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Don’t Get Clawed from Inflexible Frameworks

A few months ago, a friend of mine encountered an inflexible supplier while launching her business. She's starting her own line of jewelry and was in the process of developing a new product. Frustration was mounting as her supplier refused to move past the design stage until a specific detail of the piece was decided on, whereas she couldn't make the call unless she'd seen a live sample of the design - they were at a stand-still and time was slowly ticking by, pushing the final delivery date past their agreed deadline. Needless to say, she chose to drop that supplier in favor of another one she felt was more receptive to her needs.

While we were discussing the trials and tribulations of her jewelry adventures, I couldn't help but draw a parallel between that experience and one that we face in the realm of project management. My friend fell victim to a disease that I've seen many projects plagued with: I call it Framework Rigidity Syndrome. In other words, we apply the same old framework to every single project we do: it's a total lack of a customer-driven framework.

The One-Size-Fits-All Project Management Failure

When we're certified in project management, we learn a whole bunch of rules and guidelines, such as those from PMI PMBOK, PRINCE2, and Stage-Gate® for stand project or product development. In addition, we learn different project approaches for software development, such as Waterfall versus Agile. We basically "fill in the blanks" and follow the blueprint or model we've learned in our certification. These do evolve over time, but applying a rigid framework onto just about anything that looks like a project leads to some traps:

Trap #1: We hold our customers at arm's length

Let's define "customer" as the recipient of our project final deliverables. We may think we take our customer's input at heart, but the reality is quite the opposite. In researching this issue, I basically stumbled onto the perfect evidence for this: The Harvard Business Review published an article in 2016 about the five critical roles in project management, which are Sponsor, Project Manager, Team Leader, Team Members, and Project Steering Committee. Guess what? The customer role wasn't even on that list! I still can't wrap my mind around how wrong that is — your project's success is dependent on the customer's perception of project business value, they should be the #1 most important role!

Trap #2: We stick to a framework no matter what

At first, it was all about the Waterfall and sticking everything in that model. Today, it's become all about Agile and sticking everything into that model, no matter what. Likewise, some PMP certified professionals are enforcing the details of the PMI PMBOK guidelines on every project, no matter what.

But what about those projects that don't fit so neatly in the boxes designed for these approaches?

There is some form of progress as we begin to discuss flexibility or using a hybrid approach. For example, MIT's Information Systems and Technology department talks about how one size doesn't fit all. That's a good start, but they still focus on a handful of methodologies to pick from. What if the needs for a particular project customer still requires more flexibility?

Going back to Dr. Harold Kerzner's 2018 predictions, he stressed that to be competitive, companies must change their project management approaches to include new models like Agile and Scrum rather than sticking to the old frameworks. However, will Agile and Scrum become the new one-size-fits-all models, we'll just end up stuck again! Agile may work for some types of projects and customer needs, but for others (or even some phases of a project), it's just not ideal.

In that same line of thought, Dr. Kerzner notes that there's now a need for Customer-Driven Frameworks. This is where the customer is asking the project manager to customize the framework to better fit their business model and they actively take part in adapting that process. Now we're getting somewhere! I believe that both the project lead (contractor or internal) who have their own bag of frameworks may now need to flex those blueprints to better align with the customer's business needs.

5 Stretching Exercises to become more Flexible

While the number of competitors, new projects, and frankly the whole business world expands, only companies who are capable of treating their Framework Rigidity Syndrome are likely to survive. Here are five stretches to become more project process flexible:

1. Get your customers involved

Give your customer the project crown to make them feel like the king or queen of the project. As a project manager, your job is to wear the chef's hat and make a delicious meal (final project results) for the customer. Find out what their tastes are and set up pleasant surprises to wow them. One way to do so is to get them involved early on, which includes customizing your framework to meet their business model rather than the other way around. They will love you!

2. Modify your framework with Customer-Driven Framework

Before starting off the project, explain your best blueprint approach with your customer. If you bring only one framework to the table, see if it fits. Sometimes it's not necessary to have multiple frameworks to show the customer and see which one fits. Instead, it may be as simple as modifying your one-and-only blueprint. If you have multiple blueprints, then it may be easier, but at the end of the day, your framework of choice and it's modification for THAT project will determine the project's success.

The next step after reviewing your framework of choice together with your customer is to storyboard process changes as necessary for your customer's business model. For example, let's say your customer is the New Product Development (NPD) Director and reports to the CMO. She may identify that the project process may need modification to include the Marketing Campaign process in parallel to the NPD process. These two could be intertwined or driven as swimlanes. This may be an opportunity to expand project stakeholders to include Marketing, making it a more successful project for meeting corporate revenue expectations. 

3. Connect business value to your process

When you get thinking about a project you're working on, what are your first thoughts? Usually, we think one of three things: are we on time, are we on budget, are we on scope?

In a previous post, I talked about adjusting constraints according to project value. As a refresher, project value is the output of your project and how it impacts your customer's business. The point here is to expand the old-fashioned project constraints to a new set that includes business value.

Part of your decision-making process should always involve some kind of discussion about customer end-value. Especially so for NPD product managers because many have their performance linked future company revenue. 

4. Foster continuous improvement concepts

You will continuously improve if you adapt your framework to your customer's needs, communicate with the customer openly, and engage your project team to constantly look for improvements from lessons learned. 

Let's say your customer has a fast-changing environment in a very competitive industry. They may need an in-flight project to be flexible enough for a framework adjustment. Image that! Not only are we talking about flexible frameworks for different projects, but also flexibility during the project's execution.

Not all project management software allows you to be that flexible, but fortunately, we designed Pie to do exactly that. The following is an exampleof a process your project framework could include that walks the project leader through the steps for flexible and continuous improvement as shown in PieMatrix. (Click to enlarge.)


5. Leverage Visual Project Management Applications

There are many project tools in the market today. If you have the chance to choose which one you work with, look for tools that have a project template library that is:

  • Designed for framework creation and editing. Unfortunately, most tools only make copies of projects rather than allow full framework creation from scratch.
  • Frameworks connected to projects for dynamic updates. This will allow real-time flexibility.
  • Easy for anyone involved to access lessons learned and future process updates to improve the framework for the rest of the project duration. We're talking team members, stakeholders and yes, the customer.

Look for tools like the PieMatrix visual project management application that drive flexible frameworks for areas such as, new product development, healthcare professional services projects, systems integrations, and other business projects that are in competitive environments and tied to corporate business value.

In summary, no item on this stretching exercise list can be done in isolation - it's by integrating all of them that companies will become capable of breaking barriers and generating true, disruptive innovation. It's time for us to be flexible, and think and do differently. The world of business is changing and your competitors are becoming numerous. Are your processes including customer-centric frameworks and flexible enough to survive?


Written by Paul Dandurand

Photo by Rene Bernal