February 2018

Retrospective - A Project Manager's Lament

By Mike Holka - Project Manager, State of Michigan

As we begin a new year, I find myself thinking about the project work I was responsible for in 2017.  Some projects were resounding successes…others not so much…and still others altogether cancelled.  It is easy to think about the project successes, the thrill of the “GO” decision at implementation review sessions, the adrenaline rush achieved when the system is now live in production and transactions are successfully processing and the congratulatory emails from executives at successful implementation.  The only lesson learned from this retrospective is that you should keep doing what led you to the success.  Or should you?  Ask yourself, and be honest:  What really led to the project success?  Was it the heroic efforts of the Team?  Was it the keen insight of a lead developer that saved the day?  Was it the overtime hours that everyone put in due to bad planning or estimating? 

Perhaps, everything went exactly as planned.  In that case, CONGRATULATIONS…do it again.    

A more challenging retrospective is to look at the projects that were less than successful or outright failures.  What did you do right?  What did you do wrong?  What can you do better?  Answering these questions honestly and candidly about your individual performance will help you become a better project manager.  More importantly, have your Project Team answer these questions about your performance. 

We have all read articles on why IT projects fail.  Doing a “Google Search” on this will yield 100’s of articles that all basically say the same thing.  Below are common examples:

  • Poor Planning and Direction
  • Ineffective Communication
  • Lack of Management Support
  • Poor or Missing Methodology

If we know the reason that projects fail, the real question is:  How do we continue to let them get into those situations?  What did you do to prevent “Poor Planning and Direction”, “Ineffective Communication”, “Lack of Management Support” or “Poor or Missing Methodology”.  If we didn’t do anything to prevent these things from happening in our projects, then there should be no surprise we are looking back wondering where the successes were.

Let’s explore the idea of ineffective communication.  We have all heard the phrase “miscommunication” in our lessons learned discussions.  But how does that really happen?  We are trained, professional project managers, whose main purpose on the project is to facilitate communication and make sure everyone stays on the same page.  This goes from project initiation through the close down.  Here are a couple of “nuggets” to consider as you think about how to better communicate within the organization.  The most effective mode of communication in any organization is the “grape vine”.  Use it to your advantage.  I literally receive about 100 emails a day, some are relevant, most are not.  If everyone on the project has the same perception, the likelihood yours get ignored is very high.  I try to rely on face to face communication with my Teams.  Some good techniques are daily stand up meetings or what I call “fly by”.  In the old days, we used to call this Management by Walking Around.  Talk to your Project Team and your Management Team.  Be open, honest and candid.  All will appreciate it.

Research some of the articles on why projects fail.  We all talk a great game when discussing “lessons learned”, myself included.  But do we really learn?  There is no doubt in my mind that some of the reasons projects fail have affected my projects.  I do try to learn from my mistakes, but being honest with myself, I don’t always write things down and don’t always take the sessions that seriously.  Sometimes, they seem like a formality, to get a check mark.  The problem with forgetting a lesson learned is that they are usually the details that would lead to success during the next project; like submitting the firewall rule request for the production environment.  How many times have we heard: “It Worked in Test”? My point here, is that if you don’t want to forget the lesson, then write it down.  Some of my implementation plans have five-minute tasks to submit formal requests or send out reminder emails to affected stakeholders.  I also have a task in the implementation plan to review lessons learned from previous implementations.  Again, if it’s important; write it down. 

Hindsight is always 20/20.  It is easy to say, I’ll do better next time.  But if you don’t take time to really be honest with yourself and take proactive steps to learn and develop, mistakes will likely be repeated. Make a resolution for 2018 to be proactive about your professional development.  Take classes, attend conferences, find a mentor and begin the learning process.  It is your career, it is your responsibility.  Take charge of it.

Bio: Mike Holka is a PMI Certified Project Management Professional with over twenty years of experience in the development, maintenance and implementation of computer systems for insurance, human resource and banking industries. As a project manager, he has led application development teams through the entire systems development lifecycle (SDLC).  For the past several years, he has managed application development and maintenance projects of increasing complexity, organizational impact and budgets. He takes a customer and business centric approach to information technology, has a solid IT background in multiple technologies, as well as a demonstrated track record of leadership and the ability to foster a team environment.