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


View Posts By:

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
Vivek Prakash
Rebecca Braglio
Cyndee Miller
Shobhna Raghupathy
Rex Holmlin
Wanda Curlee

Recent Posts

Want Satisfied Stakeholders? Guide Them Through a Learning Process

There Are No Free Steak Knives

When Is A Project Actually Over?

Project Bully on Your Case? Here Are the Negotiation Skills You Need to Get What You Want

To Develop Project Managers, You Have to Understand How Adults Learn

Want Satisfied Stakeholders? Guide Them Through a Learning Process

A successful project must satisfy stakeholders. But how can we agree in advance what success means if we don’t have all the information?

Although you cannot control stakeholders’ expectations, you can influence and persuade them. The key is to engage and involve stakeholders in value creation. Success hinges on a stakeholder-centered approach to project management.

Your job as project manager is a cross between a physician, a consultant and a professor. You have to guide and educate stakeholders, diagnosing their pain to uncover their real needs. If you really want to uncover stakeholders’ needs, you have to learn how to ask the right questions.

Since 2011, I’ve been applying problem structuring methods (PSM) to project management. These methods guide stakeholders through a learning process in which you define the boundaries of a problem to be solved. You understand more as you advance progressively and iteratively, tilting the project toward success.

Soft systems methodology (SSM) is one of the most powerful PSMs I know. It is organized into seven steps:

  1. Problem situation unstructured: area of concern, purpose and end objectives.
  2. Problem situation expressed: rich picture created to represent the structure and processes of the problem situation.
  3. Root definition: clarifies what needs to be addressed and which human activity system is of concern. You can have more than one root definition, representing the HAS (human activity system).
  4. Conceptual models: use creativity and logical argument to derive relevant activities in the HAS and build conceptual models in different levels of abstraction.
  5. Comparing #4 to #2 (real world and the conceptual model), provide comments and recommendations.
  6. Identify feasible solutions: you can use a multi-criteria model to compare alternatives.
  7. Improve the problem situation by implementing the solution.

Soft systems methodology (adapted from Checkland, 1981, Fig. 6).

In my next post, I’m going to provide a real project example showing how to use SSM. 

Do you have any other ideas or experience on how to engage your stakeholders in a learning process? Please leave your comments.


Posted by Mario Trentim on: August 25, 2015 06:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

There Are No Free Steak Knives

Categories: Communication, Stakeholder

By Lynda Bourne

A conversation with a clerk in a HR department looking to procure a training program and the passing of English actor George Cole in early August made me start thinking about the art of the deal.

Cole’s defining role was “Arfur” Daley, the devious “spiv” on TV’s Minder. Arfur was always offering deals that were too good to refuse. The deals were rarely outright crooked, but Arfur regularly needed his minder’s help to get out of trouble.

My recent conversation with the HR clerk (and time spent watching TV shopping channels) suggests the Arfur Daley approach to creating a deal that is too good to refuse is still very much part of modern business.

The reason for this post is to help project team members tasked with purchasing goods or recommending the preferred supplier cut through the communication hype to see the real value in a proposition. There is no such thing as a free set of steak knives!

The first step in making the best buying decision is to remember that only two elements really matter: acquiring the goods or services you need and the price you pay.

The second step is to be really clear about what you need. Defining the appropriate quality and quantity for tangible goods is easy. It’s much more difficult to work out what represents a good training option or the best value consultancy service.

Then there’s the price! What’s the better deal: a $600 product with a special discount of 25 percent or its $500 competitor with a discount of only 10 percent?  

Then one of your colleagues suggests talking to a local business. Its rack price is $440, but they don’t offer discounts. Is this a better option? Assuming all other factors are equal, what matters is the final price you pay, not the discount. It’s fairly easy to work out once you ignore the spin.

$600 minus 25% = $450
$500 minus 10% = $450
$440 minus 0% = $440

Moving beyond price, the inducements to make you buy from a particular business are many. The challenge is applying discipline to your decision-making process. The problem with most of the “fantastic free offers” and “no-cost extras” is that they are only valuable if you actually need them and can use them.

Remember that all “free” offers are priced into the cost of the goods or services. Most organisations who run training courses (including us) advertise that every trainee receives free access to on-line revision tools or practice questions.

But when we are setting the price of the course, the $50 we pay for the on-line licence is included, along with the “free” coffee and all the other expenses we have to cover before we can start making a profit. The course price includes all our costs plus a profit margin. If it didn’t, we would quickly be bankrupt.

