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Monday, July 29, 2013

Guest Post: Lack of Coordination is a Risk Hazard

One of the most critical challenges faced by any project manager during a major solution delivery is to mitigate risk. Risk is of two kinds. One is called “known risk”. Known risk is a risk that can be caused by something that you can plan and even mitigate. For example, lack of electricity. You can purchase a generator as a backup. The other kind of risk is the “unknown risk”. Unknown risk is defined as risk that was not factored in and did not have a plan in place to minimize it.

Even with the most successful team of executives and leaders, risk can only be calculated with the knowledge within the team. Hence, many times, risks do pop up since they were not discussed or even fathomed during the discussions. A good example is of a viral flu that swept in and majority of the main key players are all sick. Interestingly, another very critical risk that surfaces is poor communication between key stakeholders.

Let me share with you a very recent experience of “unknown risk” that was caused by lack of coordination. Our organization was working in England as a consultant for a major telecom company. The project comprised of 26 specialists from all over the world. While doing the risk management plan, the entire team spent weeks understanding and comprehending the type of risks that could surface into the project. The entire team was able to garner an exhaustive list of risks that could be caused by a variety of different factors. In fact, the risk management plan was wonderful. It had all the risks reported and tagged as per best practices.

Ample time was given to the respective teams to list the risks and develop the action plan for the project. If the risk ever took place, there was an action plan that was to kick in. Interestingly, the main objective was to proactively mitigate the risk from occurring. The entire team came up with 50 risk environmental factors.  Out of the 50 risk environmental factors, 31 were high risk factors.

The risk management plan encompassed the risk cost, risk event, risk impact and even the risk plan. One aspect that was missed was that the team coordination among the international community of partners could also delay the project and could be counted as a major risk factor. Lack of team coordination is also risk to any project and was also to be proven true in this case as well. 

Root Cause of Risk

We were brought into the equation when the project was already late and above the cost threshold. When we held meetings with the various stakeholders, all of them believed that the main reason of the delay was external environmental factors. Some of the examples they gave were time difference between the countries and even the language barrier.

After going through extensive meetings with the teams, we realized that the main problem was the team itself. When we dug into the anomalies, we realized that though the team comprised of talented individuals, all the team members wanted to be the leaders of the group. No one was ready to be a follower. 


Team building and team coordination is critical. In fact, in many organizations, the teams going to be working on a project go through an extensive orientation program. During the project management orientation, risk affects and stakeholders communication are all discussed. For remote teams, a project management online course is aired through the internet. Objective of the team orientation meetings is to have a clearly amalgamated team in terms of vision, purpose, and deliverables.

Our recommendation to any project manager that goes through project delivery is to sustain and maintain quality communication. Quality communication is one of the fundamental flaws and root causes of risks coming into the project. Here are three project management risk aversion tips:

  1. Be consistent in the communication. Keep the message in emails, sms and other tools.
  2. Be prepared to have a fire drill of activities and project schemes before going into execution. Similar to a rehearsal.
  3. Have people that can build teams. Assign team leaders. People need to know who is the leader.

The project management steps outlined above will go a long way in building and diverting risks. Proven solution.

Zyma Arsalan
Director Media, ThinkFaculty Company

Zyma Arsalan is currently the Director Media for ThinkFaculty Company – a leader in project management training, customer service training and leadership and development. She has a versatile experience in working for the top leading companies in USA and now focuses on building the intellectual network in Asia. She can be reached at

Monday, July 22, 2013

Protect your project from Zombie Outbreaks

[Also available as a podcast]


\ˈzäm-bē\ noun
1. Formal.
   a. the body of a dead person given the semblance of life, but mute and will-less, by a supernatural force, usually for some evil purpose.
   b. the supernatural force itself 

2. Informal.
   a. a person whose behavior or responses are wooden, listless, or seemingly rote; automaton.
   b. a person who is or appears lifeless, apathetic, or completely unresponsive to their surroundings. 
   c. an eccentric or peculiar person, markedly strange in appearance or behavior (sometimes confused with Teenagers). 

