5 Tips For Managing Projects During the Pandemic

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live. People are doing everything they can to adjust to the challenges of working from home. Distracted by kids and dealing with video connection issues is part of everyday life. Across the country, people working from home are dealing with stress and anxiety overload.

For project managers, this way of working is particularly challenging. Project management is all about fostering collaboration and communication. Not having the ability to meet in person is a killer. To add to this dilemma, most project managers are expected to hit their original project goals.

To help navigate these challenges, here are 5 tips for project managers:

  1. Trust your team members – The natural tendency for project managers during this crisis is to grip down on team members. It may feel counter intuitive but give your team members space and trust that they will complete their tasks. If you foster a sense of trust within the team people will deliver results.
  1. Use team working agreements – If your project team doesn’t have a working agreement, now is the time to create one. As a team you should agree and commit to how you will work together during this difficult time. You may agree that everyone should be available and working online by 9AM. You may agree that between 2-4PM, there will be no meetings to allow heads down working time. These are examples. It’s important that everyone on the team commits to a working agreement. For more on team agreements, check out this video.
  1. Use a tool like Hipchat or Slack – Chat tools like Hipchat or Slack are great for times like this. A chat tool gives you a virtual way to collaborate with your team. These tools go beyond instant messaging. Having a dedicated chat room for your team is like being in an agile pod with your team. The chat room is open all day for anyone to pop a question out to the team.
  1. Call and text people, but only when necessary – For project managers, having the ability to call or text people is critical, but use caution. Unless it’s critical, try not to call or text your team members. Instead, schedule times for calls or use email. People are under a lot of stress and having a project manager hound them with text messages and calls is only making matters worse.
  1. Only deliver high value scope – Put a hyper focus on backlog prioritization. Work with your product owner to ensure you are only working on the highest priority items. Now is not the time to be working on low value bells and whistles. Only commit to the high value items only during this difficult time.

Summary – We are going through an unprecedented time and everyone is under stress. Do what you can to empathize with your team and allow them to work at their own pace. Put a team working agreement in place and use chat tools to collaborate online. Do not micromanage. If you promote a healthy culture on your team and lead with empathy, you and your project will get through this.

About the Author:Mike MacIsaac is a principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. MacIsaac Consulting, based out of Minneapolis MN, provides IT Agile delivery consulting and staffing.

MacIsaac Consulting Is Proud To Be a Women’s Certified Business!

Tere MacIsaac – CEO & President of MacIsaac Consulting

MacIsaac Consulting is now proud to be certified as a Women’s Business Enterprise by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC).

Our consultants show companies how to break down barriers that impede agility. We teach our clients how to deliver value early and often through small cross-functional teams.  We also staff the very best IT talent including Scrum Masters/PMs, BAs, Developers, QA and more.

For more about MacIsaac Consulting and our services, click here.

Now Is The Time To Lead With Empathy and Compassion

We are living through unprecedented times. The Coronavirus pandemic is something we thought we would witness only in movies. Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe how it feels. Markets are crashing, businesses are closing, and supermarket shelves are emptying. The term social distancing is now a regular part of our vocabulary.

In the blink of an eye, corporations have been forced to manage entire workforce’s remotely. This presents management with a tidal wave of new issues to deal with. Networks can’t handle traffic; work prioritization is chaotic, and communications are disrupted.

While we deal with this crisis, here is a message for managers (particularly of large corporations):

Now is the time to lead with empathy and compassion.

The number one priority for people is to take care of themselves and their families, period. Yes, businesses need to continue to operate, but if we don’t take care of our employees, companies will pay the price. This is not the time to grip down and pressure employees. Many people are dealing with the added burden of childcare.

Corporate contingency plans should focus on continuing mission critical operations, while considering what employees are dealing with at home.

Treating the health and safety of employees as the number one priority will benefit businesses the most.

About the Author:Mike MacIsaac is a principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. MacIsaac Consulting, based out of Minneapolis MN, provides IT Agile delivery consulting and staffing.

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Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to the MacIsaac Consulting blog.

Agile Mindset – Why ‘Product’ Focus is so important

One of the most challenging aspects of Agile adoption is changing from a project mindset to a ‘product’ mindset. What’s the difference between the two? The below pictures outline the contrast between a project and product focus.

A product focus is about stable cross-functional agile teams. Project work can flow through the teams, but the teams stay intact. These teams deliver value early and often through short iterations. There are great benefits in the product focus model. “Organizations can focus on building IT products that delight and engage users and deliver desired business outcomes rather than bog themselves down in traditional project-oriented success metrics.” (Lebeaux, 2019, WSJ)

For more on the product model, check out Martin Fowler’s article Products over Projects.

