Category: strategy

Project Governance

Project Governance

Project governance is a waste of time. That’s what I used to think. Rules for the sake of rules, and no practical point to them. Governance just gets in the way of project delivery. That’s what I thought.

And in a small company with limited oversight, and a tiny IT department with only a handful of stakeholders, it was possible to implement projects with only basic governance as long as the plans were sound, and properly communicated. And there’s the rub. Once you start to work in a larger organisation with complex reporting and many stakeholders, as well as a requirement to prove that the project has been run under proper control, it becomes patently clear that the “small company” way of doing things simply cannot work. Worse that that, these “light touch” processes are scarily dangerous in a large organisation, putting the organisation and the project at risk – and by extension, the project delivery organisation too. Yes, I am a convert to proper governance processes.

So, it I have changed my tune over the past few years, what in particular do I now do differently?

  • Documentation: In a big, geographically diverse organisation, effective communication is not possible without proper documentation. The spoken word gets lost, or mis-heard, or misinterpreted. Or forgotten. Or ignored. You need to write down what you want, what you need, what you have done, and why you did it. And make sure you are not the only person who can find the documentation!
  • Formal reporting: In a big company, the management tiers are far more extensive than in a small one. Consequently, you can’t rely on “bumping into the bosses in the corridor” to let them know how the project is going. Write it down, and pass it on.
  • Proper change management: It’s not enough to agree to a change, because if you do, and you have not kept all of the stakeholders informed, some of them won’t know about the agreement. And they will therefore continue on their merry way, in blissful ignorance. That’s bad enough if you are the instigator of the change. But what about those occasions when the change is done to you, rather than by you, and you don’t hear about it until you have wasted days or weeks of your time following the wrong track? Not a pleasant thought, so do as you would be done by!
  • Scope of work: This applies to the total scope of the project, and each person or team’s individual role within it. All too often, scope grows without control, or responsibilities are not clearly defined and “willing horses” end up agreeing to take on actions that should lie with others. Either way, good quality governance processes protect the project from uncontrolled bloat – and hence cost and time overruns – or from blame being levelled at the wrong people when things go wrong. I’m not advocating the “blame game” – far from it – but I am all in favour of protecting the innocent and ensuring that each person knows what he or she is responsible for.

So, these are just my basic reasons for using proper governance, and they make perfect sense to me, now that I have worked in teams of more than a handful of people. So, in a small company, should I ever find myself in that environment again, would I do things differently? Oh yes. Most certainly. Governance would certainly be improved, and so would a lot of the planning and control that tended to be done almost as an afterthought.

Oh dear… how the last three years in the bank have changed me!

Iain Millar, 02 December 2014

Social Media as a tool

Social Media as a tool

My daughter has just spent a weekend organising a big social event that will be at the heart of her University’s “Rag Week”, along with half a dozen other students. I have to say that I was highly impressed with her commitment, her practical approach, and the amount of attention to detail that has gone into the event. If her customers – the other students who will attend the event – don’t enjoy it, it won’t be for lack of effort by the organising committee.

This project – and make no mistake, it is a reasonably sized project for a bunch of students to manage – has been run almost entirely using social media to share ideas, let each other know about progress, ask (and answer) questions, and generally make sure that everything is going as it should. There have been no communication breakdowns, no lost documents, and no gaps in the information flow. And very few phone calls, and even fewer meetings. Yet everything is being done, and the leader of the group knows exactly what stage everything has reached, what the financial picture looks like, and is confident that the deadline will be met. Let’s face it, there’s no point in being a day late with the words that will be projected onto the walls for the singalong numbers…!

I have been involved in project management for a lot of years, and I have seldom seen a better run project. There are a few reasons for this, not least of which is the fact the entire teams wants to be part of the project. However, one of the key contributing factors has been their creation of a Facebook group that they use for pretty well everything to do with the project. No matter where they are, they can be in touch through the group, using their laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. No-one else has access to the group, and they can – and do – access it at any time. Most companies would bite your hand off if you could offer them the level of commitment and effectiveness that my daughter and her friends have achieved. But what stops them? Well, I would say that one factor is that companies don’t make it easy for their employees to interact. When in the office, there may be collaboration tools and communication facilities, but no-one wants to have to log into a company’s secure area to pass on an idea that occurred to you during News at Ten. Far better to be able to use the tools that you were already using to discuss the football scores with your non-work mates, and just flip between pages on screen. And there’s the rub.

Until companies can be convinced that social media is sufficiently secure, they won’t allow employees to use these systems. And even if they can be convinced about the security, there is still the matter of trust. They need to trust their employees to use the facilities responsibly, without wasting their working time chatting with their leisure-time friends and relations. And employees, in return, need to be prepared to commit to acting responsibly, and to avoid abusing the freedom that they are being granted – and that’s not going to be a given for everyone. So there are big issues to be overcome to let most companies benefit from the facilities that already exist “out there” in consumer-land.

