Voices on Project Management

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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with - or even disagree with - leave a comment.

About this Blog

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Cameron McGaughy
Marian Haus
Lynda Bourne
Lung-Hung Chou
Bernadine Douglas
Kevin Korterud
Conrado Morlan
Peter Tarhanidis
Mario Trentim
Jen Skrabak
David Wakeman
Roberto Toledo
Cecilia Wong
Vivek Prakash
Cyndee Miller
Shobhna Raghupathy
Wanda Curlee
Rebecca Braglio

Recent Posts

Startups and Project Management: They Aren’t Opposites

4 Tips for Selecting the Right Projects and Programs for your Portfolio

A True Story of a Bad Sponsor

How To Keep Yourself, and Your Team, Energetic and Engaged

The Techniques That Don't Resolve Conflict

Startups and Project Management: They Aren’t Opposites

By Wanda Curlee

Project management is partly about establishing and documenting processes and procedures, and maintaining configuration control. Startup companies, on the other hand, often pride themselves on entrepreneurialism, a lack of required processes/procedures and flexibility.

But processes and procedures are not the antithesis of entrepreneurship and flexibility. In fact, project, program and portfolio management can help a startup manage growth.

When a startup’s leadership allows change to happen without any processes, strategy or structure, the organization will struggle. Project managers can help provide structure, while also demonstrating how to adapt to change.

For example, if the organization has 20 employees today but expects to add 180 in the next two years, how exactly will this growth occur? Will all new employees be hired in month 24? Do all resources need the same skills? Does training need to be done? This is where project managers can help.

Later in the organization’s growth, executives, with the help of project managers, can put together a roadmap to deal with issues like sales, IT and system needs, and travel policies. At this point, it may be time to turn to a program manager responsible for the overall strategic view of the program, rather than individual projects.

The program manager may work directly with leadership or report to a portfolio manager. The program may be to deliver organizational change, including IT, processes/procedures, staffing, etc. When I was a program manager, I focused on realizing benefits and the roadmap.

For example, when a small company becomes medium-sized, the number one issue might be staffing to meet sales needs. Let’s say the program manager’s roadmap showed that the second quarter of the program was when benefits would be realized from sales and increased staffing would occur.

If the program manager realizes that sales are occurring much faster than predicted, he or she would discuss alternatives with leadership. One option might be to slow sales; another might be to slow down the development of processes and procedures, and focus more resources on hiring the correct individuals to continue to drive sales.

Finally, the portfolio manager can drive strategic change in a startup growing into an established organization. The portfolio manager listens to leadership’s strategic goals. With a small company that is transitioning fast, the strategic goals should not change often, but can be fluid.

The portfolio manager assists the C-suite with governance and understanding how to select projects/programs to drive to the final result—checked growth without going bankrupt. She will also put governance in place to report to the investors, leadership and stakeholders. With a portfolio manager bridging strategy and execution, the fledgling organization can increase its chances of growing rapidly—and successfully.  

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: April 23, 2015 07:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

4 Tips for Selecting the Right Projects and Programs for your Portfolio

By Jen L. Skrabak, PMP, PfMP

Organizations struggle with selecting the right projects or programs for their portfolios. We see this in project success rates that haven’t increased much beyond 64 percent during the last four years, according to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession® 2015 report). We also see this in the companies that have faded from relevance or been obliterated by the pace of innovation and change—remember Blockbuster, Meryvn’s, RadioShack and BlackBerry?

The challenge is to select the right projects or programs for the right growth, placing the right bets that will pay off in the future. Here are four tips to help you do this.

1. Choose Projects and Programs You Can Sustain.

Know your organization’s current strengths and weaknesses; don’t be overly optimistic. It’s great to have stretch goals, but remember that the benefits of your project have to last.

Don’t forget about culture. Sometimes the primary reason a new project or program result doesn’t stick is that the organization’s culture wasn’t there to support it.

Organizational change management, including a defined communications and stakeholder engagement strategy, is crucial on large-scale projects and programs where hundreds if not thousands of processes may be changing in a short amount of time.

In addition, establishing a culture of project management with engaged sponsors, mature project and program management practices, and strategically aligned portfolios helps sustain projects and increase success rates.

2. Know Your Portfolio’s Upper Limit

Don’t only focus on a portfolio goal such as, “Achieve US$100 million in portfolio ROI in 2015.” Also focus on the portfolio’s upper capability.

The upper limit of your portfolio may be defined by budget, capabilities (skills or knowledge), capacity (which can be stretched through new hires or contractors) or culture (existing processes, organizational agility and appetite for change).

Define your portfolio’s upper limit and the highest resource consumption period and plan for it, rather than the initial ramp. Taking a typical adoption curve for a new project or program, your portfolio upper limit may look something like this:

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Admit Mistakes—and Fix Them Quickly

When we initiate projects and programs, and they’re not performing as expected, how quickly do we course correct, and if necessary, pull the plug? Having shorter weekly or monthly milestones and project durations is better than longer ones.

