By Dave Wakeman
Last month, I wrote about how you can become a more strategic project manager. This month, I want to continue exploring the topic by focusing on a few ways to make sure your projects have strategic focus.
1. Always Ask “Why?”
This is the essential question for any business professional. But I am aware that asking the question can be extremely difficult—especially in the organizations that need that question asked the most.
Asking why you are taking on a project is essential to the project’s success or failure. Using the question can help you frame the role that project plays in the organization’s goals. It can also allow you early on to find out if the project is poorly aligned with the long-term vision.
This can make you look like a champ because you can make course corrections or bring up challenges much earlier, saving you and your organization time and money.
When asking about a project’s strategic value, you may find it helpful to phrase it in less direct ways, such as: “How does this project fit into the work we were doing with our previous project?” or “This seems pretty consistent with the project we worked on several months back—are they connected?”
2. Bring Ideas
As the focal point of knowledge, project managers should know where a project is in meeting its goals and objectives. So if you know a project is losing its strategic focus (and therefore value), generate ideas on how to make course corrections or improve the project based on the information you have.
There is nothing worse than having a team member drop a heap of issues on us with no easy solutions and no ideas on how to move forward. As the leader of your projects, don’t be that person. To help you come up with ideas to move the project toward success and strategic alignment, think along the following lines:
· If all the resources and effort expended on the project up to the current roadblock were removed from consideration, would it still make sense to move forward with the project?
· What actions can we take that will help alleviate some of the short-term pain?
· Knowing what I know now, would I suggest we start or stop this project? Why?
3. Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!
On almost any project I work on, more communication is a good idea. This is because the more the lines of communication are open, the more likely I’m to get information that will be helpful to me and my ability to achieve the end results that I’m looking for.
As with most things in project management, communication is a two-way street and loaded with possible pain points and missteps. As a project manager looking to deliver on the strategic promise of your projects, your communications should always be focused on information you can use to take action and move your project along.
To effectively communicate as a strategic project manager, ask questions like these:
· What do I need to know about a project that will have a material impact on its success or failure?
· What can I share with my team or stakeholders that might help them understand my decisions?
· What information does my team need to take better actions?
As you can see, adjusting your vision to become more strategic isn’t too far removed from what it takes to be an effective project manager. The key difference is making sure you understand the “why” of the project. From there, you need to push forward your ideas and to communicate openly and honestly.
What do you think? How do you bring a strategic focus to your projects?
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Project managers work hard to keep stakeholders informed. Nonetheless, sometimes when a stakeholder asks about the status of a project, he or she gets the impression that a project manager is hiding something or being less than honest.
Here are three circumstances where stakeholders may get this feeling, and how you as the project manager can handle them to ensure you’re viewed as trustworthy.
1. You can’t disclose certain information or documents. On our projects, we become the caretaker of all information and documents, including some that can be extremely sensitive. Stakeholders might request the home phone number of a team member, the contingency target of a budget or other confidential information. In some cases, your organization may require a security clearance or other confidentiality measures.
In this sort of scenario, it’s appropriate for a project manager to say, “Let me check on disclosure agreements and provide allowable information."
2. You’re the bearer of bad news. Project managers sometimes must communicate negative issues, risks or unforeseen events to stakeholders. The risk here is that a stakeholder might believe the project manager had prior knowledge of the problem, or even allowed the problem to fester as a way of extracting additional funds for the project.
To avoid a “shoot the messenger” scenario, it’s a good idea to not blame someone for a problem. A better tactic here may be to arrange a discussion on the topic with key decision-makers. This could lead to a satisfactory acceptance or a suitable compromise.
3. You made an error. You may have inadvertently distributed a report with wrong information. Mistakes happen. As soon as possible, apologize and acknowledge that the wrong information was given.
Our reputations as project managers depend on us being creditable and trustworthy. We must always be honest and remain professional and polite, no matter what the concerns of a stakeholder are.
How do you handle stakeholders who question the truthfulness of a project’s status?
One of the most valuable project management lessons I ever learned in my professional life is: Key words at key moments are the key to success. Despite the foundational importance of social and emotional awareness, this “underlying competency” remains unknown to a lot of managers and leaders.
Without this awareness, how can they succeed?
The truth is that most of them don’t thrive. I’ve worked with professionals at all organizational levels, from the operational floors to the boards of directors. They are usually equipped with more knowledge than they need to effectively engage and involve stakeholders.
Nevertheless, I witness stakeholder management disasters every day. Unfortunately, weak sponsorship, untruthful partnership, empty leadership and irresponsible citizenship are the norm, not the exception.
Allay Stakeholders’ Fears
I’ve been researching stakeholder management and related topics for years to cope with my daily struggles as a project management practitioner and consultant. (I recently delivered a webinar on the subject that you can watch here.)
While compiling tools and techniques, developing frameworks and applying theoretical knowledge in pragmatic ways, I keep coming back to what has become my stakeholder management mantra: Key words at key moments are the key to success.
Technical and managerial knowledge are must-haves for project success, but so are underlying competencies—what are known as soft skills.
Here’s an illustration. Suppose you are in a hospital waiting to undergo surgery. The doctor enters the room, does his job successfully, and then leaves you by yourself without saying a word. How would you feel? Even if the doctor were highly skilled, you would feel disappointed, right?
Caregivers and medical professionals know the importance of a warm reception and voice-guided gestures. Showing that you care is even more important than caring about your patients.
So here’s a better course of action: First, announce what you are going to do and explain why. Then, do what you have to do, explaining details during the action as much as possible. Finally, announce that you are done and explain the results.
Stakeholders are afraid of change. Anxiety boosted by a lack of the right kind of communication creates huge misunderstandings. That is why—yes, let’s say it again—key words at key moments are the key to success.
How about your projects? Do you plan the type and timing of communications to facilitate change management initiatives?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
By Rex Holmlin
I teach project management to undergraduate and graduate students, and recently one of my students asked me which knowledge area was the most important.
My response: All the knowledge areas are important. Depending on the project and organizations involved, we would use more or less of the processes and tools, but most likely we would use all the knowledge areas in some way to help ensure project success.
But as I reflected on the question later, as well as my own nearly four decades of experience as a project manager, I realized my answer wasn’t great. In retrospect, I should have said Stakeholder Management is the most important knowledge area.
By training, I am an engineer. I love cost estimating and scheduling. But as important as these topics are, the source of most problems on projects is people. And the best way to avoid project problems is through the people involved in the project.
Therefore, paying attention to the four processes of stakeholder management can pay significantly more dividends to a project than a schedule or cost estimate.
When it comes to stakeholder management, I believe we shortchange our projects most often in two areas.The first is identification of stakeholders.
I am reminded of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Early in the film, train robbers Butch and Sundance are being chased by a posse. They stop to catch their breath, hoping they have lost the posse. When the lawmen appear over the ridge still on their trail, Butch and the Kid look at each other and say, “Who are those guys?”
This is the key question with the identification of stakeholders. We as project managers need to do a very thorough job of identifying the people, groups and organizations not only involved in the project, but who might be affected by it.
The second aspect of stakeholder management where project managers often fall short is stakeholder analysis. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge(PMBOK® Guide)includes some great stakeholder analysis tools, but I recently came across an outstanding academic article(PDF link) by John Bryson of the University of Minnesota about stakeholder analysis.
It provides step-by-step instructions on 15 stakeholder analysis tools and techniques that can really take your understanding of the stakeholders in your project to the next level. I think you’ll find it both interesting and a potential source of tools to help you avoid a lot of the headaches we often encounter with project stakeholders.
Which knowledge area do you think is the most important?