Author: Fergus

Affected by Brexit? You’re gonna need this

Affected by Brexit? You’re gonna need this

It’s the classic situation that all project managers find themselves in, sooner or later. The deadline is fixed but the requirements still haven’t been decided. Every day that passes is a day lost than can never be recovered.

But this time it’s different. This is the true nightmare scenario.

There isn’t just one project – there’s a whole bunch of them. And worse – they’re all happening in parallel.

If this is you then you’re going to need to do some new things that you haven’t done before.

So here – for openers – are three things that will help you. You can do them now, straight away.


1 Learn how to estimate properly

If you can’t estimate a project properly then you’re probably doomed from the outset. You’re like someone who sets out to cross a desert not knowing how wide it is. Will you get to the far side? You might. You might also find that you’re part way across with no more water and no idea how much of the journey remains.

Next week we’ll tell you how to do this.


2 Learn how to scope and plan a project in a day

At the beginning of a project is where the greatest opportunity to accelerate it is.

Imagine what it would be like if – on day one of the project – you could scope it, plan it and launch it i.e. allocate jobs to people and have it up and running.

You can be skeptical about this if you like but it’s entirely possible.


3 Stop multitasking (for goodness sake!)

Multitasking is catastrophic for productivity Stop it.


  1. Make a list of the projects that have to be done.
  2. Prioritize the list.
  3. Flood the most important one with resources to get it done. Do this with the next most important one, the next most important and so on.
  4. Do this, even if it means not starting some projects just yet. You will still get them done quicker than if you had been multitasking.
  5. As soon as a project completes and its resources free up, move them to the next project on the list.
  6. Eat up the list of projects in this way.



Increase the Bottom Line for Free? No Thanks

Increase the Bottom Line for Free? No Thanks

You would have thought that if you told most bosses or CEOs that there was something they could do which would:

  • Save precious time which could then be used for other things
  • Reduce costs
  • Reduce waste
  • Save money
  • Increase revenues
  • Increase profits
  • Improve cash flow
  • Enable them to steal a march on, or gain a competitive advantage over their competitors
  • Deliver business benefits quicker
  • Reduce the risks of projects running over time or budget
  • Increase staff morale
  • Give greater employee job satisfaction,

they would jump at it.

If, in addition, you told them that this would require no extra resources – material or people, then you’d have thought the only question would be, ‘ How soon can I have it?’

Bizarrely, this is not the case.

Shortening projects / shortening time to market is something that does indeed tick all of the boxes above. Nor does it require extra resources – merely a change to the way the current resources are used.

Why then, is everybody not trying to do it?

It seems to me that there are a variety of reasons:

  • People don’t actually believe it’s possible – most bosses and project stakeholders think they’re lucky if projects come in on time and within budget.
  • Nobody figures out what getting the project done early would mean financially.
  • Many projects aren’t planned and estimated properly – if they’re not planned and estimated properly they can’t possibly be done quicker.
  • Getting projects done quickly is not in the ‘official’ project management literature, the Project Management Institute’s PMBOK [Project Management Body Of Knowledge].
  • The emotional investment people have in the way things are done at the moment – ‘What’s wrong with the way we do things at the moment?’ syndrome.
  • All of the people involved in the project are afraid that if they do the project fast they’ll miss something important.
  • Especially in high-tech organizations, very smart people can often regard very simple ideas as being of no value.
  • Again in high tech organizations, very smart people often can’t believe that simple ideas would work where complex ones have failed.

It’s a pity – because for those bosses and project stakeholders who are going to be first to embrace this disruptive idea, there will be a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.



Need More Contingency? Run a Fast Project!

Need More Contingency? Run a Fast Project!

Of the many benefits of running a fast project, a somewhat unexpected one is what it can do to your store of contingency.

Contingency is one of the more troubled areas of project management. Sensible industries – such as construction, for example, or filmmaking – expect to see contingency in a plan. Then, there are industries – most high tech industries are guilty here – where if bosses or customers or project stakeholders see contingency in a plan, they’re more than likely to take a red pen to it, draw a line through it and say, ‘Well that can come out for starters’.

But contingency is essential in a plan. It’s essential because it’s tied to the crucial question of change control.

