Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What are People Doing?

Perhaps the biggest difficulty in taking over a troubled (or, formerly troubled) project is knowing what people are doing and whether what they are doing is what they should be doing. Add in the staffing changes that typically take place in such a situation and you can quickly wind up with a mess where you do not know all of the people on the project, you do not know what they are doing, and you are not sure whether you will be able to meet the client commitments set forth when you took the project over. So, what can you do?

Here are several techniques that I have used to understand what is going on within a project that has experienced great turmoil. Hang on, these are not for the faint of heart.

Organizing Techniques

  1. When things are too big to get your arms around, make them smaller. Large projects are the most difficult to gain control over. I had one project where there were over 150 people working on it. One person just could not understand what everyone was doing. Nevertheless, those little organization boxes that people like to display can be helpful because they break the team down into "bite-sized chunks." You can leverage that structure to find out what people are up to. Of course, a risk here is that you do not get all of the information, but it is probably a necessity.

  2. Begin collecting information, even if it is not completely organized. A lot of times, plans are still being created or "worked." That means, people are just doing things that they think need to be done. You need to find out what that is. Scrum gives a valuable method for getting underneath some of what is going on. With those sub-teams, institute a scrum with the leaders (hopefully, there are not too many of them!). Initially, this can be a weekly event, even an asynchronous event if you need to do it that way. The key is to get each team to provide you with what they worked on in the prior week, what they are working on this week, and if there are any road blocks. The information can be used to link it up to any plans that are being created.

  3. Leverage the project's leadership team. You can't do it all. Let the leadership do their job and get you the information you need to understand what is going on and what time line they are working towards.

  4. Leverage the client. In theory, they know what they are asking for. Do not be afraid to ask them what they have requested of the team to date. Of course, take that advice with a grain of salt: they may try to add something that was not originally specified.

  5. Leverage your executive management. Many times, projects are creatures of many groups within an organization. Navigating the groups is time consuming and can be quite difficult. The executive team knows what these groups do and, hopefully, why they are on the team. Do not be afraid to ask them for help when you need it. After all, they asked you to take over this project on their behalf.

Information Collection and Analysis

  1. Simple is best. Use a data base, a wiki, a spreadsheet—whatever works.

  2. Use a tool you are comfortable with to collate the information. I have found that mind mapping tools work particularly well here.

  3. Collect only enough information to understand what people are doing. Leave the details for when the plan is ready. (Remember, you are trying to find out who is doing what. The plan itself is an important part of this, but if it is not in good shape, you need to understand what the team currently thinks is important—whether it is or is not.

  4. Organize the information by team, but put some intelligence into the collection. That is, if something seems interrelated, mark the relationship somehow. If you are using a mind mapping tool, a dependency link will probably do it. If you are using something like a spreadsheet, you may need to create some sort of identifier. The key is to be able to follow your logic later!

  5. Have someone else review what you have collected and get their thoughts on what you have. What do they see that is happening? Does it match what you see? If it doesn't, find another person to do the interpretation again. You may wind up with several opinions as to what is going on. You need to listen to them all and somehow judge which opinion is most trusted. Try to stay away from your own if everyone else is saying it is something different!
Understanding What You Have

  1. When you review the information you have collected, you need to see if it matches up with what has been requested of the team(s). This can be difficult if scope is not under control or is currently open. Nevertheless, this is a critical task! It is the only way you will ever know if what people are doing is what they should be doing.

  2. If things do not seem right, ask questions. People are usually more than willing to tell you why they are doing something. Just because it was not requested does not mean the task should not be done, as it may be a dependency for something that was requested.

  3. Create a scope to activity traceability matrix. This can be time consuming, but it will show you where you have gaps. This works best when the scope is reasonably defined. By understanding what should be done and matching it up to what is being done, you can re-direct efforts as necessary to protect the schedule, cost, or deliverables of the project.

Concluding Remarks

Most of the above "techniques" may seem like common sense (and they are). But, I have found them to be most useful when a project I have assumed is in a state of transition. Hopefully, you will find them useful as well.
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