PM Interviews: Alex S. Brown

This week I had the pleasure of asking Alex S. Brown to share some of his extensive project management knowledge and experience with us. Alex has worked for a whole host of large companies in a variety of environments. He now runs his own business delivering training and coaching to other project management professionals as well as being a popular speaker at numerous events.

Q: Many people may already know you from the articles you publish on or through your training and speaking work. Can you give us a brief summary of your career to date?

I graduated from Princeton University and my first experience with project management came at Automatic Data Processing. I did not even know I was doing project management or that there was such a job but I was starting to run projects. I started doing sales support for market data services and grew into managing development projects.

I went on to work at Merrill Lynch, Chubb & Son and Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance, gaining responsibility for more complex projects, mostly in IT. I discovered and joined the Project Management Institute (PMI) in 2000 (while working at Merrill Lynch). That was a huge step for me. I quickly got my Project Management Professional (PMP) qualification and starting speaking and writing.

At Mitsui Sumitomo I began working closely with the top senior managers: doing strategic planning and helping them execute their strategic plans through projects. Recently I have gotten involved in other professional organizations, including the International Project Management Association (IPMA), the American Society for the Advancement of Project Management (asapm) and the Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering (AACEi).

In June of 2007 I decided to work full time for my own company: Real-Life Projects. I wanted to be able to share what I had learned with as many different people as possible wherever those ideas were going to have an impact.

Q: Starting out on your own must have been a big step. Do you feel it was worthwhile? What were the highs and lows?

It was definitely worthwhile. I enjoy the life and the freedom of running my own company. Having previously set strategy and goals for projects it is a joy to have the authority to set goals and strategy for my own company now. Creating my own business plans has been a real high for me.

Occasionally there are down days. Marketing is still hard for me and sometimes I get caught up in problems with accounting or computer issues which can be frustrating. I have professionals who I can call on for help but I am ultimately responsible for everything. It is so frustrating to plan out a day for follow-up calls only to get sidetracked on some administrative issue. I set tough goals for myself and I get frustrated when I cannot meet them.

Q: What are you currently working on?

The work I do for clients is usually six-weeks or less in duration. In between I do marketing. My schedule includes some dates teaching classes in project management and scheduling. I have proposals out for review to help improve scheduling processes and I recently completed some recommendations for an Azerbaijani insurance company’s automation.

Q: Through your work you must meet a wide range of people with differing needs. What do you perceive as the greatest current challenge for project managers and how do you help your clients overcome it?

The greatest challenge is always communication. People blame project failures on missed dates, budget problems, technology or other issues. But ultimately a project failure is a failure to communicate. If we communicate well then schedules and budgets should be revised. If we communicate well then we should be able to overcome technology problems and disappointments.

Personally I have spent most of my career working to become a better communicator. I am an introvert but I joined Toastmasters to learn public speaking and I now speak several times a month. I practice all the time. I often recommend Toastmasters to project managers I work with as a way to do life-long learning in speaking, communication and leadership.

Joining Toastmasters looks like a great way to improve your communication skills. What would you say are the top things that being a member has taught you?

The biggest and most important lesson has been that mastering any kind of communication is a lifelong journey and that journey is all about practice. I used to think some people were just born to be better speakers or writers. Now I know that the best speakers and writers practice all the time. They share their best material when they perform but they practice, practice, practice. Toastmasters has given me the chance to speak as often as I want and try new things in a receptive, supportive and no-risk environment.

I have learned more specific techniques that I can count including being able to tell a joke in a serious speech, opening a speech with a gripping start and how to call a meeting to order when there are dozens (or even hundreds) of people in the audience.

Toastmasters is a great programme and I really do highly recommend it.

Q: What do you think has been the most important change in project management over the last 10 years?

I still consider myself a “youngster” in this field and I do not know what to pinpoint. The two most critical things for me in the past 10 years have been:

  1. Discovering the community of project managers through PMI, IPMA, asapm and AACEi
  2. Starting to link organizational strategy to project execution

Q: What is your number one project management tip, trick or technique?

Project charters. We all have them but many of us do not understand them. Understand who authorized you to run this project and what the project is supposed to accomplish. All project success starts from the charter.

