Rescuing Troubled Projects 7

Rescuing Troubled Projects 7
This is the seventh and last installment of Rescuing Troubled Projects.   This time we will examine some of the techniques you should probably avoid for large troubled projects.  If you missed any of the prior installments, then you can read them here.

Now let’s examine some of the techniques you should probably avoid.

I have been told on more than one account that I should confront clients and in effect show them who is in charge.  Hey, we’re the experts after all!  We will tell you what you should know and do!

In my opinion, this is a failed strategy.  When you are at the bottom of the hill with a cap gun, and the client is at the top with an army and heavy artillery, you are not in a position to challenge for “king of the hill”.  You are simply over matched.


If you do your due diligence with the account management team, you will develop or become part of a strategy to work with, not confront, the client.

We should be straight forward and honest with clients, and we should do what we say.  However, within reason, we should work at partnering with clients, not battling them.  When we work to a common vision we enhance our chances for success.

At one automotive account, I was assigned to a killer project with some extremely difficult clients.  The approach in the past had always been combative, and my direct client contact constantly sent out harsh emails that copied all of her top management.  So, I set up a face to face meeting with my client contact.  And I discussed how we could work together rather than fighting over everything.  I also asked what information would help the client with her management.  This approach resulted in a much more workable relationship that significantly reduced the nasty emails on both sides.

Usually on a killer project, I am asked to try and make the deadline (no matter how impossible) by overloading and/or adding resources.

If you succumb to this pressure, before you know what is really needed to correct the situation, then you are only making a deeper hole.  Believe me, adding a lot of resources will really speed up digging.  Now, you may determine that additional resources or specific resources are what you need, but be certain first.

Extended overtime leads to burnout and poor quality.  You will frequently have to work some overtime, but don’t plan to work it.  Build your plan based upon a sane workload.  If you build in the overtime and then run short, what will you do?

By the way, a good leader leads by example.  Don’t ask your team to work late while you go home early.  Most of the time, the people that you get at the start will be the people that get you to the finish.  If you care about your team, then usually they will care about you.

Now we come to one of my project pet peeves.

At some point in a project, I will be told by one or more testers, that they can’t write test cases or guidelines until they can work with the application.  This is usually because there is little or no documentation on killer projects.

When the application is ready (or at least usable), the testers write their test cases according to the results of the application.

The developers will always assure the testers that, “that is the way the client wants it”.

This is of course nonsense.  When you test this way, the application always works the way it was developed.  Unfortunately, that may not be the way the client required it.

You must use the requirements to specify the test cases or guidelines.  If they don’t exist, then why are you coding, let alone testing?

This problem is often present at killer projects.  You will know you have been bitten, when User Acceptance blows up because the new “system” doesn’t match the client’s perceived requirements.  This is a BAD TIME to realize that some requirements were left out!

Now don’t laugh!  I had this happen to me once, back when I was in voice recognition applications.  I gave a voice command, and the system burst into flames!  But, that is a story for another time…

How do you know that you are not going to pull this one out of the fire (pun intended)?

There are several indicators you can use, but three are pretty certain to spell doom for the project:

  1.  If you are already past any hope of revenue, and you have substantial costs yet to incur, then you probably won’t succeed.  Although you may, for contractual reasons be asked to complete this work, know that you will be continuously squeezed to cut the losses.  Sometimes you may be asked to be a good soldier for contractual reasons, but be aware that it won’t be fun.
  2.  If you simply have no resources that can do the work, or you have been given resources to use that can’t do the work, then you are probably facing failure of delivery. This includes hardware and software resources.
  3.  If your best scheduling wizardry shows that you are substantially past the required deadline, then expect delivery failure.

On one account that I was sent to, I told the manager that they would not make their deadline the second day that I was there.  How did I know?

They were deep into coding while they were in the midst of requirements gathering.  Although I received some heat for my assessment, it turned out they missed the deadline by a wide margin.

Even though you can’t meet the original plan, don’t give up hope.  Remember innovation!

Negotiate a piece that you can deliver.  Create a contingent agreement that will let you move to the next piece of work after delivering the first one.  Most clients don’t want an embarrassing failure either.  Work with them to define a deliverable, and then see that it gets delivered!

