Buses, trains and schedule optimisation

High risk rapid delivery or lower risk slower delivery – which would you go for?

Buses Trains and Schedule Optmisation

Until recently, my morning commute into work comprised a bus journey to the station, a train into London, and another bus to the office. One morning a few weeks ago I was ready about ten minutes earlier than usual so instead of waiting about 15 minutes to catch my usual bus, I took the earlier bus from near my house. I had already bought my train ticket so I didn’t have to queue at the station, instead waiting just a few minutes to get on a train about 25 minutes earlier than my usual one. Once in London I went to the bus stop, and joy of joys, the bus arrived straight away.

All in all, by leaving my house about 25 minutes earlier than usual, I managed to arrive at my desk at least 45 minutes earlier. I had made a significant time “profit”!

There were some unexpected but very welcome fringe benefits too – the earlier trains and buses are less crowded and so I have more chance of getting a seat (making the journey more pleasant) and often enough elbow room to do some work on the way (making the journey also more productive).

It occurred to me that what had happened here was akin to what I do at work with schedule tuning – I had experienced a journey with less slack time (waiting) between the fixed duration events (journey stages) to enable an earlier final delivery (my arrival at my desk).

I now regularly use this approach to get to my desk earlier. Having less slack in the plan introduces risk of course; if any of my journey stages runs even a few minutes late then it all falls apart and the rest of the journey reverts to the (considerably slower) Plan B. But it works enough of the time to make it worth persisting.

Are you able to use schedule optimisation like this to cut the overall duration of your projects? Are you more concerned with earlier delivery, regardless of overall project duration? Or do you go for a less risky plan with more slack?

© Copyright Pragmatic PMO Ltd, first published in 2012

PMOs perfectly positioned to help make project products persistent

How PMOs can smooth the path of projects, to help make changes more “sticky”

Photograph of the London Eye, superimposed with the text "PMOs perfectly positioned to make project products more persistent"

A while back I attended a PMO FlashMob discussion facilitated by Ranjit Sidhu of ChangeQuest and hosted as usual by Lindsay Scott of Arras People.

This session was on how PMOs can help projects to deliver organisational change more effectively. There were several interesting take-away messages, of which I found the most interesting to be:

  • If you want a change to “stick” (without people reverting to the old way of doing things), it is just as important to get the people ready for the change (Change Management) as it is to get the change ready for the people (producing project deliverables).
  • The most successful Change projects allow stakeholders time to “grieve” for the old ways, and time to become familiar with the new ways. These projects put in consistent effort to maintain momentum on the journey from the “as is” to the “to be”, until the post-change ways become “the new normal”
  • Small pilots (preferably including some vocal objectors) can generate early successes that can be used as good news stories to spread the word and help to form positive opinions.
  • Change projects may well be asking BAU workers to carry extra work above and beyond their “day jobs” (with all its targets and objectives). During major changes, a significant proportion of people experience sufficient stress so as to pose a risk to their mental health. What can projects do to help organisations come through the Change experience still healthy?
  • Just telling people about the Change and what will happen will only get you so far. Listening to stakeholders and demonstrating what you have done with their feedback will get you much farther.

PMOs (especially PfMOs) have a unique position on the interface between the projects being carried out to effect organisational change, and the people out in the wider organisation who experience the change happening to them. So PMOs can help changes to stick by:

  • Including change management themes in project reporting (at least as a RAG category, or preferably as a measured deliverable).
  • Devising and delivering approaches to express change management as a quantified KPI.
  • Becoming the “eyes and ears” of projects; picking up informal stakeholder views on projects.
  • Project and Programme PMOs can also make change easier internally by providing good quality inductions for new project team members.

So those were the key points for me (Lindsay’s are here) from what was a very informative and useful session on how PMOs can help to make change “sticky”.

© Copyright Pragmatic PMO Ltd, first published in 2015

Project Planning Pointers

Like a piece of machinery, plans need a good design, room to breathe, and good maintenance…

Project Planning Pointers

A while back I attended an APM presentation on the role of the dedicated Project Planner, part of a series given by Andrew Jones, at the time of Athena Project Services.

His presentation contained several key points that resonated with me so I thought were worth restating in the light of my own experience.

