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Every day, dozens of people download a business case template from my website. It has been used by universities, Fortune 100 companies and the leading management consultancies. Some people follow up with questions.

Truth be told, a template alone is not a guarantee for a great proposal or business case. I have compiled a list of thirty tips that should be useful for managers, business development and sales people, and anyone else potentially facing the need to develop one.

1. Your case should have an objective: a real problem you are looking to resolve or an opportunity you are looking to take advantage of. Be clear on the raison d’être for your case. Rolling out a CRM system is not an objective but one of the alternatives; improving client affinity and increasing sales per client may be a legitimate objective.

2. Your perception of something being a problem or an opportunity may be entirely different from that of the decision makers. If you believe you are right and they just aren’t aware, do an exceptional work in explaining it so that they understand. Often, we see people spending months working on a case for a problem that they believe exists just to hear from a decision maker: “Look, this is really a non-issue.” Before embarking on a proposal, check upstairs if the issue is seen as warranting attention.

3. The size of a business case is not something you should be concerned about. Concentrate on the content instead, tell the story. The case should adequately present your proposal and, at times, two pages will be too many and, at times, two hundred pages will be too few.

4. Always present more than one alternative within your business case. What is the right number? Three or four should do it.

5. Do not introduce weak “straw man” alternatives which try to steer the decision makers towards the solution you favour. It is usually obvious.

6. I cannot stress this enough: do your absolute best in creating strong, viable alternatives, well thought through and diverse. If you don’t, a decision maker may introduce one during the presentation, which will be embarrassing and require time to evaluate. If that doesn’t happen, the decision will be limited to a potentially incomplete, deficient set, of which Shakespeare said “There’s small choice in rotten apples.”

7. Always recommend one of the alternatives. Firstly, because you are the author of the case, you will be expected to know more about it than anybody else and, hence, know which option is the best. Secondly, even if the decision makers disagree with your recommendation, you will at least have shown them that you have an opinion, which commands respect.

8. Every proposal has its audience. Choose the language so that they don’t have to work too hard to understand what you are saying. If the audience is external to your department, division or company, increasingly more detail will be required. The jargon, the acronyms, the oh-so-obvious to you process flows may need to be explained in fine detail. Conversely, if the case is for internal consumption only, there is no point in explaining obvious everyday things.

9. Different people think differently: some are big picture strategists, others are detail oriented. Some are risk-averse and others like the challenge of the unknown. People make decisions using their internal frames of reference, which are formed through juxtaposition of cultural norms, values, education, life experiences, memes, current events, and so on. An author of a business case will be best served to understand how the target decision makers tend to make decision, so that she could structure her message accordingly.

10. Expose key decision makers to findings as you go about developing the case to gauge their reaction and adjust the course if needed. If your proposal or business case has a sponsor, such as a senior executive, avoid surprising them at all cost.

11. Make your audience “own” important or contentious data. For example, obtain sales projections or cost assumptions from the head of the business unit, CFO or COO. If they or their subordinates are among the decision makers, not only will these numbers be challenged, the people who provided them will likely feel compelled to support your case.

12. Know your numbers cold.

13. Take the time to determine where the opposition is likely to come from and prepare to address most likely concerns. There is really no excuse for being unprepared.

14. If you are writing a proposal in response to a client’s request, remember that most clients know what they want, but few know what they need (for this reason, RFPs are a wrong vehicle for acquiring consulting services).Time invested to understand the real needs will pay off handsomely as in many cases you will be able to expand the scope significantly. Even if you cannot do that, for example, due to time constraints, always offer the client a choice of an alternative that delivers incredible value at a price above the stated budget.

15. Use the business case format with which is already adopted in the organization. If there isn’t one, you can download free business case template from my web site.

16. Be concise, clear, logical and persuasive in style.

17. When unsure how much of the numerical data (eg projections, pro forma earnings, etc) to present in a live meeting, start with summaries but always have detailed information in your back pocket. Likewise, in a written case, it is a good idea not to burden the write-up with extensive tables or derivations but to attach them as appendices.

