The Augmented Project Manager

This article was originally published on our CIO Magazine blog, the Effective Enterprise.  After seeing recent industry presentations on bots, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), I see the application of these technologies changing the practice of project management. The question is, is this future desirable or will we have a choice?

The project manager role and the growing role of Artificial Intelligence

Much of the daily work of a project manager has not dramatically changed over the last 30 years. We may use different management methodologies, but we spend a great deal of time manually collecting and disseminating information between the various roles on a project. This effort directly results from the need to fill the information gaps caused by systems that can’t capture what is truly happening within the organization. In a recent PMI sponsored roundtable discussion, missing or incorrect data was highlighted as a significant issue. Today’s systems are totally dependent on human entry of information, where it can be nuanced or simply not entered.

The combination of artificial intelligence in the form of bots and cloud computing could radically change this situation. PM effectiveness would be dramatically enhanced and likely the need for some PM roles diminished. In the future, as data capture becomes richer and more automated, we may see new adviser services that arise from improved data quality and completeness. I foresee significant improvements in three key areas.

Planning

One of the black arts of project management is predicting the future, where we represent this future state as a new project plan. We draw upon our own domain and company experience to determine the steps, resources and time needed to accomplish the goal. Our success rate at predicting the future is not good. Our predictions are fraught with error due to the limits of our experience and that of the organization. If you’ve ever managed a project for something completely new to an organization, you are familiar with this situation.

Imagine if your scheduling bot generates a proposed project plan, based on the aggregated and anonymized experiences of similar sized companies doing the same type of project. Today, we use tools like Monte Carlo to simulate this information. The bot could incorporate real world data, potentially yielding better results.

Benchmarking of business data has been around for some time. These new cloud capabilities could see bench-marking expanded to include real-time project management data.

Resource allocation

Another common challenge of project managers is that of resource constraints. Imagine a world where your resource pool is the world and it’s as easy to use as Amazon.
We are seeing the continued growth of the freelance nation trend in corporations. Currently, corporations use agencies to locate and recruit talent. Agencies may simply be a stopgap as bots become a more efficient clearinghouse of freelancer information. Staff augmentation agencies could become obsolete.

For example, your resourcing bot determines that you need a social media expert on your project on April 5th for two days of work. It searches data sources like LinkedIn and your public cloud calendar to find a list of suitable and available candidates. Three are West Coast of the U.S., one is in Paris and one is in Sydney. It then automatically reaches out to these candidates with offers. If multiple people accept, it automatically manages the negotiation. Once complete, the planning bot is informed, a virtual desktop with requisite software is provisioned, user login credentials are generated and the specific task information is sent to them. When the job is complete and rated as satisfactory, the bot coordinates with your accounts payable system to pay the freelancer. The planning bot automatically updates the plan and pushes the data to the BI dashboards.

Tracking

Project feedback loops on work are awful. The largest challenge is incomplete data, which results from increasingly fragmented work days, limits of the worker’s memory and tools that rely on human input. It is also incomplete as it serves little benefit to the person entering the data.

Workers are overwhelmed with tasks arriving via multiple communication channels and no consolidated view.

Imagine a world where the time sheet is antiquated. Today, we have systems such as Microsoft Delve that know what content you’ve touched. We have IP-based communication systems that know what collaborations you’ve conducted. We have machine learning capabilities that can determine what you’ve discussed and the content of the documents you’ve edited. This week, we have facial recognition capabilities and other features that can track and interpret your movements. Given all of this, why is a time sheet necessary?

Professional athletes use this type of data in the competition setting to improve their performance, using the data feedback to spot areas of development. Combining this activity information could prove a boon to productivity.
I can see this working as a “Fitbit” type feedback loop that helps the worker be better at their job and allows them to get home on time. Doing so provides direct benefit to the employee and reduces the Big Brother feel of this data.

The personal bot acts as a personal assistant, reminding the worker of tasks mined from meeting notes and marking tasks as complete in real time. All the while, it is also keeping track of the time spent that enables to the worker to get a better picture of how they spent their time.