  1. Estimates need to have a solid foundation. No, a finger in the air won’t do here. Base your estimate on a similar project that was done recently. Base it on productivity figures and lines of code. Base it on PERT or three-time estimating if you like, but be comfortable with how you derived it and have at least some idea of the potential error margin. I have used all of these estimating techniques at some time or other, and knowing the likely accuracy at least gives you a guide for how much contingency to build in, which brings me to…
  2. Build in some contingency. A knotty one, this! In most plans where I have explicitly built in contingency, I have been required to remove it to reduce timescales. In most cases, of course, something has then happened to increase the project timescales, and the final delivery has ended up where it would have been with contingency in place, except that the project is now Late. No wonder project managers are tempted to build in “secret” contingency, and deliver on time?
  3. Update the plan with actuals (durations, costs, etc,). If a task was late due to a delay, add in a task showing this delay and label it accordingly. The schedule then acts as an audit trail for delivery. If any of the tasks are repeated, use the actuals from iteration 1 to refine the estimates for iteration n. Follow through and see what the impact is on delivery. I have found it is very difficult to get people to care about activities once they’re complete, but this approach does mean that you can apply your learning from the past to the future, and best of all this happens while the project is still running.
  4. Manage the Critical path. Make sure you make good use of dependencies, and as little use of time constraints as possible. I always do this as much as possible, as it enable you to see the effect of any changes on the critical path at the touch of a button. The plan should be a useful mathematical model of the project, not just a pretty picture on the wall of some coloured bars linked together.
  5. The act of developing the plan is as important as the plan itself. Or perhaps more important! Thinking through the steps in detail, rehearsing the project in the team’s collective mind, is a great way of identifying potential pitfalls and managing them while they are still risks, if appropriate.

What are your experiences? Do you agree with Andrew and me? Do you have any planning tips you would like to share?

© Copyright Pragmatic PMO Ltd, first published in 2013

Strategies for social CPD – Creating a PM community

How learning groups spontaneously form and disperse…

Some people sitting at a meeting table watching another person write on a white board. They may well be having a learning session

A while back I attended an APM focus group facilitated by Dr Michael Moynagh of CPD Futures Ltd on developing strategies to improve the way that project professionals approach continuing professional development (CPD). One of the topics that came up was that established approaches to CPD (including the approach promoted by the APM) are somewhat rigid and introspective, and lack a social dimension. The suggestion arose that some sort of group learning approach might be helpful, e.g. creating a PPM Community of Practice.

I have seen this happen with some success (albeit rather briefly!) in the following situation:

  • The organisation had stated its aim of raising the standard of the organisation’s approach to Project Management (and hence the professionalism of the individual PMs)
  • An entire department of PMs had been through some comprehensive PM training (delivered very professionally and capably by Michael Nir of Sapir Consulting)
  • Following the training, all the PMs were given the opportunity to go on and attempt to gain the PMI‘s PMP certification, which a good proportion of them (including me) took up.
  • For those going on to take the certification, there was a fairly hefty exam in prospect, preparation for which involved a fair bit of study and exam practice (I guess this is the CPD / Learning Community equivalent of a “burning platform”).

As a result, a group of us set up “Lunch ‘n’ Learn” sessions every week or so for several months, in which contributors would take it in turns to give a short (20 mins or so) refresher presentation on a topic (say earned value) and then ask some example PMP questions – all over lunch in a spare meeting room.

This worked quite well, but tailed off as the people sat the exams and either passed (in which case they had little interest in attending further) or failed (in which case they generally didn’t attempt a re-sit). It was good while it lasted though, and produced a few learning points for me:

  1. Communities of practice form spontaneously where there are shared interests and objectives.
  2. Participation is maximised when there is an opportunity for (or even an expectation of) contributions from all.
  3. For a community of practice to thrive, contributors must have a genuine interest in the development of both themselves and of others. Don’t be surprised if a significant proportion of potential participants don’t have such an interest. You can lead a horse to water…

Have you seen PM communities of practice? How were they formed (were they organised or spontaneous)? How long did they last? Were they successful? What approaches do you recommend? Let me know in the comments.