18. Always identify your sources of data.

19. Ensure that your data sources are reliable. Despite the proven accuracy of Wikipedia, it is best not to use it as a source if information because its validity can be easily questioned.

20. Never cast blame or accuse anyone (e.g. past management, departed project teams, third parties, etc) for the current condition. It is irrelevant and can lead to unintended consequences, like in “You know, the former project lead you have just lambasted is the CFO’s wife…”

21. If your proposal or business case includes financial cost-benefit analysis, as most of them should, use the method which your organization is familiar with.

22. If you have a choice of a method of financial cost-benefit analysis, make sure you understand pros, cons and limitations of each of them. Not every method is appropriate for every situation. As a primer, this two-part article should be useful.

23. If you are not familiar with financial cost-benefit analysis methodologies, engage external help. Contrary to a common belief, this is not a job for an accountant. The cost of doing this is negligible compared to that of possible ramifications of it not being done right.

24. Two key principles to keep in mind for your cost-benefit analysis: realism and attribution (only consider effects directly attributable to the proposed course of action).

25. Cost-benefit analysis should not be limited to financial considerations. Consider the wide variety of benefits (or costs, which are reverse): industry leadership, strategic advancement, increased capacity, improved safety, reduced environmental impact, introduction of best industry practices, improved image, benefits to a friendly third party, doing the right thing, and so on.

26. Beware of the cost-cutting mindset, which stifles innovation and breeds self-censorship. Costs and benefits should be considered in a holistic, balanced manner, so that penny pinching does not eclipse blazing non-financial wins your proposal may offer. For this reason, I advise organizations against establishing arbitrary hurdle rates (e.g. “To be considered, you proposal need to show IRR of 20 per cent”).

27. No business case or proposal is complete without a risk assessment for each of the alternatives presented. Consider both likelihood and impact of each risk and be realistic in your assessment.

28. The key to adequate risk assessment is a stakeholder analysis done well.

29. Be prepared to discuss the business case in three different settings: a 30-second status update, a 5-minute brief with questions and answers, and a 30-minute presentation. I also advise managers, project managers and team leads to be ready for these three types of communication at all times. Caveat: there is usually a fair warning for the presentation, so that you have the time to think it through and prepare.

30. When you present your proposal, questions will be about implementation are likely. The popular topics are resources and timing. Often, you will already have explored these items, which will enable you to provide an informed answer. If you haven’t, think before the session how you would respond. Answers that don’t go well: “We don’t know yet”, “We will decide later”, or “We haven’t thought of that. ”

I have just finished presenting a teleconference on time management for managers and executives, titled “The Closed Door Policy. ” We talked about 11 reasons behind the widespread phenomenon of being chronically busy and a couple of dozens ways, neatly organized in three categories to get one’s life back.

Here are the reasons for so many people being in this pickle:

  1. You are a funnel. Nothing happens unless you know about it or have to give a go-ahead.
  2. Your choice of decision making approach is often incorrect.
  3. You lack adequate support structure (people, tools, processes)
  4. Your priorities are not clear: you either don’t know what to do next or everything is a priority. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
  5. You believe that you need to constantly do “real work” because thinking and strategizing is not really work at all.
  6. You do things that don’t need to be done.
  7. There is a lack of trust between you and people around you: peers, subordinates and superiors.
  8. You constantly look for confirmation and consensus building where it is not required.
  9. You are holding on to your baggage of an expert (typical for an engineer who has been promoted to a manager).
  10. You cannot say “no” to anyone.
  11. You procrastinate.
I am happy to share with you my new article, published by today.
“An Executive’s primer on Knowledge Management” contains a wealth of practical advice and reflects not only my experience and beliefs but also those of the three KM authorities I recently interviewed.
I trust you will find it valuable.

