Battles in the Conference Room

Having varying points of view is healthy for company growth.  However, sometimes the varying opinions have underlying meanings that aren’t always what they seem.

For instance, how often do IT teams resist implementing new programs out of fear, laziness or just the extra work it creates?  I mean they are tasked with everything from support desk tickets, computer set-ups for new employees and even firewall security.  So it’s easy to get bogged down with the extra work a new program rollout will cost instead of focusing on the big picture and long term benefits.  Other times people resist out of simple personality conflicts.

When this happens you will hear legitimate-sounding excuses of how the installation may conflict with another program or of how it may take up too many resources.  This happens because one manager doesn’t want to help another manager or due to many other normal and very human reasons.

So the next time you have someone objecting to what most everyone else is pushing for, ask yourself, “Why?” It could be a very real objection worthy of consideration.  Or, as I found out last week, it could be a person impeding progress because they simply do not want to put more work on their plate.  The tough part is determining which is true. After all, we are all human!



Define: Technical Debt

Technical debt: Engineering changes you owe a project before it can be signed off as completed.  E.g. software, electrical, mechanical, ergonomic, and other engineering issues to be resolved.   If you’re tracking bugs, enhancements, defects, and other project issues, then you no doubt have some technical debt.  In other words, your team owes the project something before it can be said to be complete.  Every one of those issues should be documented, fixed, and verified by an objective party before project completion. Engineers, and in fact everyone, tend to sweep little things under the rug.  Especially when they don’t know how to resolve them.  Can’t fix that annoying little bug?  Easy answer: don’t tell anyone.  That’s just human nature.  Hide your deficiencies.  Make yourself look good.  Ignore the hard things. A good project team culture faces up to difficult little deficiencies.  A simple line item in a bug tracking tool like Standard Issue® makes them public, and that resolves most of the “facing up to them” issues.  Now everyone knows they exist, and must eventually be dealt with.   –ray

90 Days is Never Enough

If I give you 90 days to complete a project, but don’t hand you a checklist, chances are the project won’t be completed.  A project without clear deliverables is a green light to surf the web all day.  It doesn’t have the teeth to get anything concrete done, and leaves you without direction.  Given such a project, most people will simply say, “I’ll do what I can,” and then do almost nothing.  I’ve seen it happen.


Measurable goals
Consider making your goals measurable in some way.  Find a way to boil them down to simple numbers.  Example: this new feature will let us process 1,500 new transactions per day.  Or, the new system will let 1,000 new customers to submit service requests.  Don’t just say, “make it better.”  Make it measurable instead.

Make it quick
Giving arbitrary timeframes like 90 or 180 days without milestones is foolish.  Some people will believe they have all the time in the world, and wait until the night before to start.  Remember cramming?  That’s the mode most many people work in.  Instead, tighten in the deliverable dates, and let the project go late, if necessary.  That tends to keep people on task.

Make it simple
Don’t try to boil the ocean.  It never works.  Simple, foundational projects work best.  If they are completed to your satisfaction, you can build upon them later.

Now you can roll your eyes (like I do) when you hear, “it’ll be finished in 90 days.”


How To: Add Progress Lines in MS Project

Progress lines in Microsoft Project help see where tasks are behind schedule.  They’re hideous to look at, but serve a useful purpose.  This post shows how to add progress lines to a Microsoft Project file.  Buckle up; this may get rough.  🙂


Start by adding a few tasks to a new project:

  1. Add Task 1, with 10 hours duration
  2. Add Task 2, with 20 hours
  3. Add Task 3, with 30 hours

The tasks and Gantt bar should look like this.  At this point, we have no progress lines, just simple task bars in the Gantt chart.



Add a Project Status date:

  1. Choose Project, Project Information
  2. Enter a ‘Status date’ for when you would like to check task status (the status date progress line will be red)
  3. Click OK


Add progress lines:

  1. Choose Tools, Tracking, Progress Lines
  2. Click ‘Always display current progress line’
  3. Click ‘At project status date’
  4. Click ‘Display selected progress lines’
  5. Click in the list and choose the dropdown arrow
  6. Select a date for a progress line (these lines will be black)
  7. Click OK

You should now have two progress lines on your Gantt chart, and things may have gotten a little ugly.  As you move the task bars, the progress lines will update.  Tasks before the progress line will cause the line to go leftward (that’s the ugly part).  What good are they?  Backward facing lines are those tasks you need to move forward.  They need to be rearranged to meet your current project plan.  The image below is an example.  Notice how the lines go backwards to tasks that are behind schedule.




