By Dave Wakeman
You don’t have to be a great philosopher to understand that our business environment has changed tremendously over the last few years. One result of all this change is that organizations now rely more heavily on projects to deliver on their strategic efforts.
Instead of considering this a problem, project managers should look at it as a huge opportunity to act more strategically and add value to their roles. We should work with executive leadership to help deliver successful projects aligned with the overall organizational strategy.
Many organizations have just begun to incorporate project management into their strategic delivery. Here are three ways you can align yourself with your organization’s strategy to take advantage of the shifting dynamics in the business environment.
1. Always jump to “why?”
I tell my clients that everything we do in an organization is driven by the answer to one simple question: Why?
As a project manager looking to jump into the strategic deployment of projects, you must move from implementer to strategic partner.
As a strategic partner, you want to get out in front of projects that you suspect won’t be successful from the start. To do so, always ask yourself, “Why this is important?” or “Why isn’t this important?” By being driven by the “why,” you can take control of wayward or poorly aligned projects.
Onecautionary note: When you explain that the project isn’t in alignment with the organizational strategy, you need to offer some alternatives.
2. Pay close attention to the business environment surrounding your organization and project.
As someone close to the implementation of the strategy, you will have a great vantage point to recognize and diagnose any challenges that might impede your team’s progress. You are also likely to be much closer to changes that present opportunities, technologies that will expedite delivery or unresolved issues that may derail the project.
The key is to stop thinking about just your individual project, and begin to think about how your project plays in the overall strategy. Then, when the opportunity presents itself, you should step into the conversation about how the project is working or not working with the organization’s strategy. But be prepared to explain how you got there and how you can get things back in order.
3. Think in terms of outcomes.
As a project manager in a project-driven organization, you’ll need to think and manage based on outcomes. This is in part because the demographics of our workforces are changing from on-site, lifelong employees to remote teams, project-driven workforces and employees who are looking for higher degrees of balance in their lives.
This makes outcome-based objectives a key component of delivering on the strategic promise of the organization. And it means you need to give up the idea that you can or should try to control every activity in your project.
It also means you are likely going to have to focus more on opening clear communication lines with your team and key stakeholders so you can communicate the importance of these outcomes in the context of the organization’s strategy.
How is your role becoming more strategic, and how do you drive strategic thinking in your projects? Let me know what I missed.
By the way, I've started a brand new weekly newsletter that focuses on strategy, value, and performance. Send me an email at email@example.com
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?
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?
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 Kevin Korterud
I’m amazed at how often I receive requests for help creating an effective risk management process. These inquiries usually come from organizations with a risk management process that hardly anyone uses. Stakeholders, program managers, department heads and executives are mystified about why nobody is declaring risks on their projects, which can create the false perception that everything is going fine.
Why does this happen? One reason is that project managers believe making risks visible to leadership could impair their efforts. Another reason is an organizational culture that creates a negative perception of risks. For example, I have seen some highly entrepreneurial companies foster a mindset of rugged heroism, which causes project managers to think they have to fix everything themselves. In this project environment, project managers worry that escalation to leadership will be seen as a sign of weakness.
In fact, there’s no use pretending any project is risk-free. Risk management is an essential part of any project: Whether you’re climbing a mountain or changing a light bulb, there are always risks. For anyone who’s ever been leery about flagging risks, or is just looking for some new approaches, here are five tips.
1. Think of risk management as a way to get what you need, when you need it.
Project managers rarely have the financial or command authority to change schedules or release additional funding—that’s leadership’s job. For this basic reason, declaring and escalating risks enables leaders to provide risk mitigation assistance.
Making risks visible to your leadership gives them enough lead time to provide relief when it is needed, not weeks or months later when unmitigated risks turn into project problems.
2. Don’t forget: People can be risks, too.
I have seen many risk management plans focus entirely on things: systems that might not be ready, processes affected by outside regulatory bodies, estimates that were done in a hurry at year-end budget cycles, etc.
What project managers often fail to consider in their risk planning is that people can also be risks.
For example, let’s say your project sponsor is replaced by someone who has no experience in the subject areas of your project. This lack of experience initially will cause longer decision-making cycles as the new sponsor comes up to speed in the subject areas.
So be sure to include people risks in your risk register—they can affect your progress as much as more inanimate factors.
3. Create guiding principles for risk management.
While there may be a process in place for managing risks once they appear, quite often it is unclear to project managers when and how to escalate risks to higher levels in an organization based on their potential impact.
To create clarity and promote transparency around risk management, the best approach is to set guiding principles that govern the process. The rules should be simple and broadly communicated throughout an organization.
Examples of guiding principles include:
Declaring project risks demonstrates professional discipline that will be recognized by leadership.
A potential mitigation approach should be prepared for every identified risk.
Risks with greater potential impact need to be made visible at higher levels in the organization.
4. Use the 30/20/10 rule of thumb.
In my experience, the most frequent question asked by project managers is how many risks should be identified on a project. For example, a person might feel that a small project should have a small number of risks. But that’s not necessarily true, especially if a small project impacts a large population of people.
One risk management approach I recommend to project managers is the 30/20/10 rule, which starts with a broad slate of risks and narrows them down throughout the life of the project.
Here’s how it works: Identify risks at the beginning of the project that, if realized, would affect 30 percent of the schedule, budget or results. Midway through the project, the goal is to lower the potential impact of risks to 20 percent of the schedule, budget or results. By the end of the project, the project should carry risks containing no more than a 10 percent impact.
5. Don’t forget the bigger picture.
Project managers frequently tell me they would have finished a project on schedule, but team members were pulled into another project. Translation: another project was more important. And the strategic relevance of your project matters just as much as how you manage that project on a day-to-day basis.
To manage the risk of irrelevance, conduct an assessment on a recurring basis of how your project fits into your organization’s strategy and portfolio. Validate the relative priority of the project against other active and pending projects, and check on potential scheduling dependencies that may impact your plans, as well as any resource conflicts that may be triggered by other projects.
What techniques do you use to identify and mitigate risks on a project? If you’ve worked at an organization where flagging risks attracted negative attention from higher-ups, how did you deal with this challenge?