(Published by The Mark News here)

IT doesn’t have to be so hard. Here are 10 tips on getting the most from your IT department.

Isn’t technology wonderful? My phone has more processing power than an average school board could hope for just 15 years ago. I can stay in touch with the world; I can collaborate and do client work from my boat or a remote shoreline. New technologies become available almost on a daily basis, and even before the iPad was released earlier this month (to a surprisingly positive review from Walt Mossberg), some tablet contenders were quick to identify themselves to the world.

That said, when dealing with their IT departments, even the leading companies are having as many if not more challenges today as they were 10, 15, or 20 years ago. The typical sentiments of business leaders are as follows:

  • “IT is basically a black hole for money” (as one CFO put it to me);
  • “Whenever I want to take advantage of a business opportunity and need to move quickly, I know that IT will be in the way. It makes us uncompetitive”;
  • “They don’t understand the language of business priorities and finance”;
  • “Instead of doing what’s best for the business, they seem to focus on yet another methodology, a fad of the day that has little if any tangible business value”;
  • “IT projects are often misguided and run late and over-budget”;
  • “They hide behind their procedures and processes and are unwilling to make an exception, no matter how urgent.”

If any of this sounds familiar to you, you may have reconciled yourself to the belief that this is just the way IT works.

If that’s the case, you’re being shortchanged. In today’s highly competitive environment, you can’t afford a function that underperforms in such a consistent manner. It’s no surprise that organizations across the wide spectrum of industries are outsourcing their IT departments in search of a reliable business partner. Outsourcing is often not the answer to these issues, as much of the valuable tacit knowledge becomes lost in the transition and the projected cost savings may be elusive.

What’s a CEO to do? How do you turn it around? Based on extensive work in this area, here are my top 10 recommendations:

  1. Hire a business-minded CIO who can translate the strategy of your organization into the strategy of her department.
  2. Insist that IT strategy is not merely a list of nebulous intentions but rather a target supported by a list of concrete steps (projects) with concrete timelines and responsibilities.
  3. Demand that IT speak the language of the business. They must be able to present a solid business case and understand key financial metrics (NPV, ROI, etc.) and strategy. They must be intimately familiar with the state of your industry, key pressure points, and emerging priorities.
  4. Encourage the CIO to hire talented, extraordinary people, not just carbon copies of the staff she already has.
  5. Encourage the CIO to become a technology thought-leader within the organization. Charge her with promoting technology skills to improve performance across the board.
  6. Aspire to see your IT grow into an innovation powerhouse. You really don’t want an expensive support department, but a group that propels the business past the competition through the knowledgeable application of technology is an incredibly valuable asset.
  7. Establish a project prioritization mechanism to avoid the confusion of conflicting priorities and turf wars.
  8. Appoint project managers not for the designations, the years in the industry, or the narrow systems knowledge they may boast but for their business acumen and ability to drive the project forward and over the hurdles that will inevitably occur, as well as to synthesize and communicate.
  9. Give your IT business challenges and results, not technical support orders. Instead of “We need to implement a business intelligence solution from X,” ask, “What can we do to ensure that we get our segment sales information in the most expedient, scalable, and timely manner?” If you have tried and the result fell short of your expectations, you don’t have the IT department you need and deserve.
  10. Draw on external experience. Resourcefulness and self-reliance are commendable, but the exclusively internal locus is detrimental. How will the best practices and ideas enter the organization if they are not actively sought out?

If you are an owner or an executive of a business today, you simply cannot afford not to act on sub-par performance. IT can be complex, but it doesn’t have to be difficult.

A couple of days ago I interviewed Michael Elkins, the President of Kestral Group LLC, a Denver, Colorado-based consulting company that delivers strategic knowledge and content management related services to a global list of clients.

Michael and I discussed the key success factors in knowledge management (KM) initiatives, how to create the culture of knowledge sharing, the typical pitfalls of KM projects, why Schlumberger saw this as an important direction and other like topics.