Companies with large PMOs struggle to adopt the product model the most. They want to be Agile but won’t let go of Waterfall. They are riddled with layers of bureaucracy, hierarchy, reporting and management. This combined with divided functional areas prevent them from changing.

For these organizations, we advise their leadership to take three basic steps. First, they need to take Agile training. Leadership must understand the difference between a project and a product focus. Many companies make the mistake of sending only team members to Agile training. Leaders need to learn that they can measure success based on the value their products deliver to customers, rather than on project milestones.

Second, leaders needs to decide on whether their organization is ready to move away from a project focus. If the organization is not ready, that’s okay. The problem is when companies try adopting Agile while still using a PMO/project model. Remember, the key to agility is changing the mindset and embracing an adaptive approach. Don’t mistake using tools like VersionOne or putting stickies on a board (although those things are fine) as becoming agile. The real change happens at a mindset and culture level.

If the decision is to move to a product focus, the third step is to take action. This is when it’s time to make organization structure changes. Leadership, along with outside guidance, must decide on what changes to make. It’s also their responsibility to put the right people in the right seats.

Summary

If your leadership needs education or guidance, contact us because we can help. It won’t be easy, but many companies are finding that it’s worth it to make the change. By changing from a project management mindset to a product-oriented approach, companies can define success according to the areas that matter to users and design software that delights their customers.

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is a c0-founder and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. MacIsaac Consulting, based out of Minneapolis MN, provides IT Agile delivery consulting and staffing.

Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to Mike’s blog.

3 Ways To Start Your 2020 Projects Off On The Right Foot

Here we go, 2020 is here and you are ready to kick off those new projects. Before you dive right in, now’s a good time to do a quick check to make sure you are setup for success. Below are three ways to ensure you start your new projects off on the right foot:

1 – Clearly define and communicate the project goal: Many projects fail because the goal of the project is too ambiguous. If there isn’t a specific goal outlined in a project charter, you end up with a team that goes in different directions. This causes scope creep and chaos, and I’ve seen it time and time again. It is the responsibility of the project manager to work with the sponsor to define and communicate the project goal. The communication about the project goal needs to happen often for the project team and stakeholders. This will create alignment and keep everyone marching in the right direction. In my post about managing business analytics projects, I described a good framework that can be used to define the project goal.

2 – Set boundaries for non-project team members: When it comes to high visibility projects, often too many people get involved. The project manager, with help of the sponsor, needs to communicate who is on the project team. Some people may have their feelings hurt when they learn they are not part of the project, but this must be done. Only core project team members should be in team meetings. Anyone who is not a core team member distracts from the team chemistry and productivity. Often in software delivery projects, small cross functional teams are the highest performing. If your core team has more than eight people, you may need to check whether you have people on the team who don’t need to be.

3 – Plan for change: Whether you are running a Waterfall or Agile project, plan for change. Today’s project teams must be able to adapt to uncertain or changing requirements. This requires recurring retrospectives to see what needs to be improved or changed. The caveat is that if the team has a low level of Agile maturity, it is important they follow a change management process. If they don’t, change can cause big problems. For mature Agile teams, late changes to requirements can be a competitive advantage.

Summary

As we kick off the new year, take a step back and make sure your projects are setup for success. If you know that any of the three areas I mentioned have been neglected, address them now while it’s early. What you don’t want is to be 6-12 months into a project and realize the project goal was unclear.

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is a c0-founder and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. MacIsaac Consulting, based out of Minneapolis MN, provides IT Agile delivery consulting and staffing.

Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to Mike’s blog.

2019 Year in Review at MacIsaac Consulting

I’m grateful for the opportunities MacIsaac Consulting had in 2019. We had some challenging IT projects to manage and I am proud that we stayed true to our core values of trust, commitment and results. There were two projects this year that stood out.

The first was a DevOps project, led by Ryan Shea, to improve dotcom operational efficiency for one of the nation’s largest big box retailers. Ryan led the initiative to migrate company applications from an internal data center to a cloud platform. The cloud computing technology uses “container” virtualization technology. This helped to drive efficiency, save costs, and increase agility. Ryan also managed a continuous delivery team that automated the deployment process for web applications.

