Tuesday, August 4, 2015

In Command--The Action Plan Approach To Project Management

"Luck is what happens when Preparation Meets Opportunity"

There is rarely a year where at least one study is not published bemoaning the high levels of project failure within the profession of Information Technology. In 2009, a study by IAG Consulting found that 68% of IT projects were unlikely to succeed, and when they did succeed it was largely attributed to pure luck. In 2012, a study by McKinsey and Company, in conjunction with the University of Oxford, found similar results:
On average, large IT projects run 45 percent over budget and 7 percent over time, while delivering 56 percent less value than predicted. Software projects run the highest risk of cost and schedule overruns

A frequently cited cause of project failures, cost overruns, and missed deadlines is a lack of communication or a lack of effective communication--a perverse irony given that IT exists as a profession in part to facilitate communications. Even causes such as "poor planning" and "lack of leadership" are ultimately attributable to poor communications.

As poor communications is a cause of project failure, improving communications during various project phases should improve the probabilities of project success. Having had the privilege of leading a variety of technical teams over the course of my career, I have learned--occasionally the hard way--the particular importance of effective communications in accomplishing virtually any goal or objective imaginable.

One profession where effective communications is literally a matter of life or death is the military: throughout history, battles have been either won or lost on the quality of communications between various military units.  The United States Army and Marine Corps address this challenge through the use of the Operations Order, also known as the Five Paragraph Order. The purpose behind the Operations Order format is clear and concise communications which can be transmitted and received in the very chaotic conditions of the battlefield. An ancillary objective is eliminating potentials for miscommunications or misunderstanding.

An IT project is not a matter of life or death, yet there is still a pressing need for clear and concise communications. With the interactions among multiple technical specialties that take place within most IT projects, the parallels to military operations can easily become a rather expansive list. Consequently, it is not unreasonable to look to military communications as a guide for improving project communications within IT. With that in mind, one can adapt the military Operations Order format for IT projects. I call my adaptation of this format the Action Plan (a basic template for the Action Plan is available here).

The five paragraphs of the military Operations Order--and thus of the Action Plan--are as follows: Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration/Logistics, Command/Signal (I typically title this section Communications). The extent to which one wishes to follow the military structure will vary, but I have rarely seen a need to replicate more than this top-level structure; analogies by their very nature are imperfect relationships, and it would be ill-advised to expropriate a communications structure designed for moving tanks and artillery to use for moving servers, switches, and routers unmodified. However, I have found that this basic structure lays out a comprehensive communications format that allows everyone engaged on a project to understand what is taking place.


The Situation paragraph is the task's background and context. Here one would describe the particular business problems that need to be addressed, as well as any technological priorities that might exist. The need to address a severe zero-day exploit would be one example of what would go into the Situation paragraph. Alternatively, the rationale for moving a data center or other operational facility would be placed here. 
The Mission paragraph should be a clear and concise statement of task objectives. Depending on the task, it might even be a single sentence--and I have found that using fewer sentences here is better. "Apply firmware updates to all network routers" would be one example of what would go here. "Install replacement servers/switches/access-points" would be another example. If it is an object of the exercise, it needs to be stated in this Mission paragraph. 
The Execution paragraph is not really a paragraph at all, but rather a specific task list. The task list might be broken down by individual or individual area of responsibility, or all relevant actions might be contained within a single task list--adapt as needed to fit the realities of the project. The crucial characteristics here are that the tasks specific--right down to the individual server and/or software revision number--and are sequential--the tasks that need to be performed first should be listed first. 
While the Execution paragraph needs to be comprehensive, as with all the parts of an Action Plan it needs to be brief. Thus, in large or highly complex projects, the tasks within an Action Plan might themselves lead to subordinate Action Plan documents. The Execution paragraph of a global Action Plan for a project might describe the specific task objectives for a number of different technical teams, and in turn each of those teams would devise their own Action Plans to address the particular requirements of their specific task objectives. 
Administration and Logistics
The Administration and Logistics paragraph is where any special resources or equipment items get mentioned. Similarly, an outside vendor either on hand or standing by in case of an unforeseen even would be listed here. If there are special contingency considerations, this is the paragraph where those get documented. Whom gets tasked with deciding whether to abort a task also gets listed here.
The Communications paragraph outlines how members of the assigned team can communicate with each other. Responsibilities for providing communications beyond the project team are also detailed in this paragraph. 
The goal of the Action Plan is to inject certainty into project management by giving a concise and comprehensive description of what is in. Properly written, the Action Plan clearly sets expectations, identifies objectives, and describes every person's role within the overall project. To the greatest extent possible, it seeks to remove thinking from task execution; thinking and planning ideally take place before task execution, not during. By unburdening team members in this fashion, they are able to be more adaptive and flexible during the execution phase of a project, simply by virtue of starting the project knowing their individual objectives.