3. Project Zombie.
   a. a member of the project team whose behavior or responses towards the project are wooden, listless, or seemingly rote; automaton.
   b. a member of the project team who appears directionless or wandering but is attracted by noise and activity.

Zombies Today

Zombies are currently very popular in the media; in the past 18 months alone there have been 32 zombie films created (many of them B films, but a notable number featured in the mainstream theater circuit, and over 160 have been released since the start of 2009). I will admit, I have only seen a half dozen or so in the last few years but my favorites have to be Zombieland (2009) and Sean of the Dead (2004). Soulless re-animated bodies wanting to eat your brains? Sure. Running for your lives to reach a goal or sanctuary, keeping just ahead of the armies of the undead? You bet. However, both films introduce a quirky sense of humour that keeps them from being strictly hide-under-the-covers horror movies. 

Yearning for some piece of normality while you reload your shotgun? That overturned delivery truck just might contain a box of Twinkies.

What about Warm Bodies (2013), you ask? Well, certainly it was an enjoyable film and it had decent humour, but as most of the 'zombies' recovered simply from looking at a pretty girl, you have to wonder if they were true zombies, or if they were just temporarily heartbeat-challenged. On the other hand, the explanation they offered for eating brains was unique and somewhat enlightening. OK, so maybe we will add it to the list.

However, the cinematic undead aside, we have a much more serious problem in real life. Many of our projects suffer zombie outbreaks. They may not actually be undead or want to eat your brains, but they are zombies nonetheless. And even worse, they may be your fault.

Project Zombies

Let's be fair, not all projects have zombies. I would argue that some of the most successful projects have managed to run from Project Initiation through to Closeout with nary a zombie in sight. On the other end of the scale, some projects are constantly plagued by zombies, and just like the movies, these zombies tend to multiply at a frightening pace.

What does it mean to be a Project Zombie? Well, there are some common attributes shared by all zombies, undead or otherwise.
  • Lack of Motivation: Aimless, listless, wandering or generally apathetic behaviour
  • Easily Distracted: Attracted to noise or activity, angered by the 'living'
  • Spread the Dis-ease: Affliction spreads through close or regular contact
  • Hunger for 'Brains': Seeking something they are lacking
However, one key difference between a regular everyday Zombie and your Project Zombies is how they are created.

Creating a Zombie

In the movies, some unlucky person is usually 'patient zero', afflicted by some mutant virus, or perhaps bitten by an animal with some hitherto-unknown variant of rabies. Once bitten, the afflicted turns into a zombie (right away in some films, or as soon as they die a horrible death in others), and spread the affliction by biting as many people as they can, while snacking their way around the populace and munching on a brain or two.

On your project, if there are Zombies, there will always be a 'patient zero'. If you are really, really unlucky, this is you - the Project Manager. No biting is involved, but the contagion spreads just the same, from one disaffected person to the next. 

Recognizing a Project Zombie

In order to protect yourself (and your project) from the Project Zombies, you need to be able to identify them. As your zombies will likely have a healthy skin tone and otherwise look 'normal', it may be hard to spot them, but there are some behavioural cues that are a dead (or maybe undead) giveaway.

Lack of Motivation

Zombies of all types tend to appear aimless, listless, or have generally apathetic behaviour to what is going on around them (i.e. the project). They may also be found wandering around the office with an appearance of busy-ness, but they are far from productive and engaged in your project. Some of the more clever ones may carry a notepad and a writing device, or perhaps an electronic tablet as part of their disguise. 

If you look closer, though, they are often busy with anything but your project - they lack motivation to get things done. When you do drag them along to meetings, they tend not to participate or contribute much to the meetings. If you do get anything out of them, it may be a moan, groan or other gutteral complaint. They would really rather be somewhere else - anywhere else, really - just not with you, or working on your project.

They have become disengaged, disaffected and are possibly infected with the 'SEP' virus (Somebody Else's Problem).