It may turn out that the innovative thing to do is walk away, but don’t suggest it until you have explored other ideas.

I hope you have found this series useful.  Please comment or ask questions, and I will be happy to respond.

Until next time!

Rescuing Troubled Projects 6

Rescuing Troubled Projects 6

This is the sixth installment of Rescuing Troubled Projects.   This time we will discuss status reporting and financials for large troubled projects.  If you missed any of the prior installments, then you can read them here.


That’s right; this is what clients will think of you when you arrive at a troubled project. They think you are there to burn through more of their money.  So, don’t hand your client the club to hit you with!  I am talking about your status report.

Now, I have been as guilty of this as the next PM.  However, often the primary public view of your project is your status report.  They are almost always project deliverables.  On troubled projects, you can expect that the prior status reports have been pretty bleak.  The reports were most likely bathed in red for a long time before you arrived.

You should view status reports as a communications and sales tool.  You want to make sure that people receive the right message from your status.  When I say that there is no status like NO status, I mean that it is better to not give status than to give meaningless, confusing, or obviously misleading status.  This is where the PM should work to set expectations.  Don’t give rosy phony reports!  Give clear and concise reports that deliver the message you want your readers to receive.

A status report is a chance to point out your accomplishments, to let people know what to expect, and to solicit assistance from your client.  Think of a status report the same way you would a proposal you want the client to buy.  What do you want the client to know?  What do you want the client to do?  Put that information up front in a graphic or some easy to assimilate format.

Discuss how your client is measured with your client contact.  Then, provide the status information in a format that your contact can easily assimilate into his or her status.  This will help your customer satisfaction, help you control the relationship, and it will support the full circle of project, client, and PMO reporting.

One more thing…

Make certain that you know the financials for your project!  While this is one of the most hated aspects of project management, it is also easily one of the most critical contributors to success.  Even so, many PMs neglect to clearly understand and manage the financials for their projects.

Begin by reviewing the financials with the Project Management Office (PMO) and your client contact in detail.   Make sure your understandings match!  Often, the client uses a different set of measurements than your PMO does.  Read all the contracts and work orders carefully, and review the client’s and PMO’s expectations.

Verify how the client’s financials are measured.  Then ensure that you set up your project’s financials to correctly report to the PMO and to feed the correct information to the client to meet the client’s financial reporting cycle.

Synchronize with your client contact on a regular basis.  This will make what you report in your status both believable and quickly accepted.  It will also save the embarrassment of reaching the end of the project thinking you are okay and having your client scream about overruns.

Next time we will discuss the techniques to avoid.

See you then!

Rescuing Troubled Projects 5

Rescuing Troubled Projects 5

This is the fifth installment of Rescuing Troubled Projects.   This time we will discuss getting sign-off on key documents and scheduling for large troubled projects.  If you missed any of the prior installments, then you can read them here.

Frequently at troubled projects I find key documents, such as charters and requirements, have not been signed off.  Yes, that’s right. I said charters and requirements have not been signed off.  Sometimes, they don’t exist at all!

While a signature won’t save you, it certainly helps.

Unfortunately, savvy or recalcitrant clients will delay signing key documents and encourage teams to work anyway.  Statements like, “you have to start or we will miss the date” coerce the team into working without a baseline document.

One technique that has proven effective in these situations is to hold a “Nobody leaves until its signed meeting”.  This is a simple, but effective technique.

Call a meeting with the people that you want to sign the document.  These must be people with the authority to change and sign the document, not lackeys!  Tell them that you will provide breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner, if needed, and lay out the ground rules:

  1.  You will project the document in question on a screen.
  2.  You will make and agree upon changes on the spot.
  3.  You will print and sign the final before anyone leaves the meeting, even if that requires the entire day.

Please note that this technique is not a JAD session.  It is used when you are having sign-off trouble, not when you are just starting the document.

One more warning…  This does not work nearly as well for internal projects, although it is still worth a try.

One thing that I have observed over the years is that all schedules look good to the untrained eye. I have had to bite my lip through a number of presentations where it was obvious (at least to me) that the schedule could never be worked, only to have the audience applaud at the end.

Another thing I have noticed about schedules is that they take a long time to build for large, complex projects!  Now, this is problematic when you are sent to a troubled project!  Just how will you find time to build and maintain a schedule for a large project that is already in a hole when you get there?

