Tackling The Global Project Management Problem (Part 2)

In my last article on preparing for global project challenges, I addressed a few of the soft skills, addressing cultural differences and basic mismatches in business environments. For this second installment, I thought I’d share a few concrete ideas for tackling some of these issues — things that can make a real difference, and aren’t that hard to put into play. To keep on a theme, I’ll focus on strategies to tackle the common, core issue raised in my first article: communication and execution.

Recap: Face Up To Communication Problems

Last month I pointed out that we have to deal with a lot more than language barriers with global projects. For example, in some cultures, speaking openly is not to be expected, in any setting. Furthermore, communication is often strongly augmented with non-verbal cues that simply don’t come across the telephone or email channels. The very method someone uses to communicate often carries an important message in and of itself — “reading between the lines” and picking up on the myriad of non-English, non-verbal hints is critical. It takes time and often a great deal of experience on an individual level.

Doing everything we can to remove ambiguity from project communications can be a huge help. One of the first things I generally want to take a close look at are the techniques and processes used to manage a project. Most of the time, they are not adequate for one reason: They weren’t designed to support a global, multi-cultural organization.

Tools Do Help

Let’s consider some of the common problems stemming from communications issues:

  1. Assignments don’t get handled correctly
  2. Nobody seems to know what’s going on
  3. There is no single place to go to find out how well (or how poorly) things are going
  4. Sometimes people don’t seem to be working effectively
  5. Things that aren’t important get attention, while things that are, don’t

These are problems that almost every organization has dealt with at some stage in its life. The typical global project almost always faces them, and often, fails to address the root cause, and then keeps right on stumbling over the problem. Making a few strategic changes to your process, and your tool set, can help dramatically.

Use The Right Tools For The Job

Many organizations use email inappropriately. Email is easy to fall back on as the main communication avenue when everyone isn’t in the same office building. For example, I’ve seen engineers jump in response to a new product idea from the CEO. This leads to circumventing the project management effort, often misdirects the lead engineer, and easily puts a project off-track. After all, what’s an engineer going to do — tell the CEO to go through channels and keep working on today’s mundane task, or jump on a new, exciting idea straight from the top?

Equally damaging is responding to every customer “fire drill” that comes up. Email invariably leads to rapid-fire emergency drills, often at a very high cost. Customer service sends an email to engineering, and engineering jumps to respond — in the process, putting current tasks on hold and upsetting schedules (not to mention the engineers themselves).

Stop using email for project communications, requirements, design and, above all, assignment of work. Email is a fantastic communication tool — but it’s not the right job for communicating work items on a project. It has a poor audit trail, as you never know who did or did not read it, emailed tasks cannot be prioritized or captured in a work management system, and at the end of the day, they’re just unreliable.

Instead of trying to stay on top of a dynamic, changing organization with email, use an appropriate work management system. There’s great news here: In today’s market there are fantastic systems available to handle requirements management, task management, project planning, customer communications, resources and more. In fact, probably the most daunting challenge is simply getting enough information to make an informed decision and choose the right tool. Cost is always a concern, but make sure adequate due diligence goes into analysis of the tools. Picking the wrong product can easily create problems. For instance, some tools may work well with your project management process, whereas others may not fit smoothly. In this latter case, people end up working outside the system — and that usually means sending emails to each other.

Use The Right Estimation Tools

Also critically important in a global project context is taking a long, hard look at the techniques you follow for project estimation. Make sure that your estimation methods take into account the complexities of a global team — this means accounting for inefficient communication and dramatically variant resource cost.

Be wary of estimation methods that focus only on the short term. “Burndown” estimates that provide visibility into the next thirty days are a leading source of project overrun and schedule slippage. An appropriately planned global project needs to communicate the goals of the project throughout the team. This includes setting very real objectives and milestones. If the milestones are variable and tend only to establish goals in the short term these become the only measures of success for the team — in other words, hitting the thirty day goal means success, because other yardsticks have not been established.

Wildly variant resource costs must also be accounted for. It’s one thing when every engineer gets paid more-or-less the same salary. When facing a dynamic, global team where costs can vary by a factor of ten, cost overruns become a very real threat. Simple estimation methods such as burndown estimates neglect these issues on two fronts. First, they don’t establish an adequate project baseline, and second, they don’t measure resource cost and progress against the baseline.

Make sure that the estimation methodology you use is adequate to the project at hand. Keep “burndown” estimates confined to projects that are either free of cost constraints, or at least operating on reasonably small budgets — so that cost overruns won’t hurt the organization.

Pay Close Attention To Metrics

Metrics tend to be a sore point with many teams. Mostly, at least in my experience, this comes from the assumption that measuring and keeping on top of project status requires a lot of work, and requires capturing a lot of data that nobody wants to capture. This is just plain wrong.

The fact is, almost every organization I’ve worked with is already capturing the data they need. It just isn’t being used right. The basic information needed to estimate tasks and monitor progress of the project as a whole is usually already in the system — it’s just a matter of getting at the data and building the right kind of reports. For example, most popular project management tools that tout themselves as being “agile” tend not to bundle reports for EVM metrics, baseline comparison, and project cost overruns. This is certainly the case with Atlassian’s JIRA, an excellent product that I’ve frequently put to use on large scale projects. Fortunately, the data recorded by systems such as JIRA gives us everything we need to perform more advanced metrics analysis. We know the original task goals, it’s planned schedule and it’s actual schedule, and can derive planned cost. That’s all we need.

Staying on top of the metrics and measuring against original project baselines translates into a very tangible return: You know your project health at any point in time. You know if you are slipping the schedule, if project cost is increasing, if too many changes are being made, or if too many defects are being discovered. If you can’t answer these questions you aren’t on top of your project.

Prioritize And Balance Dynamically

Finally a note about traditional, static project planning. Project plans are out of date before the ink is dry. Make sure that your project management process and your tools take this into account. Whatever tool you are using, it needs to generate the supporting project artifacts for you — not the other way around. In other words, if you find yourself wondering “how can I keep this Microsoft Project file in-sync with the project,” you’re looking at the wrong end of the equation. Instead, your project tools should be constantly in-sync with the actual state of the project — and if you’re favorite view of the project happens to be a Gantt chart, then your project tool should spit out an accurate one at the click of a button. Let the computer do the number crunching and formatting. You need to concentrate on managing the project, the people, and the global organization challenges that your team faces on a daily basis.

Creating a truly collaborative, communicating team cannot be accomplished with tools alone. While the tips I’ve offered above are sure to help, they won’t address all of the challenges a global project team faces — but they will give you a starting point.

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