Ryan Shea – Agile Delivery Consultant

The second project was a challenging identity and access management (IAM) initiative I managed for a financial institution. IAM is a specialty discipline within cyber security. It increases productivity while securely enabling access to systems. To deliver the project, a cross-functional Agile team was used. The team used a Kanban process to integrate 30 legacy financial systems into one centralized IAM platform (SailPoint IIQ).

Looking Forward

In 2020 we plan to grow our talent and focus on our core competency of delivering Agile IT projects. We are also looking to do more work in the business analytics space, as well as help private equity backed companies deliver IT projects.

I’m excited about the changes and opportunities to come, especially in our local area. Minnesota has a thriving business community and a great talent pool! If your company needs help delivering IT projects, or if you’re interested in joining MacIsaac Consulting, give us a shout!

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is the founder and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. Mike provides leadership as an IT Project and Program Manager as well as an Agile Scrum Master/Coach. Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to Mike’s blog.

Gratitude

Thanksgiving is here. It is time for gratitude and reflection. A time to take a step back from work and focus on what is important.

Today I am grateful for my family, having food on the table and a roof over our head. I’m also grateful for turkey and football!

Wishing you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving filled with gratitude!

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is the founder and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. Mike provides leadership as an IT Project and Program Manager as well as an Agile Scrum Master/Coach. Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to Mike’s blog.

How To Avoid Common Pitfalls of Business Analytics Projects

business analytics

We live in the early stages of a data analytics revolution. Data is driving the world and transforming the global economy. In a report published in December of 2016, McKinsey estimated that “45% of work activities could potentially be automated by today’s technologies and 80% of that is enabled by machine learning.”

While big data and AI investments are on the rise, many companies are struggling in their efforts to be data driven. A 2019 HBR article found in a study that “An eye-opening 77% of executives report that business adoption of Big Data/AI initiatives is a major challenge, up from 65% last year.”

To better understand business analytics and why companies are struggling, I recently attended an executive education course at the Carlson School of Management. The class covered a range of topics including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, big data. As a consultant who manages IT projects, I wanted to learn about what it takes to deliver analytics projects.

What Is Business Analytics?

Business analytics is an exploration of an organizations data, with emphasis on statistical analysis. It enables companies to make data driven decisions that help gain a competitive advantage. Companies that deliver business analytics projects treat data as a corporate asset. Below are the four main types of business analytics:

  • Descriptive Analytics – Descriptive analytics answers the question, what happened? It is an exploratory analysis that provides visualization and BI dashboards. This can help companies to use key performance indicators to understand the state of the business.
  • Predictive Analytics – Predictive analytics answers the question, what will happen next? It analyzes trend data to predict future outcomes. Data mining, machine learning, model lifting, and forecasting are techniques used.
  • Prescriptive Analytics – Prescriptive analytics uses past performance to generate recommendations for the future. Optimization, simulation and rules are used in prescriptive analytics.
  • Causal Analytics – Causal analytics answers the question, did x truly cause y? Before business decisions can be made based on analytics, you need a high degree of confidence. It’s not enough to go by gut feel, data trends or correlations. Casual provides the confidence using a/b testing, econometrics and experimentation.

Why Most Business Analytics Projects Fail

Gartner CIO research reports that more than 50% of analytics projects fail. Why do they fail? In short, most fail because companies neglect to connect the analytics to business value. They focus on analytics output, tools and technologies verses business outcomes. Some common pitfalls include not knowing what the problem is, force fitting a solution, or trying to boil the ocean. Poor data quality and a lack of technical expertise are also big issues.

Another reason business analytics project fail is due to the way they are managed. The traditional plan driven approach does not work for analytics projects. “Business analytics projects are often characterized by uncertain or changing requirements and a high implementation of risk. So, it takes a special breed of project manager to execute and deliver them.” (Viaene, Van Den Bunder, MIT Sloan Mgmt Review).

Setting Up Analytics Projects For Success

The best way to setup analytics projects for success is with framing. The goal of framing is to define the problem boundaries, break down the problem and determine the analytics method. This helps to reduce ambiguity and the risk of project failure.

There are different frameworks that can be used throughout an analytics project life cycle. Below is a description of a common framework that can help:

Situation, Complication, Key Question (S, C, KQ) – The S, C, KQ framework helps gather the information needed to provide a clear and holistic problem statement. The Situation provides the information relevant to the problem. It is the context that sets up the complication. The situation must lead to the complication. The two must connect.

The complication clarifies the need for change. It specifies why a change is needed and a decision must be made. The key question then follows from the situation and complication. It is the one focus of the project and it makes clear the decisions to be made. The key question should use the SMART guideline – Specific, measurable, action-oriented, relevant and time bound.