Easily Distracted

When things are going well on your project, it is common to see your team members engaged in animated discussions on relevant topics, and then see them fully absorbed in solving some project problem at their desks - or, simply put, getting the job done. They may even seem to be enjoying it. Although they will likely be quite social with the other project team members, this will not tend to keep them from the business of your project - they feel good about a job well done.

On the other hand, Project Zombies are easily distracted from whatever they are doing at the moment (be it reviewing a document, producing some deliverable or chewing on a co-workers arm...Hey, stop that!). They are not very interested in what they are doing most of the time, and are easily distracted by the next activity or novelty that comes along. Any type of interesting noise or conversation will draw them in, and they may become frustrated when the makers-of-noise ('the living') return to a working state. Those people are not yet afflicted, which annoys and angers the Zombie. Something must be done, so the Zombie makes plans to isolate the others, one by one, and turn them into Project Zombies so they can join the horde.

Spreading Dis-ease

Just as with normal zombies, the affliction spreads through close contact. The undead may need to bite you to spread the dis-ease, but for the living Project Zombies, all it takes is a whisper in the ear and the damage is done. Rumor, innuendo, false information and negative opinions fill any gaps in project communications, and this can spread rapidly throughout the team. 

Your zombies spread a mental virus, based on misinformation, negative opinions and dissatisfaction, which leads to erosion of trust; it also results in reduced motivation for the newly afflicted.

And thus the cycle begins anew.

Hunger for 'Brains'

Not all is lost, however - one of the more positive behaviours of a Zombie is their strong hunger for Brains. Well, maybe it is not so positive for the donor, but if you look at it from the zombie's point of view, with a bit of a metaphorical optimistic twist, all they are really looking for is some direction.

Yes - those listless, aimless, easily distracted, dis-ease spreading, wandering zombies are seeking leadership. The problem in the movies is that most of the zombies never find the right leader, so they keep on snacking away, looking for the perfect brain.

The good news for us, of course (other than that your Project Zombies are not likely to actually eat your brain), is that you have the perfect opportunity to fix all this.

Not by just being the Project Manager - but by being their Leader.

Say what? Who would want to lead a horde of Project Zombies and be responsible for project failure?

That is not what actually happens - or at least, it doesn't have to be.

Curing Project Zombies

Yes, Zombies can be cured. Well, in most movies this involves separation of the head from the body, but Warm Bodies gives us some hope that it does not always have to be this way.

And certainly on your projects, if you ever hope to pull your team back together and complete your project successfully, you have to be optimistic that you can cure the zombies. Otherwise, you might as well give up, grab someone's arm or leg, and join the horde.

There are four things you can do to cure your Project Zombies - and they tie into the four main behaviours that your Zombies may exhibit.
  • Lack of Motivation: This can be cured by giving your team members a sense of purpose. Explain the project objectives clearly, communicate what impact your project will have on the business, and the importance of project success. Even more importantly, show your team how their contributions will make a difference - and that they are valued as people. Very few people come to work every day to try and do a bad job; if you give them something to be positive and excited about, you may just be surprised at how quickly your Zombies can regain more human behaviours. Keep a close eye out for any relapses though - you may need to encourage and reinforce the message on a regular basis.
  • Easily Distracted: Quite often, if you solve the Motivation problem this will be solved on its own. However, habits are slow to form, so you may need to keep an eye on team dynamics, allow some social time because it is important for team building and morale, but kindly but firmly remind them to get back to work if you need to. Giving them something challenging (but achievable) and meaningful to do will also help reduce distractions affecting your team.
  • Spread the Dis-ease: The primary vector of the dis-ease is communication, so you fight fire with fire (or words for words). Make sure to communicate regularly and clearly with your team. Don't allow long periods to happen between communication; keep your comms regular and be consistent. If you don't have anything new to add this week, it is better to report "nothing new" rather than to say nothing at all. Rumours love dark, silent places - so shed some light on what is going on, and keep your project team well-informed.
  • Hunger for 'Brains': Lack of direction is the primary problem here - we all look for leadership. Solve this problem for your team by being a good, strong leader; if you can, be a great leader. An important thing to remember is that your team has different needs throughout the project - so be the Leader they need you to be for this stage of the project. Your team can 'smell' if you are not being the leader they need you to be - if you let them down, they will likely move on, seeking a more suitable brain - leaving yours alone as 'not interesting' enough.

