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Friday, October 24, 2014

Why we all need a little Project FIRST AID

I recently attended an Outdoor First Aid course at Camp Waingaro, which is an old scout hall nestled in 19 hectares of New Zealand bush. Quite a long way from anywhere - or at least it felt like it when I found that I could no longer get a cellphone signal. It was a beautiful site, surrounded on three sides by a creek that wound its way down the valley.

I initially thought it would be something of a refresher course, as I had attended first aid courses before, but in many respects this was an entirely new experience.

Granted, the last in-depth First Aid course I took was over 30 years ago - but as it turned out I had remembered most of the basic concepts I needed to know over all of that time. The first day of the course was a lot of theory - with some practical exercises using CPR dummies, various bandages, how to deal with choking and so on. Of course, some practices and techniques have changed over the years - in fact, some first aid practices seem to change every few years as they learn more and best practices change.

On occasion, I have had to use my first aid skills in the past - beyond the basics of blisters, small cuts, splinters and burns. One was a full-out mountain rescue involving a victim 200 feet (61m) down a steep slope, his near-vertical evacuation and the treatment for scrapes, lacerations and embedded gravel. Years after that, I had to deal with a victim who had become engulfed in flame. It was a long drive to hospital as we worked to cool and protect his burns. Fortunately, both victims fully recovered.

As it had been a long time since my initial training, I was nervous when I first arrived at the course, but I grew progressively more confident throughout the day as we covered familiar topics. However, things changed when we got into the practical outdoor scenarios the next morning.
(c) 2012 Mathew Frauenstein

When it all hit the fan, I felt like I knew almost nothing.

Not all practice is the same

In fairness, I had retained most of the basic first aid knowledge I had learned. How to splint, how to bandage, how to check for shock - and the dozens of other key things you need to be able to do when you come across an injured person. I am reasonably confident that if someone came up to me with a moderate injury, I would be able to do an acceptable first-aid treatment on it - hey, I had done it before, a number of times. All good, right? Bring on the scenarios!

It was not quite so easy.

The scenarios were setup for us on the fly - and even though the accident makeup was pretty basic, the situations themselves were common ones - and so by their nature, disturbingly believable. We all took turns playing the role of victim and rescuer/first aider. 

If that had been all there was to it, it would have been relatively simple - in theory, anyway. 

But - as we all learn sooner or later - theory falls down flat when you hit the practical stuff.

Note: It is very hard to remain "unconscious" while you are getting numerous bug bites, lying face down in the gravel. However, if I had moved, I would have spoiled the scenario - and affected their treatment response. Ouch!

Our scenarios did not involve one victim or even two. The first scenario involved four victims with various injuries, and two bystanders who caused more problems - with one quickly becoming another victim. Pretty messy - and the dozen would-be first aiders frankly botched the overall situation pretty badly.

Time to regroup, and go back into class for a lessons learned session. 

It's not just "First Aid"

What we were beginning to learn was not just the first aid skills for helping a victim - but the management and coordination of a team while in an emergency situation. We were practicing trying to keep things together until higher-level medical help could arrive. That, or evacuate to a safe point; in the bush you could be a long way from help - hours or sometimes days depending on the conditions.

What occurred to me as I was driving home from the course and scratching my bug bites was that many of the same skills we were required to exhibit under pressure were the same ones we use on projects.

In fact, when you get right down to the bare bones of it, every one of those scenarios had the characteristics of a project.

Each scenario had:
  • Requirements (Scope) - "Help the injured victims, and do what we can to keep them safe and alive." 
  • Time  - There was not a lot of it, as we had to stabilize the patients quickly. We needed to get them to help as soon as possible- which in reality could also involve a lot of waiting. Time will run fast - and slow - while you are waiting for help to come.
  • Uniqueness- every scenario was unique, and outcomes were unpredictable. Victims had been advised to change their reactions throughout the 20-30 minute scenarios, depending what the first-aiders did to treat them.
  • Planning - We had to constantly plan and re-plan on how we were going to deal with each victim, how to manage the rest of the group, what to do if we had to wait for hours or days for help, and so on. No gantt charts, but it was planning just the same.
  • Scope Creep - for example, in the shape of a rapidly rising creek or river, where everyone suddenly needed to be moved to higher ground. Conditions do change, so you need to be able respond. For once, no formal Change Requests needed to be signed off by the Project Board!
  • Stakeholders - The victims, the other members of the group and witnesses (who all may be distressed and either interfere, help or become another victim), and Emergency Services (who were hopefully on the way soon after being contacted).
  • Assessment of skills/Task Assignments -  Who is the best person for the job? Don't use your best first-aider as a runner, and if someone vomits at the sight of blood, get them to help the one with the sprained ankle instead of the amputee.
  • Leadership - A key element of handling any situation - and as we found out in our first couple scenarios - if you are missing this, the whole situation can fall apart fast.
  • Prioritization (triage) -  Who was injured the most badly? Who needed help the quickest - the one gushing blood, the one with a sprained ankle, the one who chopped off his arm, or the one with a head injury? At first glance it may seem obvious, but you also need to take a second look (a secondary survey) to make sure you didn't miss something serious. Re-prioritization may often be required.
  • Communication - With the patient, with each other, with the leader, with emergency services. Regular updates were required throughout the scenario, between the first aiders and to all the stakeholders.

    Note: The lack of communication in the scenarios was just as important - today we live in such a connected world it it hard to imagine not being able to make a cell phone call. However, the geography of the camp and the lack of cell signal was a visible reminder that you need to be prepared to communicate in other ways - and that you will probably need to send the fastest runners to go for help.
  • Cost and Resources - We had limited supplies and people to help, and the the primary currency for cost was in saving lives - though you won't always be able to save them all.
  • Execution of the plan (not the patient). 
In addition, we had to deal with:
  • Stakeholder engagement - If there are people milling around not helping (or getting in the way), get them involved with something they can do to help - or keep them out of the way. Keep them occupied and in a safe area away from the emergency scene - so they don't become (or create) another victim.
  • Coaching/Positive encouragement - Everyone responds better with a clear head and a sense of optimism - both the patients and the first aiders. "Hey buddy, we saved your arm and are keeping it cool so they can try to sew it back on later" or "That splinter's not too big, we'll get that cleaned up."