Below is a basic example of what the S, C, KQ framework might look like in a project definition sheet. The example provided is to solve a business problem for a health club:

The example gives provides a basic idea of the S, C, KQ framework. Once the problem statement is clear, the analytics project team can decide on which type of model to use. The final step in the framework process is to provide an outcome that is measurable and actionable. The outcome explains what business decisions will be made based on the results of the analysis. The outcome also explains how success will be measured.

With a solid framework in place, a cross-functional analytics team can then develop a model. A typical deliverable from an analytics project team might include a web dashboard that provides predictive or prescriptive analytics. Data engineers and data scientists write algorithms and build the models. They also perform data cleansing, aggregation, integration and transformation.

Summary

Companies need to treat their data as a corporate asset. The ability to use data to predict future performance provides a competitive advantage. While business analytics is growing in importance, many companies are failing in their efforts to become data driven.

A key to success with business analytics projects is to use a framework that will align the analytics with business value. Analytics projects must be managed in an agile way that adapts to changing requirements. An iterative and experimental approach to project delivery is best.

Often the biggest roadblock to business analytics success is the business imagination. Companies must find ways for human intelligence and machine intelligence to work together. 

A special thanks goes out to the Carlson Executive Education program and professors Ravi Bapna, Gedas Adomavicius, Ellen Trader, and De Liu. Below is a picture of our business analytics class filled with business leaders from the Twin Cities.

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is the founder and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. Mike provides leadership as an IT Project and Program Manager as well as an Agile Scrum Master/Coach. Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to Mike’s blog.

Identity and Access Management (IAM) Is More Important Than Ever

It’s a company’s worst nightmare. A data breach or cyber-attack. Cyber-attacks continue to be a growing threat, but not all data breaches are caused by outside hackers. Ask Morgan Stanley. In 2015, the financial services firm revealed that an employee had stolen data from more than 350,000 accounts. Forrester estimates that 80% of data breaches have a connection to compromised privileged credentials, such as passwords, tokens, keys, and certificates.

To avoid a data breach nightmare, company’s must ensure only the right people can access appropriate systems, data, and resources, for the right reasons. This is accomplished through Identity and access management (IAM). IAM is a specialty discipline within cyber-security. It helps companies increase productivity while securely enabling access to applications and systems.

IAM has to be an essential part of your IT toolkit. The typical business user has dozens (even hundreds) of applications they must access to do their jobs. These applications span cloud, mobile and on-premise solutions, and all can hold confidential, sensitive and regulated information.

To address the access management problem, there are many different IAM products on the market. I’m currently finishing a project to put SailPoint IIQ in place for a large financial institution. SailPoint is a Java based web application that integrates with legacy systems and Active Directory (AD) enabled applications. Auto-provisioning, native change detection, reporting and access certifications are some of the features SailPoint IIQ offers. Some of the other popular IAM products include Oracle Identity Management (OIM), Microsoft Identity Manager and Microsoft Azure Active Directory.

Regardless of the product you choose, having the right IAM strategy in place is key. The implementation of IAM can be very challenging. It takes strong collaboration between business, IT and operational teams. It also takes prioritization from leadership. Without executive sponsorship, business system owners and stakeholders may be reluctant to assist.

If you are in early stages of IAM or if you are already into delivery, MacIsaac Consulting can help. We provide services to help you put the right IAM strategy in place and we provide delivery resources.

Below are pictures of the cross-functional IAM team in action from my current project which is winding down. The work is very challenging, as most IAM projects are. Yet, the project will be successful because the client made IAM a top priority. They made the investment and provided the support to get the job done. That’s what it takes.

If your company is ready to deliver IAM, or if you need help on your current journey, let’s talk!

We used a Kanban board to track each Application going through the IAM integration process
Cross-functional team made up of IAM engineers and business members
Expert SailPoint IAM engineers working hard in the team War Room

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is the founder and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. Mike provides leadership as an IT Project and Program Manager as well as an Agile Scrum Master/Coach. Follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to Mike’s blog.

Why Middle Management Is The Ultimate Agility Killer

“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.” – Peter Drucker

For the past seven months I have been managing a difficult IT project for a large organization. The experience has me convinced that middle management is the ultimate roadblock to agility. I get why they call it the frozen middle. To understand the root of the problem, you must look beyond managers themselves. The core of the issue lies within organizational structure and culture.

While many companies are undergoing agile transformations, most still use old organizational models. The matrix structure is a top offender. Loaded with hierarchy, bureaucracy and management layers, it is anything but agile. If an agile team were superman, the matrix organization would be kryptonite.

