Project Management Articles > Kent McDonald

Kent McDonald

Kent McDonald

Kent J. McDonald is a writer and product manager who helps product people deliver powerful internal products. He has IT and product development experience in a variety of industries including financial services, health insurance, nonprofit, and automotive. Kent practices his craft as Content Curator at Agile Alliance and shares his ideas and experiences at When not writing or product managing, Kent is his family's #ubersherpa, listens to jazz and podcasts (but not necessarily podcasts about jazz), and collects national parks.

Kent is author of Beyond Requirements: Analysis with an Agile Mindset and co-author of Stand Back and Deliver: Accelerating Business Agility.

Kent has led through influence as a co-founder and former Board President of the Agile Project Leadership Network (APLN), and Board President of the Greater Iowa Chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He was Conference Chair for the Agile2013 conference and also chaired the 2009 Iowa Business Analyst Development Day. He has also been on the organizing committee for the Agile 2008, Agile 2009, and Agile 2011 Conferences and is part of the team that organizes dsmAgile.

Kent has a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from Iowa State University and an MBA from Kent State University.

What Makes an Effective Project Manager?
Exerting influence over what stays in the portfolio is a key sign of an effective project manager.
Even without positional authority, there are many ways PMs can influence leaders to avoid overloading the project portfolio.
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Archived articles -- Accessible to All

