Stan's High Tech Project Management Ideas 31-May-2004
1. Vision of the self.
Vision of the self has priority over vision of the project. A project is the canvas that allows expression of oneself allowing for personal fullfillment. This applies to every project participant. A project development has to become also a realisation of one's own vision, for all participants. If a personal vision of an individual project member is not aligned with the project vision then the participant should be asked to quit the project development or his/her contunued presence may be utilized as an opportunity for other project members, especially the leader to re-think or question the project or some of its implementation aspects. It may be generally assumed that nothing happens accidentally, thus differences or discord in personal visions may be indicative of something inharmonious about the project itself, which may be used as an opportunity to take early corrective action.
2. Vision of the project
Vison of the project consists of the “mental picture” of a final goal or a product as if it were already accomplished in the present time, together with all individual steps and events leading to it. Only one person within the group need to hold a conscious vision of the project, although all members of the project team must share some aspec ts of the vision, at least unconsciously.
Project vision consists of two levels: (2a) the so-called “surface” vision - which may be the actual product or business idea that the project is officially asembled for; and (2b) - the deeper level vision, a vision beneath the vision which deals vith the primary objective or purpose behind the existence of (2a).
For example, the surface vision may consist of the development of a new industrial level sensor , whereas the deeper level vision may be the seeding and implantation of a new business culture and ethics in the high tech industry in general, beginning with the particular area of industrial sensors. A deeper level vision may also be, for instance - to grow the company at the fastest rate possible and to maximize the amount of profit in the short term, or long term etc. One has to be particularly careful about building deeper level visions because such visions hold precedence over surface visions and may in fact contradict them. In the above example, it may be conceivable that the development of a new industrial level sensor may in fact not be the best way of achieving the fastest possible business growth, which means that the surface vision may not be compatible with that particular deep level vision. Such a situation would therefore lead to failure if the team is unaware and insists on continuation of the original surface vision.
Both levels of project vision must coexist simultaneously and be shared among most members of the project team. It is not possible to successfully complete a project except in some trivial cases, if one of those two levels of vision are missing or are contradictory as in the previous example. Without the short term vision (2a) the deeper level vision cannot begin to be realized; without the deeper vision (2b) the team will not have enough energy, motivation and reason to persist through difficulties.
3. Concept of a project goal.
A project goal is the part of the short term project vision (2a) that is the most clearly defined in time. A goal cannot become a vision because a project vision is usually open ended in time, that is a project never completely ends while subsequent goals or milestones can and in fact are being completed at specific points in time. For example, if the project vision is an industrial level sensor, then the goal may be to deliver a specific product design and launch a product.
The distinction between a vision and a goal is an important one - failure to understand that usually results in accepting goals as visions, with all its time and scope limitations. Typically, a vision with its dual level structure is a much more solid and durable entity. While a goal being only a part of the project may easily change, the vision and therefore the project may still remains intact and viable. For example, an attempt at defining the project vision erronously as the goal of delivering and launching a particular product at a particular time on the market, may easily fail if the product’s technical or marketing specification change or become obsolete in the course of development. A goal is fixed and narrow while a vision is flexible and broader.
Another disadvantage of goal-limited projects is their abrupt termination, and the removal of resources at a fixed completion date once a goal is deemed to be fullfilled. Many commercially successful and profitable businesses resulted from project follow-ups after the original goal was completed, like for example in the case of the original IBM PC or in the enertainment and film industry. Such developments are virtually impossible to predict and to plan, yet they come naturally if the project is vision - not goal-driven.
Project technical and marketing specifications are lists of technical details and features that the product ought to have. As such, specifications are closely tied with the project goal. Being goal related, they are naturally subjected to similar volatilty. It is important to be aware that the specifications (and goals) are secondary to project vision and they should not be treated as if they were unquestionable rules imposed for ever. Their usefulness lies in short term guidance and aid for synchronizing and facilitating various aspects of development. Too rigid specifications may become a hindrance rather than a help and often contribute to project failures.
