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Ways of Working: Reframing the Conversation About Agile
How do you get people to bottom-line the conversation about a critical initiative/project, while ensuring that none of the important details get lost? If you are talking to a senior leader how do you bring them up to speed without testing their patience?
‘Can you bottom line it for me?’ That is the CEOs favorite saying. Her management colleagues can almost predict when it will be said.
When a conversation begins to wander or to drag on, the words have the power to focus and clarify. ‘Can you bottom line it for me?’ helps people communicate the key points without getting lost in the detail or distracted by the unimportant.
It is not that ‘the boss’ cannot sit through a long meeting or let people talk when they need to be heard, but when the agenda is clear and time is limited, people can expect to be asked to ‘bottom-line it’.
Projects Need to be Bottom-Lined
Nowhere is bottom-lining it more necessary than when it comes to the process of strategic initiatives – projects.
Conversations about projects can really drag on. Naturally, people like to talk about the ‘ins and outs’ of a project, what has been done and what needs to be done, the steps involved, the obstacles they face and so on.
The people working on the initiative are so caught up in the detail that ‘bottom-lining it’ can be a challenge, especially when the audience is a senior leader.
Those Dreaded Words
‘Will you give me a few slides on the status of the project?’ Those are the words that project leaders dread hearing, especially when they are said by a key stakeholder or sponsor.
Project leaders view a request for slides or text as the minimal form of engagement, sometimes even mistaking it as a sign of disinterest.
They also fear that a few slides cannot compensate for the absence of effective dialog and are left wondering: ‘Why won’t they put a slot in their diary – they would get a lot more out of that than reading a document and I would probably get something out of it too’.
Getting senior management attention is part of the Darwinian ‘only the fittest survive’ struggle that many project initiatives face. With so many competing projects and priorities getting management support or even attention can be a battle.
With so much talk of Agile these days it is worth highlighting one of the principles involved. It says that ‘the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation‘. In other words if you embrace agile you hold this as a value and think twice about asking for ‘a few slides’. This is one of the 12 principles of Agile, but it relates to one of just 4 key tenets of the Agile Manifesto – “we value individuals and interactions over processes and tools” (as important as they may be).
‘A Few Slides Please!’
Many senior leaders would rather get a one-page summary or a few slides than sit in on a project review. They figure it is a more time effective way of getting up-to-speed.
However, our analysis points to unintended consequences:
- Senior leaders often end up with only a superficial understanding of the workings of a project and have information gaps that leave them vulnerable to shocks and surprises
- Project managers spend lots of time preparing reports or slide shows, rather than having an effective conversation. Feeling starved of engagement they often struggle to know what their stakeholders are really thinking.
Senior leaders must avoid being swamped by too much detail. Yet, leaders need to know the status of those projects upon which the success of their strategies depend. Our analysis shows that this is far from the norm.
The Need for ‘Portfolio Intelligence’
There is an ‘intelligence’ for everything these days – social intelligence, emotional intelligence, collaborative intelligence and so on. We would argue that there is another intelligence that is equally necessary for leaders – we call it “portfolio intelligence”. It is an awareness and sensitivity to what is happening within key projects and initiatives across the Project Portfolio.
Portfolio Intelligence is something that leaders must develop – most simply don’t know enough about what is happening in key projects and initiatives that are essential to the success of their strategies. Senior Leaders need to know more, but how to do this in the most efficient manner possible?
All You Need to Know
How do you get people to bottom-line the conversation about a project, while ensuring that none of the important details get lost? If you are talking to a senior leader how do you bring them up to speed without testing their patience?
Our research points to 5 key pieces of information – that is a rating of project performance in respect of each of the following:
- Business Needs
These 5 pieces of information can tell you everything you need to know about the status of a project. On each of these a Red Amber or Green rating will do – so you end up with clear and simple analysis as below. The 3 names at the top of the table are the people leading the project (note names have been changed).
A rating of these 5 key pieces of information can tell a leader if a project is on track for success. It also tells whether the project’s leaders are on track too. The colors say it all:
- A RED is an alarm bell or a call to action, it calls into doubt the success of the project or Initiative and highlights a key project risk. If there are red ratings on any of the factors then that area is in need of immediate attention.
- An AMBER is a note of caution. It highlights an area that needs further examination – a potential risk to the project’s success. If neglected it could turn to red becoming a real obstacle to success.
- A GREEN ratings is good – however it must be kept green.
At first glance this status update might cause alarm – there is a lot of amber and even some red. However, keep in mind that this is a complex project ‘with many moving parts’ in terms of stakeholders, contributors and so on. The amber ratings reveal that the team are actively engaging with the complexity of the project and the trade-offs and challenges that exist (e.g. reconciling the ambition of the project and the requirements of stakeholders with the reality of limited time and resources).
So, which of the 5 factors is most important?