Brave new world

There are many challenges with the view I’ve presented above. Many of these challenges are the same faced when we automated and integrated procurement processes. It is also hard to deny that there is compelling opportunities to improve the worker lives as well. Bots, machine learning and artificial intelligence are reachable capabilities that should be incorporated in the PM toolbox as you plan your organization’s future work management needs.

I look forward to reading your viewpoints and experiences in the comments below.

 

 

The Benefit of One Simple Change in Project Online

What we typically do today.

This post is about what can be gained from making one simple change in your Resource Custom Field configuration. Many companies have an FTE Yes/No type resource custom field to distinquish between employees and contractors. This has been the approach for many years, as I see this many times in Project 2007/2010/2013 implementations.

A better approach.

I suggest using a Resource Company custom field instead. You would create a lookup table, Resource Companies, where you include the name of your company and the company names of all of your contractors. You then attach this lookup table to the new Resource Company custom field. Lastly, update the value for all resources, where FTEs are set to your company name and contractors are set to their individual company name.

So why do this?

This simple change creates richer data for reporting. For example, your vendor management team is in the process of renegotiating a contract with a specific vendor. That vendor is supplying a number of contractors across many projects. If you use this approach, the ability to extract how much work this vendor is doing and which projects are they working on is as easy as setting a simple filter.

For employees, you may even consider making the lookup value hierarchical, so that you can enable your company name.your division name reporting.

Are you using this approach today? If so, please share your experiences in the comments.

Use metadata to drive Microsoft Project reporting logic

The need to extract Microsoft Project Task level data in an efficient manner is growing as many Project Server and Project Online clients are creating Power BI models over this data. Unfortunately, many did not account for this BI need when creating their project template structures. This leads to Project template designs that make it difficult or impossible to extract usable data from the Project Server/Online data store.

Microsoft Project Task names should not drive meaning outside of the project team

One common issue is making the task names in your project template meaningful to needs outside of the project team. You might have standard task names for Finance or for the PMO for example.

If you have told your PMs that they cannot rename or add tasks to their plans, you have this issue. You have encoded information into the structure of the project plan. The issue is that this way of encoding makes it very difficult to extract data easily using tools like SSRS and Power BI.

We’ve seen this before, when Content Management Systems were new

This was a common problem early on in file systems and SharePoint implementations in the 90s and 00s. A few of you may remember when we had to adhere to these arcane file naming conventions so that we could find the “right” file.

For example, you had to name your meeting notes document using a naming convention like the following. Client X – Meeting Notes – 20010405 – Online.doc. If you accidentally added a space or misspelled something, everything broke.

Metadata, a better approach

With the advent of search, we were able to separate the data from the metadata. This encoding of metadata into the file name data structure went by the wayside. Instead, we now use metadata to describe the file by tagging it with consistent keywords. Search uses the tags to locate the appropriate content. We also do this today for nearly all Internet related content in hopes that Google and Bing will find it.

If we reimagine Project Business Intelligence as a specialized form of search, you see that the metadata approach works to ensure the right information can be found without encoding data into the project plan structure. There are many benefits to using this approach.

Example: Phase 1 tasks encoding before

For example, today I might have the following situation, where the phase information is encoded into the structure.

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Example: Phase 1 tasks encoding after

The metadata approach would yield the following structure instead.

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Metadata benefits

The biggest benefit is agility. If your business needs change, you can your data tagging strategy quickly without requiring restructuring all of the projects. You can roll out a new tagging strategy and the PMs can re-tag their plans in less than a day.

Another benefit is consistency. Using Phase and TaskID, I can extract the Phase 1 tasks consistently from across multiple projects. This also has the side effect of reducing the PMO’s auditing effots.

You can better serve the collaboration needs of the project team while still meeting the demands of external parties. Project plans are simply the notes of the latest state of the conversation between members of the project team. It is intended for servicing their communication and collaboration needs. The PM is now free to structure the plan to serve the needs of their project team. They simply have to tag the tasks accordingly, which is a minimal effort. These tags can be used to denote external data elements such as billable milestones, phase end dates, etc.

Lastly, the plan structure makes better sense to the team and is easier for them to maintain. Top level tasks become the things that they are delivering instead of some abstract process step. The task roll-up provides the health of and progress toward a specific deliverable.

How do I implement project metadata in Microsoft Project?