There is a psychological benefit to the Action Plan as well. In its structure, its tone, and hopefully its verbiage, it is goal oriented rather than process oriented. It focuses attention on project goals and objectives, with only secondary emphasis on project process--the "what" is far more important within an Action Plan than the "how". This emphasis allows project leadership to focus on managing results and outcomes while simultaneously allowing all project participants to bring their various skills and experiences to bear on determining methods and processes to be used. 

Most importantly, the Action Plan aids in the planning process itself. Even before an Action Plan is written, applying a standard communications framework to planning discussions allows effective plans to be built. As is true of all effective managerial documents, the Action Plan is as much about the process as it is about the documentation. Whether a team employs top-down leadership or uses a more collaborative structure, the Action Plan approach brings systematic organization to planning efforts. It is a comprehensive structure, able to address all portions of a project, and yet it is simple enough to be easily reproducible throughout a project, enhancing organization and coordination at all levels.  As a planning activity even for individual work, I have found that using this format as a guide makes individual efforts more effective simply by bring a measure of order to activities; by working through the steps of a particular project or task in this structured fashion before undertaking them, potential flaws or missed steps can be identified--errors and failures can be pre-empted and avoided, and every problem avoided is a problem one does not have to devote scarce time and effort to solving.

No document is ever a substitute for actual planning, and even the Action Plan structure is undermined if one merely works through the document by rote, treating it as merely an item to be checked off.  An Action Plan should be considered a guide, not a mandate. However, when used as a guide, it will make simplify project planning, and enhance project communications. It will facilitate the full engagement in a project by project team members, thereby helping ensure a maximum contribution by each member towards project success.

By having good project plans, and effective project communications, one increases the chances for project success; if luck truly is the convergence of preparation and opportunity, the Action Plan is one preparation that gives all project participants the opportunity to get lucky, and succeed.

Monday, August 3, 2015

There Is No Substitute For Good Engineering

Success, be it in a project or any other human endeavor, never happens spontaneously. It is the result, not merely of effort, but also of deliberation, of thought--i.e., of design.  As the above litany of statistics demonstrates, a lack of design equates to a lack of success.  My assertion is that the inverse also holds true--that quality design equates to success.  As a direct consequence, it behooves us to contemplate what makes for a "quality" design in virtually all fields of human endeavor.

The body of thought arising from the contemplation of quality design may be fairly considered as the discipline of engineering.  The close connection between each of the terms, as well as the concepts, is easily intuited by consulting any dictionary (my personal preference is Merriam-Webster) and noting that "engineering" is defined in terms of "design": "the work of designing and creating large structures (such as roads and bridges) or new products or systems by using scientific methods." Although we habitually use the term "engineering" in relation to large construction projects, within the basic definition one can easily see how engineering concepts can be brought to bear in almost any field of human endeavor.  "Engineering", to my mind, is the science of design.

Understanding any science begins with an understanding of its first principles. To understand, then, the science of good design we must first examine the principles and the process of design itself--and there is indeed a logical conceptual process that informs all design efforts (and the quality of our design results hinges on the extent to which we leverage that process in all our design activities.