Now please don’t misunderstand me!  As a project manager, I find it difficult and dangerous to work without a plan and a schedule.  This is often how the project got in the hole in the first place.  The issue is that troubled projects often do not have a workable schedule.

If you are a project manager, you should already know that it is imperative to focus on critical path activities.  But, if the project does not have a schedule, or it has a very poor excuse for a schedule (little more than a task list), and maybe an incomplete one at that, what can you do?

I recommend that you try novel methods to cope with giant schedules.

One technique that I have used successfully is to create a self-balancing block structured schedule. This method assigns each resource a 40-hour block each week, regardless of the actual time spent.  The blocks chain week to week by resource.  Therefore, the resources are always balanced at 40 hours!  Each week the team members simply enter their hours against the weekly block.

You start by building a higher level schedule without resources, so that you can determine the critical path and quickly determine the flow of the project.  You then build in resource blocks a month at a time.  One advantage is that this kind of schedule can be built as you go.  You can teach an admin to maintain and update the schedule.  I have.

This is not a perfect solution!  It tends to cloud the critical path somewhat, and it limits visibility to the lower level.  However, on large projects the trade-off is often worth it. Also, you and/or your team leads must use spreadsheets or some method of assigning and tracking the low level tasks.

By the way, pass this by Quality Assurance and get approval to use this technique!  You will have to explain it and assure everyone that it is valid and safe given the process you plan to follow.

Next time we will discuss the joy of every PM, status reports and financials.

See you then!

Z-Brick Removal #4

Z-Brick Removal #4
This week’s installment of Kitchen Renovation Nightmares concludes my account of removing the Z-Brick from the walls of our kitchen and laundry.  See the first installment of Kitchen Renovation Nightmares for the beginning of the discussion.

The second installment described the test I decided to try and the preparation of the wall.

The third installment detailed the initial skim coating test process that I tried and the results.  My test area looked fairly smooth and was much better than having the Z-Brick.


This week I will explain refinements to the skim coating process that I learned subsequent to my initial test.

My test effort left me convinced that I could remove all of the Z-Brick and get a reasonable finish.  I hoped that the walls would look pretty good once they were painted.  I was not sure whether we would need to apply a light orange peel texture to hide any unevenness.  In the end we did not need to add any texture.

The first refinement involved a better technique when applying and scraping off the joint compound (also known as “mud”).  I watched some additional videos, and I paid attention to some professionals skim coating the ceiling of our kitchen.

I discovered that a stiff taping knife was the best for me when applying and scraping off the mud.  The knives come in various sizes with 10 to 12 inches most commonly used for skim coating.  However, I found that I was best able to handle a 6-inch knife for the areas that I was skim coating.

Rather than a bucket or a paint tray, I purchased a stainless steel mud pan.  This is a 3.5-inch deep rectangular pan that holds the mud you mix, apply, and scrape off.

Now, rather than using the pre-mixed joint compound, I mixed just the amount of powder that I needed in my pan.  Again, I wanted a creamy texture (think sour cream).  Make sure the pan is completely clean of any old mud or debris, or it will corrupt the mud you mix.

You can get faster and slower drying times for the mud, so be sure to only mix up what you can use before it starts to harden.  I mostly used 20-minute mud, but be careful, because 20 minutes goes by very quickly.

Once I had the mud mixed in my pan, I used my knife to slather a generous amount onto part of the section of wall I was working on.  I worked in approximately 4’ x 8’ sections.  This meant that I started at the top of the wall and applied the mud to a couple of feet of wall.  Next, I scraped the knife clean on my pan.  I also kept a damp rag handy to wipe off the knife and any splatters.

Using the clean knife, I scraped down the wall removing most of the mud that I had just applied.  I scraped off the material from my knife into the pan as I went.  This leaves a thin coat on the wall and fills in the depressions.  I kept applying and scraping off the mud until I finished the section.

After the mud dried, I sanded the section smooth, and I re-coated the section as I deemed necessary.  Two to three coats left the wall smooth.

The final trick to getting a very smooth finish is to use taping and topping compound.  This material comes in a plastic bag inside a box.  It looks and feels like sticky bread dough, so you have to thin it to that creamy consistency.  You don’t need much.  It leaves a very smooth finish that you sand with fine or very fine sandpaper.

