CXO

Stealth PM: Learning from your mistakes

Your work is just beginning when the project ends. These tips on reviewing project successes and failures will help improve your project management strategy.


If your shop doesn't support the use of formal project management, you will have to independently and informally tap into PM resources to manage projects. One of the best ways to develop these internal resources is by using stealth project management to adopt a diligent process of self-assessment at the end of every project.

Catch up on stealth PM
This article is part 3 of a series on stealth project management. Part 1 deals with strategies for launching a stealth PM plan and part 2 covers ways to stay on track using stealth PM.

Formal project management techniques include processes for recording lessons learned and for conducting a formal group post-project review. You can meet the need for review by using stealth PM to hold an informal review.

Depending on your company's culture—and the degree of autonomy you have—you should decide how to best plan the review. Make arrangements to free up a day to work on your assessment of how the project worked and what you would do differently, knowing what you know now. I’ve planned the review by working at home for the day, by putting a sign on my door that says “busy—go away”, and by booking myself into a conference room for an all-day meeting.

The document review
Begin the review by going through all the files you’ve saved. Normally, these will consist of project schedules, e-mails, and various working documents. Your goal here is to make a list of documents you needed to create to successfully complete the project. Review each document on the list to determine if it was valuable (it aided in the success of the project), required (it was a necessary compliance activity in the company), or only a waste of time. It’s a good idea to jot down your comments as you review the documents. Over time, you may find that a certain type of document was necessary for one project but unneeded on another.

The schedule review
Next, compare your project plans with what actually happened. Again, the format of this review is an issue of personal style. One place to start might be to save a copy of the project schedule as a spreadsheet and add comments to that. You could also record a list of any significant changes that happened to the schedule into a document. This analysis should produce information on these key factors:
  • The extent of the change between your initial vision and the completed schedule.
  • How many of those changes were you able to effortlessly accommodate and how many were wrenching in their impact—and why? What would you do differently?
  • What went wrong? Did you see it coming? Were there warning signs you missed?
  • Was the overall schedule a good tool? How did you use it (a tracking tool, a planning tool, a graphical presentation for management)? What would you do differently?

The staff review
Think through their individual personalities, contributions, and problems. This step is not intended to be a personnel review (though preparing e-mails to thank people for exceptional contributions is always a good thing to do while you’re thinking about it). The goal here is to see what general lessons you can learn about people who worked on the project. Very often, the most common lesson learned is a renewed commitment to listen more closely to the voice in your head that warns that someone isn’t right for the team. You need to understand that technical excellence seldom outweighs the problems caused by team dissension.

You should also make a few notes about what lesson you learned from every person on the team. With a small team, there ought to be one from everyone. If you come up with nothing for a certain person, you need to ask yourself how you failed in your role as manager. You may uncover a personality conflict that you may have been avoiding. Another possibility is that the person was shy or withdrawn, and you never made the effort to find out how the team member could best contribute.

The communications review
The next step is looking through all project-related e-mails. With whom did you communicate most frequently and what was it about? In formal project management, one of the recommended processes is to make a communication plan—obviously, a stealth project management strategy lacks a formal communication plan. But after project completion it’s possible to compare what you had consciously planned to do with what you actually did. Did you hear from stakeholders you hadn’t expected to hear from? How often did you send e-mails giving updates on the most crucial risk(s) facing the project? Make notes of what you find and then see what further conclusions or analysis you should do as a result.

For example, if a lot of your e-mails had to do with handling a particular risk you should ask yourself if there was anything you could have done differently to minimize the risk earlier in the project and if your approach and techniques were appropriate. Very often, in an environment that requires stealth project management, identifying too many risks too early in the process and then communicating those risks to management can be a very bad idea. Some companies work on the philosophy that they’ll handle things only when they become a problem. Remember, the purpose of this review is to not only help you improve your own skills but also to help you recognize where your company can improve its processes. Later you may be able to nudge the company into an improvement process.

Reviewing the project diary
If you’ve kept a project diary, you should also spend a few minutes reviewing what you’ve written. The style and format of a diary is another decision that is based on personal choice. You can choose from inexpensive shareware diary programs, shareware programs that expand the functionality of Outlook’s journal, time-tracking software and general purpose, personal database software such as Info Select from Micro Logic. The purpose behind a project diary is multi-faceted; it serves as a historical record and is also a place where you can record your insights as the project unfolds.

The NewGrange Center for Project Management (a non-profit Web-based project management organization) offers information on the five-minute e-mail. The thought behind the e-mail strategy is based on the fact that, as project managers, we learn something new or encounter a problem we’re not sure how to handle every day. You can develop, over time, a true record of project management by reporting these insights and issues in real time. At NewGrange, these insights form the basis of some lively discussions and offer a learning experience based on input from a variety of people. The same observations, entered into your own project diary, provide a record of the events and insights gained. The strategy should help you do a self-assessment.

The Personal SWOT review
Now is the time to mentally stand back from all the details and do an objective assessment of the project and your own strengths and weaknesses in managing it. Whether you write down your assessment or just think it through in your head is up to you. The advantage of writing it down is that in the future you will be able to review your conclusions and update them from the perspective of increasing experience. For example, 22 years ago, when I ran my first worldwide project, I would have given myself high marks for some things and low marks for others. One of the low marks would have been on how I handled some of the really thorny political issues the project created. Knowing what I know now, I’d still give myself low marks for politics—because in hindsight, I see how many significant political issues I missed. My lesson learned at the time was that I needed to become more astute in handling politics. My lesson learned today would be that the only reason I survived was because I was too young to be perceived as a political threat to the “political players” in the organization and because I had extremely strong sponsorship from executive management. Both of these insights are correct as far as they go, and both of them are important as signposts along the way to what Peter Senge calls “personal mastery”.

Once your review is finished, copy all the files to an archive disk. Stealth project management works most efficiently if, over time, you’ve got all your forms and personal, little processes well documented to provide a starting point for your next project.

The feedback review
The next step in your personal project post mortem is to arrange to get feedback from as many people as you can without making waves. This strategy can be accomplished over the phone or at lunch with the people you know will be happy to talk to you. This process might take you a month or longer to complete, since your goal is to be subtle in your approach to the topic. After each conversation, make a note of individual thoughts on the project and any new or additional insights you’ve gained.

Since this process is best kept informal and below the radar, you won’t be getting any direct feedback from your detractors. But you can gain insight by listing five positive reasons why the individual you had a conflict with behaved the way she did. If the problem staffer is focused solely on the pursuit of her personal power, you may not be able to list five acceptable reasons for the behavior. But the list can be useful as a point of comparison. In my experience, when you encounter a truly power-hungry person you are less quick to judge and more open minded in your assessments of other people who honestly see the situation differently than you do.

A personal project post mortem can be done in any situation and doesn’t really need to be reserved for an environment where stealth project management is required. The whole process will normally take about 10 to 20 hours of your time (one 4-to-8-hour block and then a few lunches and a few phone calls).

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