Category: Project management
Challenges in Agile Project Management
Gayathri Ramamoorthy

Gayathri is a proven Project Manager with experience spanning over a decade in the IT industry in all areas of the SDLC. A strong end to end technical and functional background has enabled Gayathri to perform multiple roles such as Delivery Lead, Project Manager, Solution designer and Technical Consultant over the span of her career.

In last few years, we have been hearing the word ‘Agile’ frequently in the project delivery workspace. Quite often, we had constructive debates and interesting discussions among colleagues on challenges in Agile projects. Common concerns were – lack of ownership from team, mixed signals from senior management and ineffective cost management. I would like to share my experience where we applied agile methodology to a project aiming to deliver the functionalities/features quicker for the business to use and the challenges we encountered.

The project was initiated to develop new reports for a business unit to measure their sales performance. The data required to build the report was sourced from a datawarehouse which hosted the consolidated transactional data from various source systems. The project scope was to develop reports and to implement the required business rules and data transformation. The project applied agile techniques to deliver the reports in an iterative deployment schedule. The features required in the reports were listed and prioritised by the business sponsor and the sprint period was 4 weeks. In Agile methodology, sprint is the time period within which a selected list of feature is completed and made ready for business use.

In an agile project environment where the team is set of highly skilled developers, a sponsor who was supporting the team to follow agile framework, a management team who applied the agile techniques appropriately, what could go wrong in such agile project? In spite of an optimistic agile environment, there were still challenges.

Design changes during the iterative sprints – Are you thinking of doing design, development and testing in an agile way? I would recommend to read ahead and validate if that approach would help your project to achieve the desired outcome on time.

The project started with minimal business requirements from the business and the list of features required were identified. The project included redesigning the underlying data model of an existing application and adding the new features identified to the application. The project did not have the detailed requirements at the start of the project and the design, data model, build and testing started simultaneously following agile approach. As we progressed through sprints, any design or data model changes, while developing the features down the line, eventually resulted in rework on the features completed in earlier sprints. The finished products were revisited every time there was a change in design which increased overall cost and caused delay in progressing with the remaining open activities.

From my experience in this agile project, it would be challenge to complete the sprints on time if design is evolving across sprints. If the project involves major redesign or new application development, it is worth investing initial few days in preparing high-level design with the available requirements. This would avoid rework on the features while we get into the development sprints. Development and testing goes well within a sprint timebox.

Team member sharing while sprint is in progress – The projects had a dedicated skilled team which was a key strength to get the development on time and of high quality. The project deployment was planned into multiple deployment phases so that the finished products can be released earlier. There were cross impacts due to other inflight project and the part of the development team was deviated to focus on sharing the knowledge of the project and its impact on other projects so as to enable first deploy release to go ahead as planned. As per Agile guidelines, the core sprint development team is expected not to be deviated from the locked down list of features. But in the real world, the knowledge of the skilled team is required to mitigate any risks related to that project. We had delays on the sprint that was in progress in order to accommodate risk mitigation activities. A dedicated and committed team is a key for a successful Agile project. The agile project manager should implement the two key techniques that the Scrum methodology emphasises strongly.

  1. The Scrum Master should ensure that the team is not impacted by any changes or other external influences that could potentially deviate the team from the current sprint. The Scrum master should ensure that the team remain focussed on the current sprint until the end of sprint
  2. Any changes in resource plan should be restricted while the sprint is in progress.

Requirements unclear even while sprint is in progress – Agile framework facilitates the business SMEs to change or finalise requirements while the feature is being developed. But in order for the development team to complete the development within the sprint time, the business should be clear on the requirements for the features in the current sprint to enable on time completion. Ambiguous requirements, while sprint is in progress, lead to delays in completing the feature within the sprint and may result in increased backlog.

The business subject matter experts have to have the requirements clear to enable the team to complete the project on time. Any requirement changes from the business SME impacting the sprint has to be considered as a new item in the backlog list. Requirement changes during the sprint has to be recorded and tracked to effectively manage the sprint timelines and overall project cost.

While Agile framework accepts less documentation, we need to understand the main objective of agile framework is quick delivery. Documents that enable quick delivery and better control on time and cost are still required in agile project management. As much as projects are unique, challenges within the projects are also unique. Lessons learnt from past experience always helps in the handling these challenges effectively in the future. Agile methodology also gives the opportunity to identify any challenges at the end of each sprint which will enable to apply corrective measures throughout the journey of the project. Go Agile, enjoy the continuous learning and eventually master the skill of Agile project management.

Negotiation for Project Managers

Negotiation is defined as “a discussion aimed at reaching an agreement” (Oxford). An elegant and simple definition encompassing yet a powerful and sometimes hard to master skill, especially for project managers (PMs). Here’s why:

Projects involve change. Many parties interact during a project lifecycle including stakeholders, users and delivery team. Sponsors empower PMs to deliver, however, it should be no surprise to PMs that conflicts arise in projects due to many sources including matrix organisations, conflicting priorities, expectations gap and scope creep. Without an effective way to solve conflicts in a timely manner, projects can quickly come to a standstill and may even fail.

The good news is that by mastering and applying these negotiation skills in day-to-day activities, PMs can ensure progress through even the most difficult of conflicts. Read on to take a look at how to apply negotiation skills effectively from a PM’s perspective.

What is negotiation for PMs?

Negotiation in projects is about finding timely solutions to conflicts that arise between people linked to the project and/or impact it in some way. Negotiation is a highly effective interpersonal skill that PMs must master to move projects progressively. Finding an ‘agreed’ solution that either:

  • Benefits all parties – means everyone got, or at least feels they got, what they were after from negotiations. A solution acceptable to all is usually the one that builds great teams and enjoys best support afterwards
  • Benefits some of the parties or one only – means someone had to compromise (take one for the team) probably for the greater good of the project
  • Just escalates the conflict to next level in project governance since the negotiations could not reach any agreement

An agreed solution that benefits all parties is also often called a ‘win-win’ scenario and is the most desirable outcome PMs want from their project negotiations.