Mr. Elkins has over 18 years of experience working with organizations in numerous industries to establish successful knowledge-based programs. Prior to founding Kestral Group Mr. Elkins held executive and consulting roles with FileNet Corporation, Convergent Group and Schlumberger, a MAKE award winner, where he honed his skills and delivered KM services for global clients.

His areas of expertise include:
• Social Network Analysis
• Information Architecture / Taxonomy
• Enterprise Content Management and Collaboration
• Compliance

You are about to listen to a recording of my conversation with Douglas Weidner, Chairman of the Knowledge Management Institute (KMI).

Douglas Weidner is a pioneering KM practitioner.  He is a respected KM consultant, columnist, speaker and mentor.  He co-founded the first KM professional society and is a past president of its Washington, DC-based Chapter.

Formerly a Chief Knowledge Engineer at Northrop Grumman. Among his clients are World Bank, the UN, NASA, the World Health Organization and many other government agencies and commercial firms. 

Full Bio (PDF)

Some of the topics we chatted about include:

–         the right place to start a KM initiative

–         how to encourage grassroots projects

–         how to avoid throwing millions of dollars out of the window

–         who should lead KM work at the executive level

–         the future of KM

Tune in !

Later this year, I am conducting a webinar on the art of dispute as a part of the Excellence in Leadership series.  If you have ever been in a situation where you knew that your opponent was wrong but couldn’t effectively argue his point of view, you know why this is a highly valuable skill.  This morning, I was jotting down some most salient points for this session and thought that I should share one with you today.

We make decisions on a daily basis, many times a day: how to get to Memphis, what to have for dinner, what to wear, which espresso maker to buy and so on. Similarly in a business settings, people make operating and investment decisions: which project to select, how to enter a new market, who to hire, and so on. Why doing so, in life and in business, decisions are influenced by recommenders – friends, family, experts, employees, superiors, vendors, consultants, and others.

Although not a debate per se, a recommendation is similar to it in that the other party offers an argument to support their point of view. A decision maker listens to recommendations and makes a decision.

Here is my point. Never ever accept a recommendation or an argument that you don’t understand.

I see a lot of people in a lot of organizations all charged with making decisions. It’s a commonplace occurence that they make decisions to the tune of millions of dollars based on recommendations they don’t understand: a financial workup, results of a marketing survey, sales projections, etc. It only so happens that the financial workup contains errors, the methodology behind the marketing survey is flawed and the sales projections are based on best case scenario assumptions.

The resulting decision cannot possibly be sound. The result: wasted resources, lost time, overlooked opportunities.

I think the following is in order when listening to what recommenders have to say:

– if you don’t understand something, ask for an explanation. It is not a weakness but a sign of a confident decision maker

– probe and examine the recommender’s data and assumptions carefully

– understand the recommender’s interests. What do they stand to gain from your following their recommendation? Does it influence their recommendation?

– in cases where you are not in a position to validate an argument (e.g. a financial cost-benefit analysis), ask an authority on the subject to do it for you.

– never let yourself to be forced into the thinking that there is only one alternative to be considered

– think critically and ask critical questions.

In my observation, accepting the argument that is not well understood is even more of a problem in a group setting, such as a meeting. There is an implicit pressure to agree and no one want to look ignorant by asking for an explanation. (Since everyone else is quiet, they MUST understand it. I don’t want to look stupid, so I will pretend that I do too.)

Don’t let this to happen to you. Ask questions, make the right decisions, and thrive!

This is a repost from the same day a year ago. All of these still apply.

1. It is best not to share the project plan with the project team as it leads to unnecessary and usually incredibly stupid questions.

2. Mandate that team members submit task duration estimates as precisely as possible: two decimal digits (e.g. 17.36 days) are usually sufficient but some projects may require three digits.

