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Synergy 2014: Conference Highlights

Synergy UK 2014

“When what you do is not unique, the way that you do it makes the difference.”

That’s how Ricardo Triana, Chair of the 2014 PMI Board of Directors opened Synergy last Thursday. Synergy, organised by PMI’s UK Chapter, was attended by around 600 project managers from around Europe.

“Project management,” Ricardo went on to say, “is the way to create a difference.”

Making a difference by taking risks: Sir Tim Smit KBE

“The way you get yourself to do really interesting stuff is to put yourself in front of the people you respect the most and tell them you’re going to do it,” said Tim Smit, co-founder of the Eden Project. “The shame of not doing it gives you the energy to do it.”

He was an engaging speaker, talking for nearly an hour without slides or notes and I think by the end of it we all would have worked for him for free, like so many people on his regeneration projects. He had a lot of people on the Eden Project who had given up good jobs to work unpaid, pending confirmation of funding from the Millennium Commission.

The funding announcements were sent out. And they didn’t make the shortlist of funded projects.

Knowing he had a responsibility to his project team, Tim set up a press conference, complete with champagne and high profile media outlets. He made a short speech: “Millennium Commission: we love you!”

The next day there was a great editorial in The Times saying what a brave decision the Commission had taken to fund the project. Over the coming weeks, more media outlets looked forward to the opening of the Eden Project and praised the foresight and brilliance of the Commission. Over the following months, the Millennium Commission “reassessed” their decision. Eden got the funding it needed.

No one can say that Tim doesn’t believe in the projects he takes on. “When you get close to a brick wall, nine times out of ten there’s a door painted to look like bricks,” he said. “Take the risk and then you’re doing it: that makes it a lot less risky already.”

Building a culture of high performance: Jane Sparrow

Jane Sparrow, Managing Director at The Culture Builders, explained how to create a culture of high performing teams. “There is no magic Tinkerbell forumla,” she said. “It all comes down to small actions.”

She talked about two types of people: Savers, who do a good job for you, and Investors, who perform their best every day. In a highly performing tea you want Investors. You get them by carving out time to make people feel valued and by having clear views around:

  • What you believe: the vision and purpose
  • How you behave: ensuring what you say and what you do are consistent
  • What you use: making sure that the tools, processes and standards that support us are fit for purpose.

Synergy UK Photos

Developing resilience: Max McKeown

Max McKeown, a strategic advisor and author, drew his presentation on huge panels on the stage. Starting with a crisis in the middle, he drew backwards and forwards explaining how experiences in the past shaped responses to the present and how the future could be carved out by those willing to try new things.

“People respond in different ways to the same stimulus,” he said. “Be alert to the weak signals that alert you to things that are changing.” He shared some strategies for coping with what’s coming on the tidal wave of change:

  • Find someone who is “your personal jet ski” who can help you ride the wave
  • Maximise, accentuate and exaggerate problems to better prepare for them
  • Stop doing what doesn’t work.

“In times of great change make it acceptable to listen to the mavericks [in your business] and to act a bit more like them,” he said. “Strategy is the ability to shape the future. You don’t have to be surprised.”

Music and dancing: The Agile Blues Band and The Silent Conductor

My project vendor, she won’t give me a clear plan.

My project vendor, she won’t give me a clear plan.

If I can’t structure my work, then I don’t know where I stand.

My project management blues

OK, there wasn’t much dancing. We are project managers after all. There was a bit of swaying and some excited shuffling in chairs, and you wouldn’t normally expect that at a project management conference.

The Agile Blues Band helped us write our own project management blues song and then sang them (only one person was brave enough to sing her own song) during the breaks. Steve Barnett, The Silent Conductor, closed the event by leading the audience to create tunes without saying a word. Hitting the glass tumblers with sticks was my favourite part: it felt very much like something I shouldn’t be doing. Between the clapping, oooos, aahhhs, wows!, clicking fingers and rapping on the tables we made a passable attempt at music.

Not every presentation hit the top notes and the biscuit selection left something to be desired but it was a varied and interesting day. I wasn’t sure that the event committee could match last year’s event but they pulled it off. Can’t wait to see who they come up with for next year.


What users want from project software: A case study

Photo of slide

Pawel Wieckowski’s opening slide for his talk on user needs

Pawel Wieckowski from GlaxoSmithKline presented a case study on their project software deployment at the Gartner PPM & IT Summit earlier this year.