But are you equipped to act quickly when those weekly milestones are missed? How many weeks do you let a failing project go on, hoping it will get back on its feet, before ending it?

I have seen projects and programs that are not yielding the expected value being allowed to continue. Often, the sponsors still believe in the value of the project, even in the absence of metrics showing financial results. This is why setting clear financial performance metrics and monitoring them throughout development and delivery is so important: they can help project practitioners kill a project quickly if needed.

I once worked for a company that was experiencing 25 percent year-over-year growth for its products. It was a frenetic time of hiring new people, building new plants, and initiating billions of dollars in investment for new projects and programs.

However, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required a new warning on one of the company’s flagship products, its sales dropped 25 percent (US$2 billion annually) almost overnight. Projects and programs in flight were asked to take a 10 percent, and then 20 percent, reduction in their spending while still delivering the planned results. Planned projects and programs were suspended.

While it was difficult, the organization passed the test with flying colors. In part, this was because it didn’t spend time lamenting environmental factors but instead worked to address them—quickly.

4. Measure Your Averages

It’s not about the one big project or program success, but the successes and failures averaged over a period of time (say, three to five years). Don’t just focus on the big bets; sometimes slow and steady wins the day. 

How do you pick the right projects and programs for your portfolio?

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: April 21, 2015 01:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

A True Story of a Bad Sponsor

In my previous post, I promised to tell you a sad but true story of a sponsor who was against his own project. As you know, lack of sponsorship is one of the major causes of failure in projects. It is very hard to make things happen without senior-level support.

According to author and business consultant John P. Kotter, building a guiding or supporting coalition means assembling a group with the power and energy to lead and sustain a collaborative change effort. That is when strong sponsorship comes to mind in project management.

Unfortunately, I was the project manager tasked with the initiative featuring the unfriendly sponsor. By that time, I knew some of the tricks of the change management trade. However, I naively ignored that people have their own hidden agendas.

 

Sizing Up the Sponsor

The sponsor, let’s call him John, was a division manager with almost 25 years dedicated to the same organization. He proposed an audacious project to outsource almost half of his division, creating a new company to own the assets.

It was a brilliant idea, strictly aligned with the organizational strategy. There was a solid business case supporting headcount and cost reduction, improved service levels and an outstanding return on investment. The board of directors promptly approved the project and it took off with strong support.

You already know that a project, by definition, is a disturbance in the environment. “Project” is synonymous with “change.” Change usually implies resistance. This project faced enormous challenges related to cultural and structural change, power, politics and more.

It took me some time to realize John was a real threat to the project. At first, I shared all my information with him, and I trusted that he was an enthusiastically.

But along the way, I noticed John was not performing his sponsor role properly. In particular, he was not working on selling or on leadership.

Figure 1 – Sponsor’s roles (Trentim, 2013)

Consequently, crucial organizational decisions were postponed, resulting in serious negative impacts on the project. John was responsible for leading change, but he wouldn’t do it. The project was failing because I could not overcome the ultimate resistance barrier: the sponsor.

I started asking myself about John’s real intentions. It was a very uncomfortable situation.

One day, I was discussing the sponsorship issue with my core team members. Alice asked me, “Do you really think John wants this project to be successful?” A few weeks before, my answer would have been “Sure!” Now, I decided to hold a problem structuring session based on Alice’s doubt.

To our amazement, we concluded that if we were in John’s shoes, we would want the project dead.

It was simple. Although there was a solid business case with wonderful benefits, none of them appealed directly to John. In fact, John would be demoted from senior division manager to manager of a department of less than half its former budget and staff. He could even lose his job after the successful startup of the outsourcing project.

I confronted John. He tried to change the topic several times. Finally, he confessed. I will never forget his words: “Corporate politics forced me to initiate this project. If I did not propose the project, someone else would initiate it and carry it on successfully, destroying my division. I had no choice.”

After John’s confession, he was replaced by another sponsor and the project was soon back on track.

 

Ideals vs. Reality

This experience permanently altered the way I view sponsors. Ever since then, I’ve never assumed my stakeholders are ideal.

In an ideal project, you would have:

  • a powerful and interested sponsor as a friend
  • motivated and skilled team members
  • supportive functional managers
  • collaborative contractors and vendors
  • other various friendly stakeholders

In reality, you have:

  • sponsors with less power than needed and sponsors with other priorities (lack of interest in your project)
  • part-time, not-so-motivated team members, fewer resources than needed and resources who are less skilled than you imagined
  • resistant functional managers with hidden agendas
  • unsupportive contractors and vendors
  • other various enemies as stakeholders

The fundamental lesson learned here is that managing stakeholders is far from simple. It is a combination of science (tools, techniques, and best practices), art (soft skills, communications, political awareness) and craft (experience).