After the wall is dry you need to prime it with a primer/sealant meant for drywall.  This will seal the wall and leave it ready for final painting.

As an illustration, here is one kitchen wall after I had removed the Z-Brick and prepared it for skim coating.

Kitchen wall prior to skim coat

Here is the same area after skim coating two coats and sanding.

Kitchen wall after two skim coats

And here is the wall after applying the taping and topping compound, priming, painting and finishing the surrounding areas.

Good luck, and let me know if you try this.

Rescuing Troubled Projects 2

Rescuing Troubled Projects 2

In our first installment, I discussed some of the basics of troubled projects.  I also recommended the
first step you should take when you are assigned to a troubled project.  If you have not read part one, you can read it here.

Once you have stopped or slowed the digging and bleeding. What’s next?

The mnemonic F.I.R.S.T. will help you remember the basic issues that you need to address at the beginning.  I find these guidelines are helpful in restoring order.

We already discussed the First Law of Holes.  But, it is worth repeating!  Try and stop the hole from getting deeper!

All PMs should know about Inheritance.  We usually inherit a project that we didn’t have any input to.  However, no matter how bad the situation (or how little you had to do with it), it is your fault from the moment you arrive.  Sometimes it is your problem before you arrive.

At one location, the executive actually announced that I would be joining the account by sending a note saying that a Troubled Project Manager was coming.  I explained that where you put the emphasis is significant.  I am a troubled-project manager, NOT a troubled project manager.

When you come into a troubled project, you must exude confidence to the customer and the team.    Remember, if you don’t act confident, then nobody will believe you. You should radiate calm, even if everyone else is panicking.

If you want to regain the customer’s confidence, then you must do a lot of relationship building.  Typically, troubled projects have poor communications (we will discuss this in a later installment).  Dealing with bad communication is just another aspect of project inheritance.

This leads us to Reducing Scope.  Yes, I know, clients don’t want to hear scope reduction when they have lost confidence.  However, selling the successful delivery of a meaningful piece is far better than just deepening the hole.  Since you will usually not be able to get all the resources that you ask for, make sure that you get enough to do the job.  One important note here!  When you get the scope reduced, you had better deliver!  You won’t get another chance.

Next, perform a Sanity Check.  Most of the time, when I arrived at these kinds of projects, insanity was in charge.  Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. To get a better result, you have to change the behavior.  Make sure what your team is doing makes sense before letting them continue.

I took over as the PM for a troubled project that had been unsuccessfully stumbling along for years.  As part of the network hosting effort, they introduced a new security device rather than using their own established methods.  Getting this device to work had caused months of delay.  As part of my sanity check, I asked the primary network engineer what he had to do to set up the device.  It turned out that the new device required hours (and sometimes days) to set up and was time consuming to maintain.  The engineer then showed me that it took just minutes using their current method to achieve the same result. We dropped this use of the new device, and the project went forward to a successful delivery..

Finally, we must talk about Teams.  A good, properly motivated team can accomplish amazing things.  Early on you must determine whether your team has what it takes to deliver.  If you determine the team can’t cut it, then you must quickly take the (sometimes difficult) actions to get your team in shape.

You may have to eliminate trouble-makers.  You may need to hold training sessions.  You might need to bring in some trusted personnel to supplement the team.  Of course, it might simply mean showing some concern for the team members for the first time on the project.

Killer projects often have no end of issues to deal with.  So, the PM needs to come up with innovative approaches to get the project under control, to get up to speed, to gain the client’s confidence, and to reinvigorate the team.

The Innovation Network defines innovation as “People Creating Value by Implementing New Ideas”.

I think this concept of creating value is fundamental to innovation.  For example, suppose you have an idea to replace all the round car tires with square tires.  Certainly, this is a new idea, but is it innovative? No, it is not, because there is no value in having square tires.

Therefore, it is not sufficient to come up with something new or different.  The real goal is to spark ideas that add value in new ways, use existing methods to new benefit, or modify existing processes to give better results.

This is the way you need to think when you are on a troubled project.  Actually, PMs innovate all of the time, they just don’t think about it as innovation.

