My customers mostly were very reasonable, they would ask to provide a commitment date for a deliverable right away but would also be ok if we postponed the date later, as long as we communicated the change of plans to them early enough. Their own plans depended on our commitment dates and they wanted to be sure we were not forgetting about our agreements (I am only talking about bugs and enhancement requests here). Sounds like it should be quite easy to satisfy your customer, file all these customer requests in your internal request/bug tracking system and keep the customer informed on the progress. And yet it was really difficult to keep up with this seemingly simple process of providing commitment dates and timely updates.

The first problem was getting a date from R&D. Most R&D organizations are not driven by due dates, they are driven by release plans (where promises to customers don’t always win strategic marketing targets and other priorities). So, you can get commitment dates for the requests scheduled for the next release (1,2,3-6 months from now, depending on the methodology used) but only once the release planning has happened, which means  you get the opportunity to find out  ETAs of your customer requests only once per 1,2,3-6 months. Well, customer is already not very happy, has to wait for so long just to get the commitment. This vendor release based scheduling does not go along with the customer request/commitment based scheduling. Plus, you have waited for 1,2,3-6 months for the release planning to happen just to find out that only 1 or 2 of your 10 customer requests have been scheduled for the release. Well, I am quite disappointed also, I don’t have the commitment date for 9 out of 10 requests and my customer was hoping to find out the dates for all 10.

You could say your R&D needs to use a SCRUM/agile methodology, run 2weeks to 1month sprints/iterations and then they will be able to provide commitment dates more often (every 2weeks to 1month). Agreed, but, how many iterations ahead can you plan without defeating the purpose of the “agile”? Probably not more than 2 or 3, so again the chances are I will still be only getting a commitment for 1 of my 10 requests per 1,2,3-6 months.

So this is the reality, you only know more or less what features you will deliver in your next product release (iteration, if you use agile). As 37signals say “planning is guessing” and your next release is probably your best guess. Beyond that, who knows how requests will be prioritized?

But how do you reconcile this with the customer’s desire to see commitment dates for all its requests even if some dates are meaningless and will be re-negotiated in the future? The customer basically wants our best guess date for all its requests, including those that do not get into the next release. That is a challenge, don’t you think? One may say, “then give them arbitrary date” for those ‘beyond the release’ requests. And may be that is what we should do. Not giving any date is an option too I guess. But I am thinking, can we do anything better for our customer?

So the idea is the following, may sound quite crazy, but I still want to throw it out there. Usually once a request is filed in a request/bug-tracker it is assigned to a developer right away, in most cases to the right developer who will actually be working on it once the time comes and either “blocker” urgency or the release plan says, “go”.  At the moment planning is a prerogative of a few chosen product/marketing managers who plan for the whole team and it may become quite complex, so they can’t deal with more than a bunch of most important requests. But how about empowering everyone on the team to plan? Lets say we give everyone a powerful work-hours calendar (that predicts time-off, meetings, maybe additional statistically derived unavailable time) to plan his/her own tasks. Come on, the requests are all already assigned to the developers, don’t you think they would not be able to stack them up in this smart calendar with their best guess time estimate for each to come up with a reasonable ETA for all the assigned requests? The chosen ones can help the developers with priorities (they know the business goals better) but,  in theory, all requests (and I mean all that you find in your bug-tracker or better all that have ever been asked to be scheduled, not just the subset selected for the next release) can be scheduled easily as long as you de-centralize the planning and let everyone schedule his/her own work. And the ETAs will be more accurate this way, I am pretty sure, because everyone knows their own stuff better.

Now, consolidate all these individual schedules, and pick the top N requests that you want in your release, see where your release deadline draws the line. The best thing is that any request “beyond the release” has been scheduled also and has the best guess ETA. I would really be happy to relay that to my customer, that is the best guess he was asking for all along. What is even better, every time there is a new request in the system it trickles down into developer’s personal work-hours calendar where he/she plans it right away (may be reshuffles a few other tasks to accommodate changed priorities). We have all requests re-estimated and re-planned, we have our best guess for all of them, and the commitment date can probably be shared right away with the customer. Actually the scheduling developer sees right away which commitments he breaks when adding a new task to his calendar. At this point maybe we can re-negotiate the priorities with our customer? That is the power of de-centralization!

