Saturday, February 8, 2014

Is Everything OK?

Is everything ok? I have asked this question in several occasions to my project teams. And the answer? You can guess.  A consistent yes. However, whenever I stopped at this question and moved forward to do something else, unknowingly I joined the club of optimists and assumed that everything was ok! Do you ask, “Is everything ok?” to your team member or project manager? What do you do next? Read on.
Once I was managing multiple projects and each project had a project lead – in case of small projects or a project manager – in case of large projects.  I met project leads and project managers once every week to understand the status. Each project lead or project manager would prepare a status report for their respective project.  Our 60-minute meeting to review five or six projects with a slide deck of 3 to 4 slides per project happened every week.
In our first two or three meetings, I noticed that 80% of the time was consumed by 20% of the projects and our meetings were not structured enough.  Later we decided to have 2 slides per project in our presentation. Each project lead or project manager would provide quick summary of the status followed by issues, risks, defect status and stop there for questions.  It helped.  I mean, it helped in covering all projects in 60 minutes.  I addition to these meetings, I would walk around couple of times a week to stay in touch with our teams and know if everything was ok!
Four months later we came across a big surprise.  The status of one of our projects became very critical or red. The project manager of this project needed one more month to bring things under control. That was a big shock!  I went back to my deck and had a relook at all the previous status reports of the project. This project was in green throughout all weeks and there were no alerts or surprises! And whenever I asked ‘Is everything ok? , the answer was ‘yes’.  And yes, I was optimistic as well and did not ask any leading questions.
Leading questions? Yes. Do not stop at ‘Is everything ok?’  Ask leading questions.
Here are some examples.
  1. ‘I read your emails on the issues related to installing the components.  Is there a progress? How did you resolve the issues?’
  2. ‘I went through the issue tracker. There were two or three pending issues. Do you need some help?’
  3. ‘You stayed late yesterday. What was the issue?  Can you tell me about it?’
  4. ‘We had a network outage or couple of hours today. How has it impacted your work?’
  5. ‘I approved Alan’s leave request yesterday. He is going to be away from work for a week. How are we managing his absence? What is the impact on our schedule?’
In his research paper titled ‘Social and Technical Reasons for Software Project Failures’, Caper Jones says,
One of the most common sources of friction between corporate executives and software managers is the social issue that software project status reports are not accurate or believable. In case after case, monthly status reports are optimistic that all is on schedule and under control until shortly before the planned delivery when it is suddenly revealed that everything was not under control and another six months may be needed.
Next time when you prepare or read a status report, watch out!
Through this post, I am not asking you probe deep or micro manage always. Meanwhile I am not encouraging you to stop at ‘Is everything ok?’  You need to ask open ended questions to understand what is going on. Those questions must exhibit your genuine interest and support. Those questions must provide you meaningful insights.
Do you create or consume accurate status reports? What questions do you ask? Share your thoughts here.
Before I end this post, let me ask you something.
Is everything ok?