He started off by saying that they defined who would be using the tool. Users, he said, fell into the following categories:

  • Project management community
  • Project Management Office
  • Senior management
  • The whole company

“A PPM tool is not just for the PMO,” he said, “it’s for use by the wider business community.” Therefore they had to find the right balance between user wants, what technology can deliver and business needs. “If you find the right balance you’ll be successful and everyone will be happy, but that’s not easy,” he said.

They were also clear on why they wanted to invest in technology by stating why it was needed. GSK needed a PPM tool because they wanted to simplify their data and have one repository. They wanted to also enable and empower the project management community.

Starting small

Pawel explained that they had the choice between a big bang roll out or an evolutionary approach and sensibly they chose to start small. They opted to roll out their solution, then refine it and optimise it later. They took an interesting approach to those refinements, too. The team gathered enhancement requests from users and then asked them to vote on them. Using this method meant that the user base set the priorities for enhancements.

Photo of Pawel

Pawel Wieckowski presenting at the Gartner PPM & IT Governance Summit, June 2014

Next steps

Three years on their solution is a tool that helps the company plan and realise its investments. One of the big refinements that Pawel explained was to plug the gap in corporate financial planning. The business has a complicated structure between bits of the company that deliver solutions and bits that fund projects. Any single project could be funded from a multitude of sub-companies or departments or countries and the PMO wanted to be able to see the impact of a project on one of these companies, countries or teams.

The business wanted projects linked to capital and operational plans so the team mapped the organisational structure and high level aggregated spend performance. They were then able to show the benefits and disbenefits of projects, where they hit, forecasted cost at completion, accurate actuals, along with high level and adjustable financial plans. In short, a really comprehensive way of looking at projects as investment spend.

Waterline spend

One of the key features was the ability to show a list of prioritised projects. The waterline is the amount the company can spend. It is marked on the project list and clearly shows which ones will be funded and which ones won’t which, Pawel said, is very useful for forecasting and for having difficult conversations with project sponsors.

You don’t need fancy software to do this – every PMO should have a list of projects that it can resource and a pipeline of projects that it would like to do next. Priorities change and so does the list, but you need some view in order to manage resources accurately.

Finally, Pawel said that his team had had to make many changes to the software, working alongside the vendor (and he didn’t tell us who it was, or if he did I didn’t write it down), in order to make their solution do exactly what they wanted. He recommended that we should all do the same and add the features we wanted even if they don’t exist at the moment. “Don’t hesitate to improve your tools,” he said. “PPM vendors will follow.”

Photo of Gerald

A pretty bad photo of Gerald Morin from UPEC presenting at the Gartner Summit, June 2014

What do you do if you need staff, students and the global research community to all have access to collaborate on projects, but without making everything complicated or publicly available? If you are Gérald Morin, you implement a suite of Microsoft solutions.

Gérald, Quality and Methods Manager at the Université Paris-Est Créteil (UPEC), delivered a case study at the Gartner PPM & IT Governance Summit last month. He explained that UPEC is the largest multi-disciplinary university in Paris with 30k students, 1600 professors, 13 schools and 31 research centres. Situated 20 minutes from the city centre, it runs international programmes and Masters courses taught in English as well.

Once they recognised that they needed a professional suite of tools to make university-wide (and global) projects work effectively, they defined their requirements. Gérald said these were:

  • It must be simple
  • It must be based on Office 365
  • It must offer transparency
  • It must manage user access, including for teams and individuals outside the university due to international research projects
  • It must be quick to implement
  • It must foster cross-team collaboration
  • It must offer portfolio management
  • It must contribute to the initiative to professionalise the way projects are managed at the university.

Addressing the challenges

Prior to embarking on this tool selection exercise, the university had no project management tools in place at all. They wanted to improve processes, tools, methods, training and reporting as well as introducing portfolio management. They might have had very little in place along these lines but Gérald said that there was already a clear governance model. “For UPEC governance is defined by the strategic documentation,” he explained. They needed to align their PPM solution with the university’s 5 year strategic plan and this formed the basis for how they set rules for managing projects.

Getting the basics right

The project team implemented several solutions to form the basis of their professional PPM suite:

  • Microsoft Project Online
  • Microsoft Project Professional
  • Microsoft Project Web App
  • Microsoft SharePoint Online
  • Microsoft Lync
  • CS Task Board App
  • CS Milestone Trend Analysis App

That sounds a lot, but the aim was to start with a small amount of functionality and then add more. Document management, dashboards, access to reference materials and scheduling functionality was on the cards.