It is a common mistake to write specifications too early or too detailed. Such specifications may limit project design concepts during the early developmental stage while only serving a dubious benefit of helping in detailed early project planning. Such early planning may cause the same problems as too rigid specification, namely it predetermines and enforces a certain project direction at the time when the true course cannot yet be known.
5. Timeline and scheduling
In high tech research and development, the correct approach to project planning is to formulate milestones and partial goals during the foreseen project development. The time schedule should be less detailed in the beginning but may incorporate more details, such as specific task timing in the later stages of the project. In practice, the most useful schedules are those that can be easily memorized by most participants, especially by the team leader or project manager. In order to make it possible, it is essential to limit the overall length of the schedule to a maximum one page of size A4 sheet and keep it as conscise as possible.
In order to fit a project schedule within such a limited space, the schedule should only list milestones with projected completion dates and only exceptionally may list individual tasks. Milestones completion dates can be best estimated by experienced project members based on their prior experience. In some rare situations, such estimates may be arrived at by means of breaking the periods between milestones into individual tasks and adding up projected duration of individual sequential tasks. Very often however, such estimates are less accurate than a global estimate for a milestone provided by experienced engineers and managers.
In the case of extremely complex and large projects this method might not work very well. Such situations arise typically when the project team size exceeds about 10 people. The best solution in that case is the one employed by military organizations - to create a two-level hierarchical structure. That is to divide the project into subprojects, and to divide the team into sub-teams each with its project leader. In such a case, there must be a well defined hierarchy established within the management where the individual team leaders are subordinate to the overall project manager. The overall project manager must be responsible for the entire project’s success or failure, while the individual sub-team leaders must be made responsible for the success or failure of the sub-projects. The project manager must have the power to appoint or dismiss leaders, while the leaders must have the same power towards their staff.
6. Budget control
Out of several ways of controlling expenditure, the one that interferes the least with the development is the most effective from the overall point of view. That is, the objective is not to maximize the amount of control but rather to achieve a balanced compromise between the degree of controling and auditing and crippling the project by too many constraints. For this method to work, a great deal of discipline (informal, not necessarily procedural) is required from management, as well as a high level of ethics (on the other hand no control method may really work if the last condition is not met). In particular the overall project cost estimate has to be made before the project starts and ought to be adhered to, but without too much interference from the upper management on how exactly the money is spent. The project team should also have a flexibility of allocating financial resources between services (including staff hiring) or parts and tools. Within this method, it is useful to have a mid-project budgetary review involving the corporate project sponsor (a director or board-appointed auditor), to ensure that the resource allocation is modified if necessary, if the circumstances change.
A correct mind set for budgetary control is that of an engineer, centered upon relative rather than absolute figures. The best illustration of what that means is an example:
From the accounting point of view a small expense like purchasing a component worth a dollar is recorded/invoiced and handled in the same way as purchasing some equipment or a travel expense worth a thousand times as much. The reason being that accounting has to make expense figures add up and match the invoices exactly, while the project manager should rather be more concerned with saving percentages (relative) of the project costs rather than focusing on the cost-cutting in terms of absolute figures. Important issue is also the administrative labor costs and overheads involved in book-keeping. In many cases, it may be more economical not to book-keep small expense records and refraining from cost optimization for small material, services and parts purchases. A more efficient way of handling small and medium value expenses is to decentralize purchasing decisions and to allow for discretionary spending of up to a certain limit per month, either for all project members or just for the leader(s), such that small expenses are not itemized individually but instead bunched up together and invoiced monthly as small-cap expenses. A useful rule of thumb is to cap the small expense budget to up to 10% of the wages costs. Higher value expenses should be invoiced individually but assessed in comparison with the total project budget rather than as absolute figures.
7. Resource allocation, HR and other aspects.
Cost saving discussed above is an important issue but very often applied in the wrong place at the wrong time. The correct time for cost cutting is at the beginning, during the resource allocation stage, and the correct part to cut is the overall project size, especially the number of staff.. Often however, this is the area where the project managers may have the least to say especially if the project allocation is done at the higher level. The staff and budget allocation for the project should be completed and finalized gradually after the project starts because better information is available at this stage and better planning is possible. Second opportunity for resource optimization including cost cutting is a mid-project review in the presence of corporate project sponsor and audtor. Third best window for budget revision is a post launch review. The restriction to those 3 windows is important in order to minimize the impact of too frequent interference on project planning, and to minimize the authority-erosion impact of such interference upon the project manager.
