The rock n’ roll of project management: getting your facts straight

Facts are simple and facts are straight/ Facts are lazy and facts are late/ Facts all come with points of view/ Facts don’t do what I want them to. —”Cross-eyed and Painless,” Talking Heads

Slalom Consultant Carl Manello

Carl Manello

Music, when composed and played well, is a joy. As I’m trying to teach myself how to play guitar, I’m learning that there is more to it than simply learning some chords and strumming patterns. Music theory, progressions, complex patterns, scales, and technique all come into play. Project management is similar. When a plan is well-defined and executed by a professional, experienced PM, the results can be a joy. But there is more to project management than creating a plan and managing due dates. Project management theory, base-lining, dependency management, resource loading, and soft skills also come into play. Read more of this post

The art of project management: transformation management

The topic of this post was sourced by Dr. Harold Kerzner, Senior Executive Director for Project Management at the International Institute for Learning and Emeritus Professor of Systems Management at Baldwin Wallace University, where he specializes in the field of project management.

There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to institute a new order of things. Niccolo Machiavelli, Italian political theorist (1469-1527)

Slalom Consultant Carl Manello

Carl Manello

In this installment of the Art of Project Management, I depart from the military strategic insights of Sun Tzu circa 1000 B.C. and advance the time machine to the political strategy of the Italian Renaissance. I’ve cited Niccolo Machiavelli in earlier blog posts (Machiavelli on Agile, for example), and find his musings right on target. Project managers have much to learn from Machiavelli’s observations. Just as Sun Tzu breaks down combat and strategy into multiple rules of war, so, too, does Machiavelli break down the rules of a leader in a “state” (here, I use state to address all forms of an organization). As leaders of projects, PMs will do well to work within their state to take on additional accountability for delivery. That accountability is seated in ensuring that projects realize their goals once implemented.

Read more of this post

The Art of Project Management: Calculations for Success

Co-written with Bryan Taylor, a consultant in Slalom’s Business Operations Management Practice. Bryan has 20+ years of experience helping companies use technology to become more strategic, productive, and cost-efficient.

Carl Manello

“With many calculations, one can win; with few one cannot. How much less chance of victory has one who makes none at all! By this means, I examine the situation and the outcome will be clearly apparent.” —Sun Tzu

After months of hard work, the users are trained, the system is live, the bugs are fixed, and the system has been transitioned to support. The project is over, right? Well, almost. But for some companies that Slalom works with, project tracking does not end after project closure. Successful companies continue to make calculations after their projects have been implemented using a benefits realization framework. With this approach, they feel they have an even greater chance of victory for their next project. Read more of this post

The Art of Project Management: the Seige of Portfolio Management

Carl Manello

The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege. Sun Tzu

Our executives are not irritated generals. Our delivery teams are not swarming ants. However, Sun-Tzu’s metaphor can be overlaid on the concept of portfolio management quite easily. A company that cannot manage the demand funnel and does not align its projects to strategies or corporate goals may end up driving its leadership to “irritation.” If the irritated company then launches projects—which are not aligned and not prioritized—the project portfolio may seem like a swarm response: trying to fulfill everyone’s request for everything wanted all at once. To this end, the project delivery engine of the company will seize up. Projects will fail and team members will pay the price (though hopefully, none will be slain). Read more of this post

The Art of Project Management: Planning


Carl Manello

“He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.” Sun Tzu, military strategist

In this fifth installment of the Art of Project Management series, I’ll address the importance of planning. By planning, I’m not referring to the multi-thousand-line project plan detailed in the most sophisticated of project and portfolio management tools (it’s really not at all about the tool, anyway). Continuing the Art of War metaphor, planning refers to the deliberate and well-conceived approach for framing the plan of attack. Without forethought, Sun Tzu warns, one is destined to be consumed by one’s project.

Many would agree that some level of planning is necessary, and that the planning should be correlated to the size of the initiative. That is to say, a global conversion and consolidation to a single ERP system across multiple countries obviously requires a detailed approach. However, even a small initiative (e.g., a new software release that updates the user interface) requires a plan. Read more of this post

The Art of Project Management: Scale

Slalom Consultant Carl Manello

Carl Manello

The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.Sun Tzu, military strategist

Creating principles

The basic principles of project management are fully extensible from the smallest initiative to the largest program. The key is that the project management practices should be understood as principles: accepted or professed rules of action or conduct. It is based on this belief that I encourage my clients to establish project manager guiding principles and to construct project management frameworks (not detailed, step-by-step methodologies). By maintaining the governance rules at the highest level (at first definition), the organization maintains the flexibility to scale the implementation of principles based on specific needs. Read more of this post

The Art of Project Management: Success

Slalom Consultant Carl Manello

Carl Manello

A victorious army opposed to a routed one, is as a pound’s weight placed in the scale against a single grain. —Sun Tzu, military strategist