Sleeping on the Job

Sleep happens!  Especially on Mondays…  I recently read that 35% of all respondents to a recent polls admitted to napping on the job.  If I would have taken the poll, what do you think I would have said?

Of course I have!  And the other 65% have too, but they won’t admit it.  I’m not sawing logs all day long, but yes, it happens.

The MSN article below claims we’re sleeping about 2-3 hours less than those before the invention of the electric light bulb.  Duhh.  That’s no surprise.  Every invention has its unintended consequences.>1=31036

I really feel this has an effect on our projects.  I remember burning the midnight oil during the dot com, while attempting to start a new software company.  I literally worked two back-to-back 8-hour days.  And fought to stay awake every day.

Most people don’t go to that extreme, but they do watch their shows, surf the web, and play video games late into the night.  All because of the humble electric lightbulb.  🙂



Analysis Paralysis Strikes Again!

I thought I was done with this subject last week.  But then it struck again, Analysis Paralysis!  I am near completion of a deal that is over 4 years in the making, not for me, but for a fortune 100 company.  In other words, they’ve been work it this long.

This company has been looking for a solution and had contacted one of our reps back in 2003.  They were about to move forward with the implementation but someone convinced them to wait, and ultimately pushed to build the program in-house.  It’s the same story I hear time and again, “we can build it in-house for half the cost”.

Yeah, right.

So here I am in a conference call with a handful of representatives from this large company and they are sharing with me how after 4+ years they couldn’t build a good tool and wanted to use ours.  This happened for a number of reasons.  Reason #1…It’s not what they do!  Sure it looks easy, but when you actually set out to do it, reality hits.  Reason #2…not enough time.  Building a tool takes away from their core business, and that always takes a back seat.

Suppose I wanted a nice wooden baseball bat and I see that Louisville Sluggers cost $29.  If I’m not careful I could be talked into buying a piece of lumber, sticking it on a wooden lathe and saving myself ten bucks to make my own.  We all know that would be a disaster. Yet somehow in business we don’t always take that same common-sense approach.  Instead we waste too much time arguing, waiting and losing money.  Isn’t it better to pay a small premium for another’s well invested expertise?

Waiting usually costs more than doing nothing or delay.  As one CEO recently said, “After hearing all the facts, make a confident decision, even if you aren’t certain.  It’s indecision that is costly”. 



Define: Work Variance

Work Variance: Difference between the current ‘Work’ value and the baseline ‘Work’ value for a task .  In Microsoft Project, this is a read-only column.


There are a lot of variance fields in Microsoft Project, and they all relate to baselines.  Baselines are a way to compare your current values with original estimates.  A baseline captures all task values, including ‘Work.’  Weeks or months after capturing a baseline, you can compare those original estimates with current numbers.

To save a baseline in Microsoft Project, choose Tools, Tracking, Save Baseline.  To view all the baseline values, choose View, Table, Variance.  This changes the columns in the current view to show variances to the baseline.



Six Sins of Consulting

Biblically, 7 is the number of perfection, and 6 is the number of “man.”  Remember 666, the “number” of the Antichrist?  In light of that, I’m going to enumerate the worst sins consulting companies can make.  These are the ones that doom them to hell on earth.  If you’ve been in business for any length of time, you have probably already nailed these and gotten past them.  But they may be worth reviewing.

#1: Ignoring your customer’s complaints
The customer is always right, right?  No, not true.  But, when they believe they are right, you had better be there to work things out.  Sometimes you can make them see your position in a disagreement, but more times than not, you’ll need to suck carpet and make things right.  That’s part of what they expect of the relationship.  The mere fact that you take money from them puts you in that position.  Cruel fact of life – get used to it.

#2: Failure to smooze
This one is akin to the first, but slightly more on the positive side.  Remember the old adage “out of sight, out of mind?”  That’s what happens when you haven’t had face-time with your customer in a while.  They literally think less of you.  The relationship grows cold and they are less likely to call on you when a need arises.