I would call this “continuous re-estimation” or “continuous re-planning”. You don’t wait until the next release planning session, developers re-plan their tasks as soon as priorities have changed or new tasks got assigned. May be you don’t even need release planning with such a model, because you always have your best guess schedules ready and up to date.

What do you think?

Here is another video tutorial for Yoxel PCM that shows how you could start managing requests communicated via email. Let Yoxel PCM pick them up from your Inbox and track; associate with tasks and figure out an accurate completion date; communicate a commitment date back to the request originator (http://yoxel.com/task-management.html).

Here is a new video tutorial for our new product, Yoxel PCM. It shows how to add, organize, plan tasks (http://yoxel.com/task-management.html):

I ran into this publication, The underlying theory of project management is obsolete, a while ago and thought it was quite interesting. I finally got around to writing a digest of it. Most of the material is directly quoted from the paper.

The article starts by establishing a baseline of the current PM theory as known according to the PMBOK Guide.

Theory of Project is described by these three principles:

  1. Project management is about managing work; this is the conceptualization.
  2. The work can be managed by decomposing the total work effort into smaller chunks of work, which are called activities and tasks in the PMBOK Guide.
  3. Implicit assumption associated with decomposition, namely that tasks are related if at all by sequential dependence.

Theory of Management consists of the following three sub-theories:

  • Theory of Planning
  • Theory of Executing
  • Theory of Control

The planning processes dominate the scene in the PMBOK Guide. The emphasis is on planning, with little offered on executing especially, making the overall management theory “management-as-planning”.

The underlying theory of execution turns out to be similar to the concept of job dispatching in manufacturing where it provides the interface between plan and work.  The basic issue in dispatching is allocating or assignment of tasks or jobs to machines or work crews, usually by a central authority.

Then the article proceeds to examining the current PM theory and argues that is not the best available:

Theory of Project

The current model is basically represented by a non-cyclical network graph in which each activity connects directly into its immediate successors.  Such a model fails to account for uncertainty in production process, which affects time as well as interdependencies between tasks.

The alterative “flow view” based on the queueing theory where the focus is directed towards uncertainty and linkages models the reality much better. The flow view especially addresses the goal “unnecessary work is not done”.

Yet another theory exists,  the value generation view. The basic thrust here is to reach the best possible value from the point of the customer.  The major difference between the suggested PMBOK view and the value generation view is that the customer is included in the conceptualization of the latter. The value generation view admits that at the outset, customer requirements are not necessarily available or well understood, and that the allocation of requirements to different parts of the (project) product is a difficult problem.

Theory of Management

Theory of planning:  As for the management-as-planning approach:
  • it has been held that it is not generally possible to maintain a complete and up-to-date representation of the current circumstances and the plan to change them.
  • the absolute separation of management and execution is not seen to adequately correspond to organizational reality.
  • the plans push tasks to execution without taking the status of the production system into account.
The two last aspects mean that this model “leaves the task of management essentially uncoupled from everyday activity” (Johnston & Brennan 1996). Also the model implies that the process and outputs of planning are not questioned.

There is another approach to management, called management-as-organizing, which has been presented as a counterpart to management-as-planning.  It models an organization as a set of interacting sub-units capable of sensing, planning and acting.  Communication is non-hierarchical, based on interaction between sub-units. In this approach, management involves design, co-ordination and enabling of otherwise autonomous activities.

Theory of Executing:  The main issue with the current dispatching model is that the unproblematic realization of tasks pushed by the plan to the execution is assumed.  It is very difficult to maintain an up-to-date plan, and thus the tasks pushed by the plan do not correspond to reality, i.e. their prerequisites in terms of predecessor tasks (or other inputs) do not necessarily exist. This leads to the situation that a major share of tasks to be commenced, when pushed by the plan, chronically lack one or more of their inputs.

Another erroneous assumption is that the task is fully understood, started and completed according to the plan once authorized. Whereas in reality the work in organizations is coordinated through making and keeping commitments. Thus action is coordinated by the commitments people make rather than by central control acting through commands.

The two basic shortcomings of the PBMOK suggested dispatching model are:
  • there should be two-way communication between the controller and the executors.
  • it is necessary to consider the commitment of the executor; a job will actually be started and completed only if the executor is committed to realize it.

Theory of Control: Another theory of control,  “scientific experiment”, that addresses learning and improvement  is suggested as a better approach to finding root causes for problems , and improving performance.  It reveals a fatal shortcoming of the PMBOK suggested model that does not address finding reasons for deviations, and eliminating those root causes.