    The situation might also require you to bolster the spirits of your team - First Aid is hard, draining work. If they wear out and get discouraged, the patients will be at risk - and so will your team.
So yes, in a very real sense, we were dealing with projects. Certainly not Waterfall (though you might have someone fall over one), and not exactly Agile - but high-urgency, unplanned, emergency projects where conditions can and do change from minute to minute.

It was a thought-provoking weekend, and I took a way a few essential lessons that you can apply to any project. All it takes is a little FIRST AID.

F.I.R.S.T. A.I.D.

Every project needs a little First Aid - and you might argue that some projects need it more than others. So let's open up our kits and begin.

[F]ind out what the problem is - and if there is more than one problem. You may be able to clearly see the challenges in front of you, but what about the guy behind the tree with an axe in his leg? 

On your projects, this is all about determining the scope / requirements - what it is we are trying to do, what are our goals, what are the pain points and problems the project is intended to solve. Do you have a clear handle on what you need to do? Better check the bushes to make sure you didn't miss something important. In other words, you need to validate your requirements.

[I]dentify who is the best leader for the situation, and who can take charge of each case or patient. This might not be pre-determined, as your regular "leader" may be incapacitated or unavailable. 

On your project, leadership roles can and do change. Sure - you are the Project Manager, but you need other people to take on different leadership roles as well - each of your team leads focused on different deliverables, for example. Besides, I am sure you will want to take a vacation some time, or might be down with the flu. In those situations you will need to have a second-in-command to keep things running while you are away.

[R]ecognize your limitations. You can't solve every problem or fix every situation, at least not on your own. You need the skills of a competent team around you, and you need to share the load.

When administering CPR they recommend you take turns every 200 compressions - that is a change-over every two minutes

"Pah! That's not very long - I can do it longer!"

Warning - If you 'tough it out' and stick to it for 10 minutes, it will take you 20 minutes to recover. If you swap every two minutes, it will take you only two minutes to recover. If you only have two rescuers including yourself, two-minute stints can keep the patient alive for a long time. With only the two of you taking ten minute stints, in twenty minutes you will both be exhausted - and your patient will be at a greater risk of dying because you over-did it.

Don't be a 'hero' - let others help, and you will collectively avoid burnout. You may even save a life - or your project.

[S]tabilize the situation,any which way you can. If your project is running off the rails, it is essential that you regroup, assess the situation and re-plan. When you identify what the current burning issues are, you have a better chance of dealing with them. Letting things run along un-checked is definitely not acceptable - and the best way to get back into some semblance of control is to gather your team together to tackle it.

In an emergency situation, it is not only the patients you need to stabilize - it is the whole situation and all the people in it. If you have other [healthy] people you are responsible for (children or adults), it is important to make sure that they are care for - and most importantly, keep them out of trouble. Boredom can kill - sometimes literally.

[T]ake a deep breath. One or two, or maybe count to ten. Taking a moment to pause and reflect will reduce stress in any situation. Smell the roses, take a short breather when things get overwhelming on your projects. You will find that things are not necessarily as bad as you think.

Tip: Those deep breaths are good, but not too many too close together. (In other words, don't hyperventilate - or you may need some First Aid yourself!)

[A]ssign tasks to others. Unless your project is very, very small, you will have a team of people to work on your project. It may be big or small, but it is essential that you delegate and assign responsibility for various project tasks to be completed. You can't do it all on your own, and it is a delusion to think that only you can do it the best.

In an emergency situation, it is critical to have an assigned 'patient leader' for each patient, even if more than on person is required to assist. The patient leader will be helping the patient but also keeping track of vitals and other information about the patient, ready to pass that on to the situation leader, so they can communicate with emergency services and get you any additional items or help you may need.

If you have a complex scenario with multiple locations, you need to extend that a level further, and add a site leader who is keeping up to date on the status of all of the victims in a specific area. They then report back to the main situation leader on a regular basis. Sounds a lot like a project team, right?

The key is to be very specific in the assignments, so there is no uncertainty around what you have asked them to do - and by when.

[I]nspire confidence in your team and stakeholders. If you are supposed to be in charge but look like you are falling apart (or don't know what you are doing), you won't be doing anyone any good.  Fumbling with a bandage and dropping it in the dirt in front of a bleeding victim may not give them much confidence in your ability to keep them alive.

Confidence is good - but it requires careful balance. If you act over-confident a lot of the time, it can come across as arrogance. Conversely, a person who is a fumbling, quivering mess is not well-suited for the leadership requirements of that role.

Note: We are all human - and in some non-emergency situations not being afraid to show your weaknesses can actually develop a stronger team. That is why you build up a team after all; each person has different skills and strengths, and the combination makes a stronger whole. 

If you have the strength and confidence to share some of your weaknesses - and show you respect the corresponding strengths in your team members - you can go a long way together.

[D]o your best. If you can't remember what was on page 57 of the "what you should do" manual, use your common sense, best judgement and make some stuff up to get you through.

At the time, we were all so busy trying to do the right things right that we didn't have time to think about anything other than making it through each scenario with (hopefully) "live" patients at the end. We made lots of mistakes - so I am glad we were not actually dealing with real victims. But that is what practice is for - to learn what to do before you need to use your new skills in earnest.

The point is to be as prepared as you can, and keep on trying.


The outdoor first-aid scenarios that followed were increasingly complex, but we began to work a little better together as a team as the day went on. It was also obvious that we were a long way from being experts, and we could all use a whole lot more practice.

The 'textbook' over-confidence from the classroom was long gone, and the reality of the situation was beginning to sink in. You don't know what you know until you actually try to do it, and hopefully you will learn from your mistakes and move on with more confidence in your abilities as you practice.

Probably the most important lesson, however, was that of recognizing your limitations - none of us were as good at responding as we thought we would be, and we all had a lot more to learn. 

The same can be said of our projects - just as you have 'practicing Doctors', we should really consider ourselves 'practicing Project Managers'. We will never be perfect, but with practice we can all hope to improve and apply those lessons learned on the next project.

