By Francis Miers, Director at software consultancy Automation Consultants
Managing multiple large software projects in financial organisations can involve hundreds, if not thousands of team members, which presents a challenge for programme and portfolio managers who need to deliver projects on time. Often, they will also need to consider how to link thousands of developers’ and testers’ projects and activities to the organisation’s overall goals. This is not a straightforward task and requires specialist knowledge, tools and experience compared to managing a single project or set of projects in isolation.
For example, senior management at a large bank might have an objective of attracting more customers to open a certain type of account. A programme manager could very well be asked what IT investment needs to be made to bring in those customers. Until there is enough evidence to support one option or another, the programme manager will be forced to use intuition and experience to guess what investments need to be made. Even tracking a mass of project data will not easily yield much evidence of activities that increase the number of accounts opened. Instead, the programme manager will have to try lots of different tactics and track which yields the best results.
This requires putting in place a way of tracking the investment made in a particular area, linking relevant IT projects to that investment area, and regularly measuring the metric management is seeking to affect, in this case the number of a particular type of account opened. At large scale, to avoid trying to manage an impossibly complex set of variables, one of the few ways to do this is to introduce a custom field at project level linking it to the investment initiative. It is not a fine-grained approach, but it does link money spent to success in achieving a particular goal, without tracking too many variables.
Be creative and consistent
Where to begin in managing a portfolio of agile projects? In most cases, each project will have its team and manager (in scrum projects a scrum master), with its own particular way of working. For example, two different teams may have different measures of progress (e.g. story points can be scaled differently in every project). Portfolio managers, though, need a degree of consistency throughout the organisation to create meaningful reports on progress. They need to create a certain level of standardisation that all teams follow. Otherwise, consolidating the progress of different teams into a meaning measure of progress for the whole portfolio is impossible.
On the flip side, too much standardisation can stifle creativity and inhibit initiative. It is important to strike a balance between standardisation for consistent reporting and freedom for project teams to customise their working processes. This is something for senior management to bear in mind when creating standard reporting templates and KPIs.
Managing a portfolio or collection of projects is a big task for any one person to do on their own. A team of people is often required to collect the progress reports from individual projects, make them consistent and combine them into reports for the next level of management up. Very often this is done with nothing more advanced than a spreadsheet. In larger organisations, these consolidated reports may then undergo one or more further consolidations for higher levels of management. The whole reporting process is time-consuming and error-prone.
Various tools exist that can help, although no one has yet established itself as a de facto standard across the industry. This may be because mainstream adoption of agile development methods in the financial sector is still relatively new, and so, therefore, is the need for tools to managing large numbers of agile projects.
Best practice with a reporting framework is to permit customisation of reporting at a lower level (sprints and stories) and standardise it at upper levels (epics, releases and initiatives or groups of releases). The goal is to ensure that standardised reporting is still adhered to, despite beneficial customisations, and prevent wasteful processes like reporting of data in another tool (all too often the aforementioned spreadsheets). This approach takes time to bed down in a large organisation and requires a comprehensive training programme for scrum masters and other key actors in the agile development teams. A good standardised approach to reporting promotes efficiency in the generation of management information across the organisation, and can be adhered to whilst still allowing for creativity.
A further option for managing agile projects on a large scale has recently emerged in Atlassian’s new Jira Align tool, formerly AgileCraft. Atlassian acquired the company behind the tool (both were called AgileCraft) in March 2019, and renamed the tool to Jira Align. Despite the name, Jira Align is a standalone product, not related technically to Jira, although it integrates with Jira and with other project management tools. It scales up to the thousands of projects, and is suitable for managing the development efforts of large to very large organisations. An interesting feature of the tool is the ‘Why’ button. Every story, epic, initiative and strategic goal represented in the tool has a ‘Why’ button. Clicking it will reveal the next highest artefact in the hierarchy, all the way up to the strategic goals set by top management for the organisation. Thus, a developer working on the most minute task can discover, by a series of clicks, exactly where that task fits in the grand strategy of the organisation. Perhaps this feature would not be suitable for some more secretive organisations, but in the majority of cases, being able to know “what it’s all for” not only helps with co-ordination within and between teams, but is a powerful motivating factor.
Managing pressures on IT
Personalising and configuring collaboration and project management software is important for teams’ efficiency and creativity, but it can put pressures on the software. For example, project management tools like Atlassian’s Jira Software are highly configurable (think custom fields, workflows and issue types) but if every project has its own configurations, the performance of the tool as a whole can be adversely affected. Ideally, a balance must be struck between allowing project managers to configure and optimise the software for their projects while preventing customisations which slow the system down unduly.
