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.

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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
Cecilia Wong
Vivek Prakash
Cyndee Miller
Shobhna Raghupathy
Wanda Curlee
Rebecca Braglio

Recent Posts

Startups and Project Management: They Aren’t Opposites

4 Tips for Selecting the Right Projects and Programs for your Portfolio

A True Story of a Bad Sponsor

How To Keep Yourself, and Your Team, Energetic and Engaged

The Techniques That Don't Resolve Conflict

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 (10)

Targeted Communication: the Key to Effective Stakeholder Engagement

Categories: Communication, Stakeholder

By Lynda Bourne

Whether an individual, group or organization, each stakeholder has a unique and evolving set of expectations and perceptions.

To effectively engage with and influence this diverse community, traditional “one size fits all” approaches to project communications—such as regular reports—need to be replaced by a structured methodology supported by adequate resources that consider the complexities of all stakeholders. 

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed the relationship between stakeholder perceptions and project success and the three types of stakeholder communication. Of those three types, project relations (meaning PR/marketing) and traditional reporting cover the needs of noncritical stakeholders.

This post is focused on the targeted communication needed to change the attitude or behaviour of the small group of critical stakeholders who need to be doing something differently to support the successful delivery of your project.

Five Steps to Changing Stakeholder Behaviour

Each targeted communication is focused on one stakeholder to achieve a desired change in his or her attitude and/or behaviour. For example, maybe a functional manager needs to stop obstructing your project and actively support the loan of some key resources for critical work.

The first stepin this process is defining precisely what you need from the stakeholder. You also need to prioritize objectives so you focus your efforts on the most important changes you need at this time.

The next stepis to describe and understand the elements of the stakeholder’s uniqueness. These elements include national, professional and generational culture traits, as well as gender, personality and “their reality” (how they see the world).

Once you know what you want and understand the best approaches to use to engage the person, the third step is planning the communication strategy by designing carefully targeted information exchanges.

Strategies for achieving this can range from casual coffee meetings to formal presentations using a range of different media and messengers. You can approach some stakeholders directly, while others need to be influenced through your network of contacts. Any organizational currency you or your team have accrued can be highly beneficial, but needs to be spent carefully.

Then comes the fourth step: implement the plan and communicate!

The final stepin the process is to assess the effectiveness of the communication and adjust the plan as necessary to ensure that the stakeholder becomes appropriately engaged in supporting the project’s objectives.

The keys to effective stakeholder engagement are the strength of the relationship you have in place and mutuality—meaning that both your project and the stakeholder need to benefit from the engagement.

This process may sound like hard work. It is. But it is far better to invest in effective stakeholder engagement to make your project successful than to under-invest and fail because you do not have the support and resources needed for success.

How much effort do you put into planned and targeted communication?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: April 07, 2015 05:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Stakeholder Biases: Knowing Them Is Half the Battle

Categories: Communication, Stakeholder

By Lynda Bourne

Are your stakeholders biased? The short answer is: yes. To make matters worse, your opinions of your stakeholders, your team and yourself are also biased.

As in all relationships, complete objectivity is nearly impossible to achieve in stakeholder relationships. We are all innately biased. We must be aware of our biases and work to minimize their effect on decisions, actions and communication. We also need to allow for the effect of bias in the reactions of stakeholders toward our communications and project, and seek out a diverse group of team members to mitigate biases.

Here are some of the more important biases in the way we interact with stakeholders.

Confirmation bias.We tend to proactively seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs and associate with people who think like us. While this makes sense in one respect, it also means we subconsciously begin to ignore or dismiss anything that threatens our views.

Given that most project managers, sponsors and steering committees start out thinking their project is going to be a great success, confirmation bias can cause them to ignore the subtle early warning signs of problems until it’s too late.

The comment from the project scheduler about the loss of float on noncritical activities may be caused by a poor process and the scheduler’s lack of skills, or it may be an early warning of a lack of productivity that will emerge later as a major project delay. If you believe the project is going great, confirmation bias will lead you to dismiss the warning, while an awareness of the bias may allow you to investigate further.

Confirmation bias also affects our memories. In a 1979 experiment at the University of Minnesota, participants read about a woman named Jane who acted extroverted in some situations and introverted in others.

Later, the participants were divided into two groups. One group was asked if Jane would be suited to a job as a librarian; the other was asked about her having a job as a real-estate agent. The librarian group remembered Jane as being introverted and said she wouldn’t be suited to a real-estate job. The real-estate group did exactly the opposite: They remembered Jane as extroverted and said she would be suited to real estate. 

The “swimmer’s body illusion.”This occurs when we confuse selection factors with results. Rolf Dobelli’s book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, explains how our ideas about talent and training are completely off-track.

