System Support?

July 25, 2012

At times I’m pleased we only have to support our Stakeholder Circle software. The following was forwarded by a colleague – the veracity of the conversation cannot be determined!

Support log:
Caller : Hi, our printer is not working..
Customer Service: What is wrong with it?
Caller : Mouse is jammed.
Customer Service: Mouse? … Printers don’t have a mouse!!!
Caller: Mmmmm??.. Oh really? .. I will send a picture.

 


The failure of strategic planning

July 23, 2012

Projects struggling for management support are one of the key indicators of a sub-standard value creation system that is failing to make full use of the deliverables created by projects and programs. But the problem is likely to be much deeper; surveys consistently show that between 15% and 80% of projects undertaken by organisations cannot be linked to the performing organisations strategy . These ‘feral projects’ are either symptoms of inadequate governance, or symptoms of inadequate strategic planning!.

In many organisations, and particularly in business areas focused on system support such as IT the typical path taken by an innovative idea through to some confused delivery of value is a straight line from the innovation, to a business case, to a project that has to seek management support and the surviving projects eventually deliver their outputs to a bunch on unprepared and unwilling end users. The generation of value is far from certain!

Over the last few years, Portfolio Management has started to emerge. Portfolio management should have a strategic focus and make selections based on strategic priorities but in most current implementations tends to be a process oriented, stand alone function. Certainly by applying capacity constraints the number of projects that fail due to lack of organisational resources will be reduced but the focus on value creation is minimal. Management support and organisational change are not central to the process. There is literally a ‘fence’ between the executive ‘strategic planning’ processes and innovation within the organisation.

Most authorities describe project and programs as the ‘change agent’ responsible for creating the ability to implement strategic initiatives to grow and improve the organisation. For this to occur, the strategic planning system needs to be far more engaged with the organisation and central to the process of innovation, guided and supported by the organisations executive!

Within a value driven framework, the strategic planning process should be central to innovation, initiating work to develop prospective ideas, and receiving all of the innovative ideas to enhance the organisation from every source. Innovative organisations such as Google actively encourage innovation and experimentation within parameters but have careful selection processes before burning money on significant projects. They are also prepared use the innovative ideas to inform strategy, and to take significant strategic risks if an innovation warrants the speculation on a ‘whole new future’ for the organisation.

Within this framework, the evolution of the strategic plan is a cyclical process, possibilities and ‘blue sky’ ideas are communicated to the governing body, who formulate, review and update the overall strategic guidelines as new ideas and possibilities emerge.
However, my feeling is there is a tactical level missing from strategic thinking that will be needed for this process to work effectively. The overarching ‘strategic guidance’ needs to be fairly stable and take a long view and only be updated as needed (possibly twice a year). Based on this strategic guidance, a detailed strategic plan is developed at a ‘tactical level’, to frame the current implementation of the strategy. This process needs more rigour and more flexibility (the two are not mutually exclusive) compared to the high level plan, should only take a medium term view and be updated continuously. Based on this plan, feasible ideas that support the strategy are authorised for the development of a value oriented business case.

The creation of this flexible but rigorous tactical-level strategic process would place the ‘plan’ at the forefront of processes such as Portfolio Management and virtually eliminate feral projects.

Portfolio management also has a central role to play. The current strategy informs the portfolio selection process, and information on current projects and programs, the viability of assessed business cases and other consolidated information is absorbed back into the strategic planning process. Based on these factors, the key job of the portfolio managers is to select the most strategically important business cases, within the capacity limitations of the organisation, for initiation as a project.

The role of management is firstly to implement the executive guidance by supporting the Portfolio Management processes and the selected projects. More importantly, management is also responsible for managing the organisation so that the necessary change initiatives are implemented to make effective use of the project deliverables to generate valuable returns over the life of the initiative, frequently a period of many years!

Developing a value driven system similar to the one described in this post is primarily a governance issue. The organisations directors and executives need to lead the process and be closely involved in the strategic management of the organisation.

Strategic planning also needs to evolve from a fluffy ‘high level’ process to a far more useful function that actually sets the strategy for the organisation’s management to implement. Within this framework, the organisations governance systems and leadership need to ensure their management support the process and are focused on creating value.