An excellent depiction of the design process comes to us courtesy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Open CourseWare initiative, which makes a variety of classroom lectures and supporting materials freely available online.  In particular, I make reference here to the 10-step design process outlined in ESD.051J Engineering Innovation and Design.  As presented in that lecture series, the ten steps in the fundamental design process are as follows:
Identify Needs
What problem are we attempting to solve? What are our goals and objectives?

Information Phase
Do any solutions for the problem already exist?  What are they? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

Stakeholder Phase
Who desires which specific goal or objective? Why?

Planning/Operational Research
What's realistic? What limits us?

Hazard Analyses
What's safe? What can go wrong?

What's required? How do we define success?

Creative Design

Conceptual Design
Potential solutions

Prototype Design
Create a version of the preferred design

Does it work? If not, redesign
Note: I do not intend an in-depth exploration of these phases here. I highly recommend visiting the MIT Open Courseware site for a more thorough presentation of this process.
What is noteworthy about this process is that it is not tied to any particular technological or scientific paradigm.  Indeed, it is not tied to any particular discipline at all.  One could apply this process not only to the development of industrial products and technologies, but also to project plans, marketing plans, and even the creation of art (this is not as far-fetched as it might seem--several of the world's foremost industrial designers, such as Dieter Rams and Apple's Chief Design Officer Sir Jonathan Ive began their studies within the world of art, and Dieter Rams' designs have been gathered into a traveling exhibit Less and More, which has been displayed at art museums around the world).

This process works because it is comprehensive. It demands that one reach outside of his or her own thoughts and ideas, and specifically engage with others, solicit input and ultimately feedback from others. Throughout, the design process explicitly seeks connection to the reality surrounding the effort, and, in an iterative fashion, requires constant validation of effort against that reality.

With so much attention devoted to design, why do I speak of engineering in the title of this posting? The answer is simply this: Conceptual consideration of a design process, or of any process, itself yields no tangible results.  That conceptual consideration must be given form and function through practical usage. That practical usage is the discipline of engineering.

In 2012, Dr. Benoit Hardy-Vallee, writing for the Gallup organization, reported on a study published in the Harvard Business Journal that found, out of 1,471 IT projects, average cost overruns of 27%, with one in six projects having cost overruns of over 200% and schedule overruns of almost 70%.  Dr. Hardy-Vallee categorized project failure causes into three broad categories:
  • technical (technology developed, project management techniques)
  • individual (project leadership, scope management, communication)
  • stakeholder (user involvement, executive buy-in, goal specificity)
Dr. Hardy-Vallee concluded that project management failure was largely result of inadequate "emotional" content. His assertion was that project management current literature was rich on process controls and methodologies, but severely lacking in ways to engage various project stakeholders at an emotive and psychological level:
The problem with a single-minded focus on processes and methodologies is that once people are given procedures to follow, compliance replaces results. Everybody is concerned about how to do the job, not about the outcome if the job is done well.
However, when one considers Dr.  Hardy-Vallee's causes of failure against the backdrop of the fundamental process of engineering design outlined above, one can match the causes of failure to particular phases of the design process (and sometimes to more than one phase of the design process), and so a different conclusion becomes possible--that projects fail from poor design and from poor implementation of a design. Projects fail because of a lack of good engineering. 

In an engineering paradigm, processes that do not produce good results are not good processes; they should be altered and adapted until they do produce good results. Likewise, methodologies that do not yield successful outcomes are not successful methodologies, and should be revised so that successful outcomes are obtained. Because of the iterative nature of the design process, "compliance" in the engineering paradigm becomes the pathway to results, and thus is the complement to those results and never its substitute. (The "engineering" response to Dr. Hardy-Vallee's emphasis on a need for "emotional" content within project management would be that by definition, effective stakeholder analysis phase of design engages all project participants at that emotive and psychological level).

No matter the project, whether building a bridge, designing a video game, or marketing a new product, success comes from the careful and deliberate application of the design process. Success comes from good engineering.