Why Corporate Culture Matters!

What exactly is corporate culture? The dictionary defines culture as “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions and all other products of human work and thought.”

Jason Young, maintains in his article “High Performance & Corporate Culture” that it is not a set of core values developed by a small group of people at an off-site leadership meeting. It is not always what a chief executive describes in an annual report or shareholder’s meeting. In fact, corporate culture is not always what the leadership team of an organization says or thinks it is. What an organization assumes, believes values, accepts, and promotes, produces and the way in which behavior occurs frames its corporate culture.

Why is culture so important? Strong corporate cultures outlast the influence of even the strongest leader. That’s the reason Apple will not only survive but also thrive in post Jobs era if it is able to maintain its culture that Jobs build during that last decade and half. The importance of corporate culture in success of an organization and longevity cannot be overstated. “An organization’s norms and values aren’t formed through speeches but through actions and team learning. Strong cultures have teeth. They are much more than slogans and empty promises. Some organizations choose to part ways with those who do not manage according to the values and behaviors that other employees embrace. The above is outlined by Harvard Business School professors Jim Heskett and W. Earl Sasser with co-author Joe Wheeler in their new book “The Ownership Quotient”.
Culture, the human terrain of an organization, has real bearing on organizational success and performance. It affects communication, co-operation and learning. It can help explain why changes will prompt some employees to quit even when compensation is not affected, why a talented leader may flounder in a cultural mismatch and why incentives and individual psychology alone don’t predict results. Defining and delivering on the promise your organization’s culture can deliver tremendous internal and market-facing benefits.

Nurturing corporate culture: According to Jason, “In some companies, culture develops by default. In others, culture develops in ways that are conscious, intentional, and tangible.” Noting, Southwest Airlines is one example of a company that has created a work environment where people can do their best work. In fact, in the words of its former CEO, “We are looking for a particular type of person, regardless of what job category it is. We are looking for attitudes that are positive and for people who can lend themselves to causes.”

Several organizations have built a unique corporate culture over the time to meet demands of changing global competitive market place to reap a unique advantage. I remember a mid-size Indian IT firm initiating a successful, multiyear internal campaign in late 90s to focus the centricity of customer among thousands of its employees to cultivate high quality delivery & deeper customer engagement. It was a well thought out strategy that was dictated to materialize firm’s ambition to differentiate its position among global customers & transition in to tier 1 IT vendor at global level.

This underscores the fact that, the buy in among the people of entire organization is very critical as it accelerate the motivational environment and allows people to do what they do best as they start seeing alignment between organizational values and individual behavior in broader context. The whole process needs active support from top leadership, constant communication to keep people focused on stated or desired culture.

Shyam Verma, PMP, ITIL-F,
Program & portfolio Management
LinkedIn: spverma. Twitter: Shammy1

Increasing Value of Project Management Office

The PMO does not necessarily  manage projects, so in many organizations the PMO does not have a direct project connection or it is indirect. Hence, the value proposition for a PMO can be less tangible and more subjective. A centralized PMO makes great sense to ensure that all project managers have a core set of project management skills, common processes and templates.

The PMO also acts as the owner of the project management approach and supports project managers to utilize common project management practices, procedures and process templates. In addition, the PMO will serve as a place for providing organizational view of the status of all projects and can report on the improvements being made to project outcome over time.

Although PMOs can be established to provide a narrow or broad set of services, this list includes many of the common responsibilities a full PMO would perform.The key value of a  project management office includes:

  •     Optimizes delivery cycle time due to better insight in to delivery processes
  •     Optimizes delivery costs by pruning to non value added activities
  •     Improves quality of project deliverables in mid to long run
  •     Early identification and proactive management of project issues and risks
  •     Fosters sound project management best practices
  •     Better containment and management of project scope & risks
  •     More opportunities to leverage and reuse historical project knowledge
  •     Improves accuracy of estimates by applying standard organization baselines
  •     Better communication with clients and stakeholders
  •     Improves perceptions of your organization by your clients
  •     Improves people and resource management ensuring optimized uses of scarce resources
  •     Reduces time to get up to speed on new projects by applying client specific tailored processes

At an industry level, a PMO is increasingly being seen as an important component required to the  success of projects, and hence, major contributor to the future success of the entire organization. At a more operational level, the value provided by a PMO is indispensable.