Q: What characteristics do you think it’s important to look for when bringing people on to a team?

An ability to work together. No one can be successful on every team. The people have to fit together and learn to work together. If you ever have a great team working together then you should try not to break them up.

Q: How much domain and/or technical knowledge do you think someone managing a project has to have?

To get the work done people need to understand the work of the project. Occasionally I have seen some project managers succeed without domain knowledge but only with a trusted adviser who is a domain expert. I prefer a domain expert when selecting a PM.

Q: What is your biggest bug bear/gripe/pet peeve?

Currently it is the PMI standards process. I think the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide is a great document but the recent versions suffer from a disconnect from reality. There is a term “scheduling model” that has crept into the PMBOK Guide and it is now spreading to the Scheduling Standard and other PMI standards. It is a word I have never heard a real scheduler use. I just got an e-mail from someone saying that the 4th Edition of the PMBOK Guide has brought back the technique of PERT estimating which has been entirely replaced by Monte Carlo methods among professional risk managers. My own attempts to protest to the term “scheduling model” in an exposure draft lead to no changes and I worry that PERT will now be put back in the PMBOK Guide. I fear that the new standard teams are out of touch with the real practice of project management.

I find it to be a common attribute of heavyweight standards and processes that they can quickly lose their real life applicability. Why do you think this happens?

Personally I like standards that are short, specific and customized. There is a place for long and complex standards, like the ones published by PMI, but for real customers I try to boil down standards and guidelines into a few pages.

Complex and long standards become so difficult to understand that you need an expert in the standard itself in order to use it and modify it. The more time the experts spend with the standard itself, the less time they spend actually applying it and actually running projects. The standards then become more out-of-touch with real life. As they become more out-of-touch they also usually grow and become more complex. This cycle repeats thus making the standard become less and less useful over time. Eventually someone may produce a new standard or they might simplify the standard to make it more practical again.

Can you tell us a bit more about your experience of PERT and Monte Carlo methods and why you think Monte Carlo based approaches should be preferred?

PERT is based on a simplified formula of three-point estimates. The formula describes a normal bell-shaped distribution curve. There is a likely outcome and the likelihood of a higher or lower value drops off according to a well-known statistical formula. It works well for random and even distributions of risks and outcomes.

Unfortunately project risks are not even, random or normal. Few real-life risks follow a bell-shaped curve. For instance it might be likely that a coder can create a specific module in two weeks. That is our “likely” estimate. It is possible that they can get it done in 1.5 weeks: that is our “minimum” estimate. What is the maximum time? There is really no limit to the maximum possible time it could take. The minimum estimate we can reasonably estimate but not the maximum. For the sake of argument, we will say the maximum is 10 weeks.

PERT would take these three estimates and try to fit them into an even bell-curve distribution. Because the distribution is highly skewed, with a small amount of possible improvement over the likely outcome, but a large amount of possible delay, the bell-shaped curve will never capture the estimate well.

Monte Carlo software lets you select the correct shape of the distribution curve from several different choices. Most people would select a “triangle” distribution with the minimum of 1.5 weeks, a peak at 2 weeks and a steady roll-off in likelihood going out to 10 weeks. A good software package will offer ten or more different types of shapes of probability curves and then it will mathematically calculate the shape of the curve of the final result (such as the final end-date).

Monte Carlo is much better able to correctly model real-life project risks.

I tried using PERT once but the minimum and maximum estimates were simply not believable. With Monte Carlo it takes some time to build a good model of my risks but the final graphs are more realistic and believable.

Q: How do you see project management evolving into the future?

It is clearly growing as a recognized tool and discipline. I expect that there will be tremendous discussion around how to integrate project management into the whole enterprise. Project Management Offices were a start but I do not think they are right for every organization and they may not work well in the long-term. Programme management and project portfolio management will become increasingly important topics in the next ten years.

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1 comment so far

  1. Michael Wilkes on

    The nature of communication as a critical success factor cannot be overstated. I recently watched a huge (to the customer) project completely implode because of a dysfunctional relationship between the person holding the checkbook and the person driving the scope. No matter how hard the outside consultant tried to provide clarity, control scope, and give savvy guidance, the project’s fate ultimately rested on the success of this internal communication — and it failed.

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