How to Deal with Fixed Triple Constraints
The secret to dealing with fixed triple constraints is to change how you define those constraints.
If you're locked into mandated scope, time, and cost constraints, these strategies can help you cope.
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How to Track Progress Effectively
How the underused parking lot diagram can solve your problem with burn-down charts.
Many Agile coaches swear by burn-down charts even though they introduce several concerns.
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How You Can Avoid Overallocation of Resources
Three things you can do to avoid (not handle) overallocation of resources across multiple projects.
The people who are supposed to get the work done find themselves being asked to work on multiple things at once, introducing the waste that comes along with context switching.
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How to Help a Product Owner from "The Business" Learn Their Role
Getting product owners involved in your agile launch is good. Getting them involved with the team on a regular basis is better.
What if you used frameworks as a guide to structure how to work together, instead of as a crutch, or even a prison?
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Six Tips for a Successful Project Launch
Six things you can do to keep your project as healthy as it was at launch.
Here are six things you can do during and after the project launch to improve the chances of project success.
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Three Steps for More Effective Projects
If you want an effective team, use these three steps to make sure they are not efficiently doing the wrong things.
One huge step in the right direction is to start thinking more about effectiveness. I think of effectiveness as building the right things in the right way.
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Stakeholder and User Analysis
I'd like to share some techniques that help you understand the people you are working with.
Since you can't do projects without involving people, it will almost certainly pay to take time to understand them.
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Strategy and Delivering the Right Thing
Not all projects deserve to exist. Here's how to have the hard conversations about whether your project is a necessity or an organizational distraction.
You can choose to be honest with yourself and your organization about how much you can actually get done, and productively decide which things on the list will get tackled, and which ones won't.
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Demos Are for Getting Feedback
Some frequently asked questions about product demos, answered from a product ownership perspective.
Should we always do demos? I am going to answer this question with a question. Should you always look for feedback?
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Real Options
Options have value, so never give them up before you have to.
When given a choice of whether to be wrong or to be uncertain, many people would rather run the risk of being wrong than continue in a state of uncertainty.
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The Minimum Viable Column
Minimum Viable Product does not mean "the least we can get away with." The keyword is "viable."
Contrary to traditional product development, which usually involves a long, thoughtful incubation period and strives for product perfection, the goal of the MVP is to begin the process of learning, not end it.
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The Project Was a Success, But the Business Went Bankrupt
Are you trying too hard to make your current project innovative?
Most projects are focused solely on parity activities and therefore should looking for ways to mimic good practices by competitors or simplify processes and solutions.
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The Insidious Evil of Templates
Do you have a Jekyll and Hyde relationship with your project methodology tools? Kent McDonald may know why.
As we discussed different tools to help them with backlog refinement, a couple of people said, "You know, I think we do that, but it ends up being a 'check the box' activity."
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Don't Risk Value for the Sake of Schedule
Before you sacrifice your project to the scheduling gods, make sure your client actually cares about how fast you work.
It started, as all good stories do, on a dark and stormy evening in May. A hailstorm rolled through our neighborhood while we were at an event in town.
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Quiet Retrospectives
Is your team retrospective as quiet as a tomb? Try this: Take a deep breath, count to three, and then ... say nothing.
Crickets. That's what Zac heard after asking the team for thoughts on how they could address the delays they ran into trying to engage with the infrastructure team.
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The Movie Phone Approach to Estimating
Why don't you tell me what number you had in mind?
When you come up with an estimate, your sponsor tells you it is too much, or too long, because they already have a number in mind. To deal with this, I've started using a new approach I call "Movie Phone Estimating."
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Stop Writing Checks Others Can't Cash
Before you make a promise regarding feature delivery, be sure you aren't drawing on someone else's bank account.
There weren't literally crickets in the team space, but if there were, their chirping would have been very audible over the distinct lack of sound coming from the delivery team members.
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What Problem Are You Trying to Solve?
Get your team talking, and clear up unrecognized assumptions, by asking them all to the project goals -- in public
In some cases, your delivery team doesn't know what product or asset they are working on, or it is better not to have them jumping to a solution yet. When this happens, it's better to back up a little and consider whether everyone has a good understanding of the problem you are trying to solve.
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Analysis in Agile – It's About Asking the Right Questions
Six questions your team should be able to answer before building anything.
While not all teams have managed to master the "how" portion of software development, many teams are placing a bigger focus on building the right thing (the what), and perhaps most importantly -- whether it's right to build anything at all (the why).
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Do Project Managers Have a Role in Agile?
Say you're a Project Manager. Say your organization is switching to Agile. Say what?
Organizations moving to agile methodologies naturally have to embrace self-organized teams, which can leave managers wondering where they fit in.
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Project Lessons Learned from America's Best Idea
An ambitious vacation program generates lessons for project managers with less impressive vistas to overlook.
It occurred to me as we were on one of our many hikes, that the story of our trip held some great project management lessons. I thought I would share some of those main lessons here.
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The Benefits and Costs of Documentation
When teams keep the proper perspective about documentation, they tend to experience many more of the benefits and fewer of the costs.
Project documentation has benefits, when done correctly. Project documentation also has costs which are often exacerbated by the amount of documentation teams choose to produce, the way in which they produce it, and the way they use it.
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Where Does a Project Manager Fit in Agile?
To understand where project managers fit in an agile project, it helps to know what roles exist in agile.
Project managers who will be working on agile projects should be sure to understand the type of leadership it needs.
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Project Closeout: Plan for the Peace, Not Just the War
Don't let the urgency of project work distract you from planning for what happens after the project is over.
Planning for after the project is not just a project management issue. It's an overall project concern. In other words, part of the outcome of the project is figuring out how to make that outcome happen.
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Ooo Shiny Syndrome
You can't cure Ooo Shiny Syndrome alone, but you can inoculate yourself, and your team, with these techniques.
I've always assumed that knowledge workers would prefer to be able to focus on one thing at a time, but I have found several cases in the last few weeks where knowledge workers suffered from the "Ooo Shiny Syndrome" and got distracted from their main responsibilities.
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SMART Objectives Aren't Always Project-Specific
Time, Budget, and Scope -- is that really all there is to it?
Unfortunately these criteria are insufficient for measuring project success and can be misleading.
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Be Careful What You Measure, You Just Might Get It
What do you really want from your team members? Lines of code? Bugs found? Use cases? Or teamwork?
There are two sayings that are commonly used when discussing measurement and management: "You can't manage what you don't measure," and "You get what you measure."
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Risk Management Takes a Village
Risk management? Isn't that the PM's job? Don't kid yourself.
Without fail, as soon as we finish these discussions a developer, tester, or business analyst will say something like, "That's great Kent, but I don't see how risk management applies to me." Seriously?
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Collaborating with Non-Collaborators
"If you're not with me, you're against me!" Figuring out how to work with people who aren't working with you.
George claimed that he was trying to work with Simon, but that Simon was not acting in a very collaborative manner. Meanwhile, Simon kept saying that George just refused to work with him. In effect, they were labeling each other non-collaborators.
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Is Your Project AWOL (Active Without Leadership)?
What would you do if confronted with an abrupt project impact and seemingly indifferent management?
I recently caught up with a friend of mine who I had not talked to in quite a while. While we were catching up, he told me that he had recently changed jobs and that while he really liked his new one, the switch was not his choice.
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A Personal Retrospective for 2010
Want to improve the next project? Start by asking the right questions after this one.
I have covered the topic of resolutions before. In this article, I'd like to talk about an activity that is always a good way to determine what some of those resolutions should be.
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Letter to Me
What would you tell yourself if you could speak back in time to that fresh-faced youngster on their first project management gig?
Hey, Kent, congratulations on getting that new Project Management gig. If you haven't figured it out already, this is you 15 years from now. I thought I'd drop you a line…
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It's easy to blame the Business Owner or the sinister conspiracy, but sometimes we're our own worst enemy.
Sure, technology can do things quickly, but if it's based on a bad process or flawed business logic, technology just produces bad results faster. Sometimes, the most elegant solutions are the simplest ones.
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Requirements for Requirements
There are better ways to write requirements about requirements than writing more requirements.
This week I found myself in a conversation that seemed surreal at the time. A data analyst had just suggested that we add a business requirement to capture metadata for all the data elements being added on a data warehouse project.
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Hawaii Uh-Oh
How to manage a successful project outcome when everything that can go wrong, does.
My wife and I were on the second of our four flights on the way to Kauai the Friday before Valentine's Day when I heard one of those things you never want to hear over the loudspeaker of an airplane.
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New Year's Resolutions for Your Project
What do wedding anniversaries, shoe size, and eye color have in common? They all point to a need for clearer project objectives.
Goals, especially those of the measurable type, are excellent ways to know when a project is successful. Having a clear idea of what problem the project is intending to solve doesn't hurt either.
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Titles and Accountabilities
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means (especially in the typical tangled project RACI chart).
In fact, there is no clear agreement on the definition of accountability, or the distinction between accountability and responsibility, and several people seem to use them interchangeably. This does no one any good, especially since the distinction between accountable and responsible is quite important.
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The DVD's of Business Ownership
Help your primary business stakeholders understand their critical role by focusing on three key activities.
Even though there shouldn't be such a thing as a Business Owner title, the role is so critical that the organization I described above did not allow a project to proceed without a specifically identified business owner.
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Show Me the (Different Kinds of) Money
The kind of money funding your project can have a huge impact on how well, or whether, it survives a cash flow crisis.
If times are good and your project is relatively small and low risk, chances are it probably isn't that relevant. Unfortunately, times are not the best right now, and there seem to be a lot of expensive, high risk, bet-the-company projects going on right now.
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Tying Projects to Organizational Strategy
Understanding why you're doing a project, and why it's important to your organization, makes decisions about how to do it much easier.
You can replicate this type of focused effort and motivation at your organization, with people paid to work on these projects, by identifying a similar tie to the organization's strategy. If you can identify what value the project adds to the business and communicate that clearly to the project team, chances are you will have a similarly motivated team.
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Keeping Up the Pace
Help your team set a work pace they could keep up forever (though hopefully the project ends a little sooner than that).
One way that marathon runners take care of themselves is to maintain a relatively consistent pace throughout the race. Some project teams follow a similar practice for pacing their work, known in one of the agile software development methods as "sustainable pace."
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Decisions, Decisions...
Postponing a decision isn't always procrastination. Sometimes it's the best call.
We were still three months out from the targeted implementation point, but there was a burning desire to make a decision NOW! Did we really need to make the decision right then?
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Teching Up a 19th-Century Pastoral Game
What baseball can teach us about technology rollouts.
There are several lessons to be learned about introducing a new process or system to a group of users from watching MLB dipping their toes in the technology pool. Because I am a big believer in learning from others' experiences, I thought I would share some of them with you.
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Running the Numbers
Budgets show how much money a project takes. Building a simple financial model shows you how they make money too.
Most project budgets are static, or are at least built to be very difficult to change. This limits the team's ability to quickly test out different scenarios based on different cost or revenue projections, which limits the information available for their decision-making.
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User Illusions
Just one customer representative to talk to, seated with the development team all the time... sounds like a great idea, doesn't it? Be careful what you ask for.
Agile advocates like to brag that one of the advantages of agile methods is that they stress regular involvement of the "customer" throughout the life of the project. Some people refer to the concept as the "single wringable neck."
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A Fool With a Tool
A tool in the right hands is powerful. But if the users haven't been properly prepared, it may creates more problems than it solves.
"If only we had a tool to do that..." And so it begins.
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Leading from Within: Supporting the Right Project Team
Projects call for several different kinds of leadership -- but only one should come from the project leader.
Let's face it, if you went to all of that work to form the right team, you would certainly hope that your work as a Project Lead was done, right? Oh, if only it were that easy. Read more ...