Shyam Verma, PMP, ITIL-F
Program & portfolio Mgnt professional
LinkedIn:spverma. Twitter: Shammy1

Scope definition through User stories

User stories

The benefits of achieving a working software in less money, better risk mitigation mechanism (because you test early and test often) and dependence on process not individuals is one of the key reasons that XP has become one of the most preferred software development methodologies in recent years. Agile practitioners term User stories to be “Technique of expressing requirements as user stories to be an effective approach on all time constrained projects and are a great way to begin introducing a bit of agility to your projects & requirement management approach.”

If you happen to be one of those PMs who need to deliver your project in such fashion chances are you are most likely to use your scope statement e.g. project requirements in terms of user stories rather in standard functional requirement document. Hence it would be invaluable to know how you can employ user stories to define and plan project scope.

What are user stories?

A user story describes what functionality is required from the perspective of business users in simple or plain English running through different steps or stages to accomplish desired functionality. In simple terms, a user story provides the clear understanding of who wants the functionality, how it would work and why this functionality is required. In most cases user stories are written by customer or a customer representative working with a developer where developer may ask some questions to clarify the user actions but does not influence the idea creation process. User stories are used mostly in agile software development methodologies to provide the basis of features required in the software.

Development Process: While business user or customer narrates the scenario, developer makes notes on a 3×5 inch Card with functionality or requirement name, user action description, test condition, rough estimate and any other relevant point. For example, ” As a business user I want to be able to search for my customers by their first and last name,” or the “Application starts by bringing up the last document user was working with.”

The 3 basic tools used in the process are namely, Card as mentioned above, details around Conversation where details are noted as discussion with business user happens and thirdly Confirmation or Conditions that must be met for for the basis of user acceptance.

In case there is any ambiguity on the user story or it is deemed complex or too big the process of refinement is repeated until the story is concise and agreed by both user and developer. Please note the user story is not supposed to be definite business functionality and changes to the functionality are accepted at the time of development or even testing. From that perspective the process represents one of the key features of Agile development.

Advantages: User stories are a quick way of eliciting customer requirements without having to spend too much effort on formalized requirement documentation and bypassing overloaded administrative tasks for maintaining them. The purpose of user story is to respond promptly with less overhead in rapidly changing real-world requirements

Limitation: since the User stories are informal way to elicit requirement the test scenario for acceptance purposes should be in place without which the implementation of the requirement do not have customer acceptance.

Shyam Verma, PMP, ITIL
Program & portfolio Mgnt professional
LinkedIn:spverma. Twitter: Shammy1

There are three basic tools used in the process namely Card as mentioned above. Secondly details around Conversations where details are noted as discussion with business user happens and thirdly Confirmation or conditions that must be met for acceptance.

Managing Project Scope Effectively

For most projects, keeping the project schedule and cost in control pose the biggest challenge and stake holder expectation after the level of quality. A tight definition and active management of project scope can not only deliver instant results but also relive you of unnecessary squeeze on your project resources. Here are some ideas that can put you back in track or give you some directions on your next high profile project!

