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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Don’t Shout the Loudest—Think Ahead

Can We Use the Principles of Newspeak for Good?

The Customer Is Always Digital—So Make the Experience Right

Reality Check: Stop Being So Optimistic

5 Things Unsuccessful Portfolio Managers Do

By Jen Skrabak, PMP, PfMP

I am amazed that so many projects and programs (and by extension, portfolios) are still so challenged. Forty-four percent of projects are unsuccessful, and we waste $109 million for each $1 billion in project expenditures, according to the 2015 edition of PMI’s Pulse of the Profession.

One solution that the report identifies is mature portfolio management processes. With that in mind, I’ve come up with a list of five things that unsuccessful portfolio managers do—and what they should focus on doing instead.

1.  Worry about things they can’t change.

Unsuccessful portfolio managers worry about the past or dwell on problems outside their immediate influence. Successful portfolio managers learn from the past and move on. Sometimes, failures turn into lessons that create the foundation for future growth and opportunity.

Portfolio managers should stay focused on what can we influence, negotiate and communicate, as well as what we can start, stop and sustain. Every month or quarter, assess the processes, programs and projects in your span of control. Decide which to start, stop and sustain, and develop action plans around those decisions (including dates, resources required and collaborators).

2.  Give up when things get too hard.

It may be easy to throw in the towel when conditions become challenging. But the hallmark of a good portfolio manager is the ability to find solutions.

Sometimes, our immediate reaction to a proposal is to think the timeframes or goals are not possible. However, when we get the team together to focus on what can be done, we come up with creative solutions. It’s necessary to gather the facts and do the analysis instead of jumping to conclusions.

3.  Set unattainable goals.

There’s a difference between a stretch goal and an impossible one. Sometimes, projects or programs don’t start off as unattainable (see #2 above) or undoable, but they become so.

Although we may be good at starting projects or programs, there’s not enough emphasis on stopping them. The environment (internal or external) may have changed, key resources may no longer be available, organizational priorities may have shifted, or the business buy-in might take too long. Rather than calling attention to the situation and recommending a “no go,” unsuccessful portfolio managers tend to press on with blinders. This wastes time and resources.

Once I was managing a $500 million portfolio of international expansion programs and projects. The portfolio sponsor told me, “I want to know if we’re falling off the cliff.” Although we hope our programs or projects never get to that point, his words did clearly specify the role I was supposed to play.

4.  Stay in your comfort zone.

It’s easy to create a portfolio in which the potential for risk and failure is low. But that means we may be missing out on opportunities for innovation or great returns. Advocating change in your portfolio requires taking calculated risks that you can learn from or will pay off in the longer term. The successful portfolio manager will advocate taking good risks (aka opportunities) instead of blindly going forward with bad risks.

Taking advantage of opportunities is the key to transformation and reinvention. It’s essential to any organization that wants to survive long-term. For example, who could’ve predicted just a few years ago that Amazon, Netflix and even YouTube would become rivals to TV and movie studios in providing original entertainment? This required calculated risk taking.

5.  Forget about balance.

Balance is important, whether it’s balancing your portfolio or balancing your work and your life. If you’re not performing your best because you’re not taking care of yourself, it’s going to affect your portfolio. Especially with technology blending our work and personal time, it’s sometimes hard to think about balance. One survey showed that we’re checking our phones up to 150 times per day. But remember the basics: eat well, exercise, take time to de-stress, and set aside time for yourself, family and friends. 

What do you notice unsuccessful portfolio managers do, and what would you recommend instead? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: October 10, 2015 11:12 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)

Why I Became A Project Manager

By Kevin Korterud


After many years of challenges and successes as a project manager, I took a moment to reflect on what made me leave my functional role and embrace project management. While I enjoyed working as an individual contributor with a particular function, project managers seemed to have a unique set of skills that I both respected and envied. 

Here are four factors that set me off down the project management road. Hopefully, these insights will prove helpful to people considering project management roles and project managers who might need to re-energize themselves.


1. Projects Allow You To Build Things  

When I was growing up, I loved to build models of aircraft, ships and cars. The process of making something interesting out of a disparate set of parts, selection of paints and sometimes vague instructions appealed to me. While sometimes the final product did not look exactly as I hoped, the journey helped build cognitive and visualization skills that made the next model turn out better.

Projects are not unlike model building. You have a set of parts (people, process and technologies), paint colors to select (requirements, communications) and quite often limited instructions from stakeholders on how to achieve success.

However, projects have additional complexities. You need to create the instructions (a project plan), determine who helps with what parts (project work activities) and coordinate when the parts are assembled.


2. The “People Factor” of Projects   

As a functional specialist, I began to observe how effectively selecting, engaging and guiding people had a great impact on the project’s outcome. Often, the ability to produce a good team had more of an impact than my individual contributions.

One of a project manager’s most powerful skills is the ability to form and lead a team. While processes and technologies tend to behave in a somewhat predictable manner, people often do not.

As I grew as a project manager, I found that in addition to core project management skills, I needed to also build soft skills. These included: verbal communications, presentation skills, clarity in written communications and more. 

