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?
By Lynda Bourne
The project management world and the wider business community are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of soft skills. However, as I know only too well from working with clients through my project management consultancy, there’s a big difference between managers being aware of their importance and actually investing in developing the capabilities.
Before most organizations (and individuals) will invest in improving soft-skill capabilities, their value needs to be demonstrated.
A recent report prepared for McDonald’s UK provides a solid foundation for understanding the importance of soft skills to the U.K. economy. It’s likely indicative of the situation in similar economies such as the United States, Canada and Australia.
Soft skills fall into six interlinked sets of competencies, according to a Michigan State University study, “Comparative Analysis of Skills: What Is Important for New Graduates”:
· Communication skills
· Decision-making/problem-solving skills
· Self-management skills
· Teamwork skills
· Professionalism skills
· Leadership skills
To value these skills within the overall economy required some extensive analysis. The overall productivity in the economy was disaggregated into the five drivers of productivity: investment, skills, innovation, entrepreneurship and competition.
The skills driver was then further disaggregated into parts: technical skills, technology skills, literacy, numeracy and soft skills. Soft skills covered the range of capabilities outlined above.
Based on this analysis, soft skills were found to underpin around 6.5 percent of the U.K. economy, and this contribution was expected to grow strongly over the next five years.
The research highlighted that employers rated soft skills above academic qualifications, with 97 percent believing these skills are important to current business success. Worryingly, 75 percent of employers say there is a soft skills deficit within the U.K. workforce.
The report also quotes a range of surveys from the U.S. showing soft skills were ranked ahead of or equal to other competencies, but many job applicants don’t list soft skills in their résumés.
In the U.K., 54 percent of employees have never included soft skills on their CV, and one in five felt they would be uncomfortable discussing their soft skills with an employer.
Deficiencies in the U.K.’s current stock of soft skills were found to impose severe penalties on the economy, causing major problems for business and resulting in diminished productivity, competitiveness and profitability. And over half a million U.K. workers will be significantly held back by soft skills deficits by 2020, according to the research.
Soft skills matter and contribute significantly to productivity. But there is a measurable—and widening—skills gap, and soft skills are underrepresented in skills development initiatives probably because results are hard to measure. Changing this attitude is a major challenge for organizations, business and individuals seeking career development.
How do you think soft skills can be developed?
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?