Time scheduling – The hammer of project management?

If you have only a hammer as a tool, you see a nail in every problem. Mark Twain is credited with the bon mot ” If you have only a hammer as a tool, you see a nail in every problem”. Even if it is not clear beyond doubt who is actually the author of this statement, it remains probably the most succinct formulation for “Maslow’s hammer

So what does this have to do with project management?

When it comes to project management software, I often observe that users try to achieve a wide variety of goals with just one tool, namely scheduling. You can’t blame them, because many project management tools tempt users to do just that.

In the process, schedules are created from hundreds or thousands of daily tasks. It is not uncommon for me to also encounter tasks in question form, such as “Specification released?”, “Customer presentation done?” and so on, provided with duration, deadline and task links.

Over-detailed planning takes its revenge in the project

The dilemma: Such plans are only pseudo precise, with many detailed deadlines calculated from activity links. Although everyone involved actually knows that in larger projects no activity is completed to the day. Nevertheless, everyone pretends that the plan is exactly right.

Also, the practice of managing resource utilization by linking all the tasks of a particular person one after the other only works well until you have to change the planning. Then the whole scheduling structure is no longer right. But the scheduling tool continues to calculate the dates mercilessly according to the network plan. The more detailed the plan is, the more time-consuming it is to make changes in the course of the project. You move one task and many others move with it – but unfortunately not in the way you would have expected. You no longer understand your own, overly complicated network plan and require a great deal of rescheduling effort for new fake precision. Some people leave the plan unchanged and start improvising instead

Use the entire toolbox

Here it is obvious to think of agile approaches as an alternative. But you don’t necessarily have to change your project management completely. Many experienced project managers say: “Agile is nothing new. With me, it’s just not a task board, but a good old open points list.” And that’s exactly the key. Plan only as precisely as necessary and as really useful. The motto here is: Better good rough planning than poor detailed planning. Even if the rough plan probably doesn’t come in as thought, it’s much easier to correct and makes the impact on the project more readily apparent.

For detailed issues, a list of open items (LOP) with clearly defined responsibilities is the tool of choice. And for anything you want to schedule in question form, checklists that are reviewed regularly as the project progresses are helpful. If not met, put an action on your LOP. And perhaps you record and monitor risks and define countermeasures to take timely and effective countermeasures. This usually puts you in a much better position for a successful project.

So: Only use the hammer for nails. For everything else, feel free to pick up pliers, screwdriver or wrench!

Complicated vs. Complex: the human factor in project management

Classic, agile or hybrid project management – what do I choose in a project?  The Stacey Matrix (after the organizational theorist Ralph D. Stacey) can provide a decision support. A criteria catalog is used to assess how well a project plan is already understood – in terms of requirements on the one hand and the solution approach on the other. Are the requirements clear or are we moving into a new, as yet unknown market? Are you using a well mastered technology or a new one with which you have no experience?

Simple, complicated, chaotic?

Along these two axes, the Stacey matrix divides a project into the categories simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. According to the so-called Cynefin framework, simple systems are ordered so clearly that they can be understood immediately. Complicated systems are difficult to understand. With expert knowledge, however, it is possible to understand and predict their cause-effect relationships in advance.

Although complex systems are also determined by clear causalities, they exhibit so many interactions that even experts are no longer able to analyze them sufficiently in advance. The correlations can only be recognized and understood afterwards. A system is described as chaotic if there are no clear causal relationships and one and the same cause can produce completely different effects.

A small example illustrates this:
For a meteorologist, for example, a weather forecast for the next hour may be simple, one for the next day complicated. A forecast for the next week, on the other hand, might be a complex problem, while the forecast for one day of the next year is certainly a chaotic one.

As long as project plans are simple or complicated, they can be well mastered with a waterfall like, firmly predefined procedure depending on the expertise. However, the more they tend towards complexity, the more an agile, flexible approach with many feedback loops and the possibility of trial and error is recommended. I think this is a plausible approach, which, by the way, can be applied not only to entire projects, but also selectively to individual areas in a project.

The social dimension

But perhaps this approach is not quite enough. We have talked about requirements and about approaches to solutions, but not yet about the people who work together in the project. Isn’t their organizational and social interaction also simple, complicated or complex to chaotic? And doesn’t this factor have the same major impact on the success of the project? In my opinion, this is precisely the point at which one must speak of unpredictability, i.e. complexity.

A well-rehearsed team that has been working together for years can certainly be classified as easy. However, it is often forgotten that hardly predictable dynamics can occur in a newly assembled team or in a new cooperation of different departments with different interests. Here, agile methods with their focus on results-oriented communication can be the key to mastering the project.

So perhaps we should add a third dimension, “social interaction”, to the two axes “requirements” and “solution approach” in order to complete the decision model and lay the foundation for project success.

Agile physical product development?

My last blog post was about teams that only become really agile through experience. Today, the focus is on the challenges that agility brings to engineering.

Almost 20 years after the Agile Manifesto, agile software development has become widely accepted. It is no longer about whether, but only about best practices in detail and agile scalability. The success and ease of use of task boards, for example, have led to agile procedures also finding enthusiastic users outside software development where tasks are processed in a team.

This finally led to the increasingly intensively discussed question of whether physical products could also be developed more efficiently with an agile approach.

Why?

For many years, there have been established product development processes that have reached great maturity and support successful development. Why abandon them and take on the risks of a completely new approach?

The more unclear the requirements on the product are and the less known the technology to be used, the less suitable classical project management methods are, because they are very strongly forward-planning. It is precisely this tendency to start projects despite initially incomplete requirements that we are increasingly observing. Digitization and new technologies require new business models or new technological capabilities. This speaks for an agile approach, as it was invented to deal with ambiguity and not-yet-knowledge.

Is that even possible?

The decisive question here is: Are agile methods from software development at all suitable for mastering the challenges of “classical” product development? In contrast to software, physical products are developed with a much greater division of labour. The production of faulty components causes high consequential costs and the validation depends on physical prototypes. It is not possible to present a new, functioning and potentially deliverable stand every two weeks. Solutions for such problems require a creative further development of the known agile process models. A very simple example: The teams of different domains use different sprint durations. While the software team delivers every 2 weeks, the mechanics team delivers every 6 weeks. It is important to synchronize the sprints so that a common increment is achieved every 6 weeks.

The challenge

The challenge of introducing agile methods is therefore twofold: On the one hand, it is necessary to adapt the agile methods from software development to the conditions in product development. On the other hand – and this brings me back to my previous contribution – a lot of agile experience is needed to successfully make such adjustments. In order to resolve this contradiction, one should bring together the pioneers who dare to venture into new territory with experienced “agilicans” who master their craft in software development. Mutual learning and sharing of knowledge leads to a better mastery of product development under rapidly changing conditions.