Learning from experience: the value of tried and true

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If you’ve seen my previous post “How is baking macaroons like a software project”, then you may remember my rather frustrating experience of doing something without preparation and foreplanning. This time, I’ve decided to be more in control and picked a recipe that has been tried and true in our family. It was an enjoyable baking activity with eager and confident participation from my kids. So I thought it would be appropriate to write a follow-up to the macaroon story – to reflect on satisfaction we can have from running a well-planned project with a strong performing team.

To give you some background, we don’t bake regularly – it is often a result of some external drivers. It may be a school baking project, a special occasion, extra bananas past their prime that need to be utilized, or a discovery that I forgot to buy snacks. So I consider baking a project that requires planning, resources and a scope of work to be defined.

Sometimes organizations undertake initiatives that require a change, however they are not called “projects” for various reasons, e.g. when the initiative is using existing resources and “brown dollars” and doesn’t require special budget. Just like official projects, such initiatives and changes are also not always successful and may suffer from delays, unclear requirements, miscommunications and gaps discovered late in the game.

Implementing any non-trivial change to the business system could benefit from being managed as a project. Even if not tracking budget, basic project management practices could help make the change successful.

Here are some basics:

  • Ensure scope aligns to business goals
  • Get stakeholder agreement on scope
  • Ensure all impacted stakeholders are involved or informed
  • Establish communication strategy for the change
  • Plan the work, create and communicate the timeline for all activities
  • Understand dependencies and constraints
  • Estimate required resources and secure them
  • Track the task execution and mitigate risks
  • Manage and communicate change, train everyone impacted by change

* * *

Let me go back to my chocolate bites. The plan was made in the morning, so I did check whether I had all ingredients. One item that I don’t always have is baker’s chocolate squares, so no point starting baking without checking.

Do not start a project assuming that what you need will be available, especially if it is a special scarce resource. Whether it’s a SME, consultant, or integration testing window, do not just hope – check to ensure it will be available when you need it.

* * *

The other success factor that I craved after the macaroon craziness was some time dedicated to baking, without too much multitasking. As we were going to have an evening at home due to the heat outside, it was a great time to bake together. We took our time reading the recipe, measuring, and took turns mixing. Also, we did it after finishing homework and eating dinner, so there was no added pressure of getting the meal ready at the same time.

Allowing key resources to focus on a project can become a key success factor.

When a business expert is involved in an audit, month-end activities, or covers for two positions while a colleague is taking an extended leave, it may not be the best time for them to take yet another responsibility. They may not want to or be allowed to say “no”, but may not be able to perform at their best under all the pressure. If you need a particular resource for the project, negotiate with their functional manager to provide a back-up for their other duties, or plan around other critical business activities.

* * *

My helpers were eager to read the baking directions, and this time we had no communication challenges. The recipe came from a magazine for parents and was written in short sentences and clear language: “Stir in sugar”. “Blend in eggs”. “Add flour”. “Mix well”. All I had to say was “You do the sugar” and “You can do the eggs”.

Good work breakdown structure and clear expectations increase chances of success and improve the morale of the troops.

* * *

Just like with macaroons, this recipe included a delay – it called for the dough to be refrigerated for 15 minutes before baking. But this time I knew it before we started.  We have planned accordingly and had another activity during these 15 minutes, so my resources did not disappear, did not lose interest and were not taken over by another project.

When certain work packages are dependent on another task completion, careful planning is needed to use the time and resources wisely.

Can the task that others are dependent on be started earlier? Can you include additional time contingency, in case the precursor runs late? If a certain task cannot be started due to a dependency, can the resources make progress on something else? This particular problem – some resources idling while waiting for others to finish – can be particularly painful when a project is already under stress. Have you ever had business users waiting to start testing when the test environment was not ready on time?

* * *

The chocolate bites recipe has evolved in our family with each trial and error. In particular, I only use one cup of sugar instead of the prescribed two – the cookies are sweet enough with one. Also, I bake them for one minute longer than the recipe calls for – my oven must be less powerful. We did the same today… and I suddenly realized that I never wrote down my modifications. If my kids decided to surprise me one day, they would likely follow the recipe “as is” and would be surprised themselves with cookies that are too sweet and too soft. Perhaps they would think I knew some magic that they didn’t… which would be true in a way, because I have special undocumented knowledge in my head. So today, I took a pencil and corrected the recipe, to follow my own advice.

When a project generates new knowledge, or uses undocumented knowledge and experience of a subject matter expert, they should be encouraged (and given time) to capture and document it. This will benefit the next project and next change, and will help build the culture of knowledge sharing in the organization.

* * *

To finish the story, I have to admit that this time the driver for the baking project was my desire for a peaceful baking experience, after the macaroon insanity. That’s why I picked one of our favourites that require only five ingredients and that we have made together at least fifteen times. We even have our own little ritual of sniffing the vanilla, and then swirling it into the warm chocolaty-eggy mix. If you have never experienced it, baker’s chocolate, when melted and warm, has the most wonderful aroma! This is the real highlight of baking (second only to eating the product, of course!)

Project teams will benefit greatly from some fun and relief, especially after a particularly stressful delivery.

Doing a couple of maintenance sprints with light scope, taking a month for warranty support, post-implementation monitoring, cleaning up documentation and capturing lessons learned is useful and can give your overworked resources a chance to de-stress. Putting your most valuable resources on the next burning project right after they’ve barely got five hours of sleep following an implementation marathon is not a good strategy.

And don’t forget to celebrate your successes! Have a party, express your gratitude to all the people that worked hard, let everyone have some fun. And have lots of chocolate cookies to share!

Please share your thoughts!