Business and stakeholder needs is the latest addition to the project manager’s list, it is arguably the most important too. But if your project was to fail on any of the above – which would it be? Is going over on time, worth it to ensure that the benefits are realized fully or the budget is intact? If something has to give what would it be?
Updating without Slowing Down
While managers may complain about being asked for a few slides or even a few pages from time to time, this is often just the tip of the iceberg in terms of bureaucratic reporting and approvals processes. For example, how long will it take to get sign-off on a change in the budget or in the plan? The answer to this question reveals the extent to which the leaders of a project are really empowered to ‘make it happen’.
Nothing hampers speed and agility like cumbersome and time-consuming reporting and sign-offs. That is why the 5 variables being tracked regularly are particularly powerful. They enable speedy yet thorough updates without slowing progress.
Is the project on track for success?
Reports suggest that as many as 8 out if 10 projects result in disappointment or frustration – they fail to deliver what is expected or at least fail to deliver on time or to budget. Put simply, tracking 5 variables would be enough to prevent many problems before they arise.
Rating one or two of the factors is not enough. A green rating on time and budget tells only part of the story. These could hide a red rating in business / stakeholder needs, quality or scope. To get the full picture you need to rate all 5 factors and explore them where necessary, using the questions below.
- Is the project within scope?
- Is the scope adequate & correct?
- Is everybody clear on what is included & what is not?
- Has the scope changed; does it need to change?
- Is the project on schedule time-wise?
- Is it likely to finish on time?
- Is there sufficient speed or urgency?
- Are there opportunities to save time/speed progress?
- Have people got sufficient time to allocate to the project?
- Is the project within budget?
- Is it likely to stay within budget?
- Are there adequate resources (manpower, equipment, etc.)?
- Could resources be allocated more efficiently?
- Is there a business justification for more?
- What could be achieved with 5% more or less?
‘Deliverables’ – This could also be thought of as Output, Quantity or Quality:
- Are project outputs as expected (quality & quantity)?
- Are the outputs clear/visible to all?
- Could we deliver earlier or more regularly (e.g. iterations or phasing)?
- Are there opportunities to boost/reduce quality or quantity?
- Could the outputs ‘flow’ more efficiently, consistently or ‘sustainably’?
- How effectively is the project addressing business / stakeholder needs?
- How much do stakeholders believe in the benefits/value of the project?
- Is the expected business impact compelling?
- Is the business case still valid?
- How are benefits being measured or tracked?
Getting a rating on these factors from those who are running the project can answer many questions for the leader:
Do people have an accurate view of project performance?
People can tend towards optimism in respect of project timelines and deliverables. This is a factor influencing the update, such as for example the use of red, amber and green and the fact that each person gets to give their own rating. A key objective is to engage a variety of perspectives and avoid groupthink or a comfortable consensus (often based on desirability bias).
Is there agreement on the status of the project?
The process shows that people on the same team can have widely varying perspectives on how a project is doing. There is real power in bring these different perspective together. Indeed, it is a key project risk if this is not happening. Even though people may be talking more of the time, this is the type of high-level perspective sharing that is not happening often enough.
Are people taking stock regularly enough?
Being caught up in the day-to-day, people often don’t have the opportunity to stand back and take a bigger picture view of a project. They may be working very hard, not realizing that a change of tack is needed. Working smarter, not harder is the objective of such a status update.
What are the items that arose for discussion?
Many (indeed probably most) of the challenges being faced by projects are internal rather than external. A regular dialogue around the 5 factors prepares people to more proactively engage with internal challenges.
Do surprises emerge?
Even where people are working closely together interacting on a daily basis there are issues that often don’t get discussed. As a result it can often come as a surprise that a colleague raises a concern about some critical aspect of the project (e.g. time or quality) that has not been previously aired.
Regularly checking on the status of a project can reduce shocks and surprises. It helps people to focus and re focus enabling them to schedule and prioritize work in a way that can have the greatest impact on project success.
Is this checking against the project plan?
This status update is separate to the line-by-line project review. It serves a different role.
Keep in mind also that faithfully delivering against the project plan may not be enough. There is continual pressure in terms of scope budget, time and so on. Moreover, the requirements of stakeholders and the fundamental business need is often changing too. It may be necessary to put the project plan aside for parts of the conversation.
What is the dominant narrative of the team? Why does it matter?
The conversation reveals as much about the team as it does about the project. For example do people feel like they are making good progress, are they energized or defeated by the opportunities and challenges, are they working together effectively as a team, do they own the deadline, the deliverables, etc? The narrative of the team and the level of energy and engagement are a talisman for project success.
How does it differ from a project review?
Most project reviews don’t capture data on these 5 variables. Typically, there are at least two missing.
In a line-by-line project review it is easy to get lost in the detail. Moreover, a few people do most of the talking while most stay silent. In particular, the senior leader is often absent from the lengthy project review, but is more likely instead to ask for a few slides or a report.