Good luck with your projects, practice those skills, and keep your First Aid kit handy.

 Email: Gary Nelson, PMP

Friday, August 15, 2014

Guest Post: How To Plan A Project - My Light-bulb Moment

By Bryan Barrow

At some point in your life you will have had what people describe as a “light-bulb” moment.  That point where darkness is suddenly replaced with blinding illumination and where everything is revealed, removing doubt, providing insights and boosting belief.

There is another way of thinking of the light-bulb moment that is familiar to anyone who has seen an ”A-List” celebrity walk down along a red carpet.  It’s the popping of not one, but hundreds of flashes all going off within seconds of each other as the paparazzi lean in to take that perfect shot that they rely on to earn a living, and, if they are lucky, make a fortune for years to come.  

The effect is so dazzling that it can cause a physical response even for those who were not there at the time.  Watch the new coverage of a scene like this and you will often be warned beforehand that the video contains flashing lights. However, the true impact of the light-bulb moment comes when the scene illuminated by the flashbulb is frozen forever in that blinding light, every detail lit up and perfectly exposed so that future generations can see through the photographer’s eyes.  

I can’t say that I have ever had been photographed by the paparazzi.  At least not to my knowledge.  But I can tell you that I have felt the physical sensation of dozens of light-bulbs going off all at once, leaving me feeling dizzy with delight and boosting my belief that, without a doubt I had found a solution to a long-term problem. 

Picture the scene: A hotel conference room set out cabaret style, with 20 large round tables set some way away from the main stage.  Around one of those tables there were ten people, drawn from different parts of the project management community.  I was one of them.  

We were there for a workshop on facilitating project kickoff workshops.  The company that I was working with had recognised that too many projects were starting off without a clear plan of action and wanted to ensure that all project in future had a kick-off meeting.  

Phil, the workshop leader, had started to talk about a couple of approaches to planning as a team.  I waited for the inevitable mention of planning using sticky notes.  I wasn't wrong, but I was disappointed.

I’d long since lost faith in planning using sticky notes. I knew that it had its fans, but it also came with several major drawbacks including lack of consistency, an over-reliance on subject matter experts and a tendency to overlook the planning for quality assurance and good governance.  In my view it was good, but not good enough.

My own preference was for a product-based planning approach.  At that time I had had some success in using a RACI matrix to drive the planning of new projects as this overcome some of the shortcomings of planning with sticky notes.  However using the RACI matrix didn’t deal with one key problem; that of having to rely on subject matter experts.  It also added a new problem; that of having to hold multiple workshops or reviews to get through the long list of possible products in order to agree those needed for a given project.  In today’s fast-moving working environment the idea of having several workshops was a no-no, even though developing through iteration was the ideal.

I was only really half-listening when Phil moved on from the discussion about planning with sticky notes to talk about another method for collaborative planning, this time using Index Cards.  

Phil took us over to a table with about 30-40 index cards of different colours, folded in half and set out in neat rows, like tents in a field.  Phil described the approach as an alternative to putting notes on the wall and left it at that.  However it set off a whole series of thoughts, insights and ideas that were a physical shock.  This was my light-bulb moment.  Not the “single light going on” type.  No, this was the full “riot of flashbulbs popping” variety:

  • Flash! In one instant I saw how the cards could mirror the freedom and flexibility of sticky notes for capturing ideas directly;
  • Flash! In the same instant I could see how those same cards could be pre-prepared to minimise the need for writing and to maximise the thinking time in the workshop, making the workshop faster and more productive;
  • Flash! If we can print the name of the product on one side, we might as well print the product description on the other, making it easy to explain what the work products were, for those who were new to the organisation or to project management;
  • Flash! I could see how we could make the workshops much more collaborative than RACI workshops in drawing on the different perspectives of the participants, so that we got a much more rounded picture;
  • Flash! In the same instant I saw how to build in compliance with project and company standards by making some of the cards mandatory for all projects;
  • Flash! If we can construct the timeline and we have historical effort estimates from previous projects then we can quickly come up with an initial estimate of the overall project duration;
  • Flash!  If we can construct the timeline then we can also start to look at dependencies between teams that might affect the timeline, so that we can manage dependencies between projects, including dependencies on resources;
  • Flash!  If we know which work products are required to achieve the milestones, we can determine straight away which resources are required, so we can create an initial resource list immediately;
  • Flash!  If we know the costs of the resources, then we can create an initial project budget which will be much more realistic, as it is based on real data.  It should create a more accurate expenditure profile as it already incorporates timings, resources and dependencies;
  • Flash! If we can build in mandatory activities to ensure good governance right at the start then we can reduce the risk of projects going wrong later on.

The ideas just kept on coming and my mind lit up as I saw how powerful a process this could become. I scribbled down the formula for how to plan a project exactly as I saw it take shape in my mind: it was something simple, collaborative and easy to replicate time and time again.  

Here’s the image that was burned into my brain, the formula for planning workshops that I still use to this day:

  • Step One: Clarify the Goal.  Spend the first hour of the workshop on defining the goal, clarifying the scope and understanding what success means, for the business and for the team.  This clarity is essential.  If you don’t have the right goal you will aim for the wrong target.  If you don’t have the right reason for attaining the goal you won’t be motivated to pursue it.
  • Step Two: Introduce the planning exercise.  Explain how the Index Card Planning exercise will work.  Make it clear to the participants that they are responsible for planning the project and that your role is to facilitate.  Set the expectation for the outcome of the workshop but leave it to the participants to drive the development of the schedule.  
  • Step Three: Construct the High Level Milestone Plan.  Having clarified the goal and its importance to the business, divide the project into suitable workstreams and, for each workstream, define the milestones that could be used to signify success on the route to the goal. Let the participants describe the milestones in their own language because it will help them to take ownership of the plan.  Once the team have identified the key milestones, walk through the results and get agreement.  Take pictures of the result so that you can review them later.
  • Step Four: Construct the Detailed Plan.  With the high level milestones identified, select the Work Products that are needed to achieve each milestone.  These Work Products can be pre-printed to eliminate the time ordinarily spent writing.  The Work Products can be based on any methodology.  Leave it to the participants to select the Work Products, so that they are responsible for planning; let them work as a team to agree on what is needed. Once the Work Products have all been identified, review any that have not been selected and gain agreement that they are not required.  Go through the timeline and identify any key dates and dependencies. Again, take pictures so that you have a permanent record of what was produced.
  • Step Five: Review the results of the workshop.  Ensure that mandatory Work Products relating to quality assurance, project governance and risk management have been included; this will ensure that good governance is built in right from the start.  Go through the risks, issues, assumptions, dependencies, constraints and decisions and see if there are any more to add.  Agree the follow up actions; in particular, confirm that you will send out the results of the workshop so that people can add in any final thoughts or comments. 

