Projects and Dark Matter

Dark Matter

One of the biggest risks that software project managers face is “Dark Matter”. On a software project it is defined as “The entity that we know exists but cannot see”.

It is most prevalent on projects where you require an intimate knowledge of business processes. At the beginning of a project, the Subject Matter Experts are assembled, the scope of work is defined and plan is brain stormed. As a project manager we try to extract every last detail about how we will deliver the scope of work. This typically takes a number of attempts but eventually when everyone has that warm cozy feeling, we agree on the plan and kick off.

Warnings Signs

Some weeks into the project at an update meeting someone brings something to your attention, something new, or an oversight perhaps that could have been captured and planned at the original planning sessions. You take it on board accepting it’s a “once off”, you re-plan, you move on.

Two weeks later a developer or engineer sends you an email stating that they have found something else that they need to do that we didn’t capture at the early stages. You take it on board accepting it’s the second “once off”, you re-plan, you move on.

Two weeks later again a developer or engineer sends you another email or speaks up at a meeting stating that they have found something else that they need to do that we didn’t capture at the early stages. You take it on board accepting it’s the third “once off”, you re-plan, you move on.

Does this sound familiar? Are you making the developers/analysts/engineers accountable and letting them feel some of the pain you feel as a Project Manager?

Managing Dark Matter

When running large complex software project is, it is inevitable that there will be unexpected events. It is important here to distinguish the “known” unknowns from the “unknown” unknowns or Dark Matter. For example during testing you may expect to see some issues or defects that need to be managed. So, you “know” that there will be issues but you don’t know how many or the impact of them – i.e. “known” unknows. Then there are the Dark Matter unknowns – it something that someone completely missed at the planning and estimate phase that needs to be dealt with and will have an impact on the project.

When this happens, you should always ask the question, “How did we miss this?”, and “ Are there any more elements Dark Matter lurking in the background that will surface at some stage. It is human nature that in general people do not like to give bad news but it is very important to encourage the project team to be transparent about all issues or potential issues.

So back to the original question – “How did we miss this?”, could we have approached the scoping and planning phase differently? Did we go into enough detail at that time? You will never prevent all of these items, but you can certainly put measures in place to limit their occurrence.

During the planning phase when you have assembled all the relevant SMEs, and when a milestone or deliverable is identified, list all of the steps and resources required to complete the milestone. Go through the steps at least twice, leave it and come back to it the next day when people have time to think, I can guarantee that someone will add to the steps or introduce some other dependency after they have had time to think.

In GxP (regulated pharma projects) a common source of under-estimation is documentation effort.
For example it is very common to see a single line item in a document named “Design Document” with a timeframe allocated to it. e.g. 5 days.

When you look at the actual time and effort it takes it can look something more like:

Draft the Document – 3 Days
Issue Document for Review – 0 Days
Review wait Time – 3 Days
Update Post Review – 1 Day
Issue for Approval – 0 Days
Approval Wait Time – 3 Days
Approved – 0 Days
Released – 0 Days

So, in this very simple example it would seem that the actual time was double the original estimate. If a deep dive was done into the company’s procedures (and track record) for managing document review and approvals, this would have been captured.

Ownership and Accountability

If you experience a few minor occurrences of dark matter during a project, you can probably live with it. If on the other hand every time you expect to complete a task, you experience another instance of dark matter in the form of new tasks and dependencies, you need to stop, down tools and do a deep dive into the plan. Nobody will want to do this but it I necessary sometimes. Don’t however fall into the trap of follow exactly the same planning method. You will need to do something different. So allocate ownership of specific parts of the plan to individuals. Make it clear that you need their expertise to get int every detail before you can communicate out on another baseline of the plan.

Too often on a project the plan is seen as being the Project manager’s plan – it needs to be the team’s plan and they need to take ownership of their own elements where appropriate. This may be difficult at first but if someone knows that they are being judged on the quality, accuracy and performance of a plan, you will see a different response from the team. Be careful here to distinguish between blame and accountability.

When re-planning, the plan needs to be stress tested by peers and the SMEs to try to break it before you go public with it.


In summary

Dark Matter exists on software projects.
Don’t ignore multiple instances of dark matter, make the SMEs accountable.
Re-plan differently, learn from previous mistakes.
Stress test the plan.
Look for other potential areas of dark matter.

Further Reading

Other reading – Controlling Scope Creep see this previous blog here

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Creating Positive Habits for Project Delivery

From working on many projects over the years one can become accustomed to the culture of a project in terms of delivery, habits and work ethic. We can take a lot for granted in terms of what has become the norm for us.

