Project Management Institute

Foolish behavior

Max Keeler, Motley Fool, Alexandria, Virginia, USA

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Foolish Behavior

In 12 years at Motley Fool, Max Keeler has seen the online financial company through some ups and downs. When he started, the company was a 20-employee start-up that steadily grew into a 400-employee phenomenon. Then, it faltered and the company ranks were slashed to 80 employees who struggled to keep the organization alive.

The company regrouped in 2002 and completely revamped its project management office (PMO) four years later. The shift is paying off. Mr. Keeler, vice president of project management, discusses how adopting an agile approach to project management and embedding project managers in the teams has helped get the company back on solid ground.

Has Motley Fool always used project management methodologies?

Not always. We launched our PMO in 2000 when we realized there were more projects being done than necessary. At that time, we were in rapid hiring mode and pumping money in all directions. It was hard to communicate the business strategy to everyone and we needed a way to prioritize projects.

How have your project management methods changed over the years?

When we rebuilt the PMO in 2006, we started with traditional project management—focusing on developing a business case, team recruiting, sizing and execution. But we ran into problems right away. People were working on multiple projects and the team point of view was often different from the executive point of view. It wasn't productive.

We make sure everyone is educated on goals, that they have the right tools and resources, and we track their progress and give them feedback on how they can perform better.

In the throes of all of that, we attended an agile project management conference and it made sense to us. We invited the co-founders of the Scrum methodology, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, to talk to our executive team, and held Scrum workshops with our people. We got a lot of buy-in and rolled it out 10 months ago.

How has Scrum changed the way you approach project management?

Now we have dedicated teams aligned with key strategies, and each team has an embedded project manager—we call them “Scrum masters”—to create team cohesion. The project managers collocate with the teams, and it's the project managers' job to solve their problems by removing impediments to success. We make sure everyone is educated on goals, that they have the right tools and resources, and we track their progress and give them feedback on how they can perform better.

How are projects assigned?

We keep a prioritized backlog of project work that includes things like new features for the website, enhancements to the accounting system or new tracking tools. The work is broken into much smaller chunks. It's more continuous and there is a lot more feedback. Every two weeks, each team pulls as much work off the top of the backlog as they think they can accomplish.

What kind of challenges are you running into?

There are definitely weaknesses to the method, particularly if there are disparities in the equilibrium of the teams. For example, we may have one that's heavy on front-end development talent with a dearth of front-end development projects. It's highly disruptive to switch people around because we have a strong team mentality. Instead, we do a lot of training. An inability to work out a problem is an impediment, so we address it through mentoring, coaching and pair processes. PM

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

NOVEMBER 2008 PM NETWORK

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