Professional swimmers don’t have perfect bodies because they train extensively; they are good swimmers because of their physiques. Similarly, are the top-performing universities the best schools, or are they able to choose the best students (because of their reputation), who then do well regardless of the school’s influence?

When reviewing project success and failure, one of the key questions is: Was the project manager the factor that created the success or failure, or was the project predestined to one outcome?

Consider two organizations that decided to undertake identical projects with a normalized value of US$1 million. Organization A assessed its project and set the budget at US$800,000. Organization B assessed its project and set the budget at US$1.2 million.

Organization A’s team ended up spending US$900,000—a cost overrun of US$100,000, nominally a project failure. Organization B’s team spent US$1.1 million—under budget by US$100,000, nominally a project success.

But considering that both projects produced the same output, which project manager was actually most successful—the one that exceeded stakeholders’ expectations by coming in under budget, or the one that delivered the same results with a smaller budget?

The sunk-cost fallacy. The term “sunk cost” refers to any cost (monetary, time or effort) that has been paid already and cannot be recovered.

As psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, organisms that placed more urgency on avoiding threats than they did on maximizing opportunities were more likely to pass on their genes.

Over time this has become an automatic, subconscious bias—the prospect of losses is a more powerful motivator on everyone’s behavior than the promise of gains.

Consider this scenario: You buy a movie ticket only to realize the movie is terrible. You could stay and watch it to “get your money’s worth” since you’ve already paid for the ticket (sunk-cost fallacy), or you could leave the theater and use that time to do something you’ll actually enjoy.

More than half the population will waste their afternoon by staying to avoid the loss. 

The anchoring effect. The anchoring effect works like this: Rather than making a decision based on pure value, we factor in comparative values.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, uses the following experiment to illustrate this. He sells two kinds of chocolates in a booth: Hershey’s Kisses and Lindt Truffles. The Kisses are priced at 1 cent each, while the truffles are 15 cents each.

Considering the quality differences between the chocolates and their normal prices, the truffles were a great deal, and the majority of visitors to the booth chose the truffles.

For the next stage of his experiment, Ariely lowered the prices by one cent each. So now the Kisses were free, and the truffles cost 14 cents. Of course, the truffles were even more of a bargain now, but since the Kisses were free, most people chose those instead.

From a project perspective, the first price or cost estimate will always anchor everyone’s consideration of “better or worse.”

 

These are just four examples out of many hundreds of biases. The good news is you can seriously limit their effect by being aware of the problem and embracing diversity. Everyone has their own set of biases; working with a diverse group of people can balance out many.

Conversely, taking the comfortable option and surrounding yourself with people who think like you will amplify the effect of biases.

How objective do you think you are? 

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: January 31, 2015 02:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Seattle's Troubled Tunnel: 3 Communications Tips for Regaining the Public's Trust

One of the biggest public works projects in the United States right now has some major problems. It’s a more than $3 billion effort in Seattle, Washington to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an aging elevated highway on the city’s waterfront, with a 2-mile-long tunnel. If you’ve been keeping an eye on the project, you know that the tunnel-boring machine (dubbed “Bertha”) broke down more than a year ago, creating various challenges and overruns. Public outcry is mounting.

Now, if you’re like me and believe in the power of communication to ensure that projects run more smoothly, the tunnel project has highlighted the need for more openness, better stakeholder management and speaking to your audience in understandable ways, instead of falling into buzzwords or corporate speak.

If I were working on the project right now, here are three things I would look at to regain the public’s trust and help everyone in Seattle and the state of Washington understand exactly where the project is.

 

1. Be willing to convey incomplete information. The project’s big challenge is that the machine built specifically for drilling the tunnel encountered a setback when it struck a metal pipe during the excavation process. Unfortunately, it took project leaders over a week to convey the extent of Bertha’s problem, the course of action and any sort of timeline to get things back on track. Since Bertha stopped working in December 2013, information has trickled out to stakeholders.

The project’s leaders could have set a much different tone early on by stating what they know and what it means to the project—along with an acknowledgement that they really aren’t 100 percent sure what the solution is, and a clear statement that they will work to provide status updates to all stakeholders as often as possible.

Instead, it’s been “hard to get straight answers,” as the Seattle radio station KUOW put it.

 

2. Be honest. This really goes hand in hand with the first point about having the confidence to convey information that is accurate, even if it is incomplete. The public has begun to doubt that project leaders are being honest about the tunnel’s current status and future. This is partly because when the city’s department of transportation (DOT) or the state government has updated the community about the project, they have given information that seems farfetched and is tough to believe in light of Bertha’s lack of progress.

