By Bernadine Douglas
Every team member brings a unique skill set to a project. It’s easy enough for observant project managers to take note of individuals’ varying backgrounds and skills. What’s harder is using different team member talents strategically to aid a project when the going gets tough.
Here are a few tips for practitioners looking to maximize their team’s talents to keep a project on track.
The How. The first step is to get to know your team members. On many fast-paced projects, it may not be easy to find time to have general conversations with people. But if small time slots arise, be sure to take advantage of them. The payoff could be quick: Even during a casual conversation, a team member may share an insight for getting a task done in an innovative way or information about a skill you didn’t realize he or she had.
The What. It’s important to map your team’s skills while keeping potential resource shortages in mind. You want to make sure that one aspect of the project can continue if the point person for that area on your team becomes unavailable. Ideally, you’ll be able to identify a backup on the team with the right skills to step in if necessary. If that proves impossible, you may have to get approval from another project manager in the organization to bring in someone from another project to meet a tight deadline. (This has happened to me.)
The When. Don’t be afraid of being flexible. In a budget-constrained situation, I have had to quickly train a team member on a skill so a project could continue. The key is finding a team member with the availability and willingness to learn on the fly.
Have you mapped your team’s varied skill sets? Have you thought about whom you’d turn to if a highly valuable team member were suddenly unavailable? I’d love to hear your project contingency plans.
If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere right now, you may be dealing with inclement winter weather. That in turn means your local public officials are dealing with how to communicate during a crisis. Project practitioners can learn from them.
Late last month in New York, New Jersey and the New England region in the United States, officials were tasked with preparing citizens for a snowstorm called “historic” before it arrived—but which ultimately spared New York City and neighboring New Jersey. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had to defend the decisionto shut down the city’s subway system due to snow for the first time in its 110-year history.
Similarly, project managers must be aware of the downsides involved with communicating risks on fast-changing projects to stakeholders. If flagged risks don’t materialize, we might find ourselves unable to gain cooperation at a later date.
Here are three communication rules of thumb, each corresponding to a project stage, to keep in mind when you have imperfect information about a project with constantly changing variables—but still must address stakeholders.
1. Plan ahead: One of the first rules of crisis management is to be fully prepared for a crisis.In New York City last month, we saw de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo get out early and explain that the forecast indicated the storm could be the largest in the city’s history. Only 6 inches of snow ended up falling, but the city’s leadership did have a good plan and did effectively prepare the population for the storm.
What can practitioners take away from this? Depending on the type of project you are running, take a few moments to think about how you are going to communicate with your team in case of a problem or uncontrollable event occurring, even if it’s just laying out the steps you need to take on the back of an envelope.
2. Have a clear message:When you are communicating in a variable or crisis situation for your project, you need to have a consistent message, even if you are delivering imperfect or changing information.
Think about how the U.S. National Weather Service issues “advisories,” “warnings” and “watches.” Although some people can be confused by these terms, the service’s definitions of them are distinct.
As a project manager, you may want to put your stakeholder messages into three categories: best case, worst case and most likely case, for example. Choose whichever categories work for your project and clearly define them. Bottom line: Confidently communicate what you know and how it will impact the project and your stakeholders.
3. Review and adapt: Like all good project managers, you likely review best practices at the end of your project. If the project involved communicating in crisis—whether related to weather or a different kind of variable circumstance—it’s especially important to take a few moments at the end to review what worked and what didn’t.
Like the planning and messaging stages noted above, the review doesn’t need to be highly complex. These questions can elicit communications lessons learned:
• How well did my plan allow me to begin communicating early in the crisis?
• Was my message easy for all stakeholders to understand?
• What about my communication delivery methods worked? What didn’t work?
• Did stakeholders respond to my message in the way that I wanted?
These are just three approaches crisis communications. How have you overcome communication challenges driven by project crises or adverse situations in your organization?
By Lynda Bourne
Are your stakeholders biased? The short answer is: yes. To make matters worse, your opinions of your stakeholders, your team and yourself are also biased.
As in all relationships, complete objectivity is nearly impossible to achieve in stakeholder relationships. We are all innately biased. We must be aware of our biases and work to minimize their effect on decisions, actions and communication. We also need to allow for the effect of bias in the reactions of stakeholders toward our communications and project, and seek out a diverse group of team members to mitigate biases.
Here are some of the more important biases in the way we interact with stakeholders.
Confirmation bias.We tend to proactively seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs and associate with people who think like us. While this makes sense in one respect, it also means we subconsciously begin to ignore or dismiss anything that threatens our views.
Given that most project managers, sponsors and steering committees start out thinking their project is going to be a great success, confirmation bias can cause them to ignore the subtle early warning signs of problems until it’s too late.