  • Scope statement: at times the scope of your project is not very clearly defined from the beginning or is under defined to say the least. Please remember the scope statement that was prepared at the time of Pre-Sales stages or before the actual analysis phase may not be sufficient or complete. So spend some time verifying the fact if some additional things made their way or something that was cut to meet timeline or budget constraint. It is a good practice to serialize key business requirements for estimation of time and cost. Also remember the initial scope statement is only for an interim period until the scope definition is completed as part of planning phase.
  • Objectivity of outcome: compare the statement “Improve service by providing an information system to respond to customer inquiries.” With “Able to answer customer queries last 2 monthly statements and last 60 days transaction over the phone.” Clearly focusing on the outcome brings more clarity and saves lot of vagueness and future disputes with your customer over actual intent. It is recommended that scope definition or project charter is developed in iteration essentially with customer involvement using an authorized document format.
  • Managing Scope Creep: This is a common problem where requirements are not clear and complete. Essentially this is due to incorrect interpretation of the requirements or due to requirement gaps in the scope definition. Sometime additional requirements come up after more clarity emerges or there are changes in stakeholder expectations due to changes in external environments. Therefore it is essential that your project plan has provision to incorporate and approve new requirements and modifications in existing one after careful consideration of impacts by project CCB (change control board) or governance board
  • Project deliverables: An internal deliverable is something that project produces as part of the project for internal use e.g. E-R diagram while an external deliverable is something that project team provides to the business users. I have seen some PMOs require that assigned PMs define internal and external deliverables (with agreed templates) and track at least phase by phase to ensure timely delivery and sign off with customer. This is a good practice and provides a level of comfort and confidence to the stakeholders as well.
  • Functional specifications: Scope definitions could be done using multiple techniques. This could also help in closing missed gaps. One of the techniques is to capture major functionalities by using decomposition. This could be done at the same time with data definition if possible. However if that is not practical the functional specification could provide the required data requirement.
  • Specify Assumptions: Each project initiatives have some or the other dependencies represented by assumptions. It is recommended that each of these assumptions are documented at relevant deliverables and followed up at the earliest. As the false assumptions could pose potential challenges to the project plans in terms of schedule milestones, resources, quality and cost constraints.

While most project managers focus too much on these two constraints however the biggest issue that results in to time as well as cost overrun is not able to manage scope of the defined project. Therefore, a tight definition and active management of project scope can not only deliver instant results but also relive you of unnecessary squeeze on your project resources.

Shyam Verma, PMP, ITIL
Program & portfolio Mgnt professional
LinkedIn:spverma. Twitter: Shammy1

New Year Resolution for Project Managers!

So its only few days before the New Year 2013 comes by, did you finally make your New Year resolutions? Well…so many people already made it. Now the big question, despite the best effort, how many of them would succeed! As per some analyst of hope syndrome, most of them would fail for the simple reason of unrealistic expectations. Interestingly, among New Year resolutions of 2011 the no.1 resolution for millions happens to be “Dieting”, I was wondering what would be top resolutions of a Project Manager in to New Year.

Here are few that I think would go a long way to bring about some sure positive changes if followed with some rigor.

  1. Track time and budget effectively: After all most project have schedule or budget as one of its success criteria so have a keen eye for these numbers. Set a regular recurring time slot to review them on weekly or bi-weekly basis and don’t forget to check the data source for any further data refinement needed. You may also plot these data points for graphical view to see emerging trends especially projects sensitive to budget, schedule or both.
  2. Use checklists: Despite advancements in processes or technology, we are ever busier by day and have to deal with lot of complexity and several critical tasks competing for our attention. A checklist is a very simple quality tool but one of the most effective one to employ for those critical tasks that need to be processed or can’t be missed.
  3. Meet Effectively: Some of the common best practices to focus for next year are pretty basic but also effective. My personal favorite is to send out your meeting material at least 1 day in advance not just before meeting start time! Another thing that helps is to have a well thought out agenda and expectations from the meeting participants so they come prepared. Keeping the meeting time short and discussion on tracking items too is a greatly appreciated
  4. Safety and security: With growth of technical advancement the safety and security concern to project personnel and assets is increasing too. This could be relevant to not only the core project team but the vendors and suppliers as well. So ensure your project safety goals and security policies are well laid out, your vendors and 3rd party personnel are vetted with right set of access, physical and IT security norms are followed per requirements. Don’t forget to set aside some time slot for any mandatory training too.
  5. Own your learning plan: Learning never stops in this highly dynamic world of today. As different sectors collide and collaborate at the same time, it is as chaotic today as never before. This demands continuous and exponential knowledge curve at the individual level. This is especially true since you can no longer depend on organizations to shape and take interest in your career goals. So one must have his or her career goals clearly defined based on the individual strength and personality.
  6. Set realistic goals: we often realize that in trying to accomplish too much we set up ourselves to fail by setting goals which are too hard to achieve. The solution lies in being objective and breaking these down to smaller goals. For example instead of setting a goal to say delivering all projects on time and on budget, why not breaking it in to better scope and cost management which ultimately leads to project delays and cost overruns.
  7. Networking: Don’t hang out just with your colleagues in Project management discipline. There is a greater awareness about importance of project management and many influential people like to hear about project management. LinkedIn and other professional networking sites are great places to build these networks.
  8. Volunteer More: This is my personal favorite and the reason for that is that there are so many organizations who cannot afford a project manager due to financial constraint but believe me several of them offer much more challenging projects with great learning opportunities outside the top sectors such as IT and construction.
Shyam Verma, PMP, ITIL
Program & portfolio mgnt professional
LinkedIn:spverma. Twitter: Shammy11