What was your biggest stakeholder management challenge? Share your experiences and lessons learned below.

Posted by Mario Trentim on: April 17, 2015 08:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

How To Keep Yourself, and Your Team, Energetic and Engaged

By Dave Wakeman

 

One topic we don’t always consider when talking about sustainability—projectmanagement.com’s April theme—is how to sustain our teams and ourselves. Because the truth is, projects can be difficult. Mental burnout can be a factor in your success and that of your team.

Having dealt with some intense stakeholders and projects over the years, I have figured out a few ways to maintain my energy and focus, as well as my team’s. Hopefully one of these can be helpful to you.

1. Plan Out Your Day: As project managers, planning is drilled into us almost constantly. But we also know that in many cases, our best-laid plans are quickly discarded.

I have learned that one way I can control burnout and stress is by planning out my day. I’m old school and do this with paper and pen. You can use your smartphone, tablet or whatever works best for you. I like to write down the five to seven most important things I need to get done each day and schedule time in my calendar for those activities.

This practice may take some time to get used to, and you may have to work with your stakeholders to enforce a daily plan, but the tradeoff in productivity over time is well worth it.

2. Breathe: A lot is made of taking breaks, balance, meditation and other terms that can come off as too “new age” for some. But the benefits of these practices are so powerful that they’re worth investigating.

Here’s how I slow down and reset myself through the power of breath: Take a deep breath for seven seconds, hold the breath for ten seconds, then slowly release the breath for an eight count. After about four or five rounds of that, I find myself having slowed down enough that I can look at my challenges from a fresh standpoint.

3. Communicate Openly and Consistently: If you have been reading my blog posts, you know I am adamant about the idea of communicating openly and consistently. From a team standpoint, having access to information, feedback and ideas can quickly ratchet down the intensity of a project.

You aren’t going to be able to share all the information you have, but if you are open about what you can and can’t share, you won’t encounter any challenges. Just the opportunity to know that their voices are heard and that they have a forum to communicate can do wonders for your team members.

However, as the leader, make sure you don’t allow your communications and sharing to devolve into negative, destructive conversations about all the challenges of the project.

It is important that you make sure that even the negative issues find some sort of positive resolution, even if the only resolution you can muster is, “I understand that this project is tough. If we can just get through this part, things should get better.”

What techniques do you use to prevent burnout? 

Posted by David Wakeman on: April 15, 2015 08:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

The Techniques That Don't Resolve Conflict

A team goes through five stages in a project: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. The success of a project depends on how much time the team spends in the storming and performing stages. If a team leader is good at managing conflicts, the storming stage can be shortened, and the team can gain more time for performing. That significantly increases the chances of success.

Many authors and PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) define five techniques to resolve conflicts: withdraw/avoid, smooth/accommodate, compromise/reconcile, force/direct and collaborate/problem solve.

Aside from collaborate/problem solve, in my opinion all the approaches conclude with either one party winning and the other losing, or with both losing. I think these techniques are intended to achieve results only in the short term, and give no thought to what will happen in the long term.

If you use withdraw or force, one person wins and other loses. The winner might be satisfied, but what about the person who has lost? Will he/she not try to recover losses at the next opportunity? In my experience, if you use smooth or compromise, both parties lose by having to give up something that is important to them.

Let’s take a common example: negotiating price with a vendor. A conflict can arise because you both want a favorable price. Suppose you have the upper hand and force the vendor to settle on a considerably lower price than he or she wanted. Have you resolved the conflict? Probably not.

Since the vendor lost in the negotiation, he or she may try to gain back the lost money by working on the lower threshold of the acceptable range, trying to cut corners in the process or production, or using cheaper material. This will degrade the quality of the deliverable. What you think is a win-lose for you could easily become a lose-lose.

The same thing can happen when you negotiate a salary with a candidate, negotiate a promotion/raise with your report, or settle a conflict between two team members by either forcing one, or asking both, to compromise.

Compromise or smooth are even worse, in my opinion. They are lose-lose in the short term and even worse in the long term. That’s because in compromise or smooth, we often sacrifice important things. Later, both parties keep trying to recover the things they compromised away. They repeatedly negotiate with little takeaway. Lots of time is wasted in negotiations and productivity remains low.

I think problem solving/collaborating is the only technique that truly resolves conflicts. The collaboration focuses on the problem and helps solve it to the satisfaction of both parties—and therefore resolves the conflict for good. It’s easier said than done, of course.

I’ll focus on the collaborate/problem solve technique in my next blog. Until then, please share your views. How have you resolved conflict within your team? What were the results in the short-term and long-term?

Posted by Vivek Prakash on: April 14, 2015 02:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)
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