A dinosaur’s dilemma

There is a constant push & pull between delivery and continuous improvement. Immediate value is palpable wherever there is shipping.

Work related to improving processes, tweaking tools, adapting communication or working on relations is often sacrificied on the time-to-market altar.

In this world delivery is king.

But once in a while we get reminded about black swans (like the dot-com bubble or disputedly – the current pandemic) or a new aproach to managing projects is born (like Agile). Things like that change our way of working, force us to shift our perspective.

So when “lost in delivery”, it is sometimes worthwhile considering a dinosaur’s dilemma – should I be interested more in finding a fresh new tree to feed on or… “what is that falling star on the sky?”

Ruling emotions

Alain de Botton on Emotional Education @The School of Life
Source: https://youtu.be/W9X7u-MeJz0

“Whenever you are talking about your project, you seem to be sad,” my friend’s words struck me like lightening. Sadness was clearly not the emotion I wanted to stir up with relation to the initiative I felt responsible for. Sadness brings us dangerously close to doubt. Ideally, change should be linked with hope rather than fear, and doubt. Granted, some longer projects seem to run forever and project participants might become anxious – concerned about the end result, tired of the pressure of time, the constant stream of challenges. But this is something we, as project managers, should find ways to counter. Even when circumstances are tough. After all, we are supposed to manage the change. Of course, a sense of urgency by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But we should deal with any negative emotions arising from or exacerbated by that change. Best – before they even appear. The worst thing we can do is allow them to rule us.

Personally, I link maturity with the ability to manage one’s emotions. Consider this for a moment – what’s typical in a child’s behavior? Emotions control the child rather than the other way round. Tantrums are one noticeable example. By contrast, a responsible leader seems to roam the sea of organizational challenges steadily, seemingly emotion-less, wielding emotions like a weapon or tool, drawing upon them only when required. The leader’s stability, predictability with respect to her emotions provides a solid ground for all the leaps the team has to make. Instability fosters doubt and mistrust. A positive outlook will be shared, so will a negative one.

See also
I Made A Mistakehttps://progressblog.com/2012/04/07/i-made-a-mistake/
The Stage is for the Childhttps://progressblog.com/2008/08/07/the-stage-is-for-the-child/

Why vs. What

Road leading into fog

Whenever a client wants us to start a new venture with them, to initiate a project together, we work on defining business requirements (apart from making sure there is a business case in the first place). Traditionally, Business requirements form the “what” of the project. They provide an explanation on what should be built to achieve the expected return on investment. It is uncommon to find a detailed, technical description there. From a technical perspective, finding a flowchart or field definitions in a BRD (Business Requirements Document) is rare. As the document is owned by the client and often prepared by her, as professionals on the supplier’s side, we often expect from our customers not to cross the thin line between the “what” and the “how”. Figuring out the “how” is the supplier’s job. It’s the space where he can analyze the work at hand, translate the more general, business perspective into functions, data structures and flows, paired with interfaces required to interact with the future solution. Among others. This is how functional requirements are born. They form a pair – business “reqs” and functional “reqs,” they should directly relate to one another, where business requirements are the “what” and the functional requirements – the “how.” In a way, the BRD is part of a mandate to start a project, whereas the FRD (Functional Requirements Document) – a contract describing how the project result is to be built.

Here’s the challenge. Agile is founded on the premise that suppliers and customers are able to work out requirements collaboratively in the form of user stories, maintained in a backlog of remaining work, detailed iteratively as needed – based on priority / proximity, aligning in tight iterations and frequent feedback. In theory this is faster as there is no dichotomy . In practice… I have yet to see this work well.

Granted, agile requires sufficient organizational maturity with the new artifacts, events, and roles – Product Owners able to own the backlog, empowered and knowledgeable enough to detail requirements and decide on priorities.

But I haven’t seen many Product Owners like that. Plus, with increasing complexity of the business landscape and progressing specialization, they simply cannot be know-it-alls, right? Even having sufficient business acumen, they won’t be able to drill down to technical levels detailed enough to provide a sound basis for development work.

How do we deal with this? From my perspective this is Agile’s uncharted land, that’s where “there be dragons.” Pre-sprints, parallel analytical sprints are just means to patch this up. The issue possibly requires several “whys” before we reach the root cause. My bet is that complete functional requirements are a necessity that cannot be neglected, and that they should form a response to whatever the business requests. Having agreed functional requirements we can expect viable “work packages” which can be decomposed, estimated, and developed with a higher degree of accuracy.

Backlogs or schedules?

“The schedule model simulates distinct scenarios and situations that predict milestones and completion dates according to the project’s actual and future data input by the project team. It is an important tool used for communication and managing stakeholder expectations.”

From Practice Standard For Scheduling, third edition, PMI

What do you find better? An ordered stack (a backlog) or a sequence of actives of varied length (a schedule)? Agile advocates the former, with waterfall we got used to the latter.

It’s easier to move items up and down in a stack. Rescheduling takes more time as you have to maintain logic (dependencies). On the other hand, a schedule allows us to see how activities relate to each other. Based on estimates – which are part of any schedule by definition – one can easily tell when to expect what. Of course, with relation to time a schedule is only a prognosis. The sequence in a schedule, however, provides value by itself – allowing the involved to see how tasks refer to one another. A work organization tool. And a useful one at that.

Lists focus on work in progress.
Schedules focus on relations and dependencies.

Lists draw attention to the work at hand.
Schedules show us how late we are, in addition to the above.