I was once told by a PM that she was worried about having to constantly cut corners due to lack of resources and overload.  She wanted to make sure that she was cutting the right corners.  This is really the crux of the problem.  This is where innovation is critical in our daily PM lives and on killer projects.

Let’s talk about some of the innovative techniques that have worked for me.

I had an uncle who taught me about using another person’s aura to your advantage.  My uncle started a number of businesses using this innovative approach:

He would read a book on the subject, print a business card, and hold a seminar with himself as an expert.  And, he would always partner initially with an acknowledged expert.  This covered my uncle in the aura of the acknowledged expert.

I have used this technique very effectively on killer projects.  Generally, there is somebody on your team that the client trusts.  Most often this is a Business Analyst (BA) or a technical Subject Matter Expert (SME).  Until you have proven yourself to the client, always take this person along.  Of course, you must take care to prepare the person you take.  Make sure that the trusted person will give the right message.  Never go alone or unprepared!

In fact, whether you have now gained the clients trust or not, always send a trusted-person with team members that the client does not know or trust.

This worked so well at one account that, after a while, the client would simply listen to our User Acceptance presentation and then sign off saying, “We know you will do it right.”

Next time I will discuss methods for working with your team.

See you then.

Z-Brick Removal #3

Z-Brick Removal #3
This installment of Kitchen Renovation Nightmares continues my account of removing the Z-Brick from the walls of our kitchen and laundry.  See the first installment of Kitchen Renovation Nightmares for the beginning of the discussion.  The second installment described the test I decided to try and the preparation of the wall.

This time I will detail the skim coating process I followed.

Skim coating involves the application of joint compound to the surface of a wall.  Essentially, you apply joint compound to a surface, and then you scrape off the compound in order to fill the various depressions and rough patches in the surface.  Multiple applications ultimately result in building up a smooth finish.

There are a number of videos on the web that show the process.  The videos tend to make it look easy, but (of course) everything is harder than you think, and it takes practice to get the hang of it.

One video I watched showed a nice lady covering every awful surface easily.  She used a thick roller to spread a layer of joint compound on the surfaces.  She then used a squeegee knife to smooth over the surfaces.  Zip zot, and it was done!  This is what I tried first.

It was not that easy to find a 12” squeegee knife locally, so I eventually ordered one.  I also got a ¾” nap roller for applying the joint compound and a paddle attachment to mix up the joint compound.  I felt I was now ready to start the test.

List of materials for test:

  • 12” squeegee knife
  • 5-gallon bucket of pre-mixed joint compound
  • ¾” nap roller cover (heavy nap roller)
  • Paint roller frame with handle extension
  • Paint pan
  • Painters tape
  • Tarp for the floor

I had already removed a section of the Z-Brick from my test area.  I then prepared the wall as I discussed in the second installment.  This left me with a brick-less section of wall (approximately 1.5’ x 8’) that was sanded and primed but was still very rough.

I used pre-mixed joint compound in my test.  I thinned this by mixing in water (starting with 8 ounces for a 5-gallon tub).   The idea is to get a creamy consistency like sour cream or pancake batter.  Remember you need to coat the wall and then scrape it off.  I did not really understand the scraping aspect that well when I started.

I discovered two things pretty quickly.

First, rolling the joint compound onto the wall did not work well for me.  I found it difficult to get the roller in the bucket, so I poured some of the compound into a paint tray.  The material just proved hard to get on the roller, and it was difficult (for me) to apply to the wall.  Nevertheless, I persisted and got the compound applied to the test area.

Second, the squeegee knife does not work as well as a good drywall knife for the scraping process.  After applying the compound, I tried to scrape the material off with the squeegee knife, but it just did not leave a good finish.  As I was extremely novice at that point, I am sure that my technique was at least partly to blame.  In spite of this, I was able to get my first coat on the test area.

Here is a word to the wise at this point.  Make sure to carefully cover your floors, be careful what you wear, and watch the placement of the joint compound bucket.  I say this because the joint compound can get pretty messy … all over you and all over the floor and adjoining walls.  I also managed to show my agility by stepping down from my step ladder right into the joint compound bucket!  Shades of the Three Stooges!

When the wall was dry, I used a fine sanding paper to smooth out the wall before the second coat. You sand in between coats.  I found that a fine sanding block worked much better for this process.  You may require a pole sander for large or hard to reach areas.