Why do PMs negotiate

Temporary endeavors to achieve something unique, projects typically require some form of ‘agreement’ from time to time between those delivering change and those who will use or benefit from it in future (like users, stakeholders and outside world). To name a few:

  • Requirements, scope and resources agreed during Planning & Initiation
  • Deliverables and milestones accepted during Delivery & Implementation
  • Changes to scope controlled and agreed during Monitoring & Control
  • Sign-offs and project handover at Closing

Who do PMs negotiate with

For PMs, formal and/or informal negotiations happens everyday. With project’s success as focus all the time – PMs are always negotiating solutions. Engage these groups throughout the lifecycle of the project and negotiate timely solutions to any conflicts that risk your project:

  • Users (requirements management) – negotiate project requirements with users (or their representatives) to finalise scope. Being the end beneficiary of what your project will deliver, effective negotiations with users help set right expectations from start and will make acceptance, handover and closing smooth.

  • Suppliers and vendors (contract management) – formal negotiations to select best supplier/vendor for delivery and after a contract is awarded, negotiations continue in matters of contractual compliance, performance and any changes needed. It is best for PMs to seek specialist support from Legal and Procurement during these negotiations.
  • Team members (and their managers) – your project team is the centre of it all, moving the team together as one unit requires regular internal sync ups, prioritisation calls and agreements on the implementation strategies. Negotiations here are very informal but lead to highly effective collaborative work. As PM, you should also expect to negotiate with line managers of the project team in a matrix environment.
  • Stakeholders (stakeholder management) – negotiate project scope, time, cost and quality with stakeholders as well as seek their buy-in on scope changes, risk mitigations, contingency funds (if needed) and commitments on organisational resources for the project. Honest and open communications here are necessary to manage stakeholder expectations.

How to negotiate
Now we get into the mechanics of how should PMs negotiate in a typical project setting. Project negotiations could be segregated into following distinct phases:

 


Let’s see what happens within each:

  • Plan: Plan for negotiations ahead – do your homework. Gather background information on the topic, set targets, know your tolerances around the targets.
  • Discuss: That’s where the actual negotiations start. PMs lead the discussion – keep them from digressing off topic. Open negotiations by setting the scene – introduce key issues to discuss. Remember to listen, paraphrase key points to ensure common understanding and keep driving the discussions forward.
  • Propose: Brainstorm, propose solutions and listen to solutions being proposed. Focus on reaching agreements. Communicate clearly and openly.
  • Bargain: Be prepared to trade-offs and give & take. Show flexibility to reach a plausible agreement. Your homework of knowing your tolerances will pay off here.
  • Agree: Reaching an agreeable solution is the real goal. Be mindful of the fact that the agreement could be one of many types explained above. In all cases, ensure you get it in-writing/signed-off from participants. Summarise conclusions for all and later distribute minutes appropriately.
  • Review: Following up on the resolution of agreement is essential. Ensure all parties are kept informed of next steps taken. Update any impacted project documents.

By now you should have a good sense of how important negotiation skills are for the successful delivery of projects. Effective negotiations could literally turn people in opposition of the change your project delivers to its biggest supporters. They could be the missing link to get those stumbling blocks out of your project’s way to success. Take time to prepare well for your negotiations, be reasonable and respectful, listen to others’ views and remain focused and calm all the time. A proven ability and a track record to reach ‘win-win’ solutions – of which there are sometimes many in difficult situations – is a hard sought after skill in Project Managers. I hope these thoughts will help you master this skill.

I leave you with a question: Have you faced a situation where it was difficult to make everyone happy, but yet, you were able to carve out a ‘win-win’ scenario? Reiterating points of common benefit could sometimes help people let go a little to reach an agreement – please share your thoughts. Cheers.

Some information here is sourced from articles in Association of Project Management.

Rana Ali Saeed – Rana is a Project Manager and Technology Solutions professional, having served clients in IT, telecommunications and academia sectors for past thirteen years. These years have probably experienced the fastest wave of technological change. The explosion of digital data touched almost every industry and the demand of data speeds grew exponentially. Telcos evolved from 2G to 5G and smartphones became a commodity from once a luxury. Having ridden this wave of change, Rana has a passion for taking on new challenges. He is enthusiastic about Data Science (analytics, visualisation, presentation) and currently spends his leisure time as a student of Machine Learning, Deep Learning and Inferential Statistics.

Deliver a Solution Not a Project: What To Look For!

Have you ever been assigned to a client who had the budget approved, the solution identified, and the project initiated, and you were requested to manage the project? Have you ever worked on a project where you understood that the scope of the solution should have covered more than what the client had planned for? Have you joined a project only to find that key stakeholders are missing? How more hard could it be to manage a project without being in full control of its elements?

It reminds me of some statistics I came across a while ago. Being a BA/PM consultant becomes a real challenge when you know that you have only a 64% chance of successfully delivering your projects, according to PMI’s 2015 report Pulse of the Profession®: Capturing the Value of Project Management.

But why after all the maturity that took place in the project management and business analysis fields that projects still fail? I argue that many of the PMs and BAs who were sampled in the report are expert in their fields. This is clearly inferred from the same report where it shows that more than 60% of the surveyed organisations already fully understand value of project management, actively engage sponsors, and possess high alignment of projects to strategy. These organisations are expected to hire top notch BA/PMs and ensure continuous development of their resources.