Case in point: A DOT official recently toldSeattle’s City Council that the project was “70-percent complete.” That claim was met with a great deal of skepticism by journalists and members of the community.

The lesson for project managers is: Don’t fudge information to avoid blowback. In the long run, you are putting your project at a strategic disadvantage because you may lose funding or you may come under heavier oversight…or worse. So just explain things in an honest and forthcoming manner.

 

3. Be consistent in the delivery of information. A lack of consistent communications has been one of the big failings for the Seattle project team. And when there’s an information void, it will usually be filled by something you aren’t going to like. In this instance, the lack of communications has led to a real breakdown of trust.

That’s why you need to make a plan for communicating consistently with stakeholders. It should include the best ways to communicate with specific stakeholder groups, and a plan for gathering accurate, up-to-date information from the project team. To ensure timely gathering, build the consistent delivery of information into day-to-day project activities. Set a schedule of when you want your team members to communicate information to you, and hold them accountable.

In turn, you need to inform key stakeholders of when and how you’ll communicate information to them, and then stick to that plan.

 

In most cases, communications comes down to recognizing the importance of clarity in effective project leadership. In Seattle, you can see what a lack of a clear process can do to the trust between stakeholders and the project team. I’m confident that most unsuccessful projects began to unravel when communications stopped being clear and consistent.

         What do you think? 

Posted by David Wakeman on: January 23, 2015 10:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Managing for Stakeholders — Not Stakeholder Management

The new Knowledge Area, stakeholder management, was cheerfully welcomed in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fifth Edition.


We all agree on the importance of stakeholder management. It’s common sense. However, it is not common practice. Few project managers have a formal approach to stakeholder management. And many organizations lack guidelines to manage stakeholders.

Figure 1: Lack of stakeholder management leads to poor results. (Trentim, 2013)

 

Most of us rely on soft skills, communication and leadership to manage stakeholders. But while they’re helpful, interpersonal skills are far from being the sole way to implement stakeholder management. As a matter of fact, there are hard skills in stakeholder management — tools, techniques and methods that should be diligently applied to enhance stakeholder management and improve project success rates. 

 

For example, there are at least 10 different tools for stakeholder identification. Often, project managers rely only on brainstorming to write a stakeholder registry, conforming to the methodology imposed by a project management office (PMO). That’s why I believe we need a paradigm shift.

 


Figure 2: The virtuous cycle—as opposed to the “vicious cycle”—for managing stakeholders (Trentim, 2013)

 

A project manager’s goal is to add value. Value depends on stakeholder expectations and perception. Consequently, the project manager’s goal is to engage and involve stakeholders in value creation. This is what we call managing for stakeholders.

 

On the contrary, the term stakeholder management assumes we can manage expectations. This is wrong. We cannot manage people, to paraphrase U.S. author and businessman Stephen Covey. We lead people. We persuade and influence stakeholders.

 

In 2013, the Project Management Institute published my book, Managing Stakeholders as Clients. It presents a framework with a paradigm shift from traditional stakeholder management by first setting the premise that we can’t manage stakeholders or their expectations — we can only lead, influence and persuade people. To my surprise, I was the recipient of PMI Educational Foundation’s 2014 Kerzner Award* at PMI® Global Congress 2014—North Americafor my results in managing projects and programs. But in particular, the award recognized my creation of this stakeholder management framework and the results of its application.

 

The main difference between stakeholder management and managing for stakeholders is this: Stakeholder management’s goal is to manage stakeholders’ expectations, enhancing support and reducing negative impacts — a reactive measure. It’s almost as if project managers develop stakeholder management plans to protect themselves from external interference.

 

Managing for stakeholders means involving and engaging stakeholders in value creation, boosting their support and having them take ownership in a proactive way. Managing for stakeholders embraces change as a learning process.

 

 

While stakeholder management is instrumental, employing processes for conformity, managing for stakeholders is results-oriented. In summary, stakeholder management is an attempt to manage stakeholders’ expectations toward the project. On the other hand, managing for stakeholders is clearly oriented to manage the project and its results for the stakeholders, on behalf of their changing needs and expectations.

 

Now that it’s clear we should start approaching stakeholder management from a different perspective, in my next post I’ll share more tips and details from Managing Stakeholders as Clients. Don’t miss it!

 

How do you manage for stakeholders?

 

*The PMI Educational Foundationadministers the prestigious Kerzner Award. The Kerzner Award is sponsored by International Institute for Learning, Inc. (IIL)to recognize a project manager who most emulates the professional dedication and excellence of Dr. Harold Kerzner, PhD, MS, MBA.

Posted by Mario Trentim on: November 25, 2014 09:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)
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