While I won’t compare weights and measures of ancient China (the “I” and the “SHU” versus the pound and the ounce), I will measure up Sun Tzu’s comment against the weight of managing a successful project. All too often projects are focused on the future. The drive for success is what becomes important! I have fallen into this habit myself, commonly chanting a string of queries: “Where are we at?” “How are we doing?” “What will it take to get us to ‘done’?” These are the core questions for status and moving forward. But what about celebrating our successes? Read more of this post

The Art of Project Management: Governance

sun tsuThus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.Sun Tzu, military strategist

The parallels are easy: a large-scale, enterprise-wide business initiative is like a war. Sometimes it can be a death march. Sometimes it can be a victorious success. Often the difference in the end is determined by planning the undertaking at the beginning. Whether an ERP replacement, a new pricing system, or an employee medical records system replacement, an organization will do well to understand the full scope of the “battle” before committing its warriors to the endeavor. In large-scale initiatives, planning tends to take the form of designing a governance framework. Read more of this post

The Art of Project Management: Sun Tzu’s Rules

The art of project management is of vital importance to the Company. It is a matter of success or failure, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence under no circumstances can it be neglected. — Sun Tzu, The Art of Warsunzu (paraphrased)

Over two thousand years ago, Sun Tzu crafted his rules for waging war.  The subsequent Art of War is now one of the most often cited books, reflecting strategy in all things from sports to business to the actual implementation of war. I believe one can equally rely upon the Chinese general for interpretations on running today’s ongoing corporate battles: the implementation of projects.

To start this series, The Art of Project Management, I’ll paraphrase one of the Sun Tzu’s set of rules from ancient war-fighting.

There are three ways in which an executive can bring misfortune upon his team:

  1. By commanding the team to just move forward, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the project.
  2. By attempting to govern a project the same way he administers a core functional business operation (e.g., supply chain or marketing), being ignorant of the particular conditions of that project. This causes restlessness in the project team’s minds.
  3. By employing resources on his project without discrimination.

Let’s take a quick look at each. The first, hobbling the project, cautions us from charging forward, regardless of the situation and leading indicators from the team. “We’ve already been at this six months; let’s just keep going.” “The CFO has committed $2 million, we can’t stop now!” “We need to make a change in direction; so just do it!” Have we all heard something like this before? I am not suggesting that our senior leaders should be restrained from setting or altering a course as they deem best for the company; however, they must take into consideration how changes will impact the initiative. Sunken costs cannot be recovered. Time spent is not an indicator of the “right” decision, direction, or approach. And while we all strive to be more flexible, project change management is almost an entire art form in and of itself.

When it comes to governing a project, I often find that senior executives who are very smart, experienced in their field, and successful are often confused by my project management counsel. These leaders do not understand how running an ongoing concern as part of a corporate function is any different than a project. Projects are not ongoing concerns. They should be handled differently, and an entire industry has been spawned to deal with and assist in the running of these discrete initiatives. Think about the senior executive who is reluctant to begin structured, formalized, metric-based status reporting. She’s never implemented such a thing in all her success at running a supply chain operation, so why should she start now? Whichever project management discipline you follow (from Harvard to PMI, Agile or Waterfall), there should be a fundamental understanding that projects are not the same as running a business.

When it comes to resources, projects are often plagued by under allocation. In many cases, resources are asked to provide their time to a project and maintain their daily responsibilities as well. Leaders who are successful managing operations are often foisted into the roles of project leads or project managers. Often they are put in this role due to their success at running an operation—but without any knowledge, skill, or experience running a project. Managing an initiative on part-time resources who are not focused on the team’s success or prepared with the right skills is a formula for failure.

Sun Tzu has many lessons to leverage. For anyone who has not yet read one of the translations, I highly recommend him. I will do my part in this ongoing series—The Art of Project Management—to share my interpretation of his wisdom in the world that I call Delivery Effectiveness. In closing, consider an adaptation of Sun Tzu’s often quoted verse: “If you know the challenges and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred projects.”

Churchill on Portfolio Management

English: Sir Winston Churchill.

English: Sir Winston Churchill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.

Sir Winston Churchill

Is it the same in your organization too? Getting out of the rut of inefficiencies is challenging, time consuming, and never quite at the top of the list. Do you find that there are more projects in the pipeline than in the original approved budget? Is performance less than adequate on some key initiatives? Do you find that projects which are going sideways don’t seem to have a steering mechanism or brake to help with correction? Do you find that you are surprised that this is the same environment you were unhappy with last year?

This becomes the embodiment of the oft-cited saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Breaking the cycle takes action. Action takes a plan. Action requires taking risks. Action can improve performance and effectiveness, but it requires concentrated effort and some investment.

Unfortunately, many clients dismiss the required focused effort on internal improvements thinking that things are ‘good enough’ at the moment. And, with corporate budgets being squeezed, it is no wonder that poorly articulated improvements don’t receive appropriate attention or funding. How can improvement opportunities be tightened-up and how can leaders change the future? Read more of this post


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