If even expert BAs/PMs fail, then why there are some who managed to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowd and associate the word “Great” or “Successful” to their title? Do they have the “magic wand” that turns any project they work on into a success story, or do they manage to see things other professionals are not able to, and manage to save themselves from losing the case? I am inclined to bias towards the second probability for obvious reasons 🙂

THE MISSING LINK!

Let’s have a deeper look into why projects fail and see what gaps have these great professionals managed to bridge. Statistics show that 47% of failed projects are a result of poor requirements management, according to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession: Requirements Management — A Core Competency for Project and Program Success.

Being an expert BA/PM will most probably grant you 64% of the success you need, but focusing on requirement management could increase your chances to 81%. This means you need to focus on factors that lie somewhere outside the boundaries of the simple project management realm. Yes! Outside the boundary of the project. Managing and controlling these outer factors is, in my opinion, the key to succeed in most of your projects.

But why to look outside the project? isn’t requirement management already a part of the project? Well, yes and no. Requirement management starts way before the project starts and forms the basis on which projects initiates, and this is where the risk comes from. Remember the scenario discussed at the beginning?

Back to the consultancy world, you usually join the client when the project is kicked off and you are required to deliver it “successfully”. This means that some sort of requirement management effort has already been taken place, and you have no control on the level of quality done to identify the business requirements behind the project and the value this initiative is expected to bring to the organisation.

If you proceed with your project as initially planned, you put your destiny on the hand of anonymous stakeholders who promoted an idea, formulated a project, and put you in front of the cannon. What happens if they have laid the wrong foundation for your project? For example, what if the client:
● Mixes desires with needs, and formulated a project around these desires without real business need?
● Articulates solutions as requirements and expect them to be delivered without proper assessment of their validity and effectiveness?
● Agreed to a solution that is not linked to business objectives?
● Has no business case or enough support from within the organisation?

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” – Lewis Carroll

In these cases, a project manager would be able to deliver the project according to the stated requirements but would put himself a potential prey to the 36% of failed projects and some reasons for that would be:

● In reality, projects are judged by the value they deliver to business rather than to what extent they match stated requirements.
● The ones who evaluate the project success are not necessarily the sponsor who initiated the project. These stakeholders might not have been identified as key stakeholders.
● The project delivers the intended value but it is not enough to realise the real benefit to the organisation.

MEET ORGANISATIONAL EXPECTATIONS!

The key to “great” project management and business analysis work is to meet the expectation, and by expectation I mean organisation’s one and not merely the sponsor’s. Remember that great BAs/PMs need to align project objectives to organisational ones, and this what grant them sustainability and success.

To meet expectation, you need to find and work on a complete solution that resolves client’s underlying problem, and not only smooths the symptoms that appear on the surface. Delivering the “stated” project might not give you the result you need because, at the end, the deliverables will be part of the new organisation’s capabilities, and you wouldn’t be sure if someone has already verified whether such deliverables would fit in the organisation smoothly.

SEEK SOLUTIONS NOT DELIVERABLES!

Successful projects manage to synergise deliverables with organisations’ environment. This means that project needs to take into account the organisation’s readiness to implement the solution successfully, integrate it into the day-2-day operations, and grant enough support to sustain its existence and realise its benefits.

This means that BAs/PMs should seek solutions that consist of some or all of the following:

TECHNOLOGY

Assess what and how technology is used and promoted inside the organisation. Verify that existing technology doesn’t fulfil the functionality requested. See if the new solution is in alignment to the technologies existing within the environment. Check contractual agreements and make sure the new solution is not limiting the organisation in expanding its business. Check if the technology used doesn’t need a change in other areas, like processes and organisational structuring.

PEOPLE

Assess what skill set is available within the organisation and whether it is enough to guarantee project success. Assess what development areas should be addressed to ensure value realisation. Verify that enough resources are available to get the job done. Assess how processes are setup around the solution and whether such processes are efficient. Process re-engineering is gold mine for boosting operational efficiency.

Organisational restructuring can also be part of a solution. Changing the way people are structured throughout the organisation could help streamline operations, increase efficiency, and ensure the right people own the right solution components.

CULTURE

Assess how internal culture impacts the work carried within the organisation. Understand how formal/informal politics/power impact and drive decision-making. Locate informal influencers and make sure they are content, if not satisfied, with your solution.

If a solution doesn’t require a cultural change, understanding how culture impacts the daily operations helps getting the right people engaged, and keeping the project on focus. Granting buy-in to your deliverables is key to project success.

THE CATCH!

When you join a project, don’t settle for what you are told to do. Maybe you are obliged to abide by the scope of the contract, but this should not hinder you from being on watch for what could cripple your project, continuously revising the givens and making sure what you are delivering constitutes a “complete solution”.

Be in search for external factors that grant you success. Influence decision makers to take corrective measures. If you are not able to change the course of the project, at least you know what you are missing, and maybe you could influence decision makers on the right time. Keeping key stakeholders aware of what a complete solution should be puts them on the same boat with you.

Don’t lose focus of the critical solution components: Technology, People, & Culture.

This time I highlight “what” I think you need to look for if you want to increase your chances of getting it right, wait for the next blog where I will discuss “why” and “how” looking into the bigger picture increases your chances of delivering great projects.



Wael BassionyPassionate about project management and the challenges faced by project managers. Over the last 16 years, Wael assumed several positions in IT and Telecom sectors, with specialisation in business analysis, project management, technical architecture, and leadership. He has hands-on experience in managing diverse types of projects, from small, short-term, to MM$, strategic ones. He holds a Master’s degree in Computing, a Master’s degree in Business Administration, and a number of technical certifications like PMP, CBAP, and ITIL.

Additional Budget? How to spend it wisely…

MONEY- this is the word that rings first when any task has to be accomplished.
Often, organisations allocate budget for projects that are considered as business enablers or enforced as mandatory changes to be implemented for that year. It’s a dream for the management that there is more money allocated to the project than what is required to achieve the project outcome. Such dreams comes true when the board realises there is money that is not yet spent for the financial year and authorise the additional money to be spent for any projects or initiatives.