In retrospect, working with people on project teams to achieve successful outcomes as well as helping them grow professionally has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my project management career.


3. Projects Yield Visible Results

When I was a functional specialist, I was most commonly tasked with creating and implementing a set of project deliverables. I was rarely on a project long enough to see the complete implementation and final results.   

When I became a project manager, I began to see how I was responsible for the outcomes that created visible results. The project’s desired outcomes were more than the successful installation of a process or technology. It had to create a benefit once adopted by the project stakeholders. 

The notion of producing visible results from a project can be very exciting. I was once involved in leading several projects that touched on the health and safety of employees. There was no greater professional and personal satisfaction than to complete a project that someday might save someone’s life.


4. Projects Build Personal and Professional Character

We all have days where things go so bad, we think, “If I could only return to my former role before becoming a project manager.” Project managers have to deal with constant uncertainty, a wide range of emotions, a lack of resources, schedule conflicts, missed milestones and more. However, all of these challenges have unintended positive consequences.

 I once worked for a project manager who had been assigned to more failed or failing projects than anyone else in her group. It was a source of pride for her that these challenging projects strengthened her professional abilities and her character. By constantly having to work through adversities, she quickly built advanced skills and rapidly developed her confidence level.    


In many ways, projects mirror situations we face in everyday life. By learning to adapt to ever-changing conditions, we grow in our ability to deal with difficulties, be they in a project plan or missing the train to work. I found that when I became a project manager, my professional and personal skills grew at an accelerated pace.   


So what got you to become a project manager? 

Posted by Kevin Korterud on: September 24, 2015 02:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)

The 3 Things That Transcend All Project Approaches

by Dave Wakeman

Recently I had the chance to engage with Microsoft’s social media team about some of the issues I have been covering here. Their team brought up a question you may have asked as well: How do you differentiate between “digital” project management and project management?

It’s an interesting question, because I firmly believe all projects should be delivered within a very similar framework. The framework enables you to make wise decisions and understand the project’s goals and objectives.

I understand that there are many types of project management philosophies: waterfall, agile, etc. Each of these methods has pros and cons. Of course, you should use the method you are most comfortable with and that gives you the greatest likelihood of success.

But regardless of which project management approach you employ, there are three things all practitioners should remember at the outset of every project to move forward with confidence.

Every project needs a clear objective. Even if you aren’t 100-percent certain what the “completed” project is going to look like, you can still have an idea of what you want the project’s initial iteration to achieve. This allows you to begin work with a direction and not just a group of tasks.

So, even if you only have one potential outcome you want to achieve, starting there is better than just saying, “Let’s do these activities and hope something comes out of it.”

Frameworks enable valuable conversations. I love talking about decision-making frameworks for both organizations and teams. They’re valuable not because they limit thought processes, but because they enable you to make decisions based on what you’re attempting to achieve.

Instead of looking at the framework as a checklist, think of it as a conversation you’re having with your project and your team. This conversation enables you to keep moving your project toward its goal.

During the execution phase, it can give you the chance to check the deliverable against your original goals and the current state of the project within the organization. Just never allow the framework to put you in a position where you feel like you absolutely have to do something that doesn’t make sense.

Strong communication is the bedrock. To go back to the question from Microsoft’s social media team about digital vs. regular project management: the key concept isn’t the field or areas that a project takes place in.

No matter what kind of project you’re working on and in which sector you’re in, the critical skill for project success is your ability to communicate effectively with all the project stakeholders.

This skill transcends any specific industry. As many of us have learned, it may constitute about 90 percent of a project manager’s job. You can put this into practice in any project by taking a moment to write down your key stakeholders and the information you need to get across to them. Then put time in your calendar to help make sure you are effective in delivering your communications.

In the end, I don’t think there should be much differentiation between “digital” projects or any other kind of projects. All projects benefit from having a set of goals and ideas that guide them. By trying to distinguish between different project classifications, we lose sight of the real key to success in project management: teamwork and communication.

What do you think? 

By the way, I've started a brand new weekly newsletter that focuses on strategy, value, and performance. Make sure you never miss it! Sign up here or send me an email at dave@davewakeman.com! 

Posted by David Wakeman on: August 30, 2015 09:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

When Is A Project Actually Over?

When Is a Project Actually Over?

By Kevin Korterud


As project managers, we spend a considerable amount of time mobilizing a project to ensure it’s set up for success. To realize value from projects, that same level of attention and focus is also required to successfully end a project. It is key for project managers to have a plan for closure that defines specific activities to wind down and complete essential functions that end the project on a high note.


Here are some essentials to help your project complete successfully so you can enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done:


1. Complete the Project Adoption Schedule   

Project managers need to have an objective indicator that signals completion of their projects. In some cases, project managers use indications that determine the completion of the project far too early.


These premature indications can include the installation of technology, signoff of key deliverables or perhaps a subjective decision by the sponsor that the project is over.


