Month: January 2011

Project management tool threatens “central planners”

In the rebellion of the business users, in which top-down gets tipped over, even stodgy old project management is coming alive.

“Most of the decisions made in project management,” says Liquid Planner CEO Charles Seybold, “happen under the surface.” He’s now trying to win over the people who work on projects but haven’t run many of them. He’s using transparency and collaboration.

Liquid Planner, the cloud-based insurgent — “a Wikipedia for projects” — has its roots in Seybold’s experience organizing Expedia’s first project management office. Every time the 40 or so projects under his watch got rolled up, he says, there was “a new distortion of reality.” He had become frustrated with the usual tools. Finally, he and his team decided they had to start over.

Today, Liquid Planner discards a lot of project management fixtures, such as fixed start and finish dates. In their place, it uses ranges and “probabilistic scheduling.” That’s actually how people think, isn’t it? Other old habits are “percent complete” and “earned value,” both of which I’ve found laughable.

The tool also doesn’t allow overloading, by which team members are booked for more than 100 percent of their time. And the tool forces decisions on priority, making just one thing a first priority and not several.

Liquid Planner fights cynicism and standoffs with transparency. In a typical project, team members provide data — such as estimates, actual hours worked, re-estimates, and risk assessments — to a project manager, who a week or two later issues a schedule that can’t be traced back to the raw data. Hidden within that opaque but official schedule are broad assumptions about risk and uncertainty.

Team members have lost control but are still held responsible. So they respond however they can, he says, typically with covert adjustments within each one’s area. Team members and project managers then get locked in a hostile negotiation in which neither side can safely share information.

Seybold often hears from project managers who really don’t think team members should have a say. “Way too many [project managers] act like keeping team members in the dark is the right thing,” he says. “We hear this when people ask us to obscure and lock down information that, as far as we can tell, can only benefit team members.”

He’s busy now working on an iPad app, which he wants to make as functional as the cloud-based application. He’d like to see project managers be “100 percent mobile.”

New data analysts and teenage love

Search all the business literature you can and you’ll never find data analysis compared to romantic love. But, hey, why not? Love’s trajectories might hint at what the business world’s newly enabled generation of data analysts can expect.

These data analysts tend to be independent, are often creative and at least partly self-trained. They’re strapped to rockets from Tableau, Lyzasoft, Predixion, and others, tools that are at first deceptively toy-like. Aren’t they analogous to the garden variety teenager? Bothg groups revel in newly discovered tools, while both pursuits are fundamentally social — as Lyzasoft CEO Scott Davis observes about data analysis. His blog post got me thinking about this.

Everyone shows up ready to rumble. They’re fascinated with the possibilities, they experiment in private, later they have a blush of quick results followed by a long trail of self-training on finer points.

Each group’s toolset is potent and designed for early success but never early mastery. They make lots of mistakes. In love and analysis, people fall for the wrong data, mess up good data and dates, do all kinds of things they wish they hadn’t.

Without realizing, they face danger. I’ve noticed that behind most good trends comes a rotten sibling right behind it. Think of the history of other social events: Hippies begat the Summer of Love and then came Altamont. We celebrated “free love” and then came a surge of sexually transmitted diseases. Baseball begat the World Series and then came batters on steroids. PageMaker begat self-publishing but then came the ugliest lost-cat posters ever tacked on a telephone pole.

You may already wish that bad analysis would go away. Pete Warden, for one, warns of some fabulous ways people trip over new data. We could easily call this stuff “data porn” and ignore it.

But there are even more treacherous pitfalls. These potent tools can change everything in a flash (at the “speed of thought”). One minute you’re in orbit, and the next minute you wish you were dead. With sex comes the hazard of a painful breakup, and with data analysis comes the danger of unwanted speech that’s too hot for any public platform. Oops!

We have ways to deal with all that, but it’s never pleasant. The rejected lover picks up and leaves, and the analyst just finds his creative viz zapped off the cloud — by those who are themselves learning a new role.

The lover and the analyst both feel hurt, perhaps betrayed. Wasn’t each playing by the rules? Wasn’t each part of the group? Suddenly each one feels rejected for reasons that a hasty explanation doesn’t quite calm the hurt feelings.

In hindsight, we realize we shouldn’t have been surprised. Social pursuits can be like this.

By the way, who said good tools were the end of the story? Well, most vendors did. Some teenagers think so, too. But even slightly more advanced users know that technical proficiency is only the price of entry. We do the real work in many long conversations and collaborations with words, data, gestures, misunderstandings and reconciliations, and on and on.

Here the analogy breaks. The tools will keep getting better while the bodies fall apart. But the lesson’s the same: Tools enable, but conversation — better known in the business world as collaboration — is really at the heart of our work.

CIO Insight’s monument to redundancy

What drove 39 tweeters to endorse CIO Insight’s latest monument to redundancy? I wonder how many actually read it all. I could hardly reach the first period before fatigue set in.

The blog post titled “Gartner: CIO as Business Transformation Leader,” dated November 1 and promoted on CIO Insight’s email blast last week, begins with an admonishment to CIOs: “it’s time” that they plan to emerge as a “change leader.” OK, but shouldn’t any CIO know that already?

Ten questions follow, including “What type of change is happening?,” “What is the deadline for the change?,” and “What are the constraints …?” followed by explanation and the most basic of advice. Anyone but undergraduate business students should have heard it all before.

It all takes up 1,312 words when the same ideas could have been expressed in half that. What makes people think this stuff is worth a tweet?

What would Machiavelli do? Frank Buytendijk wants to know

One of the most interesting people in the wide world of information technology — Frank Buytendijk — has been hard to keep up with lately. OK, you know about his recent book. But his blog is something else, and he’s moved it again. Active minds can be like that.

Now over at BeyeNetwork, he introduces the subject of his next book, tentatively titled The Machiavellian CIO (… and other essays on how the old philosophers would view modern themes in business and IT).

What would the old philosophers have said if they would have been confronted with modern themes in IT? An ideal theme indeed. It allows me to speculate wildly on a number of topics, and blame people that have been dead for hundreds of years (at least most of them). What are they going to do? Argue with me? Unlikely.

He wants you to do what Plato can’t: argue with him. Go argue here.