It sounds easy to spend money but it’s always a challenge to spend additional money constructively to bring in positive outcomes. Spending additional budget is yet another project which requires evaluation of options, estimation, good planning and successful execution.

While additional budget is available, we also need to be mindful that it has to be spent to the benefit of the sponsor. At the same time, all stakeholders would expect the fund to be spent wisely and effectively. While there are numerous options to constructively spend additional budget, there are few options which benefits project, team and sponsors equally.

1. Invest on activities that benefit the sponsor such as Process Improvement
There is always a room for improvement in any organisation. We identify a list of improvements and in most cases, those initiatives don’t get mobilised either due to lack of funding or due to other high priority activities in the pipeline. When money is available for initiatives, it’s good to start implementing those improvements that would benefit the organisation. On implementing improvements, the organisation would realise the benefits in near future or upcoming projects and would result in a satisfactory outcome both for the sponsors and the project and eventually it would be a good learning experience for the team.

2. Identify potential future projects and invest the fund to do the initial assessment for the potential projects
Most of the projects limit their scope to what can be achieved with the allocated funding and within the expected timeframe. The tasks that are deferred for the future eventually become the scope for the a new project. Additional budget available in the current project can be used to do the initial assessment of those deferred tasks which serves as the key input to initiate the next phase.

3. Onboard additional staff and invest on up-skilling the team members and at the same time the team can contribute to the project outcome
Knowledge of a business process and technology is an asset for any organisation. On-boarding additional resources and up-skilling them during the project journey has a two fold benefit; the new member can contribute to the project and at the same time the resource can be trained in the business process which can be leveraged in the future projects.

4. Allocate some fund for rewards and recognitions
A motivated team brings in remarkable results and timely recognition and rewards ensures that the team is motivated to continue to do their good work. Some of the additional budget can be spent for rewards and recognitions while will keep up the morale within the team.

5. Organise team building activities
Teamwork is one of the top soft skills that is required to have a healthy and positive working environment. Team collaboration helps to achieve the project objectives efficiently. Team events provide an environment for the staff to interact and socialise with their colleagues out of their daily work. This helps to build a more friendly work environment, which eventually results in better project outcomes.

6. To retain skilled resources until start of next assignment.
To spend the additional funding inline with the project objectives is a tricky challenge in a scenario where you may already have enough funds to meet the project commitments. If there is a possibility to carry forward the remaining fund to the next phase of the project then the fund can be utilised to continue the core skilled team members if there is a visibility of any upcoming projects where their skills are required. This in-between time, while the next phase is yet to start, can be a good reason for the team to document their learning and prepare knowledge artefacts that can be used to train new members in future.

Ideas to spend money are never ending but at the end of the day, the money has to be spent constructively and wisely. The key success to spending money is to first get the ideas open to the stakeholders and get the buy-in from everyone involved on the option chosen to spend the additional budget. The task doesn’t end in just finalising the option. The challenge is to execute the budget plan successfully, monitoring and tracking throughout the journey and to achieve a positive closure by accomplishing the expected outcome within the budget. Also ROI and benefits has to be evaluated before starting the budget plan.

Money and business are in a cycle, spend money to improve business and improved business gives back the money. It sounds easy, isn’t it? But we all know its not in reality. So Spend Smart!

Gayathri Ramamoorthy – Gayathri is a Project Manager who joined IMA recently and has over 14 years of experience in IT industry. She has been working in IT projects in diverse domains, which includes Manufacturing, Telecom, Chemical and Food Process Industry, Financial Services. She spends her leisure time with her daughter playing interesting kids games. She has now started to explore the experience of blogging and this is her first attempt towards the blog journey.


How to be influential to your stakeholders – Part II (A PM’s perspective)

After reading the blog from Supriya (see it here), I was inspired to write a blog to discuss influencing leadership (or decision makers/ senior stakeholders) from a Project Manager’s perspective.
The way I see it, Leadership is one of the most valued assets in the corporate world. As such, influencing is one of the important aspects or subsets of leadership.

Before understanding how to influence let’s try and understand what influence really means.

Influence is commonly perceived as: something hypnotic, something about having an impact on the behaviour or change in thinking. It does indeed to a certain degree. But in the real world (read corporate world) its relevance is more about having a common goal, having a common purpose; it’s about having a strong buy-in and support for a common “motive”.

Influencing is a process of having your stakeholders acknowledge, appreciate and eventually align with the reasons to have a successful endeavour/project and the way we achieve that. It becomes imperative for a Project Manager to focus on arguably the most Critical Knowledge Area called “Stakeholder Management” in PMBOK.

1) It all starts here. BIG PICTURE. Why are we doing this project? How does it align with the organisation mission/vision? Believe it or not! “Implicit Assumptions” are made even at this stage. Elicit information from the sponsor/project owner. It all starts here.

2) Identifying the stakeholders is the key here. Consolidating a correct and complete list of ALL the stakeholders, their roles, decision making authority and their stake within the project/endeavour is the activity that needs to be taken up in the “very beginning”. Importance of this activity is often overlooked.

3) Understand the expectations. The next step is to identify what is the outcome each stakeholder expects and “how” they expect it to happen. This is the step where the Project Manager’s communications skills play a VITAL role.

The Project Manager needs to be a STRONG listener and also needs to exhibit his/her skills in eliciting the information. This indeed is a challenging activity especially if the Project Manager is unfamiliar with the environment (which is mostly the case in consulting organisations), does not understand the business terminologies (read jargon☺) and does not have a clear idea about the organisation structure. Hard truth is not everyone will open up. The art here is to LISTEN to the stuff that is not being said.