On a recent assignment with a client we had found it difficult to recruit people with the right attitude for the upcoming body of work. We had to place junior graduates with more experienced project team members. The technical knowledge can be transferred over time and with the right attitude and desire anyone can learn how to do anything.

There is however a softer side to project delivery that is seldom written down – the ability to deliver under time pressure and maintain focus on the work at hand. The decision to give the graduates some exposure to more experienced people was not just to absorb the technical knowledge but to observe and learn the habits and attitude of delivery and the value of taking action.

Projects get completed because people take action, complete tasks and achieve objectives. Taking action is fundamental to successful project delivery. In trying to get this across to some of the new members of the project team we tired to categorize the practices, attitude and habits that we need them to adopt to be able to deliver consistently in a challenging environment.

We summarized the points that we were trying to make as follows

Successful Project Teams Take Action
With a ready-fire-aim mentality, nothing beats taking action. You could pull out a great book about success and learn from the greats, but there is no better teacher than experience, which comes only from taking action. Completing a training course may prepare you for what is to come but the experience of taking action will teach you so much more and this experience will stay with you.

People can spend too much time making a decision. They worry about making the “right” decision. A former boss of mine always encouraged us to “Fail Faster” as he was convinced that this would get us on the right track earlier than and long drawn out decision making process.

Even if the action is incorrect – you will learn that it is incorrect quickly and get back on track quickly instead of extensive procrastination and risk analysis.

Completing a training course may prepare you for what is to come but the experience of taking action will teach you so much more and this experience will stay with you.

Taking action will get you where you need to be much faster than detailed analysis. When you are faced with this situation, ask yourself – “What’s the worst outcome? What is the worst thing that can happen if I take this action?”

Consistent Action Creates Momentum
When you have momentum on your side, several benefits kick in. The momentum of being “in the zone” performing any task makes the task easier to perform. Momentum can also make a large body of work appear more manageable and achievable.

As you witness yourself doing more work, taking on additional work does not seem daunting. Surprises or unforeseen issues on a project are just absorbed into the main body of work when the project team has momentum. Have you heard of the saying – “If you want something done – ask a busy person.”

To use a sports analogy, regular training for a football match will prepare you for the match but actually playing more matches affords you the opportunity to get better at playing matches.

Consistent Delivery Becomes a Habit
When you work on projects long enough and get used to consistent delivery, this can become a habit, a positive habit. This can happen subconsciously at first but if you analyse performance between a time when you were not in a high paced delivery environment and being in an environment where consistent delivery is the norm, you will notice the difference.

Some research indicates that it can take approximately 60 days to form a habit, a habit that you don’t need to think about too much – it just happens.

Habits are often seen in a negative light. Looking at the dictionary definition:

Definition (noun)
1. a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

Doesn’t sound very inspiring does it? I prefer another definition that relates to the psychology of the word.
an automatic reaction to a specific situation.
Now that gives a more positive representation of the word. So as we stated above, where a high paced delivery and continuous execution of work is the scenario in which you find yourself – if we are exposed to this environment in the correct way for a prolonged duration – this can help to form the positive habit if you chose to do so. In acquiring the positive habit you will perform in response to the needs of the project. The same response in reverse would ensue if your response is negative and you form a bad habit,

This is by no means a new concept as the idea of positive habits defining the individual and subsequently success has been well documented for centuries. In the following passage written by one wiser than I, and shamelessly borrowed from the Talmud:

Pay attention to your thoughts, for they become your words.
Pay attention to your words, for they become your actions.
Pay attention to your actions, for they become your habits.
Pay attention to your habits, for they become your character.
Pay attention to your character, for it becomes your fate.

This passage places a huge emphasis on habits and their effect. Bringing this back to personal performance and the performance of teams it may seem somewhat philosophical but it does have some practical resonance in the working world today. If you replace the term fate for your performance. The message here is that strong performance is not an accident.
It is intentional based on your thoughts and your actions. Maintain focus on the task at hand while always keeping sight of the next milestone will ensure that your contribution to the project is positive. Thoughts, words, actions, habits ultimately define how we perform, so ensure they are always moving you forward towards the next goal or milestone and this starts with the right mindset.

Successful Project Teams Take Action
Consistent Action Creates Momentum
Momentum Creates a Positive Habit of Delivery

On a related topic read The Project Mindset

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