Typically, you apply three coats.  You apply the material up and down and then scrape up and down, then you apply the material left to right and scrape left to right, and lastly, you do another up and down pass.

When I completed this process, I painted with a primer for drywall.  The result was acceptable, but not great.

Next time, I will tell you about the tricks I learned subsequently.  These methods produce much nicer finishes and work a lot better.

See you then.

7 Airport Security Check-in Tips

7 Airport Security Check-in Tips

People have varied reactions to traveling.

Some people enjoy going to exciting or restful destinations.


They are not disturbed by the vagaries of travel.  They just look on the security checks, delays, and the other aspects of travel as part of the experience.

For some people travel is a necessary part of their job.  They learn how to manage the travel experience to minimize discomfort and maximize the use of travel time.


For yet others, travel is a frustrating, and at times maddening, experience they either put up with or hate with a passion.


Whatever category of traveler you fall into, airline travel is harder than you think.  This is because every form of delay and inconvenience that you can imagine (and even some you would never imagine) may occur with any flight.


I have personally had many unusual experiences traveling by air.  I have also heard endless stories from other people who have had many of their own adventures in air travel.

 One of the most potentially frustrating aspects of air travel is the security check.  However, it does not have to be so bad.  This article will relate 7 tips that I follow for getting through security with the minimum of hassle.  It is not an exhaustive list, but future articles will expand on the topic with additional suggestions and stories.  Feel free to share yours.

  1. If you don’t have to bring it, don’t bring it.
    Yes, this sounds simple, but many don’t follow this simple suggestion. Many years ago when I flew, I carried a toolkit that I had received as a gift.  The ratchet in the toolkit had a pistol-grip.  After being pulled aside by an overly nervous agent, I decided that I really did not need to carry the kit.  This suggestion also goes for over packing your carry-on with every gadget that you will never use anyway.
  2. Have your boarding pass and ID ready for security.
    Now, c’mon this is a no-brainer.  Just make sure to have your boarding pass and your driver’s license/passport in your hand when you are called by the security agent.  Just in case this happens to be a really bad day for the agent, you won’t be the person that wasn’t ready to present their ID.
  3. Be polite.
    If you prefer to be rude and difficult, then you should also plan on extra time in the security area.  I am not saying to act servile, just polite.
  4. Plan what to wear.
    This can prove complicated if you are flying directly to a business meeting, but even then, it helps to prepare.  Typically, you would plan to wear something comfortable for your flight.  In addition, you should now think about how your outfit will work going through security as well.  Wearing high boots and a couple of pounds of bling will not help you get through security quickly.
    Make sure you can get your shoes off and on easily.  Decide what belt you will have, and make sure that you can you take it off, and put it in your bag quickly. Don’t wear the socks with holes that day.
  5. Plan to put everything normally in your pockets into your bag.
    I always have all metal objects (my belt, keys, glasses, etc.) in my bag to go through the x-ray.  It is best to not have anything in your pockets when you go through the scanner.
  6. Have your liquids bag in an accessible front pocket of your bag.
    This is definitely inconvenient for me, because I like the liquids in my shaving bag, but that won’t fly (pun intended).  So, I have the bag in an outside pocket, and I just pull it out and dump it in the bin with my shoes.
  7. Get a TSA compliant laptop bag or have your laptop ready to pull out.
    Yes, there are TSA compliant laptop bags.  See the Tom Bihn website for an example laptop bag.  Otherwise, make sure that you can easily pull out and replace your laptop in your bag.  If this is difficult, then repack or consider a new bag.

Taking these steps usually helps the security process go smoothly.  Even though, sometimes, things will still be harder than you think.
dreamhost coupons

Rescuing Troubled Projects 1

Rescuing Troubled Projects 1
Some years ago I was assigned to a troubled account.  I knew I was in trouble the first day I arrived.  I was ushered into a conference room that had been converted into an office for the acting Delivery Project Executive (DPE).  The walls were covered with whiteboards, and the whiteboards had lists of red, yellow, and green projects.  The DPE, calling in from back east on a speaker phone, said he was glad that I had joined the team.