Understanding the organisation structure and reporting structure (both dotted and solid line) within the stakeholders is of utmost importance. This may help you to identify points of contact rather than chasing multiple stakeholders during the project lifecycle. This will clearly help to understand the right way of “getting things done”.

Though it is expected that the Project Manager needs to address as many questions as possible; it may sometimes be frustrating for the stakeholders answering questions they perceive to be trivial. The skill lies in striking out exact balance between understanding the detail enough to facilitate further activities BUT not going overboard. Here’s a link providing some insights on “How to ask effective questions”?

Influence and be ready to be influenced. Yes you got it right! Be absolutely open and ready to analyse new ideas, methodologies and ways of working.

Do it in closed rooms or coffee shops or while having your afternoon snacks. Do not trust your brain. Take your notes. That way you need not to be stressed while you catch up with a friend for the evening beer or two! ☺

4) Analyse. Good Morning. Make/Buy a big cup of coffee. Yes I will prefer this to start in the morning ONLY AFTER a cup of coffee! ☺

Check your notes. Analyse.

a) Identify if there are any conflicting expectations.
b) Identify what “ways” have been suggested. Try to understand the underlying reason (if you did not get an opportunity to do that in the previous step).
c) Validate your expected outcomes.
d) Analyse and identify the best ways or devise your own ways considering the impacts on the outcomes.
e) Document your suggestions and make sure the reasons are validated when you choose any particular way of working/methodology/expected outcomes.
f) Have your stakeholders engagement assessment matrix and Power Grid Matrix. Handy tools for stakeholder management.

5) Iterate. It may not all happen in one go. You may need to iterate Step 1 to 4.

6) Influence. Yes! Your hard work has paid off. You have all the data and a strong reasoning behind what, why and how you suggest doing it.

You have developed significant buy-in from most of the stakeholders and you have been successful in setting the appropriate expectations.

Things will start to MOVE for you. Of course they do!

The BIG thing you achieved is proactively addressing the issues that may have potentially surfaced much later in the project possibly leading to a SIGNIFICANT NEGATIVE IMPACT on the triple constraints of the project. You can sleep well!

Stating the obvious: Integrity and “Walking your Talk” goes a long way in having the FIRST DIRECT INFLUENCE on the people you are working with!

Here’s a bit about Abhijit. He has been in the IT industry for 18 years and has been fortunate enough to work in different areas like Education, Banking, Health Care, Telecom and Environment & Heritage. His career has seen him have the opportunity to work in different roles like a Developer, Architect, Business Analysis, Team Leader and Project Management. Highly experienced working with cross cultural and distributed teams in different countries across Asia, Europe and now in Australia. Abhijit thoroughly enjoys working in handling complex, challenging and demanding projects. He loves to travel and is a self-proclaimed foodie. Abhijit loves playing with his daughter and facing her tough questions. Occasionally he tries his hand at Table Tennis and badminton on and off.


Think before you Agile..

 

What follows are my personal experiences and thoughts based on a recent contract role that I did as a Project Manager of an Agile project.

Agile has been a buzz word for quite some time now and I think it’s safe to say that it’s caught on as a fashion statement as far as project methodologies go. Nowadays most of the job adverts ask for agile experience, which I assume is a direct indicator of most projects wanting to go the agile way. I have attended an interview where the hiring manager, looking at my profile said something like ‘I feel outdated and have been thinking of going agile with my project’ which in fact was a multi-year network upgrade project, one of the last projects in the world I would think of making Agile.

My project was a long term (2 years) development project and the project team involved 7 squads working on a fortnightly sprint based development model. We followed Agile ritualistically. We breathed agile so to speak. Where I stand now, I believe that agile, in its purest form, may not be appropriate for most of the long running (multi-year) projects around.

Here are some tips I’ve picked up in my experience to-date.

Agile Must Haves:

Documentation:

However you try to coat it, Agile depends heavily on making documentation lean and on demand. This has some detrimental impacts in the long run. If you have a project running for a long duration, or a project which is done and dusted but the go live is delayed and the team had to be dismembered and re-convened (with different set of contractors) later . Nobody would have a clear end to end view of the architecture, requirements, design implemented, standards used etc. Thus the need to focus on the long term, even when the sprints are of 2 weekly duration. Figure out what are the documents that an operation team would require to maintain the application, or a new set of contractors would need if they were to re-engineer the solution for whatever reason. System appreciation document, Requirements document, Requirements Traceability documents to list a few. Effort needs to be set apart and planned for documentation during each iteration or at regular intervals say every 4th iteration.

User Stories:

There is an argument that user stories provide traceability in agile projects. But I haven’t found that effective. User stories would be sliced pieces of bits and pieces of functionality which are created to fit into the effort available in a sprint doable by a developer, testable by a tester. But no group of user stories would clearly depict the requirements in a clear and understandable manner in the long run. Hence go for a tool like JAMA for putting in requirements. You need to establish a clear heirarchy of functional requirements and a process as to how and under what sub requirement would a user story of a particular type and function be added. Establish the skeletal process upfront before you write your first user story. We got into a mess as the skeletal structure and the processes were not set upfront and each Scrum Master who came on board went their own way in documenting requirements.

Refactoring:

Refactoring is the next topic that needs attention. The need to get going with the next set of requirements, along with the need to be agile and deliver at very short intervals leads to a lot of disjointed coding practices and deviations from the initial design architecture standards. More often than not you would tend to cut corners to ensure we deliver the requirements on time for the iteration. There is an unavoidable need to have a refactoring sprint planned regularly. If it could be afforded, you could have a separate squad consisting of the architect and a developer working together who pick up what has gone into the previous iteration. This squad then reviews, corrects and refactors code where required regularly. Another idea is that it can be a sprint planned for all/some of the squads every 2 months or so where they spend (say) 1 week of their time in refactoring and tidying up what has already gone in. In the second model it is imperative that some watchdog like the architect or a senior developer keep a note of what are the corners that were cut, deviations that were done, either in consultation with or whatever is found through reviews.