    Give them something to really chew on, a satisfying leadership experience - so they don't look for other brains.


Zombies can be found in most projects. They may be the people on your team, or simply mistaken ideas or attitudes around project controls (Read The Zombies of Project Management1 by Youssef Mourra). Fortunately, with open communication, clear setting of expectations and solid leadership, we can dispel the zombies, cure those afflicted, and prevent further outbreaks in our projects. Use those Project Manager brains of yours - lest they be 'eaten' out of desperation.

Good luck with your projects, hold onto your head, and take appropriate actions to prevent or recover from zombie outbreaks on your projects.

...and if you fail in that, look long and hard while trying to survive the Zombie Apocalypse, and you just might find the last Twinkie on earth.

Gary Nelson, PMP

1. Mourra, Y. (2012, September). The Zombies of project management. Paper presented at the PMI New Zealand Chapter 18th Annual Conference: Faces and Facets of Project Management, Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Too High, Too Fast - Project Asphyxiation

[Also available as a podcast]

I have, for much of my life, lived close to sea level. Most people don't think too much about altitude, unless they travel a lot, climb mountains, or are professional athletes. If you live near hills or near mountains, you might not even think too much about a hike or drive up a couple thousand feet, or a few hundred metres or even a kilometre in elevation above where you live. You might not even notice it that much, particularly if you are driving. If you are hiking, well - any trouble breathing you may have can usually be blamed on exertion, and that spare tire you may be carrying.

Certainly, hiking in the mountains around Vancouver, Canada, or skiing at Whistler when I was younger, I never had any problems. The base was a couple thousand feet above sea level, and that was no problem at all. Taking the lift up another 3000 feet (900m) or so and skiing back down, perhaps I felt it, but as I was not that confident a skier I had other things on my mind, like avoiding the row of trees up ahead.

There are times, though, where changes in altitude can have a serious impact on you. 

Specifically, the rate of change is a critical factor that can be life-and-death for you - and also for your projects.

Got Air?

Professional athletes are highly aware of the difference altitude makes. If they live at lower altitudes where the air is thicker, they know their blood is thinner. Those that live at higher altitudes have generally thicker blood, to help offset the reduced amount of oxygen in the thinner air. More red blood cells pull in more oxygen to feed your cells.

If a professional runner flew from home in Vancouver to Denver, Colorado and then tried to run a race, they would likely collapse early on, because they would not be getting enough oxygen into their thin blood.

Conversely, a mountain dweller flying down to sea level would gain a performance boost because of their increased ability to deliver oxygen in their blood. Until they over-did it and got stars in their eyes from effectively hyper-ventilating, that is.

This is why athletes arrive early several days before the event, to allow their bodies to adjust. (It normally takes 7-10 days for your body to acclimatize and produce [or reduce] red blood cells to compensate for the change in altitude, depending on the difference involved).

Mile-High City

I am no runner, but I was quite surprised what happened to me in 2007 when I flew to Denver (5280 feet/1,609 m) to deliver a week-long training session in a nearby town. I had flown through the Denver airport many times, and never really noticed the impact of the altitude. However, there is a big difference between being in transit compared to being a marathon runner - or a trainer. When you are passing through, you don't exert yourself much, unless you are sprinting for the connecting flight.

If you are running in a race, or teaching a class, you consume a lot of air. I was literally speechless after the first hour of training - I was running out of breath due to the altitude! It was a bit inconvenient stopping every few minutes to catch my breath, and an unexpected alteration to my normal training delivery style, but with a few smiles and a bit of laughter at the struggling "low-lander", I managed to deliver the course well enough. I also noticed that every day it got easier and easier as my body adjusted to the altitude. By the time I flew home, I had almost fully adapted to being at 5280 feet. 