Between May and September 2013 the team introduced all this including setting up the guiding principles, methods and document repository. However, they knew that getting people to manage projects in the new way wouldn’t happen without some organisational change management as well.

They introduced training about the culture of project management and then offered tool-specific training too.

Photo of bag

My bag of goodies from the Gartner summit

Managing the portfolio

One of the biggest benefits, from what Gérald said, was that now the complete portfolio can be viewed on a single screen. The resources breakdown structure shows the hierarchy of UPEC. The President and Directors can see all projects, Directors of departments can see just their teams’ projects and so on.

New project opportunities are given a score which assists with prioritisation. This means that the staff and board can decide which projects they want to move ahead with – a degree of transparency the university didn’t have before.

What’s next?

So far the university has seen an increase in productivity, improved communications and time savings. They’ve added in scheduling tools now. The plan Gérald shared at the Summit said that they were going to carry out an audit of what had been achieved in June and would then add generic resource management assuming all was well. Then there are plans to check progress again in a formal way before adding in cost management as Phase 3.

“Sharing documents is very important,” he concluded. “The transparent project status lets you ask teams how they are managing their projects and to help them. You can be much closer to your teams.”

I attended the Summit as a guest of Genius Project.

1 comment

Gartner Panel Debate

At the Gartner PPM & IT Governance Summit last month I sat in on a panel discussion between Sajan Parihar who leads the project and portfolio business at Microsoft and Patrick Tickle, EVP of Products at Planview. The moderator put a question up on a slide and Sajan and Patrick had a few seconds to choose their answer from printed cards. Quite an interesting way of doing a panel debate, I thought, and it kept everyone on time and focused!

Here’s what they had to say, along with my take on the topics discussed.

Statement: PPM practices are changing along with end user expectations, technology and development methods.

Patrick: Strongly agree

Patrick said that traditional project and portfolio management is certainly big, but his business has seen lots of interest in workforce management. There’s also a change to the Software As A Service model and increasing adoption by line of business users. Lots of project management software users are not ‘classically trained’ and companies now operate at different speeds of business so this has resulted in dramatic change.

Sajan: Disagree

He said that things aren’t changing fast enough. There is too much talk of silos and integrated project and portfolio management is what people want. Programme and portfolio tools are only used by 20% of users with the remaining 80% needing work management tools like task lists. There is advancing capability but it’s been slow to gain take up.

My view: They’re both right!

Personally I have seen project management practices change massively over the last 10 years. Or at least I have seen innovations in the project management space – of course, not everyone has taken these up and they don’t fit with every business model. But when it comes to project management software it is certainly true that the majority of features go unused by the majority of users. You’ll always end up with some power users but it’s a small number of people in the organisation who do portfolio management. A few more do programme management, more do project management and the rest need task management solutions, or nothing.

Statement: PPM and other IT software providers currently struggle to meet all of the various work management needs triggered by these changing practices.

Patrick: Agree

Patrick said that it’s hard for one product to meet everyone’s needs. There is a big move in the marketplace around how different products come together.

Sajan: Agree

He said that they see customers using multiple solutions in the same organisation. Portfolio and work management systems need to integrate with social and collaboration tools. We are still thinking of products. As you migrate solutions to the cloud, more will be made of services instead of products. He also said that one vendor can meet the needs of several customer segments if you have different ‘views’. So for each role profile the display is different. You also need to consider how these are accessed and have a view for each device.

My view: Agree

It’s something I’ve been saying for a while: some kind of portal technology to integrate various project management systems will be a market changer. Who wants to use a project scheduling tool that’s got a half-rate timesheet system bolted on? I’d rather have best of breed time recording software that integrates seamlessly with my scheduling app and uses single sign on so I don’t have to remember multiple passwords.

Photo of stairs

Fancy chandelier in the stairwell at the Lancaster Hotel, London, where the Summit was held

Statement: Agile methods will eclipse and render today’s existing PPM technology obsolete. This will result in a proliferation of newer work management methods and software systems that will emerge to support differing levels and types of change demanded by the business.

Patrick: Disagree

He said that waterfall methods and non-Agile ways of working will be around for some projects for a long time.

Sajan: Disagree

Same point – Agile is great but doesn’t suit everything and we won’t be losing it any time soon.

My view: Strongly disagree

There wasn’t much dissent about this topic. The general consensus in the room was that Agile is hugely beneficial but not appropriate for some times of projects like defence or construction so we’ll be using other methods for them for a while yet.