Below are some of the ways the matrix organization impedes agility:

Disjointed Functional Areas

The matrix organization splits functional areas into groups. In IT for example, developers belong to one group, QA analyst to another, and so on. The employees within the group’s report to a manager. The manager then places employees on projects within the company.

Here’s the problem. Functional groups are setup to be in conflict against each other. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen functional areas point blame at each other when challenges arise. “It’s development’s fault”, or ” its QA’s fault”. Instead of promoting an attitude of one team, the matrix environment sets the stage for political strife. Managers snipe at one another as they fight to stand their ground.

The result of all the political warfare is hindered project teams. Team members just want to accomplish their work. Instead they get harassed by managers who need ammo to defend their functional area.

The Value-Add Dilemma for Functional Managers

IT functional managers working in a matrix environment have a dilemma. They usually come from a background of product delivery, where their contributions were clear to see. When they leave the trenches of project work to become managers, they realize their new role is about staffing. How then are they to prove their value if they are not delivering work? They attempt this in two ways.

First, they involve themselves into areas where they aren’t needed. As a project manager and Scrum Master, I have had to ask functional managers to not attend project team meetings. In teams, the presence of non-core members causes disruption. Teams operate at peak performance when each member of the team knows and trusts each other. The moment you introduce someone who is not part of a team, especially a ‘manager’, everyone clams up. The team reverts to the ‘forming’ stage of Bruce Tuckman’s four stage team building model.

Second, functional managers try to prove their worth by raising ‘concerns’ to leadership. Since they are on the sidelines for projects, voicing concerns about potential issues gives them an outlet for exposure. It’s a way for them to say, hey I think there is an issue, see how I’m adding value? Unfortunately, this often results in a lot of noise and distractions. While their intentions may be good, they end up stirring the pot.

These behaviors are not the fault of the managers themselves. They are usually good people with strong backgrounds. The problem is not the people. The problem is the functional management role itself. It doesn’t give people a way to add value.

Forming teams around projects

The matrix organization forms teams around projects. It’s not uncommon for people to be on two, three or even four projects at a time. This results in switching costs, the cost of doing more than one complex task as a time. Studies show that when people switch their thinking to different topics, their productivity goes down.

Poor team development is another result of forming teams around projects. Assigning employees to new projects doesn’t allow enough time for team development. It takes people working together for a while before a high performing team emerges. The moment you assemble a new team for a project, the team building process starts from scratch.

PMO’s

When it comes to process overload, the PMO (Project Management Office) is the worst. PMO’s force organizations to follow rigid standards, processes and tools. Many are trying to adapt to agile practices, but the results are the same. Too much process and bureaucracy. It goes against the first principle outlined in the popular Agile manifesto. Individuals and interactions are valued more than processes and tools.

While processes and controls are necessary for organizations, too much is an agility killer. Forcing project teams to create wasteful documentation is a common problem. I once had a manager ask that a large test plan be created for each Agile two-week sprint. The result was a QA analyst spending more time working on a test plan than collaborating with the team. To achieve agility, you must value working software more than documentation.

The Solutions to the Middle Management Conundrum

The best way to combat these issues is by forming stable, cross functional, capability teams. True agile teams. The teams can use whatever framework, processes or tools that work best for them. They don’t have to follow arbitrary processes from a PMO.

There are many benefits to the stable product delivery teams’ model. It eliminates the need for excessive management by doing away with functional groups. This puts emphasis on product delivery and providing value to the customer. It also reduces the internal politics that the matrix organization creates.

By keeping teams intact, it allows enough time for team development. Instead of forming teams around projects, project work goes through teams. This is a mindset shift away from traditional project management to modern product delivery.

Agile teams report up through one line of management. Managers are responsible for strategy and ownership of their capability. This gives managers clear roles and responsibilities that provide value. They engage in product delivery.

Part of the goal with the product team model is to create a flatter organization and to adopt an agile culture. While these changes are hard for large organizations, many companies are having success. In Minneapolis, where I live, companies like Best Buy, Target, United Health Group, and TCF Bank are making significant progress. They understand that the balanced matrix organization is no longer adequate to stay competitive.

Organizations still using the balanced matrix structure need to change. Implementing a stable product team model improves agility and benefits the customer. It also provides a more enjoyable work environment for managers and employees.

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is the principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. Mike provides leadership as an IT Project and Program Manager as well as an Agile Scrum Master. You can follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to Mike’s blog.

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