Image by WOCinTech Chat, flic.kr/photos/wocintechchat/25392513823
Licence at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

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Stakeholder-led Project Management – Changing the way we manage projects (Book Review)

by Louise M Worsley, Business Expert Press (New York) 2017
ISBN 978-1-63157-467-2
191 pages, RRP £28.45 (review copy supplied free of charge by the publishers)
Pragmatic PMO Rating: ****

Overview

  • The aim of this book is to provide a stakeholder-centred analysis of projects, and to explain which stakeholder identification, analysis, communication and engagement models are most relevant to different types of projects.
  • Using case studies from around the world, it illustrates what goes wrong when stakeholders are not engaged successfully, and what lessons we can learn from these examples.
  • The book is aimed at project professionals who find themselves involved in managing projects with stakeholders (so that’s just about all of them then!).

What’s inside

  • This book is based on evidence from over 200 project stories gathered over five years, and the common theme of stakeholder engagement as the key differentiator between success and failure.
  • Having first rejected the term “stakeholder management” in favour of less sinister-sounding “stakeholder engagement”, the book starts with a review of the current state of stakeholder engagement both in projects (opportunities for improvement) and other disciplines (opportunities for cross-pollination).
  • It goes on to present a range of models and techniques for stakeholder identification, action and review, including the use of emerging communications technology.
  • It continues with an analysis of the difference between communication and engagement, before finishing off with a review of the main learning points, and what to focus on to create meaningful engagement in projects and programs.
  • In classic text book form (was this book written for PM students?) it finishes each chapter with a chapter summary and a series of questions designed to stimulate reflection.

Some of my favourite take-aways

  • The composition of stakeholder groupings changes over time (sponsors and product users during implementation and after Go Live, widening to include sometimes entire countries in the case of infrastructure projects), so need to plan with the end in mind and engage stakeholders who aren’t yet aware of or interested in the project.
  • If you think you are doing stakeholder engagement and its not making a difference to how you run your project, then you aren’t!
  • Effective stakeholder engagement becomes more important the more greater the technical difficulty of the project, and much more important the greater the human difficulty

    “Projects can no longer choose if they want to engage with stakeholders or not; the only decision they need to take is when and how to successfully engage”

  • Role-based stakeholders are defined by a role they have in the project (Client, Decision maker, Expert). Identify them using organisational breakdown structure analysis, project governance checklists, and asking “who else should I be talking to?”
  • Agenda-based stakeholders represent a viewpoint, usually external to the project, which may not be apparent until a crisis emerges. Although they may be silent initially, these stakeholders often have the greatest impact. Identify these using Focus groups, 1:1 interviews, Strategic tools (e.g. SWOT, PESTLE analysis), successive nomination (snowball sampling)
  • Stakeholder-neutral projects have clear, generally agreed outcomes. Engagement peaks at the project start, and again just before transition
  • Stakeholder-sensitive projects have clear outcomes that affect people and practices. These people need to be considered when designing the outcomes, and engaged throughout the project.
  • Stakeholder-led projects are highly influenced by stakeholder groups and individuals, so engagement is critical.
  • Parallel projects are not directly aimed at programme objectives, but are sometimes set up to safeguard critical success factors for another project
  • Good stakeholder engagement:
    • Gives people a say in decisions that affect them
    • Promises that participation will influence decisions – and demonstrates how
    • Seeks out those potentially affected by, or interested in, a decision
    • Seeks input from stakeholders on how they may wish to participate
    • Provides information, time, and space to allow stakeholders to participate in a meaningful way
    • Is polite

The Verdict

  • This book is written in an easily readable style, is not too long (I read it in 3-4 hrs, and I was making notes for this review) and has some useful pointers on how to improve stakeholder engagement, drawn from both theory and experience.
  • With the amount of information and ideas in this book, most PM professionals should easily be able to find enough implementable suggestions to justify the cover price; so this book is recommended.

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What makes a “Good” lesson learned?

How to write a good lesson learned

Following on from a couple of talks I have given recently on why organisations don’t learn as much as they could from running projects, I was asked how to write a “good” Lesson Learned.

This was captured well in one of the responses to my survey

“Many ‘lessons learned’ are merely observations, with no suggestion on how to do things differently. Two or three actionable recommendations are more useful than 20 observations without any suggestions.”