The comment from the project scheduler about the loss of float on noncritical activities may be caused by a poor process and the scheduler’s lack of skills, or it may be an early warning of a lack of productivity that will emerge later as a major project delay. If you believe the project is going great, confirmation bias will lead you to dismiss the warning, while an awareness of the bias may allow you to investigate further.
Confirmation bias also affects our memories. In a 1979 experiment at the University of Minnesota, participants read about a woman named Jane who acted extroverted in some situations and introverted in others.
Later, the participants were divided into two groups. One group was asked if Jane would be suited to a job as a librarian; the other was asked about her having a job as a real-estate agent. The librarian group remembered Jane as being introverted and said she wouldn’t be suited to a real-estate job. The real-estate group did exactly the opposite: They remembered Jane as extroverted and said she would be suited to real estate.
The “swimmer’s body illusion.”This occurs when we confuse selection factors with results. Rolf Dobelli’s book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, explains how our ideas about talent and training are completely off-track.
Professional swimmers don’t have perfect bodies because they train extensively; they are good swimmers because of their physiques. Similarly, are the top-performing universities the best schools, or are they able to choose the best students (because of their reputation), who then do well regardless of the school’s influence?
When reviewing project success and failure, one of the key questions is: Was the project manager the factor that created the success or failure, or was the project predestined to one outcome?
Consider two organizations that decided to undertake identical projects with a normalized value of US$1 million. Organization A assessed its project and set the budget at US$800,000. Organization B assessed its project and set the budget at US$1.2 million.
Organization A’s team ended up spending US$900,000—a cost overrun of US$100,000, nominally a project failure. Organization B’s team spent US$1.1 million—under budget by US$100,000, nominally a project success.
But considering that both projects produced the same output, which project manager was actually most successful—the one that exceeded stakeholders’ expectations by coming in under budget, or the one that delivered the same results with a smaller budget?
The sunk-cost fallacy. The term “sunk cost” refers to any cost (monetary, time or effort) that has been paid already and cannot be recovered.
As psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, organisms that placed more urgency on avoiding threats than they did on maximizing opportunities were more likely to pass on their genes.
Over time this has become an automatic, subconscious bias—the prospect of losses is a more powerful motivator on everyone’s behavior than the promise of gains.
Consider this scenario: You buy a movie ticket only to realize the movie is terrible. You could stay and watch it to “get your money’s worth” since you’ve already paid for the ticket (sunk-cost fallacy), or you could leave the theater and use that time to do something you’ll actually enjoy.
More than half the population will waste their afternoon by staying to avoid the loss.
The anchoring effect. The anchoring effect works like this: Rather than making a decision based on pure value, we factor in comparative values.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, uses the following experiment to illustrate this. He sells two kinds of chocolates in a booth: Hershey’s Kisses and Lindt Truffles. The Kisses are priced at 1 cent each, while the truffles are 15 cents each.
Considering the quality differences between the chocolates and their normal prices, the truffles were a great deal, and the majority of visitors to the booth chose the truffles.
For the next stage of his experiment, Ariely lowered the prices by one cent each. So now the Kisses were free, and the truffles cost 14 cents. Of course, the truffles were even more of a bargain now, but since the Kisses were free, most people chose those instead.
From a project perspective, the first price or cost estimate will always anchor everyone’s consideration of “better or worse.”
These are just four examples out of many hundreds of biases. The good news is you can seriously limit their effect by being aware of the problem and embracing diversity. Everyone has their own set of biases; working with a diverse group of people can balance out many.
Conversely, taking the comfortable option and surrounding yourself with people who think like you will amplify the effect of biases.
How objective do you think you are?
Seattle's Troubled Tunnel: 3 Communications Tips for Regaining the Public's Trust
Human Aspects of PM,
PM & the Economy,
PM Think About It,
Categories: Best Practices, Change Management, Communication, Complexity, Ethics, Generational PM, Government, Human Aspects of PM, Leadership, Lessons Learned, PM & the Economy, PM Think About It, Program Management, Project Delivery, Project Failure, Project Planning, Social Responsibility, Stakeholder, Strategy, Teams
One of the biggest public works projects in the United States right now has some major problems. It’s a more than $3 billion effort in Seattle, Washington to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an aging elevated highway on the city’s waterfront, with a 2-mile-long tunnel. If you’ve been keeping an eye on the project, you know that the tunnel-boring machine (dubbed “Bertha”) broke down more than a year ago, creating various challenges and overruns. Public outcry is mounting.
Now, if you’re like me and believe in the power of communication to ensure that projects run more smoothly, the tunnel project has highlighted the need for more openness, better stakeholder management and speaking to your audience in understandable ways, instead of falling into buzzwords or corporate speak.
If I were working on the project right now, here are three things I would look at to regain the public’s trust and help everyone in Seattle and the state of Washington understand exactly where the project is.