One often overlooked aspect of the resource allocation is the psychological impact on the project team. For example, team members may receive certain decisions as a corporate vote of non-confidence in the project members or in the management , or may take it as a sign of changing priorities, that may erode the morale and motivation to work. Examples
* Refusal to order certain tools or services hampering the project success and jeopardising individual careers, under cost-cutting policy may have such an impact, especially if it is not applied evenly across the company;
* A corporate policy that allows underperforming employees or managers to remain unchallenged in their positions may give an impression that company directors regard protection of personal well being of some selected people to be above the success of the project;
* Lack of reward for successes or good work, and lack of punishment for mistakes or inaction, has a strong detrimental effect since it gives an implicit message that the company might not really care about the work quality.
* Putting unreasonably strong emphasis on auxiliary activities such as corporate social events, charities or poster campaigns on behalf of “quality” drives such as ISO9000, “Teamwork” or other business fads has a detrimental effect on project teams since it gives impression that the company management may care more about form than substance. Even a product advertising may have an antagonising effect on some teams that are not involved with a particular product, if it is applied too vigorously inside a company.
* Disproportional or insulting “rewards”. Example of disproportional rewards may be bonuses, stock options, “golden parachutes” or early retirement priviledges if applied selectively to certain positions only, given indiscriminately to too many people, or if they are unrelated to performance. Example of “rewards” that may be considered insulting by some employees are those that do not carry any significant or comeasurate monetary value and thus are diverging from the the main purpose of employment, for instance: “Employee of the Month” poster, 30 dollar watch “gifts” for 30-years of work or 1 dollar plaque for a patent.
8. Management and personal integrity.
Four styles of management are usually taught, listed in the order of severity as: commanding, directing, supervising and coaching. All four can be applicable and useful depending on the circumstances, qualifications and experiences of the project participants. Each one of them requires that the person in charge is willing to take personal responsibility for his/her decisions and actions and is emotionally balanced. This requirement is more important than some formal qualifications and mistakes can be very costly. Profiling by a professional psychoanalyst is sometimes necessary to qualify prospective management candidates and to eliminate candidates who are psychologically imbalanced, with disorders or unable to deal with subordinates or superiors in a harmonous way.
This is a very important but often misused concept, especially if treated supperficially or as a fad. A fundamental principle behind this is that the team is more than a sum of its components. Four people working together within a team group can achieve more, faster and with less effort than the same four people employed separately and acting individually, for example as consultants. Having people that share certain common ideas (grouped together) can amplify those ideas. However, that could also be a downside of teamwork, namely a presence of people within a group that share destructive, disharmonous or obstructive ideas or if they cannot work together, can prevent or make it more difficult to accomplish a goal; therefore a selection of team members is of the paramount importance.
There are two important psychological classification methods of personal characters: by energy personality type and by primary driving desire (personal vocation).
In terms of character temperaments or energy characteristics, it is important to have a balance of four fundamantal types: "Fire", "Water", "Earth" and "Air". It is beyond the scope of this article to describe those in details; however in practice a very reliable identification of a person's energy type can be accomplished by means of intuition and direct contact. Briefly: Fire type has energy that is very strongly focused in one direction but for a short time and inflexible, when challenged tends to fight or work with great burst of energy, it tends to think emotionally (usually not intuitively and not rationally). Water type tends to be flexible but can focus deep and for longer periods of time and is intuitive, prefers to avoid open conflicts when challenged. Air is the most flexible, capable of focusing over very wide area of activity simultanously, but in a shallow way, it tends to think verbally and intellectually, tends to ignore conflicts but is capable of quick action if challenged. Earth type can concentrate deeply in one area of activity for a very long time, is the most pragmatic and reliable, tends to think rationally (and if that fails, emotionally) and does not tolerate changes very well; resists very hard and persistently when attacked.