The challenge with the free extras and other inclusions is deciding if they are of any value to you, since you will be paying for them anyway. For example, one PMP training course costs $2,000. The other costs $3,000 but includes free access to online training in four Microsoft Office programs, each “valued at $500.” Superficially the $2,000 in free extras makes the more expensive course seem a better value. But is it? Ask yourself:

  1. Who can use the training—just the PMP candidate or anyone?
  2. Do the people who can access the free training actually need it? If the training was really needed, why have we not already organized it?
  3. What is the real value of the extra free courses? If you can buy a full set of Microsoft Office training courses for $800, that’s the value, not the 4 x $500 advertised by the seller.
  4. What discount will the vendor offer if you opt out of the free courses? This is usually much less than the nominal values.

The reason this type of free offer is so common is that it’s cheap to deliver and most people never use the free offer anyway, even if they intend to.

You also need to be aware of the anchoring effect. If at the start of your investigation, you were told the typical cost of a PMP course was between $4,000 and $5,000, this price anchors your expectations. The $3,000 price will seem like great value and the $2,000 price too cheap to be viable. The anchoring effect is an innate bias that changes our perceptions of value, and the Arfurs of this world know how to use it to their advantage!

All of these sales tactics can be used legitimately. From the seller’s perspective, the purpose of “free” extras is to offer things that are of genuine value to the buyer but cost very little to deliver. But as the buyer, you must learn to ignore the headline price of the free extras and consider what the final package is really worth to you. If you don’t need something, its real value to you is always $0.00!

The factors that make a real difference to most service deliveries are much harder to compare. You will generally pay more for a more experienced consultant or a better quality trainer. Buying this type of service on price alone is rarely the best approach—a basic rule of business is you tend to get what you pay for.

The challenge then is to set up a decision matrix that looks at the elements that really matter in your buying decisions and then make an informed decision. Some of these factors may be measureable. Others, such as cultural fit, are critically important but entirely subjective.

The bottom line here is that before you can get to the serious decision-making, you need to clear away the confusion of the special offers and discounts. The Arfurs of this world are always looking to make you an offer you can’t refuse.

How do you approach your buying decisions?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: August 21, 2015 06:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

When Is A Project Actually Over?

When Is a Project Actually Over?

By Kevin Korterud


As project managers, we spend a considerable amount of time mobilizing a project to ensure it’s set up for success. To realize value from projects, that same level of attention and focus is also required to successfully end a project. It is key for project managers to have a plan for closure that defines specific activities to wind down and complete essential functions that end the project on a high note.


Here are some essentials to help your project complete successfully so you can enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done:


1. Complete the Project Adoption Schedule   

Project managers need to have an objective indicator that signals completion of their projects. In some cases, project managers use indications that determine the completion of the project far too early.


These premature indications can include the installation of technology, signoff of key deliverables or perhaps a subjective decision by the sponsor that the project is over.


One effective means of determining the end of a project is for a project manager to create a schedule for the complete adoption of what the project is creating, e.g., new technology, processes and products. An adoption schedule defines the details around the timeframe, functions and geographies by which the outputs from the project are to be assumed by the various stakeholders.


In essence, a project adoption schedule is a structure that provides an outcome-based path to how the project is supposed to end.


For example, one form of an adoption schedule would be to define the number of users or stakeholder groups that are to use a new technology solution. The adoption schedule would present which geographies would use the new technology over a certain timeframe.


2. Measure Against the Project Business Case  


As project managers, we sometimes become so obsessed with on-time, on-budget delivery that we can neglect the rationale that shaped the need for the project. As part of closing out a project, it is important that progress toward the original business case is measured.


The best way to do this on a project is to have business case checkpoints defined from the start to the end of the project. These checkpoints identify and measure the project’s key outcomes. By starting the business case measurement process at the beginning of the project, you eliminate the last-minute rush to determine whether the project was successful from a business perspective.


3. Assure Regulatory Compliance

Even if we do a great job with delivery as well as producing business outcomes, what we do in the area of regulations and other legal mandates is also key. A project that does not comply with regulatory needs stands the chance of diluting its success by requiring additional effort and time to mitigate issues.


As part of project closure planning, schedule timely completion of deliverables required to meet regulatory needs. The effort and schedule allocated for this type of deliverable needs to be given equal importance with other project deliverables.


For example, a project that involves the chemical industry may require material safety data sheets to be filed when a new type of material is introduced into a chemical plant. Even if the introduction of the new chemical material was successful, the project cannot be truly closed until this regulatory deliverable is created. 


4. Pay It Forward

Project or program managers sometimes miss out on the opportunity to leverage the fine work we have done to help others in our profession. While it is typical to have a lessons-learned session at the end of the project, quite often those newly created assets, practices and other valuable content are filed away and not leveraged for other projects.   


To unlock this potentially untapped source of project management value, work with the Program Management Office or other delivery assurance group to review the completed project and capture artifacts that might assist other projects. This group can take what has been created by your project, refine it and publish the artifact so it can immediately assist other projects.


Have unique activities proven valuable for completing your projects? Perhaps others can benefit from your insights while finishing their project journey. Please comment below!

