Thursday, January 30, 2014

Small Projects and Big Programs

The Standish Group’s CHAOS 2013 Report has some interesting things to say about what is driving software development project success today. More projects are succeeding (39% in 2012, up from 29% in 2004), mostly because projects are getting smaller (which also means more projects done using Agile, since small projects are the sweet spot for Agile):

“Very few large projects perform well to the project management triple constraints of cost, time, and scope. In contrast to small projects, which have more than a 70% chance of success, a large project has virtually no chance of coming in on time, on budget, and within scope… Large projects have twice the chance of being late, over budget, and missing critical features…. A large project is more than 10 times more likely to fail outright, meaning it will be cancelled or will not be used because it outlived its useful life prior to implementation.”

So don’t run large projects. Of course it’s not that simple: many problems, especially in enterprises, are much too big to be solved by small teams in small projects. Standish Group says that you can get around this if you “Think Big, Act Small”:
“…there is no need for large projects… any IT project can be broken into a series of small projects that could also be done in parallel if necessary.”

Anything that can be done in one big project can obviously be done in a bunch of smaller projects. You can make project management simple – by pushing the hard management problems and risks up to the program level.

Program Management isn't Project Management

Understanding and orchestrating work across multiple projects isn’t as simple as breaking a big project down into small projects and running them independently. Managing programs, managing horizontally across projects, is different than managing projects. There are different risks, different problems to be solved. It requires different skills and strengths, and a different approach.

PMI recognizes this, and has a separate certification for Program Managers (PgMP). Program management is more strategic than project management. Program Managers are not just concerned with horizontal and cross-project issues, coordinating and managing interdependencies between projects – managing at scale. They are also responsible for understanding and helping to achieve business goals, for managing organizational risks and political risks, and they have to take care of financing and contracts and governance: things that Agile coaches running small projects don’t have to worry much about (and that Agile methods don’t help with).

Agile and Program Management

The lightweight tools and practices that you use to successfully coach an Agile team won’t scale to managing a program. Program management needs all of those things that traditional, plan-driven project management is built on. More upfront planning to build a top-down roadmap for all of the teams to share: project teams can’t be completely free to prioritize work and come up with new ideas on the fly, because they have to coordinate handoffs and dependencies. Architecture and technology strategy. More reporting. Working with the PMO. More management roles and more management. More people to manage. Which = more politics.

Johanna Rothman talks a little bit about program management in her book Managing Your Project Portfolio, and has put up a series of blog posts on Agile and Lean Program Management as work in progress for another book she is writing on program management and Agile.

Rothman looks at how to solve problems of organization in programs using the Scrum of Scrums hierarchy (teams hold standups, then Scrum Masters have their own standups together every day to deal with cross-program issues). Because this approach doesn't scale to handle coordination and decision making and problem solving in larger programs, she recommends building loose networks between projects and teams using Communities of Practice (a simple functional matrix in which architects, testers, analysts, and especially the Product Owners in each team coordinate continuously with each other across teams).

Rothman also looks at the problems of coordinating work on the backlog between teams, and evolving architecture, and how Program Managers need to be Servant Leaders and not care what teams do or how they do it, only about the results.

Rothman believes that Program Managers should establish and maintain momentum from the beginning of the program. Rather than taking time upfront to initiate and plan (because, who actually needs to plan a large, complex program?!), get people learning how to work together from the start. Release early, release often, and keep work in progress to a minimum – the larger the program, the less work in progress you should have. Finally she describes some tools that you could use to track and report progress and provide insight into a program’s overall status, and explains how and why they need to be different than the tools used for projects.

There are some ideas here that make sense and would probably work, and some others that don’t - like skipping planning.

Get Serious about Program Management

A more credible and much more comprehensive approach for managing large programs in large organizations would be one of the heavyweight enterprise Agile hybrids: the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) or Disciplined Agile Delivery which take Agile ideas and practices and envelop them inside a structured, top-down governance-heavy process/project/program/portfolio management framework based on the Rational Unified Process. But now you’re not trying to manage and coordinate small, simple Agile projects any more, you’re doing something quite different, and much more expensive.

The most coherent and practical framework I have seen for managing programs is laid out in Executing Complex Programs, a course offered by Stanford University, as part of its Advanced Project Management professional development certificate.

This framework covers how to manage distributed cross-functional and cross-organizational teams in global environments; managing organizational and political and logistical and financial risks; and modeling and understanding and coordinating the different kinds of interdependencies and interfaces between projects and teams (shared constraints and resources, APIs and shared data, hand-offs and milestones and drop-dead dates, experts and specialists…) in large, complex programs. The course explores case studies using different approaches, some Agile, some not, some in high reliability / safety critical and regulated environments. This should give you everything that you need to manage a program effectively.

You can and should make projects simpler and smaller – which means that you’ll have to do more program management. But don’t try to get by at the program level with improvising and iterating and leveraging the same simple techniques that have worked with your teams. Nothing serious gets done outside of programs. So take program management seriously.

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