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 Mario Trentim
According to Le Chatelier’s Principle, any change in the status quo prompts an opposing reaction in the responding system. Although Henry Louis Le Chatelier was a chemist, his principle applies to project management, right?
No project occurs in isolation: Each inevitably disturbs the environment because it stems from the organization’s structure, politics and strategic objectives. So, it’s no wonder that some projects can’t succeed despite a project manager’s best efforts.
To make things happen, you need a support coalition of powerful and/or influential stakeholders. But how can you get the necessary buy-in for a project?
Let me assure you: You will fail if you try to guess what is in your stakeholders’ heads. We all have a natural tendency to do that because, by nature, we feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. That explains why we are always trying to "fill the gaps."
What does this have to do with project management? Everything. Project managers must overcome two biases that pose obstacles to successful stakeholder management.
The first is that we see the project from our perspective, which leads us to narrowly identify stakeholders. Forgetting to include the project’s "hidden stakeholders" can be catastrophic.
The second, which I believe is bigger, is that we conduct stakeholder assessment and analysis with preconceived thoughts and distorted vision.
The secret to stakeholder management is obvious: You cannot catch fish using your favorite food as a bait. You have to use the fish’s favorite food!
When assessing stakeholders and strategizing how to engage them in your project, be sure to do your homework. When possible, ask your stakeholders directly about their expectations regarding the project.
This diagram offers an overview of potential stakeholder interview questions:
(Monteleone Consulting, 2010“Generic Questions for Interviewing Stakeholders”)
Of course, to a certain extent you need to be skeptical of the answers your questions elicit. My MBA students always ask me: How do you know if a stakeholder is telling the truth?
My answer is simple: you don't. You cannot tell for sure if a stakeholder is trying to manipulate the project (and you). But here’s a tip. Keep observing your stakeholders' behaviors and attitudes. Always put yourself in the stakeholders' shoes and discuss hypothetical scenarios with your core stakeholder management team.
Here is a worst-case scenario: I once had a sponsor who was against the project. I admit it took me some time to realize that he would do everything he could to make the project fail.
How did I discover the truth?
I’ll explain in my next post—don’t miss it. Until then, share your thoughts. What would you do in this situation?
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?