Creating a Healthy Project Culture

Glen Alleman seems to have nailed it, with Alert – Was Poor PM the Root Cause of ACA Difficulties? Among the many problems:

  • No overall program manager
  • No way for stakeholders to know what Done looks like (no release criteria)
  • No replanning

I'm a huge fan of rolling wave planning.  (Read Starting with Rolling Wave Planning for more details if you don't understand how.) That helps you plan to replan and helps you see where you are.

Do I believe in program management—one person to coordinate the efforts of everyone—for large programs? You bet. Do I believe in project management? You bet. Am I one of those people who believe in agile project management for geographically distributed teams? Yes, sirree. How about projects and programs where people are clinging to their silos? Absolutely.

Ron Jeffries, on Twitter, the other day said,

None of Agile, Lean, Kanban, or any other method ever recommended not thinking. Those who do them without thinking do…

No one is supposed to turn their brain off when they go to work. Honestly.

That is exactly why I believe in creating a healthy project culture. If that requires someone whose title is “project manager” or “agile project manager” to steer the project or program, that's fine with me. Not to control. To steer.

In a serial or phase gate project, you do need someone with some kind of a project manager/program manager title. Why? Because the discipline is in the project manager, not in the team. It's a hierarchical approach to managing and steering projects. You can still create a healthy project culture.

Now, how do you create a healthy project culture? Well, you could read what Glen wrote in his post. Note the emphasis on evaluating where you are and replanning. I have yet to meet a project that does not require replanning. Every project needs built-in feedback, more often, rather than less often. Rolling wave planning helps you build in feedback. It does not create the illusion that you have a path and you will stick to it, come hell or high water. It promotes transparency, because you say, “Here's where we are. There's where we want to be. How do we get there from here?” It's a tool that works.

Here's what I consider to be elements of a healthy project culture:

  1. You have to honest about where you are and about where you want to go. For me, this is encapsulated in a project (or program) charter, with the vision, the project drivers and release criteria. See the Manage It! templates for my templates.
  2. You have to see your project state. Don't think a Gantt chart shows your project state. That's wishful thinking. Cumulative flow, velocity charts because they are burnups, and demos show your project state. Yes, a phase gate project can deliver these measurements. Why do you need to see your project state? So you can steer where you want to go, if you're not where you want to be.
  3. Project teams who are working on only one project at a time, so they can maintain project flow.
  4. A servant leader who collaborates with the project team (in the case of a program, all the project teams and the core team) to facilitate everyone delivering their piece.
  5. People can ask questions about risks, such as “I'm concerned that performance isn't so hot.”

On a small project, do you need a servant leader? Maybe not. It depends on the project team. On a large program? Oh yes. It's risk management.

If I'm the project or program manager and it's getting to the end of the project, I might not want to hear the risks. But I do want to hear them before we release. Because if I'm trying to meet an “immovable” date, I should have been developing with all of those qualities such as performance, reliability, and security in mind from the beginning.

Did you read “A Lifetime Guarantee” by Forrest Shull in the November/December 2013 IEEE Software? (The article is not online yet.) It's about a company, AIS, who provides a lifetime guarantee on their software. The team decides on the schedule. The company invests in training the team.

“In return, the team takes ownership of the process and can create a process that actually helps get the work done.”

In a healthy project culture, people work together to accomplish the goal. They know where they want to go. They know what done means. They do some work. They see where they are, they replan, they repeat.

With a healthy project culture, it doesn't matter what approach the team uses: phase gate, iterative, incremental, agile. It doesn't matter. Without a healthy project culture, they are doomed.

Are you creating a healthy project culture in your project today?

2 Replies to “Creating a Healthy Project Culture”

  1. Pingback: Creating a Healthy Project Culture – by Johanna Rothman

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