Picking the Right Project Team
What does the "best" development organization look like? Some key characteristics of high-performing teams.
Whenever possible, you want to make sure you have the right people on your team. So who are the right people? Read more ...

What Are We Building Again?
A concrete alternative to the usual Easter egg hunt approach to project scope statements.
For some reason, not knowing what a project is really supposed to accomplish is a common problem. Scope issues can lead to bigger problems down the road on the other two sides of that infamous Iron Triangle. Read more ...

Move Boulders, Don't Throw Pebbles
Why PMs need to sit back, bite their tongues, and learn to like the squares (for now)
Project Leaders willingly accept responsibility for protecting the team from outside distractions such as scope changes or demands from other parts of the organization. However, these same leaders often fail to realize that they can be a distraction to the team as well. Read more ...

What Is Agile, Really?
Kent McDonald discusses his Words to Lead By and the seven strategies he believes will change project management for the better.
I often find myself talking to people about agile outside of a formal presentation setting, usually in response to the infamous 'so what do you do?' question at fundraiser dinners or cocktail parties. Often, these are people who are not in the software business, so the inevitable question comes up: 'What is agile really, and can it apply outside the world of software development? Read more ...

What Does an Agile Project Plan Look Like?
Would you know an agile project plan if you saw one? Kent McDonald compares agile planning practices to traditional PM.
These differences could very well give experienced project managers a reason to stop and think. Many of these ideas run counter to what they have been taught and have practiced for several years. Read more ...

Questions from the Field: Do Agile Projects Require Different PM Skills?
How is leading an agile project different from leading a traditional one? For one thing, you spend a lot more time carrying water.
There are several differences between Traditional projects and true Agile projects that—from a project management perspective—can best be summed up by the concept of self organization. In traditional projects, the project manager not only provides the vision of the team, but also directs and manages the team... Read more ...

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