Why good estimates are only 50% correct!

As per one of the experienced project manager even a good project estimate using one of the widely used methodologies there is only 50% chance of it being correct. What it says is that if your estimates are even 50% correct on delivery, you should be happy and actually did a good job! This despite that Monte Carlo estimate is supposed to give you over 95% correct estimate and if you are using agile you don’t really need to make a full estimate because you iterate the development for multiple deliverables concurrently.

Sure there are tons of article on the ways to employ better delivery estimation debate with so very divergent views from each practitioner. The truth is that you deal with so many dynamic factors that are play at the same time; it is really an art to repeat and beat your estimates each time you take a plunge. So even if you have the past historical data on your side for a similar project type, a team as experienced (or inexperienced)

As the one which completed the project in the past, and you are using the identical technology in your project with same project methodology, you would face your own set of project issues which could take your project completely off track. In short, you can only plan and have mitigation approach for what you know and that should be done however as a project manager one deals with many different dynamics it is almost impossible to have all your risks managed and assumptions validated to be sure of more than 50% of project success.

The another prominent factor quite evidently came out through a recent survey is that when estimating a project, most managers tend to have narrow estimate ranges than what is required to have over 90% confidence. When asked to put estimate ranges for specific tasks, PMs came out with estimate ranges which were narrower than something required to have 90% confidence. In fact the estimate ranges were only comfortable for 40-50% confidence.

So when you ask someone for a range that provides 90% confidence, expect 30% confidence on average Reason? We are naturally hesitant to provide wide ranges-because we feel that narrow estimates are a sign of a better estimate. But narrow estimates are really self defeating unless you have specific data to support the narrow estimates.

Shyam Verma, PMP, ITIL
Program & portfolio mgnt professional
LinkedIn:spverma. Twitter: Shammy11 

Common errors in project costing

One of the major challenges with large and complex projects (spanning several industries) is cost overruns from original budget making the initiative too expensive to be worth eventually. A noteworthy example is recently concluded Common Wealth Games held in New Delhi where the budget overran by large magnitude. While whole of that overrun may not have been due to pure project management but also governance issues but such events do compromise the position of lead Project manager and credibility of project management discipline overall. To avoid cost overruns one has to be very careful with planning of the project resources from the beginning. Let’s take a common example as to what can go wrong!

So you have landed a project that has a defined and well documented scope and deliverables. You also have the required authority and power to manage the resources required to deliver the product of the project. Before you start using the resources you may want to double check who are these resources and how much they would cost the project to deliver. This is especially true in case you are dependent on any external resource or consultant to bring in that much needed expertise your internal resources do not have. The trap essentially is the hidden costs that do not seem quite obvious in the beginning.

Let’s say you need an architect to design the database of your new application and internally either you do not have resources with relevant expertise or these resources are not available to your project. In your budget, you may have considered X Hours for this activity at the @ of Y dollars. However when this consultant arrives to start work on the database, you may realize that he needs a laptop to work on with all required software fully loaded!

Did you consider the lodging and boarding expense if applicable along with software license cost in your budget? How long will it take to get these required software and laptop to arrange? Will this consultant have any other productive project activities to do in the meantime or will those hours be a strain on your pocket? Are there any other tasks that might be impacted due to delay in database creation costing you additional dollars? It may not be possible to fully estimate all the unforeseen expenses but with some careful advance planning you can minimize the damage or have cheaper alternates in place!

Shyam Verma, PMP, ITIL
Program & portfolio mgnt professional
LinkedIn:spverma. Twitter: Shammy11