The compromise here is usually found by restricting free-for-all customisation, and processing requests for customisation through a helpdesk. For any given request, the helpdesk can assess whether a similar customisation already exists, can decide on the likely performance impact versus the benefit of the customisation, and can advise on any other methods that could be used.
Train ‘power users’
An effective management strategy for software projects will only be successful if the people involved in the process know what they need to do. Managers need the right people in the right positions, which means scrum masters, project managers and other key actors who can, and are keen to be trained as ‘power users’ of a project management tool. It is essential to have a cadre of power users who know and buy into the reporting standards. The power users will be instrumental in establishing consistent processes and encouraging others to use tools according to the standards. They will also help to address IT issues with the tools, encourage creativity, and spread good practice.
Training a cadre of power users is why a comprehensive training programme is required, as noted above. Portfolio managers cannot ordain good practice from above – there must be buy-in from all involved. The more people understand the processes, and the need for them, the more likely projects will be completed on time and budget, which is the central goal of portfolio management.
IS YOUR OFFICE LEASE CRUSHING YOUR BOTTOM LINE? YOU HAVE OPTIONS
By Jonathan Wasserstrum, Founder / CEO, SquareFoot
These are unprecedented times for us all. Nobody has a playbook to get through it. Every company right now is undergoing a series of budget cuts and enduring difficult questions, trying to trim wherever it possibly can to help withstand the profound pressures and unique challenges that the covid scare haqs brought with it from an economic standpoint.
Companies looking to avoid having to make significant layoffs to offset their expenses are having to find other budget items that they can slash or reconsider. For many companies, especially those on the smaller side, that relief may come through renegotiating or rethinking their office lease. Especially at a time like this, when there’s so much uncertainty on how long this pandemic might last, and with staffers working from home indefinitely, this sizable area of cost to the business doesn’t make sense for some businesses to carry.
At SquareFoot, the commercial real estate company I founded in 2011, near the beginning of a decade of positive economic outlook, I envisioned helping growing companies to find office space. And I staffed up with a talented team of in-house brokers to show offices in NYC, and to work on deals in 30 other major U.S. cities.
I raise this background to offer some context for how dire the situation is now with regard to commercial real estate, when it’s not possible to show available office spaces to interested parties. Just a month ago, we were looking ahead at a very promising 2020, on track to act on and to achieve goals we had set. Because of this current economic downturn that has hit us all, we’ve also had to shift priorities accordingly.
We’ve instructed our brokers – effective immediately – to make themselves available to all concerned business owners as trusted advisers to walk them through their current leases and to outline for them all of their options. Even if they never do a transaction with us, I want my team to step up and provide some expertise to stressed-out executives. This is our small but significant way of helping to prevent other companies from having to let go of key staffers. We want to make this an easy choice for entrepreneurs. But, first, it requires them to understand what options they can move on.
We are already working closely with a number of businesses to review and to summarize their current leases, giving them some clarity and greater comprehension of what is set in stone and what can be adjusted in the wake of this crisis. Among the options that I and the team are exploring on behalf of those who have reached out include:
- Checking with your insurance agent about your Business Interruption Insurance coverage;
- Subletting the space. It’s not an optimal time to find a subtenant, but it’s still something worth pursuing to salvage the situation at hand;
- Post empty desks on PivotDesk, a business unit that SquareFoot owns and operates to rent out (as a host) a small number of desks within an office (to a guest) to share the space;
- Propose a rent abatement now from the landlord and arrange for a term at a higher escalated rent on the back end; or
- Walking away. Closing up shop and declaring bankruptcy isn’t anyone’s first option, but handing back the keys and letting the landlord keep your security deposit is a path forward for the most desperate of clients.
Obviously, this is not a situation that anyone hoped to be in or had prepared for. We don’t proclaim to have all of the answers for every company, but we do hope that giving some knowledge and sharing some wisdom with those in the most vulnerable of positions right now would leave them better off than without it. In addition to the specifics of the situation for each individual client, we can also step back and have offered some additional background on what to expect from the real estate market in the coming months.
For instance, we anticipate that subleasing will emerge as increasingly important to fill spaces quickly. Amid the 2008 financial crash, subleases went from 20% of the market to 45% of the real estate market after the stock market market crashed. If that’s the direction we’re heading again – and it seems we might – it’s perhaps wisest for those holding onto long term leases to act quickly.
Once the quarantine is lifted, it’s possible that everyone else will catch up and get wise to this opportunity in the market and they will likely request these types of discounted transactions in a rush all at once; subleases could flood the market, driving costs straight up.
Moreover, if similar effects on the office market emerge soon the way they did during the 2008 financial crisis then there will likely be a sharp increase in the number of tenants looking to:
- Renew their lease
- Arrange for a short-term extension of their lease
This is the lowest risk strategy for any tenant, of course. Lease renewals are likely to be incredibly popular in the coming months. We expect that landlords will be working closely and compassionately with tenants at this time to offer existing tenants who are looking for short-term extensions to offer incentives, in the form of free or reduced rents.