To write a “good” Lesson Learned:

  • The PM should craft a story describing what happened. This could be written, delivered as a presentation, in a face to face conversation, or recorded as a video. The thing to remember is don’t polish it too much and murder the message by suffocating it in layers of “corporatese”; make it Personal, Powerful and Passionate to keep it engaging. Your story should be in STARR format, covering:
    1. Situation: This is what we were faced with (constraints, risk, issue, etc.)
    2. Target: This is the outcome we wanted to achieve
    3. Action: This is what we did
    4. Result: These were the consequences of our actions (nothing new so far I know, but here it comes…)
    5. Recommendation: (the “moral” of the story) So in order to achieve better outcomes in the future, this is how we recommend that people (including us) should behave differently, or how we should change process (rules, systems, etc.) to improve future outcomes (i.e. things to do / not do; IF this situation applies THEN do this, etc.). This is the “so what?” that changes the Lesson from being interesting story to an actionable piece of advice based on real life experience.
    6. …and lastly the PM should include details of how they can be contacted to have a conversation in case they’ve left the organisation by the time the lesson is being watched / read.
  • At the “next level up”, the PMO should consider whether there is more learning that could be extracted  from the lesson, and whether the learning could be transferred to similar projects / scenarios. If so, they could write a more generalised version of the lesson.

What about storage?

I was then asked this follow-up question:

Is this the same lesson you'd store centrally?

I would say that both the original and the “next level up” versions of the Lesson could and should be stored centrally, but the word “store” brings up images of a musty room containing miles of shelves of dusty folders that never get touched again, a bit like this…

Does your Lessons Learned repository function like this?
Does your Lessons Learned repository function like this?

The key here is that the central repository shouldn’t be an information graveyard, where Lessons go to Die.

Instead the repository should be made searchable and social (e.g. using SharePoint?) so that PMs can easily find the Lessons they need; and the PMO should be on hand to help them find relevant information if they need it (for more on this look at this excellent article by Louise Worsley).

And filing shouldn’t be the only thing that happens to Lessons, as that by itself doesn’t ensure they are acted on.

More than just filing

Lesson(s) could and should be used as material for Lunch & Learn or “scar sharing” sessions, or Vlogs, or used in the “Call 3” approach devised by John McIntyre (take a look at this article for more explanation and an example Lessons Learned Vlog).

All of this helps an organisation and the people within it to learn from their collective  experience of running projects and to (hopefully!) deliver better project outcomes in the future.

So that’s what I think. Do you agree? Do you have something to add?

Let me know in the comments!

Image “Wimborne Minster: later books in the chained library” © Copyright Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Scheduling, Monitoring & Control: The Practical Project Management of Time, Cost and Risk (Book Review)

by APM PMCSIG, Association for Project Management (Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire) 2015
ISBN 978-1-903-49444-8
327 pages, RRP £50 (review copy supplied free of charge by the publishers)
Pragmatic PMO Rating: ****

Overview

  • This book is a good reference guide to Planning, Scheduling, Monitoring and Control, with most of the topics covered at introductory to intermediate level in relatively informal jargon-free language with plenty of helpful diagrams.
  • The guide is aimed at students and practitioners, so I’m a bit puzzled why it begins with a chunky explanation of how projects are defined and the documents used. At 20 pages this section is too hefty for the completely uninitiated, but has nowhere near enough detail to be useful an already-practicing project manager (who would be better off referring to one of the BoKs or methodologies). I guess however that novice Project Planners may find it useful for context and orientation, and it signposts topics for further reading.

