Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Project management - execution efficiency or process efficiency?

Mario is a cook.
He owned a small restaurant in Rome, near the Trastevere district. It was a very tiny place, where he could welcome less than 20 people at the same time. The menu was also minimal; two appetizers, three first courses and two main courses. Period. 
The kitchen was successfully managed by Mario, his wife Sandra and his son Enrico. Since the quality of the served food was fantastic, the restaurant was always packed with people.
At a certain point, Mario decided that it was time for him to take a giant leap. He decided to expand the restaurant’s turnover and moved his activity into a new place, where there was room for more than 80 people. In addition, he decided to enrich the menu, introducing six new appetizers, three new first courses and four new main courses. Obviously he intended to maintain a very high standard for the food’s quality. 
Since Mario was no fool, he expected to need more help in the kitchen and hired two new people, his nephews Rita and Francesco.
Very soon begun the problems. Managing 80 meals with 288 possible permutations is far more complex that managing 20 meals with 12 possible permutations. As a result, the kitchen collapsed. 
Mario hired two more people on the staff, but this gave no acceptable solution to the problem, on the contrary, it seemed to worsen it even more. The kitchen was small, and the paraphernalia limited, so each more cook gave less incremental help. In addition, each more cook added a cost in terms of organization and management. Even worse, lack of coordination, poor management, organization’s failure started to impact even on food’s quality.
This short story is purely fictional. Nonetheless, I think we can learn a lot from it.

The law of diminishing returns

There is a point where the addition of new resources to a project ceases to produce benefits. Even worse, beyond this point, indiscriminate and continuous addition of resources could create further inefficiencies. This consideration applies to people, material, machinery, funds...
Similarly at what happens in a small kitchen, adding more and more cooks, can lead to a situation where there are not enough activities, tools or even space for each one. Then you have two ways to proceed. You can split activities further to occupy all the resources at your disposal, or you can turn resources on different activities. 
Each solution brings inefficiencies. In addition, more resources mean greater costs, more complex management plans and more management overheads.If we consider resources as workers, we also have  to take into account personnel training, insertion costs and the time needed to make the new team perform like the old one.
The bottom line here is that if your processes fail, adding resources could not be an option. 

Obsessive replication of the first success's pattern 

A one-size-fits-all methodology does not exist in project management (and in many other human activities). 
Since each project is different, it is possible that processes and plans that worked well in the past could fail, if slavishly and uncritically applied, in future situations. It is not a wrong practice to derive management plans and processes, from those previously successfully used in similar projects. 
We have to take care to spot all the aspects in which the projects differ and in which they are similar; we have to respect and to leverage the differences between them. Mario wrongly thought that processes that could be used to successfully manage a kitchen with three cooks (the project’s team) and eight courses for twenty people (activities and complexity), could be applied, out from the box, to the management of a far more large team with far more complex activities. 
The bottom line is always to assess, react and adapt.

A solution is never infinitely scalable

This paragraph has something in common with the previous one. Indeed, in some respects, we could say that this paragraph is about one of the reason why you cannot indiscriminately reply patterns. 
A process can be considered scalable if it can be applied, unchanged and with the same proficiency, even if there are quantitative changes (more or fewer people, activities, funds...) in the scenario. If these changes are increments we talk about upwards scalability, if they are decrements we talk about  downwards scalabilityIf the process can keep the same efficiency just adding or subtracting resources, we talk about vertical scalability. This kind of scalability is typically limited by the law of diminishing returns. If the process can maintain the same efficiency by means of replication in several parallel instances, we talk about horizontal scalability. This kind of scalability is generally limited by managing overhead.
The bottom line is that scalability does have a cost and that any process can be scaled infinitely upwards or downwards, neither vertically nor horizontally. There is a point where scalability ends or where its cost far exceeds the benefits. In these cases, processes have to be revised. 

Join execution efficiency to process efficiency 

Since a solution is never infinitely scalable, it is mandatory to develop the skills necessary to achieve an excellent execution efficiency. 
However, since the law of diminishing returns, we must bear in mind that it is of the greatest importance also achieve  a high process efficiency.

Is it a smart approach, applying previously used processes to future projects? 
Yes, if these projects have, in their most sensible aspects, similarity with the projects for which these processes had been originally crafted. Even in this case we have to take our time to assess, react and adapt. 
We have also to pay attention that the processes we are applying, be scalable in the desired way and direction, to accommodate differences in projects’ sizes. Doing this keep in mind the law of diminishing returns, because the obvious solution of adding resources, may be highly counterproductive in a critical situation. 
Finally, we have to balance execution efficiency with process efficiency.

By the way, for all our North American friends, Mario has never served in his restaurant the famous Fettuccine Alfredo...if I have to say the truth...I have never seen them in any restaurant here in Italy...

