Monday, February 25, 2008

February 26, 2008 – Estimating Lessons Learned - Intro

“How long to add text messages to the data transfer communication link?” the director asked.

The project manager was obviously hesitant to give an answer. “We haven’t really considered it yet. Why do you ask?”

“I’m heading to a meeting and the question may come up.”

“I would need more time to think it through completely but just for discussion purpose, I would ball park the figure at roughly $50,000 and a 6 month effort. Don’t hold me to it, though.”

Unfortunately for the PM that was the number that ended up on the IT budget for the next year. It started as little more than a wild guess and suddenly became a commitment. Lesson 1 – never give an estimate over the phone.

Types of Estimates. There are many different names for estimates: Rough, Ball Park, SWAG, Big Picture, Budgetary and Final to name a few. Each name attempts to convey the accuracy of the figure. All of them fall on the continuum between three points: Rough Order of Magnitude, Budgetary and Definitive.

The accuracy of the Rough Order of Magnitude (ROM) Estimate ranges from -25% to +75% off. That means a $100,000 estimate can be as low as $75,000 or as high as $175,000. It is the type of estimate usually given when very little is known about the project but management needs to decide whether to move forward or not.

A Budgetary Estimate is put together at the time the Project Charter or Statement of Work is defined. At this point enough is know about what is in and out of scope that boundaries can be established. The accuracy range is between -10% and +25% ($90K and $125K for our $100K project).

The Definitive Estimate range is between -5% and +10% ($95K and $110). This estimate is done based on detailed project information that, in IT, comes after the Requirements or Design phases.

Lesson 2 – not all estimates are created equal…on purpose. This is a fact that needs to be communicated to management and business a like. Set their expectations up front. When they request an estimate, ask what type they are expecting and how they are going to use it. Explain the range of accuracy and the level of effort as well as information required to make it more accurate.

Lesson 3 – don’t confuse people with artificially accurate estimates. By announcing your “rough estimate is $1,633,284.16” you are implying that every paper clip is already counted. Estimates should end in zeros. Past PMs I have worked with issue initial estimates like 1433 hours. This accuracy is impossible even if your scope is well defined and resources are already assigned in your detailed project schedule at the task level. At least round the number to 1450 if not 1500. Ending in a 3 implies precision that doesn’t exist.

Next week we will look at estimating methods and learn that technique is only half the issue.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

February 19, 2008 – Welcome Aboard!

"Welcome aboard!" is, unfortunately, the only orientation some Newbies ever receive when starting a new job. If they are lucky someone shows them where the restrooms are...and how to find their way back. I can’t say how or why it happened, but I recently heard that a new project manager, on his first day, excused himself to use the facilities...and never came back. If you want to retain resources longer than a couple of cups of coffee, the PMO or department management should create a new hire initiation that covers the following areas.

People. Get them connected to others. An Org Chart helps. My biggest fear when starting in a new location is that the CEO will greet me in the hall and I’ll say something stupid. I can picture myself saying, "Must be great to be management and take all the prime parking spots!" Walk Newbies around with the Org Chart in hand and at least give them chance of not making fools of themselves. If possible, get a group to take him out to lunch and pay for it.

Access. A list of all required system, application and building accesses should be maintained. Prior to the Newbie showing up, make an effort to get the access set up. Add them to all of the distribution lists they need to be on. Extra Credit: Add to the list a paragraph or two describing what each system, application or building is and why it is important to them.

Tools. With great access must come great understanding. Too dramatic? Probably, but you need to know what tools are available and how to use them. Timesheets are a great example. Are employees required to complete one? How many different places is time recorded? When is it due? Oh, and how does it work? Make the documentation available and, when possible, step them through the first use.

Processes. For those of you who feel oppressed by process, be thankful you have one. Trying to run a project in a chaotic environment is worse. It is like hacking your way through a jungle with no paths. One client I was working had two IT departments: one had a well established process and the other took a more "whatever it takes" attitude. Several project managers moved from structure to chaos, thinking they were finally free. Within a couple of weeks they were calling back for templates and direction. They were drowning in their new found freedom.

Meetings. Every environment has a standard set of meetings that happen. In mature environments a Communication Plan exists that spells out each one along with its purpose, attendees, location, time and frequency. If the plan doesn’t exist, at least make sure they get sent the meeting invitation in time to attend the next one. Let them know what meetings they are expected to establish for their project. Is there an overall project status meeting? Does each area have their own? Are daily standing meetings the norm? Who handles the status with the Business? Is there a Steering Committee? Lacking direction some toes are likely to get stepped on.

Reports. From status to metrics, management doesn’t communicate without reports. This, too, is usually covered in a Communication Plan. Each company seems to have a different expectation for status reporting. Some obtain status information verbally at meetings with the team. Others expect everyone to produce a status report. I’ve seen several companies switch to a 4-Panel status approach (example: 1-page with 4 quadrants: Status, Financials, Schedule and Risks/Issues). Again, if the Newbie doesn’t know, someone isn’t going to get their expectations met.

Locations. The company I am currently working for has several buildings multiple miles apart on the same highway. When I first started out I would get meeting invitations for the "Large Conference Room" and end up in the wrong place. Let Newbies know where the different branches are, the best places to have lunch and how to decipher the meeting room locations. One place I worked used the names of different beaches for conference rooms. Cute idea, but where is Malibu in relationship to Laguna?

I would wait until last to mention the restrooms, though, just in case the Newbie gets the urge to check out and never return.

Monday, February 11, 2008

February 11, 2008 – Did You Get What You Wanted?