1. Be willing to convey incomplete information. The project’s big challenge is that the machine built specifically for drilling the tunnel encountered a setback when it struck a metal pipe during the excavation process. Unfortunately, it took project leaders over a week to convey the extent of Bertha’s problem, the course of action and any sort of timeline to get things back on track. Since Bertha stopped working in December 2013, information has trickled out to stakeholders.
The project’s leaders could have set a much different tone early on by stating what they know and what it means to the project—along with an acknowledgement that they really aren’t 100 percent sure what the solution is, and a clear statement that they will work to provide status updates to all stakeholders as often as possible.
Instead, it’s been “hard to get straight answers,” as the Seattle radio station KUOW put it.
2. Be honest. This really goes hand in hand with the first point about having the confidence to convey information that is accurate, even if it is incomplete. The public has begun to doubt that project leaders are being honest about the tunnel’s current status and future. This is partly because when the city’s department of transportation (DOT) or the state government has updated the community about the project, they have given information that seems farfetched and is tough to believe in light of Bertha’s lack of progress.
Case in point: A DOT official recently toldSeattle’s City Council that the project was “70-percent complete.” That claim was met with a great deal of skepticism by journalists and members of the community.
The lesson for project managers is: Don’t fudge information to avoid blowback. In the long run, you are putting your project at a strategic disadvantage because you may lose funding or you may come under heavier oversight…or worse. So just explain things in an honest and forthcoming manner.
3. Be consistent in the delivery of information. A lack of consistent communications has been one of the big failings for the Seattle project team. And when there’s an information void, it will usually be filled by something you aren’t going to like. In this instance, the lack of communications has led to a real breakdown of trust.
That’s why you need to make a plan for communicating consistently with stakeholders. It should include the best ways to communicate with specific stakeholder groups, and a plan for gathering accurate, up-to-date information from the project team. To ensure timely gathering, build the consistent delivery of information into day-to-day project activities. Set a schedule of when you want your team members to communicate information to you, and hold them accountable.
In turn, you need to inform key stakeholders of when and how you’ll communicate information to them, and then stick to that plan.
In most cases, communications comes down to recognizing the importance of clarity in effective project leadership. In Seattle, you can see what a lack of a clear process can do to the trust between stakeholders and the project team. I’m confident that most unsuccessful projects began to unravel when communications stopped being clear and consistent.
What do you think?
By Jen L. Skrabak, PMP, PfMP
As you reflect on 2014 and prepare for the New Year, consider these eight resolutions for your project portfolio in 2015.
1. Be a portfolio leader. Don’t just manage the portfolio — lead it by thinking in terms of profits and losses. In that sense, how does it compare to other portfolios or business units? What was your 2014 return on investment, and what is your 2015 estimated return? Is this within your organization’s expectations? What projects/programs were a drag and should be stopped? What projects/programs have the potential to generate the most returns and can be a calculated risk? (A calculated risk has a reasonable probability of generating a return; of course, what is “reasonable” depends on your organization’s risk appetite and threshold.) If you were an investor, would you invest in your portfolio? Asking these questions may help you decide what to do differently in 2015.
2. Accelerate the business. Ensure strategic alignment by thinking about your portfolio as dynamic and agile — an accelerator to business goals and objectives. How can you free up resources to innovate rather than just keep the lights on?
3. Sell your portfolio’s value by understanding your audience. Speak the organization’s language while remembering the 5 C’s: clear, concise, credible, creative and compelling:
Clear— Frame the discussion in terms the other party can easily relate to and understand.
Concise— Long decks and presentations will lose your audience. Think elevator speeches: If you can’t sum it up in a sentence or two, it’s probably too complicated to understand. And if it’s too complicated, then you will not have the opportunity to influence, let alone reach agreement.
Credible— Know what you’re talking about and be prepared. This means doing your homework before coming to the table.
Creative— Look beyond the obvious to find the solution.
Compelling— Always know what’s important to the other party and what will drive them to action. Tease out the underlying need instead of only the stated desire. Understand what your bottom line is, and theirs.
4. Establish a culture of innovation. Do this, and you can deliver long-term as well as quick wins.
5. Make data-driven decisions.Look at the facts to drive decisions, not emotions. Don’t get attached to pet projects.
6. Engage with the world.Go beyond stakeholder engagement at work. Don’t forget about yourself, your home and your community.
7. Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. That little voice is an early indicator — listen to it. Sometimes when we forge ahead against our instincts, we find out later that it would have been better to take another course.
8. Find meaning in your portfolio. Your portfolio delivers the impossible — innovative projects and programs that have not been done before. What achievements in the past year were key to the organization, in terms of values, culture and feeding creative juices? How can you do more of that in 2015?