Work/life Balance

Agile gives a real good work life balance for employees. It’s perfect from a developer or a tester’s perspective. You commit to what you can do and go ahead do that.

It’s perfect in all the other ways that we all know about like, being able to cater to the customers immediate needs, providing a working software at regular intervals which the customer can look and feel and modify his requirements accordingly to.

Agile keeps the enthusiasm level up there or thereabouts always. It is great to have frequent sense of achievement, release of pressure, re planning and re estimation, recharging of batteries.

A Physical Agile Board:

Always have a physical agile board unless you have a big and wide screen monitor/smart board which is life like. The sense of physically moving tasks from one stage to another cannot be replaced.

Have a ‘graveyard’ where you would move the completed tasks and stories. If possible get different squads to use different colours or may be different colours for different types of tasks (one for dev and one for Test maybe) this would help to create some nice and creative patterns on the graveyard which through a time-lapse video would make us all proud as a work of art and provide an ongoing sense of achievement.

 

 

Agile Pitfalls:

Churn:

Agile is for teams involving good to expert level developers and testers. New members must be drafted in gradually, and drafted in only when then they are very close to 100% ramped up. New team members or those who are not well versed with the technology in-use, liquidate the effectiveness of agile methodology. When such a member joins, for quite a few iterations at least the team’s velocity estimates go low and so does the productivity. Agile teams are like bullet trains. You can’t attach a cargo van at the end of it and expect it to run at the same pace. It can be very detrimental. This is one of the reasons I feel, why agile is not good for a long running project where you, more often than not, would have churn and developers and testers move in and out frequently or in organizations where resources are pulled into different projects or operational activities at various times.

In an agile project the timeline OR the scope can remain constant. Both cannot. Due to the inherent nature of agile, scope gets swapped in and out, functionality requirements keep changing everything moves around between iterations.

Stakeholder Management:

Ensure that you engage and educate the stakeholders on what they are getting into. It so happened in one of my projects that towards the end of the project, (mainly due to some internal politics between the concerned departments within the company) the agility and its rules were forgotten and the business put a wooden foot forward saying the scope is non-negotiable and so is the time-to-market. Hence all the remaining scope in the backlog became indispensable. This same backlog was always thought of as a priority list (as it should be) which would be tackled in the right order and it would be the product owners responsibility too to ensure that he gets the most important features in the time remaining till the project go live. So now we had a situation where the product owner who was all agile and happy to add in and chop off requirements as he wished suddenly went backstage and there we had the business director standing on top of us with a ‘my way or highway’ attitude.

Agile Non-Negotiables:

What the above scenario teaches me is that even though we run an agile project, do 2 things. Educate / coach your stakeholders on how agile works and what it means, with respect to overall scope and timelines. Secondly, keep yourselves covered by always probing and getting as much requirements (even at a high level) listed upfront, high level planning poker done for all the requirements , add your buffers and keep the forecast with respect to scope also highlighted in your weekly reports. What I mean is, if there was a new chunk of work that came in to the backlog which suddenly became priority for the product owner, show clearly by means of trend graphs how the overall scope has increased and how that impacts timelines if all the requirements were to be completed.

You might say “we all do that!” Yes but still ensure that every week the view of how the overall picture looks with regards to scope is provided to all stakeholders. The product owner shouldn’t be able to shrug off the accountability of getting what is required in the time that is allocated.

Particular mention needs to be made of some product owners who, on seeing that the velocity of the squad is really good, tries to get it in more thrills and frills wherein that high velocity should be used to tackle the important features first and then return to the thrills if time permits. Keep a tab on the prioritization thought process of your product owner at all times.

Squad Management:

When you have multiple agile squads, each runs with a different velocity of course as each squad has a different way of story pointing and different levels of productivity too. Thus, when preparing project plans you need to ensure that you take a reasonable and probable average velocity into account. If you are starting a new project with new squads who haven’t been together before then all you can do is a reasonable guess I believe. But ensure that you do a most likely, worst case, best case analysis and provide forecasts accordingly.

Agile Pitfalls: The next bit, though a bit sensitive to talk about is worth the mention. Agile teams can grow to be very sentimental and moody. They need to be nurtured with care and love. At times all that care and love can create a monster. They become a collective unit and conspire to put blockers where there are workarounds, give out considerably higher story points than is appropriate, can decide to delay a few activities so that the stretch goal needn’t be brought in to the current iteration even though there is spare time available, give out higher story points and ensure that there is enough buffer to compensate for less than 100% effort. All this can happen even when teams aren’t facing new challenges regularly. So one way of tackling this is to do a close monitoring of the work that each member is doing, even at the risk of going against one of the concepts of Agile which is to have full belief in the team and its capabilities. You could do this being less conspicuous by catching up with team members offline and not in a formal team meeting environment or at her or his desk. You might even want to swap team members without affecting the structure too much at the same time. This reduces chances of such behavioural patterns developing.

 

Other things to consider.

 

Games:

We once had a security hackathon which was basically a 2 hour period wherein all the developers and testers attached the application and tried to crack into secure data. It did bring out quite a few security vulnerabilities, which are part of the often forgotten and often non-written non-functional requirements. This is a highly recommended practice.

Getting the squads together to engage in some agile games is another way of making it fun at work while indulging in some team building activities. You’ll get a truckload of games online which you could try out for your squads. Most of my team really liked whenever we had them.