It was the perfect gift. Our daughter’s CD / Cassette player stopped functioning in time to add it to the Christmas list. We found just the right one on line for about $60. Unfortunately by mid-January it quit. It didn’t start skipping or playing songs backward, it simply refused to turn on. We contacted the company and sent it back: $19 shipping and $6 handling fee. Within two weeks a new one arrived on our doorstep. Unfortunately it was the $30 model. She was willing to live with it until it ate the first cassette tape she tried to play. Did I mention it was a book on tape from the library and it was completely destroyed, resulting in a $10 fine? So by now I have invested $105 and own a tape hungry paperweight.

Do end-users ever feel that way? They’ve gone over budget and ended up with a product that vaguely resembles what they asked for but isn’t anything they could possibly use. How can we avoid disappointing them?

Involvement. There are two sides to involvement: (1) Getting committed users to participate and (2) Using them effectively. Sell the concept that their participation is essential to building a successful product. Let them know the effort involved and timeframes they will be needed. Get buy in from their management to dedicate a percentage of their time to the project.

In order to maximize their availability, plan in advance when and how you will use them. Invite them to a kickoff meeting and lay out the plan. The tendency is to only use them a bit up front for requirements and then again for User Acceptance Testing. Send your designer and even your lead developers to sit with the users for a couple hours at a time to see what they do. The more your team understand what they are creating the better they can design and build it. Every week (two at most) touch base with the end user. Re-confirm the schedule. Bounce the latest design off them. Keep them involved.

Bite sized chunks. Agile methods use the concept of frequent releases, as often as every two weeks. The concept is not new, only the implementation. If you are not in an agile environment, instead of workable code, aim to have something tangible every 2 – 6 weeks. It may be the draft requirements or prototype, but it should be something that confirms the project direction and gains the confidence of and buy in from the sponsor and key stakeholders.

Picture it. Graphic illustrations and mock ups help people visualize the direction of the product. Use Case Models was one of my recent blog entry topics. This is a great way to drill out requirements with minimal effort.

Get Touchy. Nothing peaks the interest of end users like a demo. Moving to a screen version that mimics the final product sparks the memory, too. All too often you begin to hear, "oh, yeah, we forgot to tell you about ." Try to keep your patience and remember that the goal is a usable product that meets their needs.

As a side note, make sure they understand what they are seeing. I used to program handheld inventory machines. We made the mistake of giving the sales people a PC based tool that allowed the client to view a mocked up version of the application. It was great for developing the requirements, but their assumption was that once it was on the computer screen we just had to download it to the scanner and ship it. I’m convinced some of the sales guys thought so, too.

Keep Control. In addition to controlling your patience, it is important to control the direction and duration of the project. Too many directional changes and the product will be outdated before it ever goes live. The best way to deal with this is by starting with a core functionality release and building on to it. When an enhancement or change is raised, define it, estimate its impact to the project and have the sponsor prioritize it. Agree on which release it should be part of and what gets bumped for it. Then get back to the current release.

Remain Flexible. It may sound contrary to keeping control, but flexibility is your ally. In the end it will be the users of the system that define if the resulting product is a success. Regularly verify the critical success factors of the project and align with them. When presenting the impact of a change, explain it in terms of the success factors. If the go-live date is vital, show how the request will impact the delivery. If functionality is key, reference the priority list and ask how the change fits into the bigger picture. Communicate the trade off and get their informed writing.

If all else fails, charge them a $6 handling fee and tell them to expect a box in about 2 weeks.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

February 4, 2008 – When the Plan Fails

In an on-shore / off-shore set up you need to expect the unexpected. Half you your team is in a foreign country, half way around the world. You’re never quite sure what time it is where you live, let alone where ever they are. Languages, especially English, can lead to confusion. Names are redundant (there are four Toms where I now work). I’m not sure how you could possibly have seen the following surprise coming, though.

Picture yourself sitting at your desk on Monday morning, pulling together reports from the weekend and getting ready for the week. Fred comes by with a new face and introduces you to Gupta . The name sounds familiar. "I have a team member by that name, where are you from?" you ask.

"That is me," is the reply.

"What are you doing here? Don’t you normally work from India?" you ask, bewildered.

"Yes, but I am going to be the project manager on a different project here on-shore now."

True story. Talk about putting a crimp in your plans.

Resources quit. Scope gets breached. Bugs happen. Systems go down. Priorities change. So what do you do when life throws you a curve ball? Hang on for the ride and follow these steps.

Take a deep breath. Before you react, take a moment to calm your blood pressure before you say or do something you might regret. It might save your health as well as your job.

Confirm it. I hate it when I start yelling about something only to find out I have the facts wrong. Take it to the source and, calmly, get some answers.

Assess the impact. If the issue is scope related, determine the gap factor. Resources can be difficult to replace. Is there a more junior member of the team that might be easier backfill? Can she step up to the role?

Check the schedule and budget to determine what the damage will be.

Identify Options. Don’t work in a vacuum to figure out what to do. Invite your team and other stakeholders to help develop strategies to stay on track.

Present Options. Take your findings and options to the Sponsor or Steering Committee. Explain the challenge facing the project and ask them how we, as a group, should resolve it. One of the things I stress is that the project manager does not own all of the problems. They are "our" problems and "we" have to take steps to resolve them.

Get approval. If a Change Request is necessary, file it and get it approved. Get the go ahead to make the resource changes. Confirm commitment by getting approval.

Learn. Figure out the root cause and take actions to keep it from happening again. You can’t keep a team member from taking a better job offer, but you can make the current position better. Scope is drawn to determine when it does change, not if it will. You can take steps to manage it better.

Move on. It is better to get beyond the issue than to dwell on how things should have been. Once you have taken steps to keep it from happening again get on with successfully completing your project.

Stuff happens. You can’t control the surprises but you can control your reaction. If it were simple, anyone could do it, right?