Posted by Kevin Korterud on: August 11, 2015 09:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

Project Bully on Your Case? Here Are the Negotiation Skills You Need to Get What You Want

If you’re new to project management, mastering negotiation skills is going to provide you with an invaluable asset to cope with real-life situations that drive project managers crazy sometimes.

If you’re a seasoned project manager, you’ll probably wish you’d read this post before!

In fact, negotiation skills offer many benefits to project managers. Most important, they:

  • Equip you with tools and techniques to resolve differences and to mend hard feelings, instead of avoiding them
  • Help you to build relationships with stakeholders
  • Provide you with strategies to clarify expectations
  • Improve your chances of getting support while also keeping conflict to manageable levels
  • Facilitate a deeper understanding of stakeholders' needs, expectations and agendas

The term “negotiation” derives from Latin roots. Its original meaning likely won’t surprise you:

  • “neg” means “not”
  • “otium” means “leisure”

Negotiating isn’t easy. That’s why most people try to avoid or withdraw from negotiations. But doing this makes you worse off, increasing the chances of being exploited and bullied.

Stop for a moment and ask yourself: Did any stakeholder take advantage of you in a recent negotiation? Maybe your boss shouted at you, “Why are you still planning—when are you going to start doing some work?” Or perhaps a client asked, “It is just a small change to the requirements. Can’t you get it done by next week?”

Here are the Ten Commandments of negotiating with project bullies:

1. Prepare before starting to negotiate

2. Don’t be emotional. Don't take it personally

3. Always be honest

4. Put yourself in “their shoes”

5. Know your BATNA—the best alternative to a negotiated agreement

6. Identify the zone of potential agreement

7. Learn how to say no

8. Think long-term

9. Understand that every problem is an opportunity

10. Whenever possible, improve relationships and build trust

Have you ever taken a negotiation course? Or did you read a great book on negotiation that helped you as a project manager? Please share your thoughts, suggestions and experiences below.


Posted by Mario Trentim on: August 06, 2015 11:04 AM | Permalink | Comments (17)

To Develop Project Managers, You Have to Understand How Adults Learn

By Peter Tarhanidis

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Many organizations rely on traditional curriculum-based learning to develop project leaders. However, such approaches are deeply rooted in pedagogy—the teaching of children.

Even though top managers at many organizations invest in traditional project management curricula, these courses have limited utility for adult project managers, slowing down the organization from reaching goals. In my experience, organizations tend to employ disparate training methodologies while teams dive into execution with little planning. With scattered approaches to talent management and knowledge transfer, they miss project goals.

All this creates an opportunity for an enterprise-wide approach that integrates contemporary adult learning and development practices.

Leveraging this approach allows the organization to motivate and sustain increased individual and project performance to achieve the organization’s strategic plan.

In coming up with such an approach, organizations should consider several adult learning and development theories. For example, consider Malcolm Knowles’ six aspects of successful adult learning: self-directed learning, building experiences, developing social networks, the practicability of using new knowledge, the internal drive to want to understand why, and how to use new knowledge.

And they must also keep in mind how the aging project management workforce of project managers drives organizational performance. Other considerations include:

  1. Employee learning is necessary due to fast-paced changes in demographics, technology and globalization. But those employees are already busy staffing the growing demands of strategic initiatives.
  2. Adult learning models should be the foundation of your training programs.
  3. Traditional adult development theories must expand to include integrative learning models.
  4. Self-directed learning must integrate new transformational approaches that provide for content delivery and experiential learning.
  5. The impact of cognitive development processes on intelligence and aging can yield new and useful approaches to teaching and learning.

Try these eight steps to build a more flexible and integrated adult learning framework. 

  1. Identify self-directed approaches for employees to acquire knowledge, information and skills, and readily apply them to meet organizational outcomes.
  2. Create a learning environment that helps make sense of practitioner situations and allows for reflective dialogues to create solutions to problems and new knowledge.
  3. Sponsor internal networks, social media and gaming/simulation technology to distribute information.
  4. Define clear levels of learning that can be achieved by moving across boundaries. Examples of such boundaries can be small, medium, large projects or local, national, global projects.
  5. Leverage experts to instruct groups. If the organization is seen to value the role of teacher, others will want to teach as well, reinforcing a continuous cycle of development.
  6. Encourage learning on the job, so that an employee’s learning is based on understanding the effects of his or her actions in an environment.
  7. Launch communities of practice that are based on the influence of the community to develop the group expertise.
  8. Engage quick feedback through co-participation or co-emergence of learning based on everyday interactions through peers, leaders or certain situations.

New integrative learning approaches are required to increase project managers’ competence while motivating and sustaining older adult learners.

By applying these practices to critical needed competencies, organizations can create new capabilities to meet their strategic plans.

Posted by Peter Tarhanidis on: August 04, 2015 09:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

"You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you."

- Dale Carnegie