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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