The rock n’ roll of project management: don’t build castles made of sand

Slalom Consultant Carl Manello

Carl Manello

I’ve had enough of the way things have been done
Every man on a razors edge
Someone has used us to kill with the same gun
Killing each other by driving a wedge.
  – Pete Townshend

I’ve long been a fan of Pete Townshend—from his days with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band The Who, through his solo career and even his time as an author. While I’m sure he never formally managed a project, his lyrics resonate for me on effective delivery and the need for change. Read more of this post

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 four horsemen


Carl Manello

It may be an overstatement to say that poor project management will bring about the apocalypse, but any project manager knows that inferior project management can certainly lead to a death march (e.g., one of those projects which appears to be destined to fail or which requires a stretch of unsustainable overwork). These types of project disasters are often the result of being overrun by the four horsemen of project management. Like their namesake from the Bible (described in the last book of the New Testament), or on the football field (the backfield of Notre Dame’s 1924 football team), the four horsemen are forces to be reckoned with. 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

Why Projects Succeed: Fostering Joint Accountability

Slalom Consulting Roger Kastner

A Consultant Manager with Slalom Consulting, Roger works with clients and other consultants in the delivery of Organizational Effectiveness and Project Leadership services and helps practitioners achieve greater success than previously possible.

Imagine this—an organization that celebrates its successes, both large and small, and also embraces its failures, so that it rewards the wins and reinforces a culture of learning and improvement. In this organization, individuals will identify others’ contributions to success and will also freely stand up to take personal responsibility for their contributions when things go wrong.

Sounds like a utopian workplace that only exists in management philosophy books, right?

Well, maybe it is Pollyanna-ish to presume that a culture of accountability is possible within a large organization. Maybe it is unlikely that leaders who rely on punishment as their form of accountability, or lack the skills and knowledge of what accountability truly means, can repeatedly demonstrate strong and healthy accountability behavior.

However, as a successful project manager, accountability is a key behavior you want your team members and stakeholders to embrace and exhibit. And if you are fortunate enough to be able to select team members and stakeholders who already act with accountability, you are living the good life. But for the rest of us, we need to be proactive in fostering joint accountability amongst the team, as this is how the best teams coalesce, compete, and succeed together.

The successful project manager establishes and cultivates a team culture of joint accountability, which results in a culture of winning. 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.”


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