As the markets go sideways, you can likely find better value on the space you already have. Whether you work with my team and me, or with someone else, we still advise that you should act quickly. Right now, it’s all about reducing costs to keep people in place. Your office lease is a better place to start the discussion than anywhere else on that long list of expenses.
CAPITAL MARKETS – LIQUIDITY MANAGEMENT DURING COVID-19
Tony Farnfield, Partner at management and technology consultancy, BearingPoint
When “Dr. Doom” predicted the 2008 financial crisis back in 2006, and spoke of a necessitated market correction and was calling for the repricing of riskier assets; predicting a continuation of a global financial slowdown, or even a global recession starting in 2020, this prediction was based on known factors affecting the global economy. The unforeseen outbreak of Covid-19 and the increased volatility this has brought to global financial markets was not taken into account.
Three months on from the initial outbreak, and we have already witnessed the biggest intraday drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The outbreak, coupled with the oil price shock, triggered responses from the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and Central Bank of Canada to cut benchmarks rates in an effort to even out the shock to the wider economies.
There is a high degree of uncertainty on how the coronavirus crisis will unfold. We could experience only a temporary disruption – lasting from a few weeks to a few months, or a prolonged stress in markets, assuming that it will be months until vaccine clinical trials begin and with rate cuts (already reaching bottom) having limited effects on the required stimulus.
Banks have undeniably improved their liquidity following regulatory guidance post financial crisis; however, treasury departments will need to prepare and caveat for a wide range of possible outcomes. Traditional stress testing, scenario development and re-calibration have not taken into account conditions such as the ones experienced with the Covid-19 outbreak or the speed with which things evolved.
At a generic level, there are three key steps Treasurer’s should look to take:
- Convert uncertainties into emerging and quantifiable risks
This is already being considered by some of the larger financial institutions under their crisis management responses. However, it’s important to highlight that even for those that have triggered the crisis management process, the forecasting, rebalancing and risk assessment should be continuous, taking into account new developments in the following manner:
Continuously monitor and develop scenarios of potential sources that could disrupt funding and liquidity usage. With the right analytical capability, cash-flow projections should adapt to changing scenarios, including scenarios coming from the different business lines. Scenario sources could include unexpected credit usage that could encourage either large prepayments or defaults, or changing corporate customer behaviour – deposit inflows from corporates and depositors affecting leverage-constrained institutions. Also, there should be some consideration given to the availability of funding sources or, for wholesale funding, acceleration or reduction of funding plans.
Take immediate actions in increasing liquidity and cash holdings in the short term to cover for the uncertainty.
Continuous risk assessment
Account for emerging risks previously not accounted for, such as the temporary closure of operations or reduced capacity of market utilities. Assess those scenarios and how these are captured and factored in stress tests. Intraday liquidity should be the primary focus to understand immediate cash requirements.
- Refine your liquidity risk measurement
Better identification, measurement and analysis of key liquidity drivers should become core for an institution’s ability to effectively manage and mitigate particularly unique risks not previously considered. To do this, Treasurers should consider the frequency of their monitoring, and increase levels to daily stress tests and daily Early Warning Indicator testing to include daily developments.
In-depth analysis of risks
Re-run your liquidity risk identification exercise to understand better your current exposures, especially examining certain instances of this outbreak crisis, e.g. oil-related exposures, airline, marine or supply chain related exposures etc.
Re-calibrate based on new understanding
Re-assess existing scenarios or add new scenarios in covering a range of events and timeframes (e.g. sustained spread of the virus over x months vs limited spread and containment). Revisit your Early Warning Indicators to monitor emerging risks. At a later point, revisit these to assess if market signals existed and if they were picked up by your indicators.
- Review your mitigation plan
Identification, assessment and measurement is only part of the overall response. Stresses or risks that can be crystallised need to be accompanied by mitigative actions, agile and feasible enough under the current market conditions. Contingency funding actions might need to be revisited to determine if additional actions need to be considered.
Revisit and verify the availability of near real time reports, such as positions of securities holdings reports. Such information should be readily available and synthesised in the event that you will need to communicate clear and concise plans to investors, regulators or other market participants in relation to liquidity management strategies to foster confidence in the market.
In summary, reviewing and preserving an institution’s liquidity under extreme and volatile circumstances is the core responsibility of any treasurer. However, we know that any scenario or contingency planning is unlikely to be fully predictive of unprecedented scenarios such as this. Re-visiting already set practices and testing their efficacy and completeness should be the first step before considering inserting new scenarios and new actions into the mix. Nothing tried and tested can always remain true.
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