Two days later I held my first workshop using the new formula.  The outcome was not just a success; it went exactly as I saw it in that first flash of inspiration.  I still use that formula today and it still inspires me.  It can inspire you too. 

(C) Bryan Barrow, 2014

Bryan Barrow is a widely recognized Project Risk Management consultant and Speaker, and the founder of Nova Consulting Ltd in the UK. Over the past twenty years has worked with Project Management Offices, Project Directors and both public and private sector organisations , helping them to improve project planning and rescue troubled projects. He also provides coaching and mentoring to help develop the skills of the next generation of project leaders.

Barrow is the author of Index Card Planning and The Project Planning Workshop Handbook. He publishes his subscription-only newsletter Project Leadership Tips every month. Subscribe at

Saturday, August 9, 2014

If only every Project ran like an old Honda Civic

[Also available as a podcast]

When I was in my late teens, I bought my first car. My friends were all doing the same - we all had our licenses and we wanted to put them to good use. Of course, not having a lot of money, we each ended up buying older, cheaper cars. I bought a 1974 Mazda RX4 from a family member, one friend bought an old Chevy Nova, another had an old sports car, and one had bought a 1977 Honda Civic.

CC Source:

All of these cars were made near the end of an era- close to the last generation of vehicles you could actually fix yourselves. All of them even had carburetors - no fancy fuel injection, and definitely no computer control systems. My car had only an AM radio, which I updated to AM/FM (but no cassette deck). When these cars were made, most computers filled a small room, and Personal Computers were not yet available.

Wheels = Freedom

Well, we were all very happy to have our own set of wheels, so we took good care of our cars - washed them regularly, learned how to do our own repairs, change the oil and spark plugs, the whole bit. Besides, we couldn't afford to send them in to the shop for anything but the most significant of problems; the rest we did ourselves, brake pads, shocks and all.

Although we had our own cars, we helped each other and worked like a team. We learned from each other, and each became the "go-to" person for a particular specialty. Brian went into auto mechanics in a big way, eventually extending it into a career that included welding and being able to fix just about anything. He quickly became the expert in everything automotive, and for anything major we all went to him for help.

As you would expect, Brian was the one with the best car.

However, at the time, we didn't think so. My RX4 was sleek and fast, the Nova was solid and gutsy, and our other friends' cars were sporty. We all kind of felt sorry for our mechanic friend Brian who only had a little red Honda Civic.

I mean, a 1977 Honda Civic wasn't really a serious car. Sure it was small, and good on fuel - but it wasn't much for show, not really. Not something you would want to take a girl on a date with, compared to any of the other cars we had. It wasn't gutsy, it wasn't fast, it wasn't much more than a tin can on wheels. Four or five people could pick it up and move it (and occasionally we did).

But over the years, Brian proved us just how wrong we were about his car.

We smiled when he put a tow-bar on his Civic.

And yet, Brian spent several summers in a row, tree planting in the mountainous interior of British Columbia. Everywhere he went, he drove his little Honda Civic - up and down steep logging roads, across creek beds - all while towing a home-built tent trailer nearly as big as his car.

When his car broke down every so often, Brian was able to get it up and running again in a matter of minutes - he was never stranded anywhere for long. He kept a toolbox in his car that he refined over time - and he kept that little car humming along, no matter where he went. 

When he had trouble with the ignition key, Brian just bypassed it and installed a push-button to start it, decades ahead of those hybrid cars. It may not have been very secure, but hey - who was going to steal an old Honda Civic?

When he went to the beach, Brian strapped his wind-surfer on the roof rack, and off he went - often with a car full of people. He could just squeeze in four passengers, all with their seat-belts on.

It even proved itself to be a stunt car - when it end up driving on two wheels after hitting a snowbank on the way back from camp one winter.

The car became a legend to us - it was practically invincible. It could go anywhere, pull anything, carry almost anything (including firewood and bags of manure). It was his pickup-truck, his 4X4, his go-anywhere-and-do-everything car, and he loved it to bits.

Brian finally admitted the car was perhaps close to its limits on one trip as he drove up the Coquihalla - the toll highway with a 20km long, continuous steep grade that once disabled my RX4 and killed hundreds of other vehicles. He had his windsurfer strapped on top, the tent trailer fully loaded and hitched on behind - and five people stuffed into the car. 

The car crawled up the hill at little more than a jogging pace, but it finally made it - all the way up, over and beyond to the campground, then all the way home again.

It was a marvel of engineering - and persistence, of both car and driver.

If only we all had an old Honda Civic on our Projects

We learned a lot of lessons from that old Honda Civic and our patient friend, aside from the practical car maintenance skills. Practical lessons that we took with us into our lives and various careers - and of course into my projects.

The legend of that car was spread far and wide, wherever we went - it became our informal mascot, and a symbol for achieving what others might think impossible. We grew together as friends around our cars, and that little car became the most respected of them all. It taught is the value of persistence, and looking beyond the surface to what lay beneath - be it a hunk of metal with tires, or someone you just met.

We could all use something as tenacious, persistent and resilient as that old car on our projects. Whether you use some kind of a mascot as a rallying point, or develop a vibrant common spirit that is instilled throughout the team, every project needs that little something to keep you going when the times get tough. We all sometimes need encouragement to realize you can do it (whatever your goals are), despite the odds.

Now, that old Honda Civic has probably been long recycled by now, and besides there was only the one that Brian had, so it would be hard to share it with all of you. However, I give you your own Honda Civic today, to help you survive your projects - in the form of some practical lessons we learned from it.

