What project team blockers are making your project late?
There are many reasons why projects become late but often project teams are operating under severe constraints. In this article I will be looking at the typical constraints, blockers and impediments for project teams. The key here is that understanding why the teams are blocked is the first step to working out what to do to fix it.
Quick definition of a project team
But before we start let me just clarify that when I talk about a “Project team” I mean a Delivery team, software team or some sort of Engineering team. However, many of the constraints mentioned here also apply to teams that are not working in a specific project context. For example, Agile software teams may, or may not, be working on projects but may be delivering software for product roadmaps etc. these constraints will often apply to these teams too.
So, what are the typical constraints?
Common project team delivery constraints
1. Mixing Operations and Project work
I have seen this one so many times that I would say that this happens on almost every project that I work on. This is the situation where, for example, an engineering team has an operational role to support an existing set of systems. In addition to this they are also given project work to upgrade, change, or enhance these systems. Often these teams are the resident experts in a particular domain, business area or technology and so are key to the organisation.
The challenges with these teams are as follows:
- Operations work takes priority over project work
- Users pressurise the Operations team to fix their issues asap
- Even non-urgent critical Operations work gets prioritised above project work
- Operational issues come in at random and so are very hard to forecast
- Operations issues may involve significant analysis and fault finding to find the cause of the issue before it can be resolved
- The size and volume of the issues is hard to predict and therefore plan for
The impact here is that the team members are taken off project work to work on operations issues. This will stop your project work dead in its tracks.
The only way to resolve this is to somehow separate out the project work and operations work – they are completely incompatible activities. Operations work will always take priority so if the team is also to do project work then part of the team needs to be dedicated to that work only.
2. Too many distractions and interruptions
A similar one to the previous point is that members of the project team (normally senior, experienced people) are continually interrupted. This can take the form of:
- “Drop ins” or people walking by someone’s desk to ask a question or put in a request
- People emailing or messaging for information from one key person
- The expert(s) being pulled into meetings to share their knowledge or consult on issues or challenges in other areas
This is a “Hero” culture and very common. It is much easier, and quicker, to ask the expert rather than find out yourself or ask someone with slightly less knowledge or experience.
Assuming that the expert is a key part of your project team then this will delay or stop your project work getting completed. The challenges are the same as in point 1 – it’s really hard to forecast project work timescales due to the random nature of the interruptions.
There is also another issue here that the hero culture is perpetuated as the only people that get to work on the hard challenges is the expert, the rest of the team don’t get to learn, and this makes the dependency even worse.
In order to resolve this the hero culture needs to be tackled and that will take time. You may not have much time on your project so you will have to make some first steps in this direction. The first thing I would do is: gather the project team together and discuss the issue as a team. I would then work out some ideas for tackling this problem with the team and try them out. The flip side to this of course, is that as well as getting the team better managing their interruptions; then you will also need to talk through a plan for the people that are making the interruptions – if you don’t do this part nothing will change.
3. Poor planning ahead and hitting blockers
Good project teams deliver a steady flow of completed work. Inefficient teams, who don’t plan ahead, hit problems and blockers. Sometimes they can’t see why this is happening until it is pointed out to them.
The symptoms of this are:
- Large number of items of work in-progress at the same time (I once had a team who had over 50 items of work in-progress – err no you haven’t – 45 of them are blocked!)
- Lots of work items started but not much being finished ie no “flow” of finished items
- Team often run into blockers and have to stop one piece of work and start something else until the blocker is removed
- Team often waiting for other teams to complete tasks before they can start work
The impact of this is as follows:
- Slow progress
- Feeling of lack of achievement as lots of blockers and not much delivered
- Reputation for poor delivery
This is about breaking down tasks into sufficient detail, dependency management and planning ahead. The way to tackle this is to work with the project team to plan ahead. You should run regular planning sessions – the next 2-4 weeks needs to have a fairly detailed plan with dependencies and potential blockers identified and action plan to resolve. Further out than 4 weeks needs a less detailed plan – but blockers or dependencies that are big or time consuming need planning well in advance.
The aim is to start finishing things and enable better forecasting – this will have a big impact on the team as they will have greater sense of achievement and not have to stop-start and revisit things.
4. Significant new learning required as part of the project
Project teams, by definition, build new things – however some projects are delivering completely new things that have never been done before by that team or organisation, whilst other project teams might be delivering something that is very similar to what they have delivered before.
So, if there is a significant “new” element to the project that the project team has not done before then this needs to be factored into planning and forecasting. In my experience this always takes much longer than everyone estimates. Typical “new” elements might be:
- New or unfamiliar technologies
- New or unfamiliar business domain
- Undocumented legacy system requiring significant understanding and translation to new business and / or technologies
All of these scenarios require the project team to allocate significant learning time to understand the problem, only then can they come up with a design and understand what the potential solutions are. It is often difficult to estimate timescales on this.
There is no short cutting this challenge on a project. One option to consider is to allocate a specific Proof of Concept or Feasibility phase to this problem. This is essentially a mini project within itself to really get to the detail of the problem, understand the requirements, solution options and delivery plan.
5. New (project) teams take time to get established
- Recruitment of senior leaders in the team
- Recruitment of rest of the delivery team (probably by senior leaders above)
- Build team baseline tools and processes for delivery
It always surprises me how long it takes to establish new teams. What I mean by that is: getting to the point where the team is really in flow and delivering at a strong pace. The challenge is that many projects have to form new teams as part of the project. Getting the team up and running takes time and impacts the project timelines. Setting up new teams can include some or all of the following:
Setting up a brand-new project team is a hugely time-consuming process and only once a team has been running for some time can you even start to consider planning and forecasting work items and project plans. If building a new team is part of the project then you need to discuss this with your project sponsor and stakeholders so that they are really clear that this will take time to setup.
Understanding team constraints is the first step to fixing blockers
So, in this article we have looked at some of the typical constraints, blockers and impediments for project teams. The key here is that understanding why the teams are blocked is the first step to working out what to do to fix it.