While I was at the airport waiting to fly home, I heard about a mountain train ride outside of Denver, that took you up to one of the peaks. There was a big warning to NOT go on the train up the mountain until you had been in Denver for at least a day or two. Over the years, a number of sea-level-dwelling people had suffered heart attacks and a few died due to the sudden additional increase in altitude, and stress on their system. Those people had gone up the mountain on their first day, some within the first few hours of being in Denver.

I flew out of Colorado with a new-found respect for what effects altitude can have on your body.

A Whole New Level

March 19, 2009 - Durango, Colorado
I flew through Denver to Durango (6500 feet/1981m) on March 18, coming in from Dallas (430 feet/131m) where I had spent the last 7 days. By this time, I knew to expect a noticeable impact on my body, so I was somewhat prepared. I was only there for a few days, and that was in meetings, not training all day, so I was less likely to be out of breath this time around.

One thing about Durango - there is nothing much in the way of flat. Instead, there are plenty of rapid changes in elevation wherever you go, ranging from hundreds to thousands of feet over only a few miles.

On my first day at the office, I asked my hosts what the "must-see" things were in the region. "Silverton and Mesa Verde," they responded. "But you won't have time to get to Mesa Verde before the park closes today. You could try Silverton, though - it's not too far, only 48 miles." (78km)

Thus informed, I grabbed a water bottle and some snacks after my last meeting of the day, and headed out for the short drive to Silverton while I still had good light.

Forty-five minutes later, I was cresting a mountain pass at 11,075 feet (3375m), and frightened out of my wits.

It was not a sheer drop-off I was worried about - I was surrounded by trees and snow on both sides.

I was gasping for breath - while driving.

Less than 24 hours at the initial altitude change from 430 to 6500 feet, and here I was suddenly adding another 4575 feet in forty-five minutes. My mind flashed back to the warning from Denver a couple years before. This was also much higher than the mountain just outside Denver.

There was no cell signal in the mountains - and little road traffic to call for help if I ran into trouble. I calmed myself as best I could and carefully drove down the long slope into Silverton, at the relatively safer altitude of 9308 feet (2837m).

And after all that - nothing was open. It was off season, and not a single restaurant was open for me to have some dinner. So, after a short breathing rest, back up the hill I drove, carefully navigating the crest of the pass. I breathed carefully and deeply until I had dropped a few thousand feet on the far side into the slightly thicker air.

I was very relieved to arrive safely back at my hotel - way, way, back down at 6476 feet.

A Note on Project Change Management

Sudden change is rarely beneficial on your projects. Sure, you may have a specific cut over date when you launch a new system, replace an old one, or do the big media blitz for your killer new product.

However, your project is not just the big event.

All projects involve change - and successful projects include carefully planned strategies for managing that change. You don't want your stakeholders to face a sudden change unprepared; you want to prepare them along the way, let them know what is coming, what they will have to do differently, and ideally involve several of them in the change process so they can communicate with their peers.

Just like a sea-level dwelling athlete preparing for a marathon near Machu Pichu (7972 feet/2430m), you need to allow time for your body (and mind) to adjust to the new conditions. Professional athletes often prepare for the trip a few days in advance, doing what they can to minimize the amount of time they need to adapt when they get there. 

If they live at low altitude and are competing at higher altitudes, they may spend some time each day in a low-pressure chamber, to try and force additional red blood cells to form ahead of time. If they are competing "downhill", coming from high altitude to low, they may do the reverse, spending some time in a hyperbaric chamber to slightly thin their blood (but not too much!)

The point is, they know what the goal is, they know when it is coming, and they take steps to be prepared so that they can minimize the impact of the upcoming change. Failure to do so may not only lose them the race - in rare cases, failing to prepare and allow time to adapt to the change in environment has been fatal for some athletes.


As Project Manager or Change Manager, it is your responsibility to help your stakeholders prepare for the upcoming changes.

Otherwise, the changes resulting from your project may catch them unawares and out-of-breath, or at the very least, red-faced and upset.

Nobody likes surprises on projects - so help your stakeholders prepare!

Good luck on your projects, take a deep breath - and take the time to manage change.

Gary Nelson, PMP