I have seen the way that a bunch of students, children of the communications age, have used social media, in ways that I would not have envisaged even a couple of years ago. They do it instinctively, and even then they are probably only scratching the surface of what is possible. The key, as I see it, is that they are able to work and play using the same tools, without having to really think about which they are doing at any given time. Those of us who are a little older should take a lesson from these kids, and find ways to make it possible for them to work in their unstructured, collaborative, innovative ways as they move out of student life and into working life. Because if we don’t, our competitors will, and that’s where the talent will migrate to. Clever people have been saying this for a while now, but I have now seen the future, and it is nearly here.

Iain Millar, 12 February 2012

Spreadsheets – Love / Hate Relationship

Spreadsheets – Love / Hate Relationship

I’m not sure whether I love spreadsheets or hate them.

On the one hand, as the person responsible for data security in a number of organisations in the past, they gave me some real worries about data being misused, abused, or misplaced. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who extract data from live systems, dump it into spreadsheets, and then use that data for months without ever checking that it remains current. Others would happily drop personal data into spreadsheets without ever thinking of the implications of data protection legislation.

On the other hand, though, despite the downsides, I imagine there are very few companies that don’t use spreadsheets very widely indeed. And there’s the rub. Many people who use them don’t really know much about their full capabilities, or understand how to develop them for maximum business benefit. That’s a sweeping statement, and I know that there are some real experts around. But I stand by my assertion that they are in the minority, based on my observations over a long time.

Confession time now. I actually enjoy developing spreadsheets, and over the years I have created some that I have been rather proud of. Some have been deceptively simple in concept but have been really tricky to put together, while others have been very impressive to look at, but really quite trivial to develop. Either way, I always try to think of the design and the usabilty as well as the functionality of the finished product, and I also like to make the spreadsheets “bulletproof” so that they are difficult to break. I did produce one recently where I didn’t follow that last principle, as it evolved over time, and I never intended it to be used by others, but the inevitable happened. I finished my part of the project and had to hand the spreadsheet over to someone else. I did explain the consequences of “fiddling” with it, and to date there has been no comeback…

Now the commercial: If you need a spreadsheet developed in Excel, but don’t have the time, the skills, or the inclination to do it yourself, give me a call. I’d be happy to consider your needs and discuss what it would take to build a solid, reliable solution to solve a business problem. If I don’t think that a spreadsheet would be the right way to proceed, I will be honest with you, and even suggest alternatives. Give me a call or send me an email. My contact details areĀ on the “Contacts” page of this site!

Iain Millar, 7 October 2011

Everything as a Service

Everything as a Service

I have been intrigued by the various trends that have swept through the IT industry over the years. Just about every single one has promised to reduce the cost of ownership, increase the speed of delivery, and allow businesses to concentrate on their core purpose. We have seen outsourcing, insourcing, and offshoring. Open source has barged onto the scene, and proprietary systems have fought back. Processing power has been pushed out to the desktop, and now virtualisation is re-inventing the mainframe. Client devices have been thick and thin, data has been personal and corporate, and databases have been centralised and distributed. No wonder businesses are confused – the IT industry doesn’t seem to have a consistent view on how to deliver IT services!

The latest model seems to be “Everything as a Service” – and that’s a term that Hewlett Packard is already using. “Software as a Service” (SaaS) is widely available, at least in some environments, and “Platforms as a Service” (PaaS) are emerging. Expect to hear about Hardware, Computing, Security and Middleware as a Service, if you have not already come across them. Could these be the magic bullets that sort out every business’s technology problems once and for all?

The answer could be both “yes” and “no”.

Why “yes”? Research consultancies are beginning to acknowledge that there are real benefits in using these models, as long as it is done in the right way, and for the right reasons. These technologies are fully capable of delivering what they promise, and they can be a very effective way of supplying a service. But they don’t run the business, and they can’t make fundamental business decisions – and that’s where the “no” applies.

It may be stating the obvious, but IT should only exist in a business to help the business to operate more effectively or more efficiently. It is also true that some businesses are so dependent on computer systems that they couldn’t function in the absence of technology, but even in such organisations, the technology in isolation is not the business. It is an enabler. Hopefully, the business will exist long after today’s (and tomorrow’s) technology has moved on.

What is important is the separation between the WHAT and the HOW. Once you know WHAT you want your systems to do, you can consider the options for HOW they will do it – and then you should expect this to trigger further thoughts about the WHAT. Deciding what to buy will almost certainly be an iterative, circular process, rather than a linear one, and throughout the process you need to remain focused on the costs, the benefits, the risks, and the impact of whatever change you are contemplating. At some point you will be ready to make a decision… and when that time comes, don’t delay. Make that decision, and then get on with implementing whatever you have chosen. Just be sure that you know what you are committing to, before you sign on the bottom line. And don’t follow fashion just because it is fashionable: make an informed decision, be flexible, and make your technology work for you.


Iain Millar, 27 January 2011

Theme: Overlay by Kaira Please look after the environment!
Livingston, Scotland