For a one-man band a list is fine. That’s my view. Where there’s teamwork involved, I prefer a schedule. And so do my customers – when asked, I can instantly tell them not only how much work remains (same goes for backlogs), but what the estimated duration is, and what the key milestone dates are.

I am in favour of new approaches. Sometimes a new approach is just a stepping stone towards something better. Better than schedules.

2 weeks ahead

You can clearly see a difference between two projects – the first one has a deadline two weeks ahead, the second – is months away from completion. The stakes are almost irrelevant. They might be high on both projects. From my perspective the only difference is… time. Time builds sense of urgency in practice. If the team perceives there is little time to spare, subjective priority increases. I’ve heard a VP of a large firm say “it’s a good thing there is little time, the guys will increase the pace so us to deliver on schedule”.

This is why we have the student syndrome (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Student_syndrome) in the first place. Time creates urgency.

Lesson learned – one of the most important things I can do on my projects is to work on “sense of urgency” as a daily practice – if you are able to convince your team that there is precious little time, you might be able to create this sense of urgency even though your go-live is months away. On the other hand, if everyone believes there’s still plenty of time, you are likely to fail.


My friend told me a story recently…

From “me” to “we”

101003 iStock_000011857357XSmallHis son, a 13 year old boy, is involved in sailing as a sport. For the majority of his youth, he used to sail alone. There came a time, where the class he was in couldn’t contain him any longer and he faced a decision — to join a team or drop sailing altogether. He went for the former. Instead of being captain and crew member in one, he got himself a partner. Soon afterwards problems appeared — it seemed his new crew member wasn’t equally involved and results began to suffer. My friend’s son made attempts to distance himself from decreasing results – he did what he could himself, and the other guy… not as much. Needless to say, turning his back on the problem, didn’t make the problem disappear. At one moment, his father had a talk with him:

“Listen, I understand you are doing your best, and it’s frustrating to see results diminish, but separating yourself from your crew won’t get you anywhere. You are your crew, the world perceives you as one. The sooner you start working as a team, embracing both the good and the not-so-good, the sooner results will follow.”

Remote teams

We find ourselves in increasingly multicultural work environments. It’s good when there is a mix in the physical sense, where people benefit from the variety of perspectives in person. This makes it easier to learn about each other, not to mention — from each other.

With new communication tools, there is a temptation to look for ‘the best of both worlds’ by setting up remote teams scattered among countries or continents. While this allows companies to pursue cheaper work offshore or embrace the follow-the-sun principle, this approach allows for less space to create mutual understanding and build trust based on everyday situations. There is no physical connection.

When discussing multinational remote teams the expression “necessary evil” seems to hang in the air. One country requests work to be done, the other is supposed to provide results — when you spice such expectations with cultural differences, and stress, remote teams of this kind become everything but effective. But that’s not the main problem.

Stuck with each other

I love the notion of being stuck with each other. It’s a starting point, a fixed setting. This means there is no other choice, but to learn how to build using the available means. If you lock two enemies in one room, given space and time, they might just start learning — one about the other, and based on even the smallest resemblance of trust… they might start cooperating. Of course, it would be best if these weren’t enemies, as attitude plays a role. But this is an extreme situation chosen to make a point.

In practice, trust is the key ingredient. It’s difficult to build trust without a physical connection. How to make it happen? Here are several strategies:

  1. Shared values — to have a common goal above all differences
  2. Shared cellebrations — to show there are reasons to be happy together
  3. Physical bridges — to respect face time for building trust by meeting in person or at least seeing each other as often as possible

Don’t be a project manager

I don’t think project management works. I believe making things happen works. In other words it’s not about the title, it’s about being an entrepreneur. As a sponsor I want to trust you to do whatever possible to make the next big thing a reality, I want you to act on my behalf. What it takes is commitment, perseverance and a can-do attitude. This is why I want you to manage risks, consider the roadblock around the corner, be flexible and accessible. I want you to know the important details, and only the important details, I want you to prioritize better than the rest. I want you to be a generalist – to consider options and aspects that could get lost otherwise. I want you to learn constantly as an entrepreneur would.
The rest… the “project manager’s toolbox”… that would make a nice cherry on top.

Depending on the organizational level from which you are looking at a project the tendency is to focus either on solving the problem directly or escalating the lack of a solution to that problem.

People directly involved in a project tend to focus on seeking solutions and resort to escalations when it’s late.

Those from middle or top management are more prone to escalate early — most likely because they lack details or specialist knowledge to understand the nature of the problem.


One way to invest in one’s future is by setting up hooks — future launching pads for career changes. This is particularly advisable when there are relatively few personal and professional obligations in our lives, i.e. one can stay up late investing in a community, leave home on a Socrates program, invest long-term in interesting, passionate relationships, or write articles in the night or early mornings without sacrificing family time, time you’d normally spend with your significant other, doing homework with the kids or teaching them something otherwise.

This pays back later on, when there is less space for a running start.

The Edge

090926-jumpThere is a saying “those who want look for means, those who do not — seek for reasons”. It’s easy to say “I have no time.” I do this myself far too often. With a growing family and new demands for my time — privately and professionally — explanations are readily at hand.

Time, however, is not a resource. Time does not wait. You cannot store time either. “Saving time” is a figure of speech. As anyone or anything on our planet we are submerged in time, and it is our decisions that define whether we use this time well or not.

Efficiency for its own sake is a recipe for disaster — something I’m becoming more aware of in nowadays corporations competing on the global market. “Efficiency” is just the means. The “why” is more important.

We can become extremely efficient at doing the wrong things. Or forgetting what is truly important.