It requires three steps in Project Server/Online.

  1. Create a metadata value lookup table
  2. Create a task custom field (you may need more than one eventually, but start simple)
  3. Add this metadata field to your Gantt views for the PM to see and use

Note: Don’t use multi-value selection for this need as this creates complexities in the BI solution.

Below is an example of a lookup table created to support this metadata use. One use of it was to support a visualization of all implementation milestones for the next month across the portfolio. The query looked for all milestones with a Reporting Purpose equal to “Milestone.Implementation” to extract the appropriate milestones.

To create a task custom field and lookup table, please refer to this link for the details. Note, you can use the same approach in Microsoft Project desktop using Outline codes.

Metadata Lookup Table

The Reporting Purposes lookup table supports two levels of values. This enables multiple classes of tags, such as milestones and phases. This exercise focuses on the Milestone.Implementation value.

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Metadata Custom Field

Create the Reporting Purpose task custom field and attach it to the Reporting Purposes lookup table. Specify that Only allow codes with no subordinate values is selected. This prevents the user from selecting Milestones without selecting a more specific purpose.

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I hope you find this article useful. Please post questions and comments below.

Project Tasks are Your Lowest Priority

Project tasks are the lowest priority work you have on any given day. Wait, what?

It’s true! Strategically, we know project work is the most important future investment for the company. When you break down what you do every day, you’ll see that you are fitting in project work around the other work you have to do. It’s frustrating. You know you could be doing more. It’s frustrating because someone thought you had the time to get this work done.

If you don’t believe the premise, imagine the following scenario. You are staying late at the office to get some project work completed. Your manager’s manager sees that you are in the office, comes over, and asks you to do a task for tomorrow morning. If your answer is “I’m sorry, but I can’t because I really need to get this project work completed.”, their response will determine the relative priority of project work in your environment. For some, rejecting the task would be a career-limiting move.

Perhaps then, we are asking the wrong question when it comes to resource capacity management. Instead of asking whether this resource has free capacity to do the work, shouldn’t we be asking if the resource has enough consolidated free time to work on project work? If they do not, what can we do to remedy this situation?

In my “Done in 40” webinar, we discussed recent research by time-tracking software companies that identified how the top 10% of productive employees work in an agile fashion. These employees typically work 52 minutes and take a 17 minute break away from the work.  This is coherent with ultradian body rhythms studies from the 90’s and 00’s that showed your focus naturally waxes and wanes on a 1.5-2 hour schedule. These work sprints can make you very productive and help reduce mistakes and rework.

I’ve personally tried the sprint approach and I can say, it works well for me. I use a timer app on my Pebble watch to monitor my sprints. Fifty minutes is roughly the time where the mind starts wandering to “Did Joe ever respond to my email?” or “Is there coffee?”. Three sprints enable the top three daily tasks to get done easily.

The catch is you need to have 69 uninterrupted minutes to complete a personal sprint. This leads us back to the question of does a resource have consolidated availability? Yes, they have 3 hours available that day but if it’s in 15 minute increments, that’s not usable.

When a client with project throughput issues engages my services, I find it’s usually not a project management issue. Many times, the lack of consolidated availability is preventing the project work from happening. If you are interrupted every 10 minutes, as are most office workers in the United States, it’s very hard to get work done. If you are having issues getting projects through the pipe, perhaps it’s time to look beyond your projects and to your operational work processes.

We spend the majority of our energy providing oversight and processes to projects, which are a minority of the work instead of doing the same for operational work. McKinsey released a white paper recently that showed most of the operational spend goes to keeping the company running. New projects are a small portion of the overall effort. Yet, we don’t monitor operational work holistically the way we do projects. Perhaps, its time we start.

Project management processes are very helpful and needed. We’ve worked out how to anticipate and reduce risk and how to deliver the reward. We need to apply these approaches to how we manage all work. It’s the operational work that provides the overall context within which we do our project work. If improperly managed, it also constricts our ability to get our project work done. Operational work management improvements could yield the biggest benefit by enabling the consolidation of availability, yielding more usable time for project work.

If you are interested in finding out more about the specific techniques and how to use Microsoft Project to support this need, sign up here and get the recording link to the full “Done In 40” webinar.