When a change occurs on a project there are only ever three ways you can respond to that change:

  1. You can say, ‘Hey, that’s a big change. That’s not what we originally agreed.’ Changes to project scope, changes to resourcing and assumptions turning out not to be true – these are big changes.
  2. If something isn’t a big change, you can use the contingency (provided you have some).
  3. If something is a big change, but you don’t have the guts to say that to the people for whom you’re doing the project, and there’s no contingency in the plan, either because you never put it in in the first place or you did, but then some idiot took it out and you didn’t stop them, there’s only one other possibility when changes occur and – quite simply – that’s to suck it up. Work nights, work weekends, bring work home with you, phone up your significant other and say ‘give my dinner to the dog, I won’t be home tonight’ and so on.

If you have no contingency in your plan, you’re reduced to two options – either something’s a big change or you’re going to have to suck it up. To put that another way, your plan can now only succeed with some level of sucking it up. The problem with that, of course, is that there’s a limit to how much sucking it up you can do. There are only 24 hours in a day, 7 days in the week, and a finite number of people on your team.

All of which brings me to running a fast project. One of the really nifty by-products of running a fast project is that it generates contingency. Each day you save is a day you can add to your store of contingency. This has four effects:

  • If you started out with no contingency, you now suddenly have some.
  • It reduces the likelihood that your project is going to run late.
  • It gives you more wiggle room if you get unexpected surprises late in the project.
  • It means that when some unexpected big change does occur – especially late in the project – you may be able to say to your stakeholders that this is one you can ‘absorb’ i.e. you’re not going to hit them with a big change.

It used to be that there were only two options where contingency was concerned – put in explicitly (and run the risk of the stakeholders whipping it out) or hide it so they couldn’t find it. With fast projects you have a third option – you can generate it as the project unfolds. Nice!

Why Do Our Projects Take So Long? Because We Don’t Care Enough

Why Do Our Projects Take So Long? Because We Don’t Care Enough

Picture this. There is a small / medium-sized high tech project running in your organization. Let’s say it’s an average of ten people for six months. In other words it’s five person-years. While costs vary considerably, the typical cost of such a project in Western Europe or the U.S. might be in the range $ 12,000 – $ 15,000 per day.

I think you’ll agree that such projects fail all the time. And bigger ones and smaller ones. And, if not fail, then run late or over budget (sometimes dramatically so.)

Now imagine that, instead of the project costing say, $ 12,000 per day it was costing ten times that. Or twenty times. Or fifty times. Would you behave any differently than you do?

Well, why don’t we look at an industry where projects do cost ten or twenty of fifty times that per day and see what we can learn?

The movie industry is one where very expensive projects are planned and executed. While there have been famous examples of movies that have gone spectacularly over-budget (Cleopatra, Ryan’s Daughter, Heaven’s Gate, Waterworld) these days, movies get shot with a precision that would keep any CPA happy.

A couple of years ago, I heard an interview with Phyllida Lloyd, the woman who directed the movie, Mama Mia. In the course of the interview she happened to say, ‘It was a seventy nine day shoot’. Now, when’s the last time you heard one of your project managers say, ‘It was a seventy nine day project’? The language used is interesting because you get the impression that if you asked the makers of Mama Mia what they did on day forty two, for example, they could tell you. And they could tell you. Because long before they began shooting the movie, somebody figured it out. Contrast that with our kinds of projects where we’re often slapping our forehead and saying, ‘How could it be Friday already and where did the week go?’

Filmmakers are completely focused on (a) spending each day wisely and (b) keeping the number of days as short as possible. There’s a very simple reason for this. It’s because shooting movies is so expensive. Filmmakers care because of the huge expense that any little delay or wasted time can involve.

So they spend their days wisely. The most obvious way we can see this is when we look at the way filmmakers plan their projects. Filmmakers build what is known as a shooting schedule. You can think of a shooting schedule as being like a giant spreadsheet. In the rows of the spreadsheet are the days of the shoot. The first series of columns contain a column for every member of the cast from the major stars down to the smallest bit part actor. Essentially, an ‘x’ in a cell means that we need that particular actor on that particular day.

After the cast, there are another series of columns for all the other things that might be needed – props, special effects, animals, vehicles and so on. Then each cell contains exactly what we need on that day under that heading.

