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Taming Chaotic Project Management - Find out how many active projects are in flight.

Posted Jul 06 2009 8:05pm

One of the top ten characteristics of a chaotic project management environment is having way too many active projects going far beyond organizational capacity. I have seen this problem in several organizations, and it is one of the quick wins in implementing a PMO. There are two parts here, the first part having too many active projects, and the second part going beyond organizational capacity. Let's explore both parts identifying symptoms and how to fix the symptoms while ascertaining the root cause.

I refer to active projects as projects which are in flight. There is an expectation by the sponsor that work is being done to complete the project. However due to the chaotic nature of the environment, the end date probably keeps slipping. The easiest way to know you have too many is just to get a list of all of them. I started this in a project dashboard. I asked for an appointment with each manager, team lead in IS got a list of active projects and then reviewed that listing with the director. When I was done, I had a listing of 144 active projects for an IS team including management of 35. (This is just the applications team, we have outsourced our technology team) I would say about 90% of these projects where actual projects, some where just normal operational support tasks. Most came in about the 3 month mark for project effort, at minimum one needed 3 weeks of an FTE, at max one needed 10 FTEs for 15 months. If you have done this before, it is obvious you have a problem. If you haven't and it is your first time, it may not be that obvious.

The next item was to determine organizational capacity. Commonly this is one of many reasons to have everyone report their time. I'd recommend breaking the categories into Projects, Break/Fix, Maintenance, and Administrative, and provide a guideline of where to place time. It is also good to get a guesstimate from the leadership team to determine how much work one needs to do for education. Continuing symptoms of your core problem is if the leadership team comes back with 40 hours worked means it is all on projects. Again, if you have done this before, it is obvious you have a problem. It is easy to determine if you have been there before.

So now you have a fable or a truth, its time to test the waters. You may also need to bring the management team along because they are believing in the fable. Gain buy-in from the management team to update the dashboard, bi-weekly at the least, monthly at the most. Provide education with the team on how to update, and see how well the first update period goes, if you come in under 30%, with more projects showing up on the board, then falling off the board. Chaos is ensuing, and you have empirical information to educate the management team.

So what is our root cause here? Why do we have so many active projects in flight that is going far and above our organizational capacity? Truth be told, we have a management and leadership problem. It is obvious, the department is not being managed, the department is reacting.

Now its time to look a little further and determine why is the department in a reactionary mode? There are several reasons here, which is why we can have a quick win with the symptoms, but it will be harder to solve the cause.

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