 

Reporting:

Backlog is very volatile bucket so how do you actually depict anything meaningful to the stakeholders on how and when would something be done. A visual representation of what feature was developed when we had what we called a Sprint pipeline plot. Which was an excel sheet which showed blocks of work that would be covered by each squad and around when.

Also consider how useful this would be in a situation where you have 5+ squads (like we had 7) and you have a year-long project to run. Scope might keep getting added to a particular module and might get culled in some others, but with this sort of visibility you can easily look at options on how you could rejig and make everything fit more like a jigsaw puzzle. It would be much easier discussion with senior stakeholders too, in order to explain how agile you are and how confident you still are in meeting the project goals.

 

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We did an EVM (Earned Value Management) plot. Keeping in mind various aspects like the most likely, worst case and best case average velocity of the sum of all squads.Financial management

The total scope that we had to cover in terms of story points. This was based on the initial very high level planning poker where we got the total number of story points that needed to be covered. Here again we did a best and worst case. It’s imperative that we do a reality check a few times through the project to revalidate the total number of story points that forms the scope. Please ensure that when you do this exercise you do take into account time that needs to be spent on stuff other than development, testing and deployment, I can think of research work, tech spikes, maybe a cloud deployment etc. which may not be part of a module you work in, may not be part of the discussions and work that you do with the product owner but are necessary for the software to be released. I could write a separate blog on how to prepare EVM graphs for an agile project. That’s an elaborate topic in itself. May be I will do it one of these days and provide some examples on how to go about it.

 

By: Nikhil Prabhakar 

Nikhil is a project manager who has recently joined IMA who comes with a management background in Applications development, Service Delivery, Transformations and Transitions and has worked with a diverse set of customers across the globe.
He has just been promoted from ‘forever wanting to write about his experiences’ to ‘having his first blog published’. Nikhil is an avid soccer fan and is’nt shy in proclaiming his support for Arsenal FC


International Women’s Day

Happy International Women’s Day 2016.

 

 

One of the greatest issues facing the IT industry today is the declining number of women entering and remaining in the industry.  The development and retention of  high performance female staff is critical to the longer-term diversity of the IT industry.

At IMA, we support the career aspirations of our female staff without expecting them to sacrifice or compromise other priorities.  The IT industry is traditionally a male-dominated workforce and at IMA, women make up close to 30% of our team (according to VIC ICT for Women, women only make up 16% of ICT roles in Australia).  We have a strong focus to enhance our workforce to better represent society as a whole, and are striving to ensure that women within IMA are fairly represented in all technical, leadership and professional roles.

Our HR General Manager, Shelley Brown says, “We have a solid number of strong, professional women at all levels of our organisation.  From Consulting to Sales to the Management team, women are an integral part of our continued success. People tell us it is a high percentage for the industry, but we just hire the best people we can for the work that we do, and do what we can to encourage, support and engage the people that choose to work with us.”

Archana Patel who has recently taken up an Account Manager (September 2013 when her client engagement concluded and as of April 2015 as General Manager of our NSW branch!) role with IMA adds that her experience with IMA “has been refreshing”.  She further says “A few months ago I was offered a position as an Account Manager within the organisation, something I am really looking forward to, and a great opportunity for me to work with IMA to put both our clients and consultants first, to ensure the best fit and exceptional client delivery.  As a woman, a minority, in the world of IT – I can’t wait for the challenge.”

IMA Melbourne Christmas party circa 2015.

A few weeks back the majority of the Melbourne staff and our partners attended our annual Christmas party. This years venue “The old Melbourne Gaol” (or OMG as some of our people called it) did not disappoint.

For what was a great night, we celebrated the year just finishing, celebrated the anticipation of 2016 which promises to be huge, and some amazing milestones of 3-5 and 10 years service.

Here is a little snapshot (well a few snap shots to be honest) of the evening..

Priority and Stakeholder Management

The success core of any project resides within a ‘Well Planned Project Plan’ but having said that, to successfully achieve the desired outcome; efficient execution, monitoring and seamless communication must be present throughout the entire life cycle of the project.

Often there will be situations where the project is going as planned but a critical change request or uncoordinated project dependencies might throw the schedule off-track. The impact to project’s schedule, budget (time, money) and quality might be tremendous based on the size of project and criticality of the end stage product(s).

This is the time when the Project Manager will be tested for his/her Communication & Management skills. These skills will be tested against the challenges below:

• Priority Management
• Stakeholder Management

Managing Priorities can have many variables or point of failures for a well-versed management plan. So how the priorities should be managed?
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When executing the priority list, you should be very clear and honest to act in the situation where one of your priority tasks’ is taking longer than expect. If that happens, move to the next task in the list otherwise ‘the domino effect’ will prevail for the entire list of pending tasks.

Since Priorities are directly impacted and governed by the stakeholders involved, therefore managing stakeholders is a skill within itself!

By managing Stakeholders’ expectations properly, the project teams do gain respect, trust and motivation during the project life.

So what should be done for an effective Stakeholder Management?

The first and the foremost important part is to ‘IDENTIFY STAKEHOLDERS’ where a stakeholder can be an individual, a group of people, a team or an organisation itself.

Analysing their needs, expectations and level of their authority they command should be done after identifying the stakeholders. A Project Manager must map the expectations correctly.

Classify and confirm the means of communications with all the stakeholders, as some may prefer emails where as other may opt for phone calls or even regularWork In Progress meetings for the updates. Once the communication modes are agreed, make sure the relevant stakeholders are updated and informed regularly as well as involved for the feedback, where required.

This will involve their ‘Decision Making’ authorities to clarify and communicate appropriately during the project so that the governance is aware and updated with the progress as well as Right-First-Time score is excellent at the end of the project.

Therefore, for any PM or BA, Priority and Stakeholder management is all about communication and effectively executing the agreed plans.