(H) ave faith. Even small teams can deliver amazing results, as long as you support and believe in them. Conversely, a team that does not believe in themselves will accomplish little. If your team is lacking in self-confidence, help them build it up through a series of small successes. The Honda Civic tackled each new challenge with caution, but Brian had confidence that they would make it through - and they always did, together. Over the years, that little Honda Civic even went places that heavy 4X4s dared not go.

(O) verlook the small flaws. No car or person is perfect, so don't expect them to be. If you look past the surface imperfections you will see a vast range of possibilities. I am pretty sure Brian looked at his little Civic every morning and saw the heart of a Monster Truck lurking within. You should do the same with your team - look past their quirks and odd habits and you will see their potential.

(N) ever give up. Brian never did - and as a result, his car never let him down. They had to work together to achieve it, just as your teams do. You can't do much on your own, but together in small groups you can accomplish amazing things - as long as you don't give up.

(D) o the impossible. Everyone else is doing the ordinary, while most of our greatest inventions were simply impossible - until someone made it happen. Projects exist to create change, to make something new or to make things better. Nothing is impossible unless you let it be so. Brian took it as a personal challenge to see just how far he and his little Civic could go - and he regularly amazed us all.

(A) lways look ahead. Sound advice when you are driving of course, but it applies equally to your projects. You won't make any progress rehashing past failures; you need to put the past behind you. Learn from it, certainly - but don't live in the past. You can't navigate while you are watching the rear view mirror. Whenever we got back from a group trip together, Brian was already looking forward to the next one.

(C) hallenge yourself. Without challenges, we don't grow in capabilities and confidence. Stretch your limits and get outside your comfort zone, and you will be surprised how far you can go. There is no doubt that Brian challenged his car to perform to the extreme limits - and beyond.

(I) nvest your time. Whether it is a hobby you enjoy, a new skill you are trying to develop, or trying to build up a team, there is no substitute for time spent. There are no true short-cuts in life; what you spend time practicing, you get better at. Brian invested countless hours in the maintenance and upkeep of that car, and from that he developed the skills and self-confidence to do almost anything mechanical. His skills expanded into a career working on all kinds of equipment - even building boats. If you want to build a better team - spend time with them. Spend time working to improve your own leadership skills, whether it is in the form of additional training, working with a coach or mentor, or simply applying what you have learned.

(V) ehicles need people - and so do you. On its own, the Civic was just a lump of old metal on rubber tires, slowly rusting. What made it special was that Brian made it so - his care, attention and dogged expectations that it could do what he wanted it to do is what set that car apart from all the rest. On our own, we are each a lonely individual slowly growing old - it is in our relationships with other people that we truly live.

(I) mprovise.You won't always have all of the answers, or the right tools at hand. Don't be afraid to step out on a limb and try something new. At one camp, we had walked all the way down the mountain from the tent site to go for a drive into town for some more supplies. Brian found out he had left his keys back in the tent - all the way back up the hill. Not wanting to walk all the way back up and down, he borrowed the keys from another Honda Civic - these happened to open up Brian's hatch-back, but not the side doors or ignition. With the back open and access to his toolbox, he climbed over the seats and quickly bypassed the ignition key with a push-button switch, and we were on our way into town.

(C) ongratulate yourself for finally making it there in the end. Whether it is for making it over the summit of the Coquihalla Highway, finishing your project or accomplishing a goal you set for yourself or your team - take a little time to celebrate. Life is short - enjoy it, and recognize a job well done.


We learned many lessons from Brian and his old Civic. Of course, the car was just a car when he bought it - but under Brian's guiding hand, it grew into something much greater. It was a part of our shared experience, and it had more heart and character than all of our fancier vehicles put together. Brian finally let the Civic go, years after he had bought a newer vehicle and the Civic was turning to rust in the yard. But its memory - and legend - lives on in each of us.

Good luck, and may all your projects run as well as that old Honda Civic.

Email: Gary Nelson, PMP

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Guest Post: What the World Cup Teaches Us About Project Management

By Nick Sharpe (P3M)

Whether you like it or not, there has been no escaping this year's World Cup. Despite the disappointment of England's untimely departure, the competition continues to dominate the front and back pages. Whilst he is nursing the pain of the USA's recent exit, P3M's resident Yank and marketing expert Dan ("Editor") has asked me to reflect upon the “lessons learned” from Brazil 2014.

Here's a list of 10 shameless analogies to project management from this year's tournament:

The ticket to understanding elements of your project management
potential may lie in this year's World Cup (image courtesy Jorge in Brazil
via @Flickr, re-used with permission. Changes were not made to the image.)