It is one of the functions of the leader to ensure that the opposing character types (Fire versus Water, or Air versus Earth) are not placed in the position of direct interaction with each other which is almost always certain to generate conflicts and sap their energy. Instead, the opposing types should be interspersed by more compatible elements. For example an Earth type draftsman should not be forced to work directly with Air type engineer, instead, the interaction should be mediated by a Fire or a Water type person, etc.
It is a common mistake that an inexperienced leader may tend to select people for the team that have only compatible character types to the one he/she posseses. This results in the team that may be lacking a vital energy characteristics – the one that is opposite to the leader's. For example, Water type leader may be tempted to exclude a Fire person from the team in order to avoid potential conflicts. It is important that the leader is aware of this issue, is familiar with the energetic classification of characters and makes conscious effort to avoid making that misake. It has to be said here that it is unfortunate that modern corporations tend to generally exclude or undervalue people of the Fire type, who are often perceived as too aggressive and therefore not suitable as team members. This is a misconception as every one of the energy types has equal potential of being constructive or destructive, thus exclusion of one type does not help but rather it usually has a detrimental effect and makes the team less efficient.
From a different point of view, in order to maximize effectiveness of a team it is important to have a balance of the seven fundamental psychological vocation types of characters which are: Worker,Warrior, Artist,Scholar,Writer, Priest and Leader. Each of the types is defined by their primary driving desire or motivation to act and to live: - Worker (Slave) is driven by a desire to work at "grass roots" level for the benefit of the community. Leader (King) is motivated by the desire to build and grow the community by working from the top down. Warrior is motivated by the challenge of overcoming obstacles. Artist is motivated by pattern seeking and perceiving, Scholar is motivated by curiosity, Writer (Sage) seeks and creates drama and Priest serves a higher cause or follows an abstract idea.
Important consequence of such classification of characters is that the vocation types of the team members should be matched (but not dogmatically!) with their positions or function in order to maximize effectivness and to avoid frustration. In terms of managerial functions, the Workers and Leaders seem most suitable due to their focus on the group interest, contrary to, for example Warriors and Writers who are driven by more individualistic or antagonistic motivations. Some job functions may be best suited by several vocational character types depending on the specific circumstances, for example a market research or technical research may be efficiently done by a Scholar but also by a Priest or Artist type, while a development stage of tightly timed project is best served by a Warrior type. Sales and procurement on the other hand is often better served by the Writer types or by Artists since they are capable of splitting their attention over multiple activities.
It is important to regard all the above presented psychological vocational types as equally valuable and all being equally needed. It is not always possible to predict what kind of characteristics may be most needed by the team, it is thus better to have a proper balance of all seven types rather then a selected subset. A fully functional team ought to consist of at least four people in order to fill up four energy dynamics, while the optimal number is seven such that all vocation types may be equally represented.
Last but not least, the psychological vocation characteristics are not as strict as to prevent one vocational type from performing another type’s task. In the longer run however, a mismatch may lead to frustration or inefficiency. This cannot be said about energy dynamics, as these are more fundamental and swapping (or pretending) does not seem possible.
This is the most important function. Leadership is an inborn ability although certain aspects of it may be taught. It is well recognized by now that a successful leader of a high tech company need not necessarily have the same level of competence in their particular area of engineering, however there is still a tendency to require that a leader possesses a formal training in business and administration, financial or accounting. This is exactly the same mistake as demanding an engineering qualification from a leader. The most useful skill for a leader seems to be the ability to relate to people, understand their motivation and be able to influence them without undue coercion or formal discipline. People tend to follow a person with true natural leadership ability, although a person with some learned leadership skill may also succeed in the task (for a short time). A formal training in psychology is often more helpful although by no means constitutes a sufficient skill. Leading people is not the same as manipulating a group - the difference lies in the purpose. Of the seven vocational types: Leader or Worker do more often than not make good company directors and managers since their drive towards community building and cohesion are naturally strong. Exceptionally strong ethics and psychological balance is the most important conditon for a successful leader. Without these, it is virtually impossible to gain people’s confidence and without a confidence corporate leadership cannot be effective.
1) the author is “Water” type.
2) Vocational types were defined by C. Quinn Yarbro in “Michael for the new Millenium”