One effective means of determining the end of a project is for a project manager to create a schedule for the complete adoption of what the project is creating, e.g., new technology, processes and products. An adoption schedule defines the details around the timeframe, functions and geographies by which the outputs from the project are to be assumed by the various stakeholders.


In essence, a project adoption schedule is a structure that provides an outcome-based path to how the project is supposed to end.


For example, one form of an adoption schedule would be to define the number of users or stakeholder groups that are to use a new technology solution. The adoption schedule would present which geographies would use the new technology over a certain timeframe.


2. Measure Against the Project Business Case  


As project managers, we sometimes become so obsessed with on-time, on-budget delivery that we can neglect the rationale that shaped the need for the project. As part of closing out a project, it is important that progress toward the original business case is measured.


The best way to do this on a project is to have business case checkpoints defined from the start to the end of the project. These checkpoints identify and measure the project’s key outcomes. By starting the business case measurement process at the beginning of the project, you eliminate the last-minute rush to determine whether the project was successful from a business perspective.


3. Assure Regulatory Compliance

Even if we do a great job with delivery as well as producing business outcomes, what we do in the area of regulations and other legal mandates is also key. A project that does not comply with regulatory needs stands the chance of diluting its success by requiring additional effort and time to mitigate issues.


As part of project closure planning, schedule timely completion of deliverables required to meet regulatory needs. The effort and schedule allocated for this type of deliverable needs to be given equal importance with other project deliverables.


For example, a project that involves the chemical industry may require material safety data sheets to be filed when a new type of material is introduced into a chemical plant. Even if the introduction of the new chemical material was successful, the project cannot be truly closed until this regulatory deliverable is created. 


4. Pay It Forward

Project or program managers sometimes miss out on the opportunity to leverage the fine work we have done to help others in our profession. While it is typical to have a lessons-learned session at the end of the project, quite often those newly created assets, practices and other valuable content are filed away and not leveraged for other projects.   


To unlock this potentially untapped source of project management value, work with the Program Management Office or other delivery assurance group to review the completed project and capture artifacts that might assist other projects. This group can take what has been created by your project, refine it and publish the artifact so it can immediately assist other projects.


Have unique activities proven valuable for completing your projects? Perhaps others can benefit from your insights while finishing their project journey. Please comment below!

Posted by Kevin Korterud on: August 11, 2015 09:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (19)

To Develop Project Managers, You Have to Understand How Adults Learn

By Peter Tarhanidis

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Many organizations rely on traditional curriculum-based learning to develop project leaders. However, such approaches are deeply rooted in pedagogy—the teaching of children.

Even though top managers at many organizations invest in traditional project management curricula, these courses have limited utility for adult project managers, slowing down the organization from reaching goals. In my experience, organizations tend to employ disparate training methodologies while teams dive into execution with little planning. With scattered approaches to talent management and knowledge transfer, they miss project goals.

All this creates an opportunity for an enterprise-wide approach that integrates contemporary adult learning and development practices.

Leveraging this approach allows the organization to motivate and sustain increased individual and project performance to achieve the organization’s strategic plan.

In coming up with such an approach, organizations should consider several adult learning and development theories. For example, consider Malcolm Knowles’ six aspects of successful adult learning: self-directed learning, building experiences, developing social networks, the practicability of using new knowledge, the internal drive to want to understand why, and how to use new knowledge.

And they must also keep in mind how the aging project management workforce of project managers drives organizational performance. Other considerations include:

  1. Employee learning is necessary due to fast-paced changes in demographics, technology and globalization. But those employees are already busy staffing the growing demands of strategic initiatives.
  2. Adult learning models should be the foundation of your training programs.
  3. Traditional adult development theories must expand to include integrative learning models.
  4. Self-directed learning must integrate new transformational approaches that provide for content delivery and experiential learning.
  5. The impact of cognitive development processes on intelligence and aging can yield new and useful approaches to teaching and learning.

Try these eight steps to build a more flexible and integrated adult learning framework. 

  1. Identify self-directed approaches for employees to acquire knowledge, information and skills, and readily apply them to meet organizational outcomes.
  2. Create a learning environment that helps make sense of practitioner situations and allows for reflective dialogues to create solutions to problems and new knowledge.
  3. Sponsor internal networks, social media and gaming/simulation technology to distribute information.
  4. Define clear levels of learning that can be achieved by moving across boundaries. Examples of such boundaries can be small, medium, large projects or local, national, global projects.
  5. Leverage experts to instruct groups. If the organization is seen to value the role of teacher, others will want to teach as well, reinforcing a continuous cycle of development.
  6. Encourage learning on the job, so that an employee’s learning is based on understanding the effects of his or her actions in an environment.
  7. Launch communities of practice that are based on the influence of the community to develop the group expertise.
  8. Engage quick feedback through co-participation or co-emergence of learning based on everyday interactions through peers, leaders or certain situations.

New integrative learning approaches are required to increase project managers’ competence while motivating and sustaining older adult learners.

By applying these practices to critical needed competencies, organizations can create new capabilities to meet their strategic plans.

Posted by Peter Tarhanidis on: August 04, 2015 09:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

"You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do."

- Henry Ford