Statement: The pace of change and the needs of businesses to change continue to increase demand for projects and programmes and not always with an increase in funding or resources.

Patrick: Agree

He said Planview have found themselves doing triple the business with the same number of staff. Every one of his clients has seen more investment in project and portfolio management because of thee pace of change.

Sajan: Strong agree

Sajan said that there are so many drivers for change including globalisation that whether you are a large or small business there is an increased desire to work in a projectised way. He said that software providers were not going to struggle to meet this need and the changing business practices. That part is only changing code and he was confident that good software developers in any company could do that. However, it will be a struggle to get the people part right and the change in business model will be the hard thing.

My view: Agree

It’s kind of hard to disagree with this. I’m sure you’ve seen in your business the requirement to do more with less and to take on extra work, but without increasing headcount or spending. Sajan’s point about the people impact of making projects work really struck a chord with me though. It really isn’t about the software tools or project document templates. If you don’t get the people on side, your PPM initiatives are never going to work.

I attended the Gartner Summit as a guest of Genius Project.

Selfie at the Gartner PPM & IT Governance Summit, London

Selfie at the Gartner PPM & IT Governance Summit, London

On Monday I attended the Gartner PPM & IT Governance Summit in London. Richard Hunter from Gartner was one of the speakers during the opening keynote and he said that when the Standish Group’s first Chaos report came out in the 1990’s it flagged project management as the largest risk facing businesses at the time. Today, however, project management practices have matured and now organisational change is the biggest risk for businesses.

He shared some research that Gartner had done about the perception of IT value and said that 5 things were statistically significant when it comes to whether people feel IT projects were worth it or not. They are:

  • Needs identification
  • Transparent investment
  • Business process re-engineering and organisational change management
  • Application delivery
  • Measurement.

In other words, if you get these 5 things right you’ll have more chance of your projects being rated as successful by your stakeholders.

Richard’s comments on delivery were interesting. He said that most people execute 70% of the time – that’s to say that they do what they say they are going to do and hit the on time, on budget, on scope targets set. If you want to be part of the group that execute 90% of the time you need to spend more time on needs identification and transparent investment, especially when it comes to getting resources and identifying benefits.

Focus on change

The whole conference focused on what IT Portfolio Managers and Project Office leaders could be doing better. One of the benefits of a Gartner conference is the option to book one-to-one time with one of their analysts to discuss a problem or business challenge. I arranged my time and went along wanting to discuss project communication and the perception of value. However, it was blatantly obvious from the moment I sat down that I hadn’t adequately prepared for my session. I found the analyst unhelpful – they didn’t ask questions or offer much in the way of solutions, or share any research findings that could help me take this topic further.

I left after 15 minutes as it was clear that we had both run out of things to say. Maybe I chose the wrong analyst for this topic, maybe that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with the time. It was the lowlight of my day and I left feeling really quite stupid.

Gartner banner5 areas to improve in PPM

Luckily there were lots of other sessions to make me feel better about myself and to teach me something new. Mark Langley, President and CEO of PMI took the stage in another keynote. He said that we do too much to differentiate ourselves with words: “Language influences behaviour but words confuse us sometimes.” He gave the example of how we describe project offices in loads of ways: PMO, Lean PMO, Agile PMO, Centre of Excellence and so on, giving lots of examples that to the uninitiated would mean pretty much nothing. “Focus on what’s below the label in contracts to what is the label,” he recommended.

He gave us 5 things to “do differently to help organisations succeed”:

  1. Align
  2. Simplify
  3. Invest
  4. Communicate
  5. Focus

Most of the things that organisations do, he said, are the things you do already. Only 22% of work, according to the McKinsey research he cited, is about increasing your portfolio or development work. That’s not a lot, but it seems to me that if we can improve that 22% then proportionately we’ll be making a massive difference to business results.

I’ll have some more write ups from the Summit in the next few weeks, so look out for those.

I attended the Summit as a guest of Genius Project.


How can I help you now it’s too late? [video]

Last autumn I presented (virtually) at the PMI Southern Ontario Chapter about Customer-Centric Project Management and continuous improvement as a better approach to lessons learned than the traditional project-implementation review. It was a good experience to give a presentation over webcam and audio conference, but it was weird not having immediate feedback from the people in the room as I couldn’t see if they were really interested or falling asleep.

I recorded a version of my presentation just in case technology let us down on the day. This video gives you an overview of the main points about customer-centricity that you should be aware of on your projects.


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