  1. The twelfth man - Whether it's been the sun, the samba or the Selecao, there's no denying that the support for this year's cup has been fantastic. Amid the hype, the USA's coach Jurgen Klinsmann gave a master-class in stakeholder engagement with his letter to America's bosses ahead of their game against Germany.
  2. The death of tiki-taka - Methodologies come and go. As Spain's exit shows us, the trick is to have the flexibility to choose an approach that fits the game and gets a result. This serves as a word of warning to those always following the flavour of the month.
  3. "No tactics without technique" - The English national team have once again failed to make it far on the biggest stage. Over-drilled and under-skilled, Hodgson's men proved that no matter how good the tactics, a team needs a fundamental level of competency before it has the capability to achieve its goals.
  4. Beware! Underdog bites! - In a group of three former world champions, Costa Rica were the lowest risk on the register at the start of the tournament. That hasn't stopped them becoming an issue.
  5. Beware! Striker bites! - What struck me about Suarez' misdemeanour was the public outrage incurred: not by the monster munch itself, but by his silence on the subject, before making an apology. Whether there's an appeal process or not on your project's evaluation, no communication is bad communication in times of crisis.
  6. Home advantage - Brazil may not have been at their scintillating best so far in the tournament, but it comes as no surprise that half of the teams to reach the quarter finals are South American. Familiar working conditions, lofty aims and high expectations have undoubtedly spurred the hosts - and their neighbours - to outperform the rest of the world.
  7. A game of two halves…and extra time and penalties - The number of games that have gone into extra time this year has probably been more popular with the fans than with the players due to the heat. Overtime has seen the levels of performance drop and the number of mistakes increase as legs tire and concentration is lost.
  8. "Rome wasn't built in a day, but I wasn't on that particular job…" - What do 'Big Phil' Scolari, Didier Deschamps and van Gaal have in common apart from a team in the quarters? Charisma. The value of strong leadership for team work, conflict resolution, communication and - ultimately - project success, is undoubted and immeasurable in value.
  9. Calamity in Qatar - Whilst Brazil seems to be getting over its teething problems, Sepp and his cronies continue to baffle with their handling of plans for the World Cup in Qatar. If you want an example of how not to do a risk assessment, how not to engage stakeholders, how not to monitor compliance, or how not to run a project: look no further!
  10. On scope, on time and on budget? - Despite its successes, criticisms that will mar the legacy of the Brazilian World Cup have all come from three classic project management perspectives. First, delivering all that entails an international tournament in a country with more pressing socio-economic and political issues was the cause of the widespread riots that threatened to kill the fever of the cup. Second, spray painted turf at Fortaleza (Editor's Note: not to mention rickety structures) was a symptom of widespread under delivery. From the pitches, to the stadiums, to the transport infrastructure, Brazil did not come close to meeting requirements on schedule. Finally, the cost of the World Cup will ultimately be judged against the benefits that the tournament brings to the nation over the next few years. (Editor’s note: Against the backdrop of Rio de Janiero playing host to the next edition of the Summer Olympics, the impact could face even more scrutiny. Given what has transpired in Greece in recent years, the legacy of hosting the 2004 Summer Olympics is negligible and forgotten, especially in light of losing out on so much economically without the burden of the World Cup hosting gig to boot.) Whether the impact of this World Cup demonstrated value for money in Brazil will be a question that overshadows the tournament's place in history.

Nick Sharpe joined p3m global as a University of Exeter graduate in 2013, working in a consulting capacity to drive improvements in the Project Management methodologies of their clients. Nick has worked with clients in the recruitment, telecoms and energy sectors, and with HR, Business Services and IT departments.

Friday, June 13, 2014

What's the big deal with Team Sports, anyway?

[Also available as a podcast]

When I was a child, I didn't like sports. 

Well, that's not exactly true - I loved swimming and spent almost every day during my young summers in the water at our local pool, and was part of the swim team. Wrinkly skin, and a persistent smell of chlorine - it was a wonderful way to spend a good part of your summer's day. Besides, when your town had an outdoor pool that was only open for 3-4 months out of the year, you made the most of it. The rest of the year it was either too cold, or just plain closed, as the pool was left drained for 6 months of the year while the temperatures plummeted from freezing down to -40 degrees Celsius in the coldest months.

In the winter, starting sometime in November, the outdoor ice rinks were getting into full swing. I spent a few winters trying to perfect long, graceful glides around the temporary oval of a Speed Skating rink on our Elementary school field, while my younger brothers were just starting getting into ice hockey at the PeeWee level.

I think I managed two or three years of Speed Skating before I stopped going, while my brothers went on to play hockey with a passion - and still do today, over thirty years later.

My favourite sport fell back to swimming, which I pursued through to Bronze Medallion, and still enjoy today.

The key thing about swimming is that it is very much a solo sport, even if you are on a swim team. Separate swim lanes, individual competitors - even when they held "team" races like a relay, you were still the only person in your lane at one time.

I did not enjoy team sports at all - not even Hockey, which is close to sacrilege for anyone born in Canada.
(C) Fotolia 59510276

One for All and All for ... Someone Else

When I say I didn't enjoy team sports, that is exactly what I meant. Of course, everyone had to try a range of sports in school during PE and I was no exception, but as a general rule, I did not enjoy it.

I wasn't trying to be difficult, but a combination of poor coordination and being smaller than the sporty kids left me on the sidelines or regularly ridiculed when I tried each sport. Even though I tried to improve my skills through practice, in a small town it was hard to get away from the sporty kids, who were also my ever-present horde of bullies. When there were only 30 kids in your grade level in the town, it was even harder - the kids you played with all tended to be from your class. The result was the sporty kids got better playing after school, while I continued to be sidelined, or ridiculed further at my attempts to improve. Eventually I just gave up trying.

Needless to say, those experiences left a sour taste that lasted for years - long after my coordination and abilities caught up with my growing frame and I tried my hand at darts, golf and other skill-based solo sports, and some hoop practice with a basketball. 

I had come to see most team sports as a place for jocks and the sporty ones - but not for me. I didn't even bother to watch professional games on TV - except for the hockey playoffs when the level of excitement infected even me.

The "I" in Team

There is no "I" in team, or so the saying goes. It is all about the team, not being an individual, blah blah blah.

But for me, I just couldn't see the point of team sports - as far as I could see, it had no value. People running or skating about, whacking balls or pucks around, bashing each other and trying to get an object through - or into - some type of net.

Even though I was part of a hockey household with wildly varied dinner times as my younger brothers dashed about to hockey games here, there and everywhere, I just didn't "get it". I could see they had fun - and more than a few trips to the emergency room over the years. Dislocated joints, broken bones, concussions, but I just could not see why they continued to play, year after year.

While recovering from a dislocated shoulder, my youngest brother forgot his left hand on the bathroom counter one evening. He had been brushing his teeth, and his left arm was so weak he could not even lift it.  He had to step back into the bathroom and pick up his left hand with his right, smiling sheepishly as I passed him on my way in to brush my teeth. Even then, he couldn't wait to get back onto the ice rink.

Sometimes I thought I must be the only sane person in the room. My brothers had to be nuts to get back out there after each major injury.

Just last year (in his forties), the same brother lost the end off of one finger trying to catch a slap shot in his glove. I shook my head when I heard about it, half way around the world. His hockey team will always be "short-handed" from now on.

I came to believe, through observing my brothers and other people over the years, the "I" in Team must be "Insane", where sports was concerned. 

A Change of Heart

If you have read any of my other articles, you will find that I feel quite strongly about the positive value and virtues of teamwork. So how can I reconcile a dislike of team sports with being a strong supporter of teams today?

Well, a few things have happened over the years to give me a change of heart.