Licenza Creative Commons
Quest' opera è distribuita con licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 3.0 Unported.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Avoid Death By Presentation - Small tips - Part 02

In the last post of this series, I have introduced some small tips on how to achieve better stakeholders engagement while delivering presentations. These are my last crumbs on this matter. Please, do not intend them as golden rules, these are just simple advices that I have found to work in most of the situations; Feel free to break them if this suits more your needs.

Again, I invite you to comment and add your tips.

10 - Try the presentation
Try your presentation at least twice, better if you can gather a small audience. It does not matter if they do not know anything about the topic. What is important is that they can give you some advice on your speech. Sometimes, even if it is sad to admit it, how you say something is as important as what you are actually saying. It could be a good idea to write down some important sentences you want to say but remember, never talk to people, reading from a sheet.
Try the presentation is of the greatest importance if you belong to that large group of people that fear to speak in public.

11 - Revise the presentation after a few hours
After having completed the slides, forget about them for a few hours. I guess next time you look at them you will find many things that could be quickly improved.

12 - Avoid animations
Animations create more problems than they solve. Producing animations takes a lot of time; they distract the audience and, in the end, they always give your presentation a tawdry look. Moreover, you can never be confident with animations’ behaviors, unless you do not give a presentation using the same device that has been used to create it. Sometimes even a small difference on the operative system can mess up with your slides.
If you feel the need to insert an animation, try instead this little trick. Create two versions of the same slide. Create the first version without the content intended to be inserted by the animation and the second one with this content superimposed. When you give your presentation, the effect will be, more or less, of a very fast animation. You will have to work with one slide more but, in the end, I think that this strategy will pay you off.

13 - Colors and Fonts
Avoid too many colors, font types and font sizes at least if you are not an artist inside, that somewhere in the past missed the turnpike exit for the art school and became a project manager instead. Personally I strictly adhere to this recipe

•    Never more than one font type
•    Never more than two font sizes
•    Never more than three colors

Maybe you won’t appear creative, but undoubtedly you will appear tidy and methodical.

14 - Background and templates
Simple and well contrasted. Simple because a too baroque background or template could distract your audience, and well contrasted because, believe me, you can’t trust projectors.

15 - Details
You do not have to explain everything. It is reasonable to assume that your audience will have the basics of what you are talking about. If not the case, again, consider a report instead of a presentation.

16 - Create a PDF of your slides
Always prepare a pdf of your slides. It will take you 30 seconds and it could save your day. Every kind of device that can be connected to a projector is capable of reproducing a pdf file. That is not always true for each format of slides. What if you crafted a series of slides using the most famous presentation suite in the world and you will end up giving your presentation on a Unix system? Yes, it is very unlikely  but what if it will happen?

17 - Never embed videos
Never embed videos in your slides. It is not uncommon that they are more meaningful to you than to your audience, and the even little time that it will take to make them playback, will break the rhythm of your speech. If I had had a dollar for each time I saw a video not working properly, I would be a rich man by now.

18 - Do not break for anybody
It can happen that someone in your audience will try to ask you one or more questions during your speech. Do not let anyone do it. 
Seven times out of ten, this kind of questions are about topics that you will be covering spontaneously in the next slides. 
One time out of ten, these kinds of questions are about something that is not strictly related with the matter at end.
One time out of ten, these kinds of questions are about something that is strictly connected with the subject at end, but will generate a debate in the room. They will be better addressed at the end of the presentation, when everyone will have in mind the great picture.
One time out of ten, these kinds of questions are about something that someone has not well understood. Sorry, but the odds are against this. Casualties. You will have to make a fast recap at the end of your speech.

The problem is that these interruptions will make your audience completely disconnect from the ideas you are going to deliver. The best way to handle this kind of situation is to ask your audience in advance not to interrupt your speech and to hold their thoughts till the end of the presentation. Obviously, you will have to leave enough time at the end of your speech to answer all the questions your audience would have.

Licenza Creative Commons
Quest' opera è distribuita con licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 3.0 Unported.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Avoid Death By Presentation - Small tips - Part 01

As far as I am concerned, one of the most important skills for a project manager is the ability to communicate effectively and efficiently. 
Some time ago I published a post about this matter, giving small tips on how to handle communications addressed to different types of stakeholders. 
In this post, I would like to focus on a particular mean of communication, feared and beloved, at the same time, by thousands of executives, project managers and team members.
Can you guess what am I talking about? 

Well, I know, this was an easy question, since you have read the post’s title, but sometimes I like being a little rhetorical. We are going to talk about presentations. 