I replied that I assumed he was giving me all of the green projects.  Nope.  I got all the red and yellow projects.  In fact, I realized pretty quickly that I couldn’t have created this big a mess, if I had planned to.  I could never have thought of all the things they did wrong.  And on top of it all, the place had the morale of a gulag.

Now, every project is harder than you think so there is a pretty good chance that at some point a project manager will get assigned to a killer (i.e. troubled) project.  A killer project is a project that is so hard that you wonder if you will live to laugh about it later.

If you haven’t been lucky enough to experience such a project, just wait. There is undoubtedly one waiting out there for you.

Now, before you get the torches and pitchforks, let me tell you that I have been assigned to several of these projects.  And I want to help you survive yours, when and if the time comes.

My objective is to arm you with some ideas and techniques for dealing with killer projects. I will discuss things I have used that usually work.  But, please take note.  There is no technique that always works.

I will also review things that I have tried, but that you should probably avoid.

Please let me give one more disclaimer up front.  The techniques that I will discuss are NOT replacements for good PM practices.  I expect that you already know to verify requirements, set up issue, change, and risk management logs, to establish a communications plan, and the rest of project management blocking and tackling.

The point of this article is to give you some tools for handling the unusual situations that are the hallmark of troubled projects.

In this first article, I will discuss what I think you should do first when you arrive at a killer project.

OK, now you’ve arrived.  You have had your 5-minute orientation and hand off in the hallway.  Now you are the Project Manager.

What do you suppose that you should do first???

I suggest that you start by exercising the First Law of HolesSTOP DIGGING!

Remember, I am assuming that you know or that you quickly discover you have been assigned to a killer project.  If you are on a great project, where everything is under control, just keep doing what you are doing.  That is not what this article is about.

Unless you are very lucky, on killer projects you will usually not have much up-front information.  This makes it difficult to make the “right” decisions the moment you arrive.

However, you should try to keep the hole from getting deeper.

Here are a couple of examples from my own experience:

I was assigned to a large supply chain project.  This was the initial phase, and I was told we already had a couple of senior architects on site. I dutifully checked with our sales rep to make sure we had a contract in place, and I flew to the site.  The day I arrived, I found that we did indeed have senior architects on site, and they had been there for a few weeks.  What we did not have was a signed contract.  I called the sales rep and let him know, that the team was leaving that evening, unless I saw the signed contract.  The contract was signed in a couple of hours, and the project proceeded successfully.

In another case, I was called in to replace a PM at a large company where we were doing a roll-out of laptops to the senior executives and personnel.  The day I arrived the outgoing PM told me that the company had not paid its bills for a very long time.  The PM had informed the CIO that the team would leave that day if the bill was not paid.  Isn’t that a great way to start a new project?!

This threat had been made before, but it was never carried out.  I met with the CIO and asked, if he understood the team would leave, if they did not pay.  He said he understood. They did not pay, and I pulled the team out on my first day on the job.  After two unpleasant weeks, the company paid, and the project went on successfully.  However, I was “rewarded” by being assigned to a different project.

Your actions may make you very unpopular for a while, but the alternative is usually worse for you and your company.

Be prepared for the developers, the customer, and maybe even your regular allies to tell you that you can’t afford to stop or even slow down.  This is frequently the mindset of those who are too close to the chaos and who probably contributed to the troubles in the first place.

However, do you really think they would be in the hole, if what they were doing was working so well?  I have heard it said that we never have time to do it right, but, we always have time to do it over.

Stopping the hole from getting deeper requires that you understand what is causing the hole. This is where you will want to apply your PM Methods.

This is not rocket science.  Be aware that killer projects usually have several problems that have grown from molehills into mountains.

You should conduct an abbreviated Root Cause Analysis.  You are not trying to ferret out every issue!  You are looking for the major sources of bleeding and hole-digging!  As you discover the problems, halt the digging.

Usually, you will start by meeting with the account executive and/or client representative to get their read on the problems.

Afterwards, interview the team and get an initial feel for where they are.

Next, you should meet with the client and other relevant stakeholders, to hear their tales of woe and to get a feel for their objectives.

Concurrently, you should get familiar with existing agreements, the charter, and any other documentation that may (if you are lucky) exist.

By the end of this process, in conjunction with the account management, you should have halted or slowed the primary unproductive activities.