The first was in 2001 (at the age of 34), when I was managing a system implementation project outside a major eastern US city.  I was sitting in a bar on a Friday evening with a work colleague, winding down from a long week's work. An American College Football game was playing on the TV behind the bar, which I was busy ignoring as I dipped deep-fried cheese sticks into sour cream and jalapeno jam. My colleague had ordered them to share, and they were fantastic - hot and spicy, but perfectly balanced with the sour cream and some celery. My colleague had also brought us to the bar to watch the football game, as she was a big fan of football, held parties during the SuperBowl, the whole bit.

She was busy yelling at the TV in between jalapeno cheese bites, encouraging the players or complaining about bad plays. She noticed my comparative dis-interest, and asked if I watched football much.

"Not really," I said, feeling awkward. She had brought me to watch the game, but aside from knowing the basic rules, I didn't go out of my way to watch it. I had only been to one live football game in my life, and someone else had bought the tickets.

She took it as a challenge to help me enjoy the game, so she explained the rules in more detail and commented on each play as the game unfolded on the TV behind the bar. We finished the plate of jalapeno cheese sticks and ordered another. I soon found I was paying more attention to the game than I was to the fried cheese sticks, and they were starting to get cold. I was, for the first time in my life, enjoying watching a football game - but it wasn't the score or the throwing of the ball itself that interested me. It was the interaction of the players.

Something had switched on inside my head - I was seeing organized sport in a whole new light. I could see the coordination within the team, the players working together, trusting someone to be in the right place to catch the ball just as they were tackled. I could see the results of a well-executed play that relied on the whole team working together - and the failed play where one player tried to do it all on his own.

In that one evening, I had suddenly gained the ability to appreciate watching football, albeit from an unexpected angle. I was now seeing the game with a leader's eye.

The second revelation was not a particular event, but more of a gradual progression since that evening in 2001. Over the past 13 years, I have come to appreciate almost any other team sport - as long as I know the basic rules. I am now able to relate the teamwork I see every day on my projects to the teamwork I see on the sports field - whether it is basketball, rugby, baseball, soccer or any other team sport, even Cricket.

Although I still don't go out of my way to watch that much sport on TV, if I am watching it with someone else, I will enjoy watching it with them. Of course, live is often better than TV, so every now and then I will actually buy tickets for the family and we will go watch a live rugby game. I even went to a Cricket match with my teenager, and loved it.

The best joy of all, however, is now watching my own children play team sports - soccer and hockey. Not much ice in New Zealand so it is Inline Hockey, but hey - Hockey runs in the Canadian blood, even if it skipped a generation.


When I was younger and did not appreciate team sports, I saw them as unimportant and without value. I literally could not understand why anyone would enjoy them - let alone watch them on TV for hours on end every week. Yelling at a glass screen where the players could obviously not hear you made even less sense.

However, what I came to realize - and finally accept - was that even though sports was not important to me, it mattered to others that I cared about. And you know what? That was OK.

So my final revelation is this: 

There is only value where you place value.

Each of us determines the value system for our lives - those things that are important to us, such as family, friends, code of ethics, causes we believe in, and so on. We may inherit them from our families as we grow up, but over time we fine-tune our value systems to model what is the most important to us. This helps us shape how we fit into the world - at least, as we perceive it.

Our value system also strongly affects how we interact with others, and how we behave towards each other in a variety of situations. The foundation of a strong team is a core set of common values, and learning to appreciate that other people have different values than yourself.

The most common source of misunderstanding and frustration is where values do not align, and you cannot seem to sort out the differences. However, the value of a great leader is being able to take that group of people with different skills, beliefs, backgrounds and attitudes - and then craft them into a Team with a common vision and shared values.  

The principle is always the same, whether it is on a construction site, in the project office, or on a large patch of muddied grass.

(C) Fotolia 62470185

Good luck on your projects, keep an eye on the ball - and no matter where you go or what you do, support your favourite Team.

Email: Gary Nelson, PMP

Monday, May 26, 2014

Dis-Orientation: The importance of Project Vision

[Also available as a podcast]

"Where there is no vision, the people perish..." Proverbs 29:18

One of the most important things you will do as a leader or Project Manager is to communicate a compelling vision to your team or organization. It not only sets the direction for the team and the project, it also begins to pull a group of individuals into a cohesive unit - and eventually, if all goes well, into a high-performing team.

Without vision, all is lost - or has the potential to be, unless you bring things back on track. This not only applies to your projects, it applies to "real life" too, as I learned first-hand many years ago...

Image (C) Fotolia 49516437

Up to the Snow

In 1992, I went skiing with a work colleague and his wife on Mt Ruapehu, a large volcano in the center of the North Island of New Zealand. I had been once before, but this was their first time on the mountain. It was a brilliant, sunny winter day - clear and crisp, and you could see all the way to the west coast from the Turoa ski lodge. The sky was a deep, intense blue you can only get with pollution-free air.

When you drive up to the ski lodge there is a sign for a pullout about half way. No matter the apparent winter conditions, you have to stop and put chains on your car tires before driving any further. The altitude near the peak is high enough to support a permanent ice cap all year round, and the winter roads are often slick with black ice when they are not covered in snow.

One interesting fact about skiiing on a Volcano: When you line up to buy your lift tickets and rent ski gear, there are signs all around telling you that they can give you a 30 minute warning in the event of a volcanic event. If an event does happen, you are supposed to stay on the ridges, and not try to ski out down the gullies. Makes a lot of sense, really - water, mud or lava will flow down the low points in the gullies first.

It was not an idle warning - when I was there in 1992, there was a large hot water crater lake, surrounded by ice. A small 'burp' from the volcano could make the lake level rise, melt the ice and cause a mud flow called a Lahar. In 1953, the crater lake level rose in the middle of the night and caused a massive Lahar down the eastern side of the mountain, through the Whakapapa ski field. It wiped out a ski chalet and a railway bridge near Tangiwai, minutes before a passenger train dove into the chasm, killing 151 people. It was the worst railway disaster in New Zealand history.