The article goes on to present empirical evidence from one application domain, construction, that the existing PM theory is not valid.  The evidence is abundant, and you should read it yourself. I just want to include here one last quote:

The deficiencies of the theory of the project and of the theory of management reinforce each other and their detrimental effects propagate through the life cycle of a project. Typically, customer requirements are poorly investigated at the outset, and the process of requirement clarification and change leads disruption in the progress of the project. The actual progress starts to drift from the plan, the updating of which is too cumbersome to be done regularly. Without an up-to-date plan, the work authorization system transforms to an approach of informal management. Increasingly, tasks are commenced without all inputs and prerequisites at hand, leading to low efficiency or task interruption and increased variability downstream. Correspondingly, controlling by means of a performance baseline that is not based on the actual status becomes ineffective or simply counterproductive. All in all, systematic project management is transformed to a facade, behind which the job actually gets done, even if with reduced efficiency and lessened value to the customer.

A few points here that resonate with me personally when thinking of software development projects and project management processes used:

  • Rework indeed seems to constitute the bulk of the software development projects. No wonder the non-cyclical network graph model (think MS project / GANTT chart model) mentioned earlier does not reflect the reality. The execution of the original plans never goes as planned.
  • Most of the project planning sessions dont have a good way of incorporating customer feedback during requirement development and feature prioritization and so focus on product value is not always clear.
  • Planning & management indeed seems to be removed from execution. Management thinks of execution as of an ideal machine. Uncertainties of the production and requirement understanding are poorly accounted for in the plans and.
  • One way communication within command-and-control model. Such an important factor as commitments from your team members are usually overlooked although those are the most important elements enabling project success.

Cheers!

I had an interesting meeting the other week. Demo’ed our new product to a director of project management at one pharmaceutical company and tried to learn about his challanges at the same time.

The most interesting discovery was the following:

Reading e-mails and distilling project information for inclusion in project plans is a major part of what project managers do these days.

How about that? Surprised? Maybe not. Now, think of your favorite project management solution (MS Project), even one of those new web-based ones (Clarizen, Zoho, BasecampHQ, …). Do they solve this “email management/organization” problem for project managers?

Microsoft seems to realize the issue  better than anyone else then? Because MS Outlook does try to provide a solution here by integrating Email & Tasks. Although their approach is again a bit incomplete, the personal planning part is kind of missing (well, they want you to use MS Project for that I guess). But MS Project’s “command-and-control” model, I am afraid, is not going to fly. In the time of social networking, teams seem to be looking for more de-centralized approaches.

Google also seems to have realized that the email clients we use dont cut it anymore. How many times do you find yourself looking for an email message in your Inbox that had some short but quite important comment relevant to an active project? You know it is there but it is just not  easily accessible, maybe already archived by MS Outlook and gone. First, the Gmail threading email organization and now Google Wave make alot of sense to me. I think such email channels would also make alot of sense for project managers. Imagine if each request listed in your project plan had this email channel associated with it, and you could easily see all relevant email communication in it? Wouldn’t that improve productivity significantly?

-Alexey

Here is an interesting blog post, JavaFX: one year later. For Java developers who hoped to adopt JavaFX and integrate it with their Swing applications, this is still a challenge and Sun is not helping. Why?

The last paragraph mentions their VP of marketing,  quite interesting:

Wait a minute, according to Eric’s LinkedIn profile, he joined Sun in February ‘08. How long has he been working on JavaFX? That guy, actually, is also an angel investor in a startup called Zoodles, which uses Adobe AIR as the technology for its rich internet application.

Go figure …

More development in the area of customizing and integrating bug-tracking and project management tools to create a useful product management environment: Product management nirvana

I have pointed earlier to the effort started at Splunk in my post Bookmark: Automating and opening up product planning . It is quite interesting to see what they are trying to do. Once again, I am just glad that the vision of our project Yoxel Agile Product Management is aligned with what real agile product management teams try to address. Here is what I mean by that:

Think bigger, Think Agile Product Management

Bridging the worlds of PLM and CRM

Bugzilla -> Yoxel synchronization module

Technical reporting with YOXEL SW: HTML, PDF, EXCEL

Project management software is social software

Release planning with YOXEL SW: Starting a new release

Release planning with YOXEL SW: Collaborative planning session

Cheers!