The Value Chain

However, the value creation chain is only as strong as its weakest link, which includes effective strategic planning supported by effective governance that ensures management support for the overall process. A clear indication the strategic governance processes are not working is when projects and programs have to fight to receive executive support to ‘exist’ and the organisation’s measure of success is limited to the ‘iron triangle’ of time, cost and scope focused at the end of the project.

Successful organisations focus on the more difficult, but more important measures of benefits realised and the value created for the organisation as a result of the project deliverables being used by the organisation to support its strategic initiatives and generate lasting improvements.

Most of the work needed to make this process work is in management areas outside of the traditional Portfolio, Program and Project management (PPP) arena. But no organisation will achieve the optimum results from its PPP initiatives without the front and back ends of the overall value chain being of equal ‘strength’.

This is not rocket science, many successful organisations, particularly in mining and engineering achieve this type of integration in their core business. For more on the governance aspects see: Mosaic WP1073 – Project Governance.  

For more on the overall project delivery capability see: Mosaic WP1079 – Project Delivery Capability.


Project Assurance

July 14, 2012

Effective project and program governance requires a carefully measured balance between prudent and effective risk taking, allowing skilled project teams the flexibility to tailor and improve processes to enhance success and effective surveillance to ensure the organisation’s objectives are being achieved.

An excessive focus on ‘due process’ stifles innovation and improvement and can easily lead to ‘process induced failure’ where every one focuses on producing the correct document in preference to dealing with the information contained in the document… There is absolutely no point in being able to say that ‘every risk that adversely affected the project had been identified in the risk register’, if the risks could have been avoided by proactive management.

Good project management, good business management and good governance requires appropriate and timely action to mitigate or remove risks that can sensibly be managed, and recognition of the fact that the decision to take action is risky because there is no certainty the risk being mitigated would have occurred anyway: there is always a probability a risk won’t occur! Similar issues requiring balanced decision making occur across the full spectrum of project and program management.

Balancing the cost of action against the possible cost of inaction requires good business judgement; the definition of ‘good judgement’ being, ‘you are right more often than you are wrong’; not the ridiculous expectation of perfect foresight (it does not exist), nor systems that are biased in favour of ignoring preventative actions until it is too late.

The role of project surveillance systems should be focused on this type of issue assuring the organisation’s senior management and other stakeholders that their project and program management teams are making the best decisions to protect and enhance the overall value of the projects and programs to the organisation. ‘Due process’ is important, but only to the extent it either assists the decision making process or provides information that is required by law or regulation.

Our new White Paper ‘Proactive Project Surveillance’ looks at the different types of review and the way they can be structured to both assist the projects and programs being reviewed to generate value for the organisation whilst providing assurance to the organisation’s executives and stakeholders that the projects and programs are being managed effectively.

You can download the White Paper from: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1080_Project_Reviews.pdf


Averaging the Power of Portfolios

July 8, 2012

The interaction between dependent or connected risk and independent risk is interesting and will significantly change the overall probability of success or failure of an endeavour or organisation.

As discussed in my last post on ‘The Flaw of Averages’ using a single average value for an uncertainty is a recipe for disaster. But there is a difference between averaging, connecting and combining uncertainties (or risk).

Adding risk

Where risk events are connected, the ability to model and appreciate the effect of the risk events interacting with each other is difficult. In ‘The Flaw of Averages’ Sam Shaw uses the simile of wobbling a step ladder to determine the uncertainty of how safe the ladder is to climb. You can test the stability of one ladder by giving it a good ‘wobble’. However, if you are trying to determine the stability of a plank between two stepladders doubling the information from wobbling just one is not a lot of help. Far more sophisticated modelling is needed and even then you cannot be certain the full set of potential interactions is correctly combined in the model. The more complex the interactions between uncertainties, the less accurate the predictive model.

However, when the risks or uncertainties are independent, combining the risks through the creation of a portfolio of uncertainties reduces the overall uncertainty quite dramatically.

The effect of portfolios

Consider a totally unbiased dice, any one throw can end up anywhere and every value between 1 & 6 has an equal probability of being achieved. The more throws, the more even the results for each possibility and consequently there is no possibility of determining the outcome!

The distribution after 10, 100 and 1000 throws.

