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The Essence of Project Management

July 20th, 2010

I have a very simple philosophy when managing software development projects. It keeps me from derailing in this ever changing environment that is our craft. Regardless of whatever methodology and practices we currently use, I turn to these three questions for guidance.

  1. Is the team as productive as it can be?
  2. Is it doing the right things?
  3. Is it delivering on expectations?

To me those questions represent the essence of project management. Finding the answers, identifying the impediments and removing them are what I consider my most important tasks as a project manager; not to impose a particular methodology.

Productive teams

Good questions to ask while analyzing the productivity of a team might be:

  • Does the team contain the right people?
  • Is it getting rapid answers?
  • Is it getting quick feedback?
  • Is it optimized for long term or short term productivity?

In software development, the only measure of team productivity is its ability to produce working software. So if you want to maximize your team’s productivity you should focus on those capable of creating software. Make sure they can spend as much time as possible producing customer value.

For that reason, I think twice before I ask my developers to perform some compliance activity, like writing a report. It’s almost always better to have someone else do stuff like that. If I need information I can always ask, and if writing a report is necessary, I can collect the information and write the report myself. That way I contribute to keeping the team focused and productive, which is more important than to ease my own work load.

Monitoring the team’s productivity is an important task of the project manager. I do this mainly by being around the team a lot. Taking an interest in each individual’s working situation and task at hand is the best way to pick up problems and impediments.
Other important sources of information (although not as efficient as MBWA) are the daily meetings and iteration retrospective.

If you’re really lucky; with the right material and inspiring goals, the team jells and becomes hyper productive. That is every project manager’s dream, but few get to experience it.

Efficient teams

But being productive is not enough. What we really want is efficiency, and to be efficient you need to be both productive and produce the right things. Right in this sense means the right features, with the right quality, in the right order.

To eliminate the risk of producing wrong features you need to work closely with the customer. Make the feedback loop as short as possible, preferably by utilizing an onboard customer, or at least by holding regular review meetings.

Another thing you’d really want to do is to have the planned features prioritized. For some reason many customers (here in Sweden at least) are generally unwilling to do this for you.
“I decided what I want to include in the release, didn’t I? All those features are equally important.”

The problem with leaving priorities to the team is that the system will be developed in an arbitrary order, most likely with the easiest features first. While that may have a value in some situations, the downside is that it decreases the project’s chance of success. The reason is, that without customer value as the leading beacon, chances are that you’ll end up with a lot more bells and whistles than you can afford. And when you find that out it’ll be too late to rectify.

Dealing with expectations

How do you define project success? Here is one definition:

If the output is in line with what the customer expects, the project is successful.

The good thing with this definition is that it implies another variable to work with besides output, namely customer expectations. If the answer is yes to both questions 1 and 2 above, we know we are maximizing the output. But if that still isn’t good enough, we have only one option left. We must change the customer’s expectations, or fail.

Again, the best way to tune the customer expectations is a tight feedback loop. If the customer sees the progress regularely, she will adjust her expectations accordingly, or have a chance to react to reality. Either way, the chance for success increases.

Never lose focus on the end goal.


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