In essence – they plan at the day level of detail. They view each day as being precious and irreplaceable. Once gone, that day will never come round again. Contrast that with our kinds of projects. We build a not particularly well-estimated Gantt Chart using something like Microsoft Project and then hurry on to start doing the fun stuff – the real work. Often, the best that can be said about such plans is that they are optimistic hopes for the future. We look at them wistfully and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it turned out like that?’

Filmmakers care about their days. We don’t care enough.

So if you work in an industry where time means money, where every day the project runs early is money in the bank, then plan it at the day level of detail. Care about what happens to your days. Spend them wisely. They are irreplaceable.

Multitasking is disastrous for productivity – so why does everybody do it?

Multitasking is disastrous for productivity – so why does everybody do it?

I’ve consulted with more than 500 companies and organizations since I started my first company, ETP ( in 1992. I can’t think of one of them that doesn’t engage in multitasking i.e. where a pool of people is spread across and works on a series of projects / activities (‘things’).

Generally then, every person multitasks i.e. spends time on more than one thing. And I’m not talking about just two or three things. It’s much more likely to be 7-10 things. I’ve seen people multitasking across twenty things.

But multitasking is catastrophic for productivity as the following simple example shows.

Let’s say I’m running a project.  The project consists of a number of jobs that have to be done. Let’s say one of those jobs is estimated to be 10 person-days (PD) work. Charlie’s assigned to do it and Charlie is not multitasking – he’s available full-time, 5 days per week (dpw). Then the job will take two weeks.

Now suppose Charlie is multitasking and he’s only available 1 dpw. Then the job will take ten weeks.

But there’s more.

There is now the additional time involved in Charlie putting the 10 PD job down, picking it up again a week later and getting his head back around it again, back to where it was when he put it down. (There isn’t a lot of research in this area but google on ‘the cost of task switching’ for some representative figures.) Based on this research, an estimate of 15 minutes to get his head back to where it was wouldn’t be unreasonable. So that’s an additional 10 [weeks] x 15 minutes that has to be added on to the initial 10 PD.

And that’s not all. There’s another catch. The 1 dpw that Charlie is giving to our project is – most likely – not going to be one full day, as in, for example, Monday. It’s much more likely to be something like this: a couple of hours on Monday, half a day on Tuesday, nothing at all on Wednesday, an hour for a meeting on Thursday and then a bit of a flurry on Friday to hit some mini-deadline or milestone. So instead of the initial 10 put-down-pick-ups, we’re much more likely to have 4-5 put-down-pick-ups per week. Over 10 weeks, that’s 40-50 put-down-pick-ups. At 15 minutes per put-down-pick-up, that’s 10 – 12½ person-hours added on to the initial 10 PD – so this is very non-trivial.

But let’s pretend this doesn’t happen – if only because we’re not quite sure how to measure it – though clearly it does. The difference between Charlie working 5 dpw (not multitasking) and Charlie working 1 dpw (multitasking) doesn’t seem that serious. On a big project you might not even notice it. Hey, on a small project, with Charlie sitting beside you or just over the partition, you’d see him on his computer, making phone calls, going to meetings, you might think ‘Charlie’s doing my stuff’. Yet, this one small thing – the difference between 5 dpw (not multitasking) and 1 dpw (multitasking) – can potentially cause an 8 week delay on this project [the difference between 2 weeks and 10 weeks].

And remember this is just one job in your project. Is this happening on all jobs that Charlie is doing on your project? Of course it is. And is this happening on other jobs on your project? Most likely it is, since most everybody is multitasking.

The resulting stretching / delay on your project can be colossal. 

So why does everybody do it?

Is it because nobody has thought about the problem? Or people think there’s no alternative? Or what?

Because of course there is an alternative. And it’s this:

1.    Prioritize the list of projects that have to be done.

2.    Flood the most important project with people who are not multitasking (or who are doing as little multitasking as humanly possible) and aim to get the project done as quickly as possible.

3.    Working down the list, do this for the following projects until you run out of people.

4.    Don’t start the remaining projects until people become available from projects as they complete. The remaining projects will still be done quicker than if you had been multitasking.

5.    Do this and you’ll be amazed at the quantum leap in productivity you’ll achieve.