What’s inside

  • The book gives a useful and succinct description of the differences between planning and scheduling:
    • Planning is the art of deciding on the best way to do the project, defining scope and deliverables, and getting agreement from the stakeholders. It is broader than scheduling and logically happens earlier.
    • Scheduling is the science of estimating how long it will take and how much it will cost to deliver tasks, and sequencing them to create a logical model of the future that can predict when project outputs can be delivered. This model progressively becomes fact as estimates are revised and activities completed.
  • Next there are tips on planning and scheduling, including some suggested approaches for creating and quality-checking the documents. It describes how to set a schedule baseline, how to evaluate the impact of any changes requested (using offline, static copies of the live schedule), and how to update the baseline to take account of approved changes.
  • Monitoring approaches are then described, with a warning that no one of these gives a complete picture of the project’s status. Earned value analysis (EVA) comes closest, but requires significant effort
  • The book recommends regular schedule co-ordination meetings, to review recent progress (recording reasons behind any slippage for analysis later) and future tasks within an agreed time window, allowing team leaders to plan the near future in detail.
  • There is a good introduction to quantitative schedule risk analysis (a.k.a. Monte Carlo analysis) and the value it can bring to both schedule and dimensions by giving the PM statistically-derived forecasts of final delivery date and cost. Some of the diagrams here could be clearer, but I am told these will be reviewed ahead of the next print run.
  • The book also outlines how forensic schedule analysis can be used to establish the cause of delay(s) in litigation scenarios.
  • At the end there is a helpful glossary and a list of abbreviations.

Some example tips

  • Schedules should have an appropriate density (amount of detail) for their purpose: Low density for communication e.g. to executives; Medium density for the reference plan; High density for day-to-day management of delivery teams’ work. A schedule with too much detail is just as bad as a schedule with not enough detail, as it is difficult to manage and won’t be used.
  • Schedules should record a baseline (when we agreed it would be delivered, updated with any approved change requests), a forecast (when we now believe it will be delivered), and “as built” (when we actually delivered it, including any unexpected extra events). These may be in the same scheduling document but will not usually be displayed at the same time.
  • Where a team is producing a string of broadly similar deliverables and can be thought of ticking these off a list, it may be more helpful and easier to manage using a spreadsheet tracker rather than scheduling software.
  • Schedule item names should be understandable without reference to WBS headings (which may not be visible if a filter is applied) – task names should start with a verb (lay bricks; paint walls) to indicate activity, and milestone names should express a state in the past tense (walls built; plumbing complete)
  • First sequence tasks in logical order (using mostly easy-to-understand Finish-to-Start relationships), then allocate resources. Then apply resource levelling by first delaying tasks with free float (so delaying them does not delay successor tasks), and only then delaying tasks with no free float but some total float (so delaying them delays successor tasks but not the overall finish date)
  • Identify dependencies between projects, label these clearly in the schedule including whether these are inbound or outbound. Meet regularly with the PM at the other end of the dependency link; review whether the current forecast date works for both parties and agree any remedial action required. Any changes in delivery date to be the subject of change control.
  • A budget is a planned upper limit on resource to be consumed for a given task or tasks. It is often expressed financially but not always; it could be expressed as terms of days of effort, quantity of materials, etc.

The Verdict

I recommend this book for early and mid-career PMs and PMOs. I would have scored it higher if not for the somewhat incongruous section on project definition (which one can simply overlook) and a few mathematically doubtful diagrams (harder to ignore). I expect that my review copy will become dog-eared through use!

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Images of Projects (Book Review)

This book recommends that project practitioners should consciously view projects through multiple “lenses” or “filters” to gain different perspectives. This approach directs attention to project aspects that might not otherwise be considered, which will affect the action taken, and hence the results obtained.

Considerable repetition of the principles and case study content (mainly to make it easier to use for reference), and overlap between the images caused me to have several déjà vu moments in reading it straight through, but the approach should be useful to PMs (on projects and programmes) and PMOs (to challenge PMs on their view of projects, and to think about portfolios) at all career stages. Continue reading “Images of Projects (Book Review)”

Managing Business Transformation – a Practical Guide (Book Review)

by Melanie Franklin, IT Governance Publishing, Ely, 152 pages,  £24.95 RRP (review copy provided free of charge by the author)
Pragmatic PMO Rating: ****

This book is intended as a practical guide to understanding and managing change that will benefit your business. It covers the differences between change management and project management, and how to integrate the two.

It starts by loosely defining change management (making a large change to a business that involves a large proportion of the organisation), and breaking it into four stages (understanding; preparing; implementing and embedding). Each chapter of the book deals with one stage before finishing with a look at the alignment of change management with the project management that underpins it.

Chapter 1 (Understanding) suggests reviewing the business case to understand the drivers for change, and comparing the “from” state with the “to” state to understand its scale. It recommends cultivating support using a vision statement as early as possible to increase participation and reduce resistance.