Note: The large hot water lake in the crater is smaller than it used to be; in 1995 and again in 1996 a series of eruptions reshaped the top of the mountain. The eruptions started September 25, 1995 - near the end of the ski season. People were still skiing while it vented ash. Things quietened down through the summer, and the ski fields were preparing to open for the season when another eruption cycle started on June 17, 1996. There have been other minor eruptions (2006) and a lahar (2007) since then.

Duly warned, we put on our skis and made our way over to the ski lift. I took off my prescription glasses and put them away in my small backpack. I pulled out a pair of regular polarized sunglasses with a sport strap and slipped them on. I could not see as clearly, but I had skied that way before - things were a bit fuzzy but I could see shapes well enough to stay on the trail and avoid running into things at least. With the strong NZ sunlight, I needed to protect my eyes from the harsh UV rays and snow glare more than I needed sharp vision.

I quickly learned that skiing on Ruapehu was different than every other mountain I had skied on before. The first, obvious difference was the lack of trees - Ruapehu only had rocks poking out of the snow here and there, otherwise everything was white. It made it a lot harder to see where the runs were - a lot of the time, you had to rely on simply following the tracks made by other skiers. There were no clear edges to any of the runs - unless you counted the occasional cliffs and drop-offs, which were still white-on-white. Fortunately, it was fairly easy to follow the tracks of the other skiers. With my polarized sunglasses, I could clearly see the sharp edges of white and shadow in the snow, even with my blurred vision.

The three of us skied together the whole time - but as they were more experienced, they were often waiting for me at the bottom of each run. At around 3pm we paused near the top of one run to admire the clear, perfect view of Mt Taranaki - a classic volcanic cone, far away on the west coast. Looking to the left, we could see some cloud approaching from the south, getting close to the mountain. We were getting tired and hungry anyway, so we decided to call it a day and head back down to the ski lodge. The runs were already emptying out - and as slow as I was, no one had passed me in a while. For long stretches of time, the only people I could see were my friends up in front.

As we descended, the cloud enveloped the mountain. It was not a thick cloud, more like a dense fog - there was still plenty of light coming through it from above. That, however, was the problem - everything was now a brilliant, diffuse white, and because of the fog you could not see anyone or anything beyond about 10 metres. We slowed down so that we would not suddenly come across any large rocks (or cliffs) at speed, but the visibility rapidly deteriorated.

My colleague and his wife seemed to be OK up in front, but I was having increasing difficulty in seeing where I was going - I could only see where to go by following their dark shapes ahead of me. The faint outlines of the ski tracks in the snow had long since disappeared in the white glow, with no shadows remaining. Only the occasional black rock here and there reassured me the outer edge of the run was still on my right.

At one point I took off my sunglasses because I thought I could see just a hint of shadow, or difference in the snow without them - with my astigmatism it was still a blur, but it was the best I could manage. I couldn't stop to get my prescription glasses out of my bag - my colleague and his wife were getting ahead of me. By now we were very worried about getting down to the lodge. The glasses probably wouldn't have helped much anyway.

We continued to ski like that down the hill with them leading, just ahead, but they got faster and faster as they got more nervous. I was struggling to keep up - and to see. At one point the pair completely disappeared into the fog, so I sped up even more to catch up. I suddenly felt very alone, vulnerable and disoriented.

A moment later, I was airborne - white all around, above and below me, with no sense of movement. I was not even sure I was still upright.

Project Vision

There are many books and countless articles about leadership, and nearly as many about the importance of setting a vision for your team. Vision is not only about having goals - although setting goals is an essential part about getting things done. Vision is much more than that - a well-communicated vision generates emotion and passion within the team. It creates a common identity, a strong sense of purpose and direction. With good leadership, a compelling vision and a skilled, engaged team working together, there are practically no limits to what you can accomplish together.

The most powerful thing a team can buy into is Purpose - why we are doing this project, who it will help, and how we can make a difference. When people understand, accept and embody these themes, they will commit themselves wholeheartedly to the common vision - be it a short-term project, or the long-term future of your company.

The opposite to this is also true - if you do not have a compelling vision driving you, pulling you, pushing you onwards, you are likely to have a team busy spinning their wheels and accomplishing nothing. Sure - they may look busy, they may even produce mountains of paperwork as proof-of-life, but if they are not pulling in the same direction, you will soon find out you are going nowhere.


After a brief eternity, I landed skis-first on firm snow and promptly fell over. I was at the bottom of a curved gulley, used as a natural half-pipe for snowboarders. A few of them were doing their last runs of the day and whooshed on by me.

My colleague and his wife were standing at the side of the gully waiting for me, and came over to help me up. They had seen the lip of the gulley and had skied gently down the side. In my haste and blurred vision, I had not seen the edge at all, and flew nearly 3 metres out and 3 metres down to land on packed snow in the middle of the gully - shaken, embarrassed, but not hurt. We skied the rest of the way out without incident - we were now below the main cloud level, and we could see our way a more and more clearly with thicker cloud above and improved contrast.


Having clear vision - both in the literal sense, and on your projects - is  essential to success. Whether your goal is to simply get down off a mountain, or to deliver a complex multimillion dollar project on time and meet your stakeholder's needs, you simply can't do without it.

And sometimes Vision, or the lack of it, can literally mean life-or-death.

Wait a minute, you say - aren't you overdoing it, just a bit? I mean how hard can it be to find your way back down to the ski lodge?

The dazzling white cloud that made it so hard for us to see was actually the leading edge of a storm that lasted for two days. We only had our clothes, skis and small packs with water and snacks - we were not prepared to bivouac in the snow. It would have been all too easy for us to get off the trail, and miss the ski lodge completely.

Two years earlier, on August 13, 1990, a group of 13 soldiers and Naval ratings on a winter survival course were not so lucky. They were caught in an intense blizzard with high winds and zero visibility, but were not prepared for it. They had become disoriented near the summit, and dug snow caves for shelter while two men went for help. Rescuers found them three days later, huddled in the snow and suffering from exposure. Six frozen bodies were found only 150 metres from the Dome Hut, where they could have taken shelter and survived - if only they could have seen it.

Good luck with your projects, dress warm - and never forget the importance of a clear and compelling Vision.

Email: Gary Nelson, PMP