At the same supply chain project that I mentioned before, I was told by the client that he couldn’t see any need for a project manager.  And this was for a project with a budget of many millions of dollars!

So, I created a risk analysis, which I then presented to my client and his manager.  While I was speaking, their eyes got as big as saucers.  They wanted to know who had told me all of their top secret problems!  I told them no one!  These were just the obvious risks that any senior project manager knows when a major account does not have project management.

A little while later, the client called me in and apologized, saying that he now understood why they needed a project manager.  Actually, I was so successful, that they sent me home and got a local, cheaper project manager.

Oh well…

As you might guess, if you don’t get control of the bleeding, then you may well get run over by the project before you get very far.  We will discuss this in my next article.

Z-Brick Removal #2

Z-Brick Removal #2
In the first installment of Kitchen Renovation Nightmares I began a discussion of removing Z-Brick.  The prior owner of our house covered all of the kitchen and laundry walls in faux brick (Z-Brick).  We wanted to redo our kitchen and the Z-Brick had to go!  Of course this was harder than we thought.

Our house is over 60 years old, and we did not want to have to demolish the walls.  As I mentioned last time, I learned about a technique called skim coating that I hoped would fix the problem.  I determined to test the technique.  I chose a section of wall in the laundry room as my test area.

Z-Brick is affixed to the wall with a cement-like material.  The “bricks” come off somewhat easily with a hammer and pry bar.  However, the wall surface that is left is pretty bad, with chunks removed, globs of cement, and very rough sections of cement.

This next view gives you a better idea of how rough the wall is after taking off the bricks.

In order to prepare the surface for skim coating, I proceeded by knocking off the globs of cement with a hammer and putty knife.  This left me with a “smoother” surface with chunks of plaster missing:

My next step was to power-sand the wall with coarse grit sandpaper.  This gave me a more uniform surface that still had many chunks missing:

From here, I decided to patch the areas where there were open spots, dips, and holes.  I used light spackling compound for the patching.  Once the compound was hard, I sanded it:

The final step before beginning the skim coat was to prime the surface.  For this purpose, I used Zinsser® Bulls Eye 1-2-3® Water Base Primer paint.

The test area was now ready for skim coating.  While the picture makes the area look smooth, it was definitely quite rough.

Next time, I will go through the actual skim coating process I followed.  I found over time that some things worked and some did not.

Until then.

Z-Brick Removal #1

Z-Brick Removal #1

Well, it is time for the first installment of Kitchen Renovation Nightmares. This time we will discuss the joys of removing Z-Brick. What is Z-Brick you ask?

Z-Brick is a plastic material made to look like real brick. Each “brick” is about an eighth of an inch thick. The bricks are glued or cemented to the wall to give the appearance of real brick. The product is still around, and it is in many houses where this was done as far back as the 1950’s.

Depending on how well this was done, it may look good or bad. The prior owner of our house had done a fair job as you can see below. However, over the years we had really grown to dislike this stuff, and we wanted to remove it as part of our kitchen renovation.

If you search on the web for “removing Z-Brick”, you will find that almost everyone tells you to demo the walls, and put in new drywall. Some people tell you to put the drywall over the Z-Brick. This is because the “cement” they use to affix the Z-Brick is pretty much like regular cement. It doesn’t come off easily, and it often takes chunks of the wall with it, or it leaves a big glob of cement where the brick used to be.

The demo method is great, if you are a contractor or a wiz at drywall. If you are not, then you need to have a contractor do this. It gets worse, if you have lath and plaster underneath as we did.

So what else can you do?

After watching a number of videos on the web about hanging drywall, I came across a procedure called skim coating. This is a technique for finishing walls that consists of applying thin coats of joint compound to the walls to give a smooth paint-able finish.

After reading an article and watching a number of videos, I decided to do a test to see if this would work on a wall with the Z-Brick removed. If it didn’t work, I would then have to go ahead and remove the plaster and lath, and put in drywall.

Of course the videos make it look easy to cover almost any nightmare texture on any wall. Don’t be fooled; Everything Is Harder Than You Think. However, this process does work, if you are willing to put in the effort.

The next couple of blogs will demonstrate the process I used for my test and the results. The picture below shows the section of wall that I started with after removing some of the bricks. The bricks come off easily enough with a pry bar and hammer.