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
Cyndee Miller
Shobhna Raghupathy
Wanda Curlee
Rebecca Braglio
Rex Holmlin
Christian Bisson

Recent Posts

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The Customer Is Always Digital—So Make the Experience Right

Reality Check: Stop Being So Optimistic

PMO of the Year Winner Calls Out Executive Support

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Creative


“Creative” is rarely a word used to describe project managers. Typically, they’re called “organized,” “good communicators,” etc.

A colleague of mine inspired me when he said that a good project manager is a creative one. I was confused at first, but his explanation made sense. To be able to take advantage of great opportunities as they present themselves, a good project manager needs to be creative with the scope and the budget as the project evolves.

In other words, project managers shouldn’t automatically respond: “No, we can’t, it’s out of scope or budget.” Instead, they should say: “How can we make it work?” Genius!

Every project manager is guilty of refusing a great idea when the team comes up with something out of scope or budget. It’s easy to say “no,” but it’s a lot more rewarding for you, the team and the project to find a way. That’s where you get creative!

The first solution that generally comes to mind is upselling the idea to stakeholders and asking for more funds. This could be denied, or it might not even be an option if the budget is fixed.

Another solution is to reduce another part of the scope or even remove it completely to accommodate this new idea. There are often “nice to haves” on projects, and they can be traded for better ideas. That’s where the new idea needs to be sold as more efficient than what’s being removed.

Other solutions can be outsourcing to reduce some costs, or even pulling some strings if needed. And you know what? You don’t have to do this thinking alone—give your team the chance to contribute ideas. You might find out that if some features are slightly different, you can save effort here and there, and then you are able to transfer some budget somewhere else.

The key point here is leaving “no” as a last resort, and asking yourself and the team: “How can we make it work?


How are you creative with your projects?

Posted by Christian Bisson on: October 29, 2015 07:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)

If Your Project Addresses the Wrong Problem, It Won’t Be Successful

In my previous post, I emphasized the importance of engaging and involving stakeholders proactively in a learning process about project definition and planning. I highlighted soft systems methodology as a powerful problem-structuring method.

But how exactly can we incorporate problem-structuring methods into the project management practice? Are they really useful and feasible? Let me guide you through an example below, step by step, according to the Soft Systems Methodology.

Project: Build a New Power Plant

  1. Problem situation unstructured: Our energy supply isn’t meeting demand.
  2. Problem situation expressed: This expresses the area of concern through a rich picture containing both appropriate symbols for real-world activities and words.

Figure 1: Simplified rich picture for the project “Build Power Plant” (Trentim, 2013)

  1. Root definition: The purpose of the project is not to build a new power plant; the end objective is to deliver enough energy to the client. The client expresses the most important human activity system (HAS) to be further studied. We could define more than one root definition to represent a different HAS. For each HAS, we have an analysis of the customer, actors, transformation, weltanschauung (comprehensive worldview), owner and environment (CATWOE).
  • Root definition: to ensure that the client has enough energy.
  • CATWOE Analysis

Customer: client

                           Actors: sponsor, project manager, team and contractors

Transformation: provide enough energy

Weltanschauung: energy fuels operations

Owner: client

Environment: client environment

  1. Conceptual models: We could develop many models in different levels to better understand the problem. Simplifying, I’ve created a conceptual model of how the client uses energy, based on the root definition stated before.

Figure 2: Conceptual model based on root definition “to ensure that the client has enough energy” (Trentim, 2013)

  1. Comparison between conceptual models and the real world. This stage compares what we are now to what we want to be able to do. The conceptual model (or models) represents how things should work. The reality has to be changed in some way to improve the problem-situation.

Table 1: Comparison to reality (Trentim, 2013)

  1. Feasible desirable changes: The project manager and his or her team propose solutions (project scope). In stage 5, we compare the ideal conceptual model to reality, so we can propose feasible solutions and create action plans.
  2. Implement solutions: project execution.

Actually, the solution implementation might encompass all of the project life cycle. Stages 1 to 6 may happen prior to project initiation or in the beginning of the planning phase. Once we have the problem statement and the proposed solution aligned strategically to stakeholders’ expectations and needs, we can use our traditional project management knowledge, as compiled in the PMBOK® Guide, for example.

A successful project delivers solid benefits. That’s why we have to understand the problem before we start creating a solution. In other words, well-crafted plans and detailed scope definitions are useless if they do not address the real needs of stakeholders. Don’t you think?

Have you ever solved the wrong problem? Please leave your comments and thoughts below.

Posted by Mario Trentim on: September 15, 2015 04:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)

3 Ways To Become A Strategic Project Manager

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 dave@davewakeman.com 

Posted by David Wakeman on: May 22, 2015 08:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

A True Story of a Bad Sponsor

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:

  • a powerful and interested sponsor as a friend
  • motivated and skilled team members
  • supportive functional managers
  • collaborative contractors and vendors
  • other various friendly stakeholders

In reality, you have:

  • sponsors with less power than needed and sponsors with other priorities (lack of interest in your project)
  • part-time, not-so-motivated team members, fewer resources than needed and resources who are less skilled than you imagined
  • resistant functional managers with hidden agendas
  • unsupportive contractors and vendors
  • other various enemies as stakeholders

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.

Posted by Mario Trentim on: April 17, 2015 08:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

Strategy in Action = Organizational Project Management

By Conrado Morlan

All organizations want to achieve and maintain competitive advantage. But when it comes to project management practices, not all organizations are doing what’s necessary to stand apart from competitors. Why? Some are stuck in a traditional mindset.

To elaborate: For years, organizations have looked for competitive advantage through a traditional project management approach that is operational in nature and includes strict controls focused on schedules, budgets and resources. The problem with this approach is that sometimes even when projects meet controls—i.e., they’re completed on time and within budget—organizations don’t achieve competitive advantage through the expected benefits.

On the other hand, some innovative organizations are opting to evolve from an operational to an organizational project management (OPM) approach. This approach conceives of projects strictly as a means to achieve business objectives defined through the organization’s strategy. These organizations have a project and program management mindset at their core. Because of that commitment, their projects meet original goals more often than the average organization. 

The payoff is huge, according to PMI's 2015 Pulse of the Profession® report, which was released last month. High-performing organizations—those who view project management as strategy implementation, and support it— waste 13 times less money than their competitors.

Taking It to the Next Level

The results suggest that to successfully take the OPM route, organizations must be committed to creating a culture that views project management as a tool for attaining business objectives stemming from strategy.

They must aim for a project execution approach that is both controlled and agile, in order to adapt to potential strategy changes. To ensure successful project outcomes, organizations taking the OPM approach must also focus on talent management. They should look for project managers who not only have the requisite technical skills, but also can step into more strategic and leadership roles.

Organizations adopting OPM will use standardized project management practices. This process will be supported by an improved project governance process that will ensure projects are highly aligned to the strategy of the organization.

As organizations transition into OPM, they should implement a benefit realization training program that showcases examples of strong, focused project management practices that achieved intended strategic benefits. It helps to share these examples across the organization to reveal the effectiveness of strategic project alignment.

Is your organization in the process of taking its project management approach to the next level through OPM? If so, what changes have you experienced in terms of management and project expectations?

Posted by Conrado Morlan on: March 02, 2015 11:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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