#3: Letting sales slip
Consultants and consultancies have two big jobs: consult and sell consulting services.  Both are equally important.  Once a gig has been landed, the tendency is to settle in and forget about what comes next.  Looking for the next gig is hard.  It’s much easier to do what you’re competent at, and let the sales work take care of itself.  Problem is…  it often doesn’t.  When the gig ends, you’re on the street again without work.

#4: Shoddy work
This one’s so obvious, it’s hardly worth mentioning.  But it really goes deep down to the type of person you are.  Keep your standards high.  Remember that you are competing with other consultants, and for future work.

#5: Low utilization
Got a nice high billing rate?  Higher than working at Wal-mart?  Consider this: your “effective” billing rate (or utilization rate) is your revenue divided by the total calendar hours.  For example, $50,000 divided by 2,000 possible billable hours in a year is an “effective” rate of only $25 per hour.  You may charge $100 and hour for your time, but only book 25% of the total possible hours.

#6: Not picking up the scraps
Nobody likes to think of themselves as a handyman who takes odd jobs.  We’re skilled professionals with higher education.  But there’s no shame in stooping down to pick up small jobs.  Sometimes you can even charge more for them.  They can fill gaps between the big gigs and give you interesting new experiences.



How To: Show Critical Path Tasks

Here, we’ll be showing how to display critical path tasks in Microsoft Project.  The critical path is the sequence of tasks that take the longest to reach the project goal.  The steps below can be used to display your project’s critical path.  Follow these, and you’ll know which tasks threaten the final completion date of the project.   Create tasks to display the critical path: Enter three tasks Make the second task twice as long (in duration) as the first task Link the first task to the last task Link the second task to the last task At this point, the tasks should look like this.  Both the first and second tasks link to the last one. Two tasks, links to final task   Group the tasks by critical path: Choose Project, Group By, Critical Or, choose ‘Critical’ from the ‘Group By’ dropdown in the toobar After choosing this menu item the tasks will be grouped differently.  All the tasks that are not in the critical path will be displayed first (in the in ‘Critical: No’ group).  All the tasks in the critical path will be in the second group (‘Critical: Yes’). Tasks grouped by ‘Critical’   Format the Gantt column: Right-click in the Gantt column Choose Gantt Chart Wizard Click Next Click the ‘Critical path’ option Click Finish Click Format It Click Edit Wizard After formatting the Gantt column, the task bars in the critical path will turn red. Critical path task bars are red   –ray

When Projects Get Killed

This is a follow-up to the post named “Why IT Projects Get Killed.”  I began to wonder at what stage IT projects get killed.  In other words, when they are canceled.  Most of the projects I’ve worked on have been successful, but I’ve seen my fair share of canceled projects.

For this post, I decided to take a guess at when I felt IT projects are canned.  Of all the canceled projects, these are my guesses at when they occur.  I have no detailed surveys to back up my assertions, just a little experience.  So, here goes…  Post a comment and let me know what you think.

    25% In the investigative stages
    50% In the requirements gathering stage
    10% In the development stage
    10% In the final QA stage
    5% In the pre-sales marketing stage

25% In the investigative stages
This one’s fairly obvious.  A project passes the “good idea” stage and passes into the “due diligence” stage to learn its true value.  That’s when it dies.  Not all good ideas have true merit, or can be marketed effectively with the given resources.  It’s common for projects to die here.

50% In the requirements gathering stage
Here, the project members are interviewing customers and collecting information.  They may even be building prototypes to prove the concept.  But just as in the investigative stages, the idea may die because it cannot meet requirements or marketing expectations.  Again, lots of possible reasons for cancelation, but most of these are because the idea wasn’t feasible.

10% In the development stage
By the time it’s gotten to the stage where development resources are committed, it’s probably proven to be viable or too highly visibility to cancel.  By this stage, the project stakeholders may never cancel it, even if it isn’t viable.  Egos and persistence are at play here.

10% In the final QA stage
Sometimes products never meet customer expectations, or will cost too much to do so.  The project may have gone terribly over budget, and customers hate it.

5% In the pre-sales marketing stage
Surprisingly, some get to this last stage, and still die.  I was once involved in such a project in 1995.  It was killed after two years of intense development, before a single sale was made.  That’s right!  We finished a two-year death march, only to find the product pulled from marketing.  There were too many competitors and not enough customer value.  That fiasco, and a few others like it, eventually killed the entire company.