By Wanda Curlee
Transitioning from the military into the civilian workforce can be difficult. If you’re interested in project management, however, you may find that you have valuable skills and experience. When I was introduced to project management years after I finished my service in the U.S. Navy, one of my first thoughts was: I’ve done this before.
Still, it can be hard to know how to start a civilian career as a project manager. Here’s some food for thought.
First, think about tasks you did in the military, whether it was organizing a 5K race or walk for the base, preparing for deployment, returning from deployment, or staging a change of command or retirement ceremony. Just like in project management, all these tasks had a definite beginning and end. Even if the event had been held before, each time was unique. For all of these tasks, a team helped you implement your project.
As you delve into project management as a possible career, I suggest reviewing Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). You may discover your military experience directly relates to the project management knowledge areas it details:
Integration management is making sure that processes and project management activities occur when they should. In other words, you would not finish the planning for the change of command ceremony when you are just starting the project. Tasks can happen in parallel and can jump from process to process, but need to occur in an orderly fashion.
Scope management is about making sure the project doesn’t expand beyond what was agreed upon with the project sponsor. For example, you are leading the team that ensures all heavy equipment arrives back at the base after deployment. Your scope is the heavy equipment, not the laptops and desktop computers. Scope change may not be bad, but it has to be monitored.
Cost management can be tricky for military personnel because some types of military projects—such as returning a unit home from overseas deployment—don’t always have clear budgets. But many, such as organizing a dinner or race, do. If you handled smaller projects such as these, you had a finite amount of money—and you knew it would not be fun to have to ask your superiors for more.
Quality management is straightforward in a military context. Anyone who has served as junior officer or senior enlisted officer has made sure the team followed the rules and made good judgment calls.
Human resource management is a no-brainer for officers and senior enlisted officers: they know how to lead teams. (By the way, one of my pet peeves is how PMI refers to human resource “management” rather than leadership.)
Communications management is another no-brainer. Without communication in the military, no one would survive. On a project, communication is formal and informal, and both types need to be documented.
Risk management is understanding what about the environment or team might derail the project. In my day, we commonly referred to this as “operational planning.”
Procurement management is what you need to buy for the project. You might not have had experience with this in the military, but if you have been given a budget, you may have dealt with various vendors to determine the best deal to implement your project.
Stakeholder management is the process of leading the individuals who have a stake in the project, and dealing with any concerns they may have. This is all about knowing people, including their likes, wants and agendas, and managing those.
If any of this piques your interest, consider pursuing a project management certification to develop your skills and signal them to potential employers. In the civilian world, the most globally known one is PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential. (A list of PMI’s registered education providers is here.)
If you hope to work for the civilian side of the U.S. military, check out the Defense Acquisition University (DAU). Anyone with a current U.S. military affiliation is eligible for free DAU courses and certifications, which aim to develop the U.S. Department of Defense’s acquisition (aka procurement/contract) management workforce.
Beyond certifications, many universities and companies offer project management certificates and degrees. Not all of these programs are well respected, so make sure to examine their curricula closely before signing up and/or get to know their reputation through online research. (A directory of accredited university programs around the world is here.)
LinkedIn groups can also help you transition into civilian project management and deepen your project management knowledge. (I recommend the Gr8MilitaryPM group.)
Finally, keep in mind that as a transitioning service member, many free or low-cost training options may be available to you. For example, in the United States, funds for training and certification exam reimbursement are available to military veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs and the G.I. Bill.
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?
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?
By Conrado Morlan
For most of us, good isn’t good enough — we want to be the best at what we do.
Becoming an elite project management professional requires focus, drive and a willingness to learn from our role models, whether they are bosses, team members or co-workers performing very different functions in the organization.
You may not possess all of their abilities, but some of the traits you admire in them are within you. Becoming an elite practitioner is partly about tapping into your hidden inner potential. I believe that a crucial part of professional development is developing a mindset that will unlock your abilities.
To that end, I adapted the following mental strategies from The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive by Jim Afremow. Based on high-performance psychology research, these strategies will help you learn how to think, feel and act like one of the best.
1) See Success
Imagine yourself at the end of the project, when the product or service has been delivered and the organization has achieved its strategic goals. Visualize the ideal scenario: a satisfied project team, optimized processes, and satisfied internal and external customers.
This will help you define the optimal project execution and “turn on” success in your mindset.
2) Stay Positive
You may be assigned to a project in an area in which you lack experience. Identify your deficiencies at the beginning of the project and define a strategy on how to address them — bring an expert to your project team, identify a mentor or train yourself.
3) Do Not Panic
Projects are not a bed of roses. You will have to deal with changes in scope and risks, difficult teammates and resource constraints. Resilience is an important trait for project managers. Focus on the solution, not the problem. Dogged determination will help you reach your professional goals.
4) Be Confident
When meeting the project board, what is your body language saying? Are you smiling? Research shows that “power posing” can positively affect the brain and might even have an impact on your chances for success. Adopt the pose of a powerful project management professional!
5) Evaluate Progress
Assess yourself: How well are you emulating the behaviors of your role models? What did you do that was good? In which areas do you need to improve? What changes do you need to implement? This evaluation will give you perspective on how close or far you are from your goals.
What are your strategies for taking your performance to the next level? What do you think sets the very best project management professionals apart from the rest?
By Conrado Morlan
About five years ago, I made a New Year’s resolution that I renew every year: become a SMARTer project practitioner. This annual resolution is how I strive for excellence in my professional life.
What is a SMART project practitioner? It’s a project professional — project manager, program manager or portfolio manager — who plays multiple roles within the organization and contributes to achieving goals emanating from the organization’s mission and strategy. It stands for strategic, mindful, agile, resilient and transparent.
The SMART project professional goes beyond just managing projects. He or she helps achieve business objectives by exploring new ways to lead, execute and deliver projects supported by dispersed and diverse teams. Technical expertise is not enough — SMART professionals must adopt a business-oriented approach.
Time has proved the concept of this more expansive definition of the project professional valuable. In the 2012 video “Are You Ready?” PMI President and CEO Mark Langley discusses the new skills and capabilities required by project professionals to fully support projects. Companies are struggling to attract qualified project professionals with strong leadership and strategic and business management skills, Langley notes.
Since technical expertise is no longer enough to drive high performance,the SMART concept includes a portfolio of skills the project professional must master to meet the needs of the organization in the coming years.
Being SMART means being:
• Strategic. Demonstrate an understanding of the organization’s business goals to help it get ahead of the competition.
• Mindful. Develop cultural awareness and leadership styles to influence and inspire multicultural and multigenerational project teams. Foster strong relationships across the organization’s business functions. Adhere to the organization’s values and culture as well as the professional codes of ethics.
• Agile. Business strategy is not static and is frequently impacted by internal and external factors. Projects will need to be adjusted to remain aligned with the business strategy, so embrace change.
• Resilient. Remain committed and optimistic, and demonstrate integrity, when realigning or repairing projects facing hardships because of miscommunication and problematic behaviors as well as cross-cultural issues and conflicts.
• Transparent. Whether the project is in good shape or facing challenges, the state of projects needs to be shared promptly with relevant parties.
In summary: To become SMARTer, you need to continually strive for excellence and master new skills to support professional growth and help your organization achieve its business strategy.
Did you make (or renew) New Year’s resolutions for your professional life in 2015? If so, share them with me.