Five Elements for Creating a Healthy Project Culture | TechWell

Five Elements for Creating a Healthy Project Culture

Glen Alleman analyzed the sources behind the problems plaguing the Healthcare.gov site, and the list looks like it would set up any large, complex IT project for failure. In addition to the biggest issue—that there was no overall program manager—there also was no way for stakeholders to know what done looks like, no release criteria, and no replanning.

It's important to create a healthy project culture. If that requires someone whose title is “project manager” or “agile project manager” to steer the project or program, that’s fine—but to steer, not to control.

In a serial or phase gate project, you need someone with a title like that because the discipline is in the project manager, not in the team. It’s a hierarchical approach to managing projects. You can still create a healthy project culture.

The first steps to creating a healthy project culture are evaluating where you are and replanning. I have yet to meet a project that does not require replanning. Every project needs built-in feedback more often rather than less. Rolling wave planning helps you build in feedback. It does not create the illusion that you have a path and you will stick to it no matter what. It promotes transparency because you say, “Here’s where we are. There’s where we want to be. How do we get there from here?” It’s a tool that works.

Here are what I consider to be elements of a healthy project culture:

  1. Team members are honest about where they are and about where they want to go. This is encapsulated in a project (or program) charter, with the vision, the project drivers, and release criteria.
  2. There is a visible project state. Cumulative flow, velocity charts that are burnups, and demos show your project state. A phase gate project can deliver these measurements. You need to see your project state so you can change direction if you’re not where you want to be.
  3. Project teams are working on only one project at a time so they can maintain project flow.
  4. A servant leader collaborates with the project team (or, in the case of a program, all the project teams and the core team) to facilitate everyone delivering their pieces.
  5. People can ask questions and speak up about risks.

On a small project, you don't necessarily need a servant leader. It depends on the project team. But on a large program, you do—it’s risk management.

If I’m the project or program manager and it’s getting toward the end of the project, I might not want to hear the risks. But I do want to hear them before we release. If I’m trying to meet an immovable date, I should have been developing with all of those qualities such as performance, reliability, and security in mind from the beginning.

In a healthy project culture, people work together to accomplish the goal. They know where they want to go. They know what done means. They do some work. They see where they are, they replan, they repeat.

With a healthy project culture, it doesn’t matter what approach—phase gate, iterative, incremental, or agile—the team uses. Without a healthy project culture, they are doomed.

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