogical manner. We like to believe that we have acted by “free will”.

This business of the random free will is more a matter of the physical universe than a meta-physical one. So most probably we take decisions that we are – given the biological machines we are – most likely, or logically, to adopt. The consequences are a matter of logical progression.

Till the time we are able to comprehend this universal logic (and agnostics will say it is impossible to do so) we will flounder in contextual ethics and morality of the evolving species. We will need simpler guidelines and rules. The belief in the supremacy of the law is safer proposition.

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Jingoism, Patriotism, Nationalism

Dec 29 2008

A range of emotions – outrage, shame, grief, vows for vengeance – were expressed after and during the terror attacks at Mumbai during the US Thanksgiving weekend of 2008. When one of the terrorists was caught India had proof of cross border terrorism. At the same time it was crystal clear to a lot of people in the neighboring state, on the other side of that same border, that this was part of a grand conspiracy to fragment and balkanize that country.

After all, the last acknowledged Indo-Pak war in 1971 did result in the independence of a part of the country. I, like most of my fellow citizens, believe that this attack was planned and organized. Such organizations need infrastructure and sponsorship.  I find it difficult to believe that it is not possible to find the money trail and trace it back to the players involved. However that is not the subject of this write up.
I suspect that a lot the same fellow citizens of mine will have the same gut reaction that I had when I read the conspiracy theory on the net – “are you nuts?”

But then are they? To the believers of that possibility it is as true as the fact that there is gravity. Living thousands of miles away from either country gives one the luxury of considering a perspective at odds to the generally accepted one in my homeland. It reminds me of an incident in Nepal and my thoughts at that time.

Ratna Park is a very interesting place in Kathmandu, or was when I was last there in ’94. There were professional carom players lined up against the fence on the south west corner who you could play against for stakes or watch on your way to or from the New Road. There were these parades that you could go to, dust you could kick up, buses that were lined up or rallies that you could attend.

A bit like the Hyde Park, you could also try to hold one yourself. In one of those small gatherings a young opposition firebrand was exposing the government. He was accusing the government of selling the country to India.

No offense to the ancient land that gave us the Buddha, but I found the notion of India wanting to buy Nepal hilarious. Yes, Nepal was a buffer between China and India; but wanting to buy Nepal? What a ridiculous idea. I almost chuckled at the absurdity of the suggestion. But how far fetched was the idea?

Wasn’t the opposition in my country too making a career for years accusing the government of selling the country to the evil imperialist empires headed by America? So were their raves and rants equally stupid to the visitors from those dark evil empires.

Some passersby looked at me with concern as I started giggling to myself at the realization. Perspectives do interesting things to, well, perspectives. Perspectives: use it or lose it.

That does not for a moment dilute the need to roar “enough” in protest to the lack of action on the part of our government. My submission is that it does, however, provide clues to why the western world dismisses the knee jerk reactions of the Indian government with a “here we go again” attitude.

Speaking of the “western world” and perspectives, the point was driven home by the responses around the world to the boot camp the President got trapped into.

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