In my career, I have given and taken my good share of presentations. This fact does not make an authority out of me in this particular field, but these are my 2 cents on the matter. A series of small tips that I hope you could find useful. 

If you have some more advices to share besides the ones introduced here, please leave a comment at the end of the post.

A couple of caveats
  • I am going to talk about presentations intended to be delivered with a speech, not presentations meant to be sent by e-mail and consulted as a report by the recipients.
  • I won’t give golden rules, just simple advices that I have found to work in most of the situations. Feel free to break them if this suits more your needs.

1 - Target your audience 
Are you going to present technical aspects of the project to a group of scientists or to a bunch of executives? In the first case, formulas and details will be welcomed by the audience. In the second circumstance, you should focus on high-level informations and concepts, trying to simplify the math that lurks under the hood. The other way round, If you were to give financial information to technical professionals, do not indulge too much on quarter projections, mortgages  and financial details. 
You have to have constantly in mind what kind of audience you are going to talk to. Always try to value their peculiarities and fulfill their expectations. It is a form of respect.

2 - Make eye contact with everyone

Make eye contact with everyone in the room and, at the end of your speech, everybody will have had the impression that you were talking directly to him/her. People feel more engaged this way and will pay more attention to your message. Do not focus on just one or two people, try to reach everybody.

3 - Assume they do not care
Assumptions are always dangerous and deceptive still, from time to time, we need to rely on them. When you have to deliver a presentation, do not assume that everybody will be fascinated by your speech. Assume, instead, that they do not care. Assume that everybody in the room would have rather preferred to spend these 15 minutes doing anything else. Try to reach them, to astonish them, to engage them and to make them care a whole lot about what you are talking about. Do not put yourself in the shoes of the goalkeeper, you have to struggle to score a goal.

4 - Create rhythm
Ravel’s Bolero is a great piece of music but the Fifth Symphony by Beethoven is another league. Emotions and Rhythm are the keys to reaching your audience. The brain is the destination but the heart is usually the door. Start with something they do not expect to catch their attention, better if it resonates with positive feelings. Then lead them through your data, in a kind of crescendo, till the point when you need the most of their attention. After that, release the tension and prepare the next peak.
Have you ever watched “Once upon a time in America” by Sergio Leone? Great movie. I love it, but each time I see it, when I reach the end, I feel fed up. This feeling is because the pressure is always high since the movie is made up of principal scenes. Even a child that eats a pastry is depicted in an epic way. About presentations, we can say pretty much the same. Too little climax and your audience will get bored in five minutes; too much tension and you will weary them out in four.

5 - Include a brief summary
Sacrifice a slide to contain a summary of your talk, better if in bullet points form.
People fear what they do not understand and sometimes, they can focus more easily if they know in advance how many idea and concepts you are going to pour over them.
You will receive benefits from a well-crafted summary too; it will help you in the slide creation phase. It is extremely easy create a presentation if you have already clear in your mind the content organization, priority and hierarchy.
If you cannot succeed in keeping your summary 1 slide long (format A4, font Arial, size 24), well, maybe you should not conceive the message in the form of a presentation. Maybe a report could do the trick much better.

6 - Do not add too many sentences
When people see a slide containing a lot of sentences, suddenly they start to think “On no, what am I supposed to do? Should I read all those words before the explanation? After the explanation? How can I be sure that he is going to explain everything he wrote?” 
Then it does not matter what they decide to do, because they have lost their focus on your message and, probably, at least the first three sentences you said.
Again, if you find yourself in the need to add many sentences, maybe it is a report what you should have delivered, not a presentation.
If you are going to distribute the slides after the speech, then adding sentences for future reference it won’t work. Consider instead to realize two versions of your presentation, one to be delivered (with as little phrases as you can) and the other one to be distributed and consulted afterward.

7 - Avoid 3D graphs
Never use 3D charts, they always lie. Data in the foreground always appear  more significant than data in the background. The effect of perspective distorts data values. Take a look at Figure 1 to see an example of what I mean. Each slice of the pie is exactly 1/3, but the slice in the foreground appears greater and more important.

Figure 1.

8 - Focus on salient facts
How many ideas do you think you can convey to your audience? No. That is too much.
2 is a good result, 3 a big success, 4 a miracle.
It is mandatory that each claim be supported by data, but it is not always necessary to show them spontaneously. Too many graphs and demonstrations can make your presentation messy. Stick to the salient data and prepare some hidden slides to be shown on demand, just in case.

9 - Time
15 minutes and no more. After that, you are no more giving a presentation, but delivering a small course. Again, if you need a lot of time, maybe a report would have been more appropriated.

In the next post of this series we will see 9 other tips. Stay tuned.

Licenza Creative Commons
Quest' opera è distribuita con licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 3.0 Unported.