As the number of throws increase, the early distortions apparent after 10 throws smooth out and after 1000 throws the probabilities are almost equal.

However, combine two dice and total the score results in a very different outcome. Whilst it is possible to throw any value between 2 & 12, the probability of achieving a number nearer the middle of the range is much higher than the probability of achieving a 2 or a 12. The potential range of outcomes starts to approximate a ‘normal distribution curve’ (or a bell curve). The reason for this is there is only one combination of numbers that will produce a 2 or a 12; there are significantly more combinations that can make 7.

The more dice you add to the ‘throw’, the closer the curve becomes to a ‘normal distribution’ (or bell curve), which is normally what you expect/get, which is the origin of the name!

The consequence of this phenomenon is to demonstrate that the creation of a portfolio of projects will have the effect of generating a normal distribution curve for the outcome of the overall portfolio, which makes the process of portfolio management a more certain undertaking than the management of the individual projects within the portfolio. The overall uncertainty is less than the individual uncertainties……

Each project carries its level of uncertainty and has a probability of succeeding off-set by a probability of failing (see Stakeholder Risk Tolerance) but as more projects are added the probability of the overall portfolio performing more or less as expected increases, provided each of the uncertainties are independent! This effect is known as the Central Limit Theorem.

One important effect of the Central Limit Theorem is the size if the contingency needed to achieve a desired level of safety for a portfolio of projects is much smaller than the sum of the contingencies needed to achieve the same level of ‘safety’ in each of the individual projects. Risk management is a project centric process; contingency management is better managed at the portfolio level. Not only is the overall uncertainty reduced, but the portfolio manager can offset losses in one project against gains in another.

Whist this theorem is statistically valuable, the nature of most organisations constrain the potential benefits. From a statistical perspective diversity is the key; this is why most conservative investment portfolios are diversified. However, project portfolios tend to be concentrated in the area of expertise of the organisation which removes some of the randomness needed for the Central Limit Theorem to have its full effect.

It is also important to remember that whilst creating a portfolio will reduce uncertainty, no portfolio can remove all uncertainty.

In addition to the residual risk of failure inherent in every project, there is always the possibility of a ‘black swan’ lurking in the future. Originally conceptualized by philosopher Karl Popper and refined by N. N. Taleb, a ‘black swan’ is a risk event that has never occurred before, if it did occur would have and extreme impact and is easy to explain after the event, but is culturally impossible to predict in advance (ie, the event could be foreseen if someone is asked to think about it but it is nearly impossible to think the thought for a compelling reason). For more on black swans see: http://mosaicprojects.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/black-swan-risks/ 

The Law of Averages

The Central Limit Theorem is closely aligned to The Law of Averages. The Law of Averages states that if you repeatedly take the average of the same type of uncertain number the average of the samples will converge to a single result, the true average of the uncertain number. However, as the ‘flaw of averages’ has demonstrated, this does not mean you can replace every uncertainty with an average and some uncertain numbers never converge.

Summary

Both the Law of Averages and Central Limit Theorem are useful concepts; they are the statistical equivalent of the adage “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. When you create a portfolio of projects, the average probability of any one project succeeding or failing remains the same as if the project was excluded from the portfolio, but the risk of portfolio suffering an overall failure becomes less as the number of projects included in the portfolio increases.

However, unlike physical laws such as gravity, these laws are not immutable – drop an apple within the earths gravitational pull and it will fall; create a portfolio and there is always a low probability that the results will not conform to normal expectations!

Certainly the probability of a portfolio of projects ‘failing’ is lower then the average probability of each project failing but a reduced level of risk still leaves a residual level of risk.


The 2012 Global Innovation Index

July 7, 2012

The 2012 Global Innovation Index has been launched by the INSEAD Business School. For the second year running that Switzerland, Sweden and Singapore are in the top three positions. The rest of the top ten this year are: Finland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Hong Kong (China), Ireland and the United States. Canada dropped out of the top ten this year, while the U.S. fell to tenth position from number seven last year.

New Zealand comes in at #13, with Australia 10 places behind at #23, a drop of 2 places from last year. The index directly links innovation to the creation of wealth so rankings matter!

To read the report, see: http://www.globalinnovationindex.org/gii/main/fullreport/index.html