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Principles for Improving Project Results 

Thursday, March 20, 2014 3:54:00 AM

Principles for Improving Project Results: Consistency Lead to Maturity

Do you remember Stephen Covey's "7 Habits of Effective People"?  This blockbuster book has transformed millions of lives.  A critical component of the message is Habit. Regularly repeated behavior.  Effectiveness is a result of doing the right things consistently.

Consistency is also a theme in Continuous Process Improvement and in Project Management Maturity models.

This message is easy to understand, but it isn't a Quick Fix or Silver Bullet.

For example, several new clients over these past few months contacted us with goals to improve the skills of their project managers.  While the project leaders appreciated the principles and techniques they learned in class, they also quickly came to the conclusion that developing common practices they could apply across the organization would be the key to lasting change. It is easy to learn new skills through training.  But it takes commitment, investment, and perseverance to establish common practices and make them organizational habits.

In the project management arena we frequently use the term maturity to describe lasting organizational improvement.  So let’s take a look at three factors to consider when setting your project management maturity goals. 

Before discussing specific maturity goals, it’s helpful to take a brief detour to understand how ‘maturity’ came to be the term of choice.  It goes back to the early 1990’s when the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) published their Capability Maturity Model (CMM).  The SEI CMM unlocked the mystery of how an organization could consistently produce better quality software, and do it faster and cheaper. This led to widespread interest in the SEI CMM and an ex plosion of interest in project management. There were two key concepts included in the model that made it so appealing and so effective:

  • The model laid out five levels of maturity, including level 1, which was basically no maturity. By creating a five tiered model, SEI laid out a realistic path of improvement. Software organizations didn’t need to do everything better – in fact, SEI counseled against that. Rather, set goals to improve specific foundational processes first, and when those have become regular habits then set new goals. (Wow. Common sense!)
  • Each level was characterized by focusing on some aspect of a successful software project. For example, defining requirements and controlling scope. To ‘reach maturity’ a firm needed to demonstrate consistent use of standard practices. The CMM focused on consistent practice – just like the project managers I mentioned earlier. For example, if a firm consistently used agile software development practices, they could rank pretty high on the SEI CMM.

The SEI CMM applies only to software development organizations, which means that it may not apply directly to your organization. To prove the point, SEI produced another maturity model for systems integrators, the CMMI. But you can still leverage the same two concepts that I believe make the SEI CMM so useful.  Set your goals this year using the following three principles.

1. There are two dimensions to process maturity: consistency and complexity.

The complexity of your project management standards is meaningless if people don’t follow them. Rather than shoot for comprehensive standards that cover all the bases, start small and set goals for consistent use of the standards. For example, when sponsors, customers, and project teams expect to see a project charter, regular status reports, and a useful project schedule, project managers will have no choice but to satisfy them. Starting small allows the value of good project management to emerge quickly.  A few good habits can then become the foundation for more sophisticated project deliverables. Lesson: Consistency is more important than complexity.

2. Software tools often make the critical difference between awareness and practice.

Students in project management classes regularly use sticky-notes and flipcharts as their tools for building project plans.  That is appropriate because hands-on activities really do affect learning. But actually applying best practices only happens when it is easy to do, and that means having software tools that are properly sized (features vs. ease-of-use).  Lesson: Assume practical software tools are critical to meet the goal to create consistent practice.

3. Portfolio and program management affect project management. 

Initial attempts to improve project results predictably focus on the way we manage individual projects. But project execution doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Pursuing too many projects or failing to coordinate resources across projects can be paralyzing for individual project teamsLesson: Scan the project environment for obstacles to effective execution. The best improvement goal may be above the project level.

Consistent practice, enabling tools, and focusing on the biggest pain: Let these principles guide you as you set your project management improvement goals.  Then ask one more question: what will you measure to prove it actually made a positive difference to your enterprise? And that’s a topic for a future post!

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