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?
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:
In reality, you have:
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.
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?
By Lynda Bourne
Whether an individual, group or organization, each stakeholder has a unique and evolving set of expectations and perceptions.
To effectively engage with and influence this diverse community, traditional “one size fits all” approaches to project communications—such as regular reports—need to be replaced by a structured methodology supported by adequate resources that consider the complexities of all stakeholders.
In earlier posts, I’ve discussed the relationship between stakeholder perceptions and project success and the three types of stakeholder communication. Of those three types, project relations (meaning PR/marketing) and traditional reporting cover the needs of noncritical stakeholders.
This post is focused on the targeted communication needed to change the attitude or behaviour of the small group of critical stakeholders who need to be doing something differently to support the successful delivery of your project.
Five Steps to Changing Stakeholder Behaviour
Each targeted communication is focused on one stakeholder to achieve a desired change in his or her attitude and/or behaviour. For example, maybe a functional manager needs to stop obstructing your project and actively support the loan of some key resources for critical work.
The first stepin this process is defining precisely what you need from the stakeholder. You also need to prioritize objectives so you focus your efforts on the most important changes you need at this time.
The next stepis to describe and understand the elements of the stakeholder’s uniqueness. These elements include national, professional and generational culture traits, as well as gender, personality and “their reality” (how they see the world).
Once you know what you want and understand the best approaches to use to engage the person, the third step is planning the communication strategy by designing carefully targeted information exchanges.
Strategies for achieving this can range from casual coffee meetings to formal presentations using a range of different media and messengers. You can approach some stakeholders directly, while others need to be influenced through your network of contacts. Any organizational currency you or your team have accrued can be highly beneficial, but needs to be spent carefully.
Then comes the fourth step: implement the plan and communicate!
The final stepin the process is to assess the effectiveness of the communication and adjust the plan as necessary to ensure that the stakeholder becomes appropriately engaged in supporting the project’s objectives.
The keys to effective stakeholder engagement are the strength of the relationship you have in place and mutuality—meaning that both your project and the stakeholder need to benefit from the engagement.
This process may sound like hard work. It is. But it is far better to invest in effective stakeholder engagement to make your project successful than to under-invest and fail because you do not have the support and resources needed for success.
How much effort do you put into planned and targeted communication?
Here in the United States, it’s that time of year again: March Madness. If you aren’t familiar with the phrase, it refers to the annual NCAA men’s college basketball tournament taking place throughout the month. Sixty-four qualifying teams from around the country compete for the national championship.
In a sense, the coaches of these teams act as project managers, managing resources on a schedule to reach a specific goal. They can teach us a great deal about strategic leadership and aligning a project to an organization’s goals.
Because each member of any team in the tournament has different ambitions and desires, it is the responsibility of the coach to figure out how to manage and integrate these competing interests in a way that will lead to a successful outcome. Sound familiar, project managers?
Whether your goal is to cut down basketball nets to celebrate winning a championship or bring your project in on time and on budget, here are a few tips for successfully aligning team members to achieve your organization’s goals.
1. Integrate all members into a cohesive team. Most of the time as project managers and leaders, we want the best available talent on our team. Unfortunately, having “the best” isn’t always a sure route to success. It’s far more important to focus on developing talent into a cohesive team that performs and maximizes its efforts.
This is a challenge that Villanova University’s Jay Wright had to faceafter taking the school’s Wildcats to the 2009 tournament’s semifinals.
After that year’s strong performance, lots of talented players wanted to play for the team. Coach Wright accepted a handful of standout players into the school’s basketball program, and in the following years standout individual talents came to dominate his coaching philosophy.
But more talent ended up delivering worse results. After years of subpar Villanova performances in the NCAA tournament, Wright has returned to his old coaching style, where team and personal accomplishments are aligned. One takes care of the other.
The lesson for project managers: Raw talent isn’t enough. It’s your job to make sure individual team members’ goals align to the project goals as much as possible.
2. Serve the team first.As project managers, it’s easy to forget that we are team members as well. Without the best efforts of our team members, we won’t succeed. That’s why it’s important to put the team first—and to always think about how your efforts can improve the team.
The career of legendary University of North Carolina coach Dean Smithillustrates this point. For example, he created a “coach’s honor roll” to recognize the team-oriented efforts of specific players. When the team flew to a game, he and the team’s assistant coaches always sat at the back of the plane, because cramped seats in coach would be uncomfortable for seven-foot-tall players.
As a project manager, put your team first by making sure you highlight your team’s successes and accomplishments during the project. As much as possible, shield them from the demands of sponsors and stakeholders who may have a particular agenda they are trying to advance.
3. Build connections.Possibly the most successful coach in NCAA basketball history is Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski. One of his great revelations as a coach was the importance of creating connections between team members so that everyone shared in the ultimate goal of a successful basketball program.
As project managers, we often face challenges in this regard because many of our team members may be in different sites, working remotely. Yet you can still do a great deal to foster connections by having group calls, encouraging team members to collaborate on solutions and promoting a culture of inclusion by reinforcing behaviors that will lead your teams to work more closely.
Whether they are in the sports world or other industries, well-run projects generally feature tightly connected team members who put the project goal above themselves, and service-oriented leaders who help steer the team toward the winning basket.
How do you build teams that can achieve your organization’s goals?