Chapter 2 (Preparing) proposes producing a road map to the desired final state, listing what will stop, what will continue and what will start as a result of the change. This “paves the way” for the change and smooths the transition. Plans should be built constructed in both top-down and bottom-up directions, and will not need many updates. Plans should be communicated to stakeholders often enough to ensure the message gets across, and tailored to their needs.

Chapter 3 (Implementing) describes building the change team and ensuring various team roles are represented. It discusses potential emotional reactions to the change, and offers ways to address these to help those affected to move through the change smoothly. It maintains that change managers need more “friends” than average, and offers ways to cultivate this.

Chapter 4 (Embedding) describes how the change progresses from “new” to “normal”. It recommends measuring adoption, and dismantling the old ways. This can be encouraged using financial incentives, celebration, coaching for stragglers, and a managed exit for those who cannot or will not adapt.

Chapter 5 (Alignment with project management) highlights that whilst project teams generally deliver change enablers (e.g. a new IT system), it is others that take these enablers and embed them into organisational culture. Thus the change life cycle is related to and analogous to the project life cycle, but distinct from it.

Conclusion

This book draws useful parallels between change management and project management whilst highlighting differences. The use of voices from people who have “been there” makes the advice real, and the liberal use of diagrams helps to explain the various concepts. At 152 pages this book takes <2 hours to read; with a RRP of £24.95 it is likely to pay for itself many times over with application of just a few principles. Recommended for project managers who want a better understanding of how their projects fit into the bigger picture.

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Business-driven PMO setup – Practical insights, techniques and case examples for ensuring success (Book Review)

by Mark Price Perry, 2009, J Ross Publishing, USA. ISBN 978-1-60427-013-6, 494 pages, RRP £60
Pragmatic PMO Rating: ****


The stated aim of this book is to show the reader how to create and maintain a business-driven PMO, because PMOs that are driven by the needs of the business succeed, whereas when PMOs that are driven by other motivations fail.

The book sets this out in a pattern of alternating chapters – one explaining a point from a theoretical or academic perspective, which is then supported by a shorter chapter or two demonstrating that point working in practice.

Rather than go through summarising each chapter, I thought it might be more helpful to list some interesting points or “Aha!” moments that I found in this book (and there were many).

On projects and project management generally:
  • Involve operations early in projects. Document operational concerns and deliver against them. Get handover documents signed, and exit project staff as quickly as possible.
  • Don’t use part-time operations staff on projects, as their primary loyalty will always be to operations. Make dedicated project people accountable with project-specific targets, contracts, etc.
  • Project managers should focus more on managing relationships and taking action, and less on managing RAID logs and keeping documentation up to date. Aim to produce the desired result rather than the planned result (although if these are the same then so much the better!).
On PMO setup and development:
  • A PMO should articulate its business value at or before inception, or expect to defend the additional cost.
  • Don’t “sell” the PMO to Management. Ensure the PMO delivers real business benefits, and let these speak for you. The main source of inadequate Senior Management buy-in to PMOs is probably the result of them having been “sold” a PMO they didn’t really want or need.
  • Most PM methodologies are geared towards large complex projects, but these often make up a tiny percentage of the PMO’s project portfolio. A PM methodology needs to be flexible and scalable to suit the size and complexity of the project being managed.
  • Methodologies should only be used at all if they improve results – “Best Practice” may not be a good fit for your organisation and its projects.
  • Not really an “Aha!” moment but one I very much agree with (see my posts on Watermelon and Green Side Up reporting) – if a project continually reports green RAG statuses across the board, then the budget and timescales were probably inflated – you should expect to see a range of RAG statuses in the lifespan of any project.
  • Project KPIs should reflect the needs of the business, not some internal, myopic, PM-specific measures. As people work to targets, you may as well direct their efforts to truly desirable outcomes.
  • Measure quality not in terms of how closely the plan was followed (it may have been the wrong plan), but how satisfied the customer is with the deliverables.

To sum up, some books once read get passed on to a colleague or put on the shelf and never looked at again. For me, this is not one of those books. Now that I have finished writing this review I will be reading this book again from the start, but this time with a highlighter pen in one hand and a pad of sticky bookmark tabs in the other!

I didn’t pay for this book (it was a gift – not from the publishers!) but I think it is well worth the cover price.