3. Strive to disperse project team over multiple locations: it greatly reduces the time people waste mindlessly chattering with each other.

4. In this economy, everyone ought to be able to work harder. Schedule tasks based on 10-hour days.

5. Involve the Steering Committee in day-to-day running of the project. They will tell you how much they like it.

6. When briefing the Steering Committee, it’s a good idea to declare all nearly completed tasks as completed. Ninety per cent is awfully close to 100 per cent and the Committee Members will feel encouraged.

7. Try to surprise your Project Sponsor every now and then. Rescheduling the implementation date, firing half of the team or changing the vendor half-way through should all be considered.

8. Status updates clutter mailboxes, so avoid them.

9. Get rid of those team members who disagree with you. You are in charge of a critical project and the last thing you want around is some worm questioning your decisions.

10. Don’t waste any time trying to understand the business domain. It is unimportant and is not your job.

11. A list of typical project risks can be easily obtained on the Internet. Don’t waste precious time developing it; this is merely a formality.

12. Act professionally: don’t engage in unrelated conversations with your staff and certainly avoid socializing with them. It is important to maintain a distance.

13. Information Technology is an exact, predictable field. If your programmers cannot write code without any defects, replace them.

14. To speed up negotiations with vendors, just sign their canned contracts.

15. Details are unimportant; the job of the project manager is the overall supervision.

16. Once the scope of the project is determined, ensure that it is impossible to change it.

17. A lot of people may claim to be project stakeholders. Feel free to ignore those you don’t like.

18. Encourage team members to decide for themselves what their tasks should be.

19. The best way to gauge the skill of a fellow project manager is to ask them about the largest project budget they’ve ever been responsible for.

20. Plan to release the project team on the day of implementation, to save money.

21. (Bonus) Forget that it’s April Fools’ Day and start typing an angry letter to the Editor. Remember that it’s April Fools’ Day when you’re on the third page of it!

Do these points apply to you?

  • you get 150-200 emails a day plus 30 phone calls and you are not a call centre agent but a manager or an executive
  • you routinely find yourself engaged in remediation, fixing, making sure things happen – also known as firefighting
  • you are in the narrow part of the funnel of every decision. In fact, you are the funnel – no decision seem to be possible without you
  • people come to you with problems and leave them on your desk
  • you are referred to as someone who would “make it happen” 
  • you find yourself taking on things that your admin assistant could easily do and probably should
  • you compulsively check your Blackberry, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and whatnot many times a day

What’s happening? There seem to be a couple of trends at play here.

Firstly, in the age of omni-connectedness, being available at all times seems to be de riguer even for senior executives. I get emails from people asking me if they could call me. In fact, I feel somewhat shortchanged by not receiving a text message asking for a permission to send such an email to me. The amount of traffic, the unnecessary information, the interruptions is often so great that many feel compelled to “stay after hours to actually get the work done.”

Secondly, it is exceedingly common to see people charge with strategic work descend into the mire of tactical stuff, which sometimes borders on such sheer triteness that it is beyond any criticism. Wordsmithing, filling out forms, writing vapid “status reports,” checking that staff members submitted their timesheets, meetings ad nauseum with no substance to them … you name it!

Tactical stuff is comfortable. We know how to go about it, especially if this is something we did in our previous job.

Tactical stuff is rewarding: results can be observed rather quickly: a report sent out, a problem rectified, a simple decision made.

Tactical stuff feels like “real work” of which you are not afraid.

I think it’s time to practice a closed door policy. Stop being interrupted all the time. Explain to your people and others likely to seek our time that you won’t be available for a few hours a day. Demand that people bring you solutions and not problems. Stop meddling.

Close the office door and spend a couple of hours thinking or writing. Strategize. Communicate. Raise the brand awareness and the profile of your company or department. Design.

These will be the most productive hours of your day.

This short video is a great illustration on how IT departments often communicate with other functions within their organizations. Same language, same office, same coffee… yet a world apart…

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