The Key To Influencing
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A PMI-certified Project Management Professional (PMP), Arbie has strong experience in successfully delivering a variety of IT projects. He is adept in using various Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) methodologies, including Waterfall and Agile. He is an action-oriented and results-focused individual who particularly thrives in fast paced and dynamic environments. An avid learner, he believes that in these fast and dynamic times, one must truly understand how to learn, unlearn, and relearn consistently.

John Maxwell, one of the foremost Leadership gurus of our time, said that “the true measure of leadership is INFLUENCE; nothing more, nothing less.” While that might sound like an over-simplified definition of leadership, we can all agree that one of its greatest characteristics is how well a leader can influence other people into achieving a common goal. And most of the time, that is how we’ll measure a leader’s success or failure.

Influence is not manipulation
Let’s define what influence is by first defining what it is not. Influence is not manipulation. That must be crystal clear for us. Influence and manipulation is also not to be considered as two sides of the same coin, but rather two different ends of a spectrum. They are, and should be, on opposite ends.

Influence is different from persuasion
Influence must also be distinguished from persuasion. While these two terms can and is used interchangeably, there are certain situations that require a better understanding of these two. Persuasion is presenting a case in such a way as to sway the opinion of others, make people believe certain information, or motivate a decision. It can be used to spur someone to action or to make a decision without actually earning their sincere buy-in .

Influence is…
So, what is influence? Mr. Webster would put it as, “the power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen .” With influence, dedicating time to win someone’s heart or earn mindshare is a prerequisite to the process of inspiring them to take action or make a particular decision. Influence is having a vision of the optimum outcome for a situation or organization and then, without using force or coercion, motivating people to work together toward making the vision a reality . Going back to its role in leadership, that is what good leadership is really about: creating change (towards a common goal) without directly forcing (not a command that must be obeyed) it to happen. Or to over-simplify the difference between Managers and Leaders: “Managers can command, Leaders can only influence.”

This is where we, as Consultants, come in. We work, and do our role, best if we are able to influence our clients for the good of their organization. Even if we like to, we are very rarely given the opportunity to issue a command. Thus, influence is our greatest and most valuable asset.

The key to influencing
A key is something that is only useful when in your possession—obviously. It is most useful when you decide to use it to open doors. And your decision to use it is entirely in your control. In studying what (for me) is the key to influencing, I used three important criteria:
1. It must be personally possessed. It can be gained.
2. It creates true and lasting impact, not superficial.
3. It is completely under your direct control. It is not subject to external powers, but is entirely yours.

Trust is what first comes to mind when we think of a key to influencing. Trust between the two parties—mostly by the “influencee” to the influencer. I have no doubt that influencing will not be successful without the trust factor. A certain and comfortable level of trust must be present for someone to be influenced. However, trust is not in the influencer’s control. Trust is earned, not given. Meaning, it is an external factor to the influencer and thus not completely under his or her direct control. Isn’t that always the case? We can’t force somebody to trust us—and when you force someone, does that still count as influencing?

From these criteria, I’ll present to you a thesis that personal integrity is the key to influencing. Take a pause at this point and let that sink in. Integrity is the key to influencing. Think about the people who greatly influenced you, about the leaders that shaped your mindset and character, you stuck with what they influenced you with—may it be ideas, practices, morality, technologies, etc.—because you respected their personal integrity. How quick do followers run away from a leader, when that leader did something immoral? Or acted entirely differently from what they preached? You probably did the same thing.

Action over words
“Who you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson. What you do speak louder than what you say; even if semantics-wise what was communicated really made a lot of sense. Can we still influence even when we lacked integrity? Maybe. You might even fake it and still create a very strong influence. But that type of influence is on shaky foundation. Just one peek at the core that lacks integrity, then the influence is gone—along with that person.

Personal responsibility
If trust is what enables influencing, then integrity is the main root that keeps it stable and alive. Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. This is what our clients greatly need from us: the honesty to tell them the good and the bad, without sugar-coating it; the principle that we really do have the client’s best in mind—sometimes even at our loss. Our integrity is something that is entirely in our control, which can only be cultivated by us alone.

Lasting impact
Integrity enables you to take a hit, to be on the disadvantaged end for now, because you know that you are in it for the long term. You want to work and collaborate with a client for years to come, not just a one-off. This is also what a well-meaning client would truly want, somebody they can partner with to produce something better than the sum of the parts. It’s only when you have the integrity will that long-term partnership happens, because no one wants to work with somebody they cannot always trust.

From a client’s perspective
Put yourself in the shoes of a client, or even just your shoes, and think about what you really hope and like to happen during conversations. You’d probably answer that you want the one you’re in conversation with to try to understand you first before recommending anything—that they would listen to understand, not just prepare a reply. It would probably tick you off if they instantly bombard you with suggestions about what you should do or should’ve done before really understanding where you’re coming from. Wait, what does this have to do with integrity?

If integrity is present, then the “seek first to understand, and then be understood” act is a natural response. Because you really want to put the client’s best in mind, you dig deep first into understanding them and not just preparing a response. While this certain act is a good start towards building a solid relational foundation, this instantaneously also creates a win-win scenario for both the client and you. The client will have the peace of mind and confidence caused by understanding that you don’t have a preconceived solution in mind, but rather a better understanding of his problem or what he wants to happen and a catered solution to that—not the other way around. You, on the other hand, will have a better understanding of what is expected of you—your success measure just got suddenly clearer. Don’t you think trust is more easily gained in this situation? Did your influence to the client just increased?

This paradigm could be as simple as: Integrity -> Trust -> Influence.
Because of your integrity, it is easier to trust you, and because of that you increased your influence.

Integrity is the key to influencing. Integrity is fully in your control, other people’s trust is not. It might not be the catalyst or the quickest way to make other people change their minds, but without it, one’s influence is only superficial.