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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Are Project Managers Born or Made?

Every so often, I hear theories from team members on how their project manager became effective at leading projects. Sometimes they say something like, "She was born to be a project manager." 

This got me to thinking whether some people are naturally predisposed to be project managers, or if they have a specific set of experiences that shapes them to become project managers. It's almost a question of anthropological proportions: Are good project managers born or made? 

To help answer it, let us look at some key competencies of project managers and see if these skills are innate or developed over time.

  1. Functional knowledge. Understanding the fundamental business processes that are added, changed or impacted by a project is an essential competency. An understanding of these business processes allows a project manager to make more effective decisions when it comes to design considerations as well as resolving project issues. But it is a set of skills that one is not necessarily born with. It's typically acquired through training -- many times on-the-job training, for example, in a business process analyst role or a functional role such as manufacturing operator, company accountant or human resources representative. 
  2. Technical expertise. In addition to understanding fundamental business processes, a project manager must also understand the core technologies and supporting tools that enable a successful project outcome. As with functional expertise, we are not born with technical knowledge. Software developer, content designer or software package configuration specialist are just some of the roles where one can accumulate technical expertise. 
  3. Project management experience. Back when I became a project manager, the only real avenue for gaining competency was by serving as a project manager. Today, there are many outlets for gaining exposure to project management in preparation for actually leading a project. Acquiring a certification such as a Project Management Professional (PMP)®, taking training courses on specialized project management practices or serving in a project management office (PMO) role are some examples of professional training opportunities that exist today. 
  4. Leadership. Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, once said, "I had all the necessary disadvantages to be successful." Mr. Ellison struggled from modest beginnings to lead a global software company. It is common for project managers to face uncertainty, adversity, conflict and many other challenges every day on a project. Their personal tenacity, durability and creativity can have a large bearing on the overall success of a project. To a great degree, being a leader -- the foundation of a project manager -- is born of our inherited behaviors as well as our early position and experiences in life. 

So coming back to the question of whether project managers are born or made, I think both are true. While nobody has yet found a project manager gene, we all seem to be born into a journey that leads us to being a project manager. This journey starts with the skills and behaviors we're born with, and continues with the functional knowledge, technical expertise and professional training we accumulate over time. This essential mix of what we are as well as how we grow is key to becoming an effective project manager. 

Do you think you were born to be a project manager or became one over time?
Posted by Kevin Korterud on: January 08, 2014 10:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Running a Marathon, Running a Project

Four years ago, I transformed from weekend warrior to running enthusiast. First, I started running short-distance races, a 5K here and a 10K there. Then I tried my first half marathon in 2009 and my first marathon in 2010. After those great experiences, running became part of my lifestyle. 

People always ask me, Why do you run marathons? Are you a masochist? You really need to run the race and experience the challenge and pain -- as well as the indescribable sense of achievement when crossing the finish line -- to understand why I run marathons. The feeling is actually similar to when a project manager finally completes and delivers a project. And after running six marathons in less than four years, I have some lessons learned that apply to project management:

Hills happen. Up your strategy.
Hills complement the race and make them more interesting and challenging. At first sight, they impact the runner's state of mind and even consume his or her energy before the uphill trek. But I like to view hills as an opportunity to slow my pace and save energy that will be required in the final miles of the race. 

As a project manager, you may face "hills" (i.e., project challenges). You may want to attack them, but I would recommend slowing your pace and regrouping with your team to define a new or enhanced strategy to address the hardship.

Stick to the numbers.
Marathon runners use gadgets to track time and distance. Sometimes the distance reported by the gadget exceeds the 26.2-mile (42-kilometer) marathon distance, which may be confusing, especially for first timers. But keep in mind that major marathons in the United States are certified by USA Track & Field, the sanctioning body that makes it an official race. The course distance is accurately measured and is the shortest route of the course.

Project managers should not attempt to create metrics or rules that may not be aligned with the sanctioning body. Follow the rules that are already in place and do not jeopardize your project.

Stay humble.
Having run a marathon a couple of times doesn't make you an expert. Even when the course may not change, there are many external factors that can make it a very different race. I have run the Austin, Texas, USA marathon for three consecutive years, and every race has been a different experience. 

As a project manager, you may have implemented the same enterprise resource planning or tool several times, but every project has its own twist. Do not be arrogant or a know-it-all, and take that new project as an opportunity to learn something.

Stop and smell the roses.
A personal record, the number of marathons run in a particular year or participation in a prestigious race -- these are all factors that motivate marathon runners. Whatever the purpose, these stakes tend to increase the runner's stress during the race. While running, I take some time to enjoy the scenery, high-five and greet spectators, say thanks to the volunteers at hydration stations or help a fellow runner in pain. All those things help me enjoy the race. 

When managing a project, it is important to meet stakeholders' expectations. But it is also important to have the right work-life balance. Simple actions -- such as taking that training that you've postponed several times or simply going to the gym -- will recharge you and give you new ideas to tackle project challenges.

As both a marathon runner and project manager, I could say that the reason I run is to be able to combine my experiences in races and projects to strive for excellence. And that would be one of the reasons. But just between us, the top reason I run marathons is because I like to be cheered by people.

What hobby has provided you with valuable lessons that you have applied to project management?
Posted by Conrado Morlan on: December 26, 2013 11:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Translation Series: Culture Shocked Into Action

To reach a global audience of project professionals, Voices on Project Management presents a blog post every month translated into Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish and Simplified Chinese. 

This month features Conrado Morlan's post on recovering from culture shock and turning it into an opportunity for professional growth.

Read it in your language of preference and share your thoughts in the comments box below.


Posted by Voices Team on: July 03, 2013 09:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Culture Shocked Into Action

During my project management career, I have experienced many culture shocks. But the one that changed my life happened when I joined a global corporation in Mexico in the mid-1980s.

I was a recent graduate and had just finished my internship with this organization when I got a job offer. During immersion training, all the new hires visited the boardroom, lined with awards and honors that the Mexican branch had won in the past. Most impressive was the mahogany table, where many major deals went down. It was cared for like a museum piece.

After several months, I adjusted to the corporate world with the help of a great manager and mentor. Soon enough, prep work started for the quarterly review meeting, when executives visited our office from the company's U.S. headquarters. To my surprise, my manager included me in the prep team, which meant I would be a presenter.

When the big day came, I arrived at the boardroom a few minutes beforehand to ensure everything was in order for my first presentation to senior executives.

There, I found one of the visiting top executives -- with both feet up on the mahogany table. When the meeting began, we commenced introductions. The visiting executives threw their business cards across the table as a casino croupier would, while my Mexican colleagues and I handed our business cards to them. 

The meeting progressed, and when the time came for one of the visiting executives to present, he tossed a copy of a handout not only to me, but also to the general manager of the Mexican branch.

I was in total shock. I wondered, how could this be happening? They were high-level executives, and their lack of good manners -- by my standards -- took me by surprise. I also felt frustrated. This was not interaction I had hoped for with headquarter executives.

It took me some time to digest the experience. But by the next quarterly review, I was ready to take action. I tossed my business card at each of the U.S. executives during the introductions. Before my presentation, I slid handouts across the table at them but handed them to my Mexican colleagues. My actions raised a few eyebrows among the latter.

By the end of the meeting, the executive I saw with his feet up on the table months prior asked me to stay in the room. I expected to be reprimanded, or even fired. But he said: "Thanks, Conrado. Your actions during the meeting made me realize that business behaviors need to be adjusted according to location. What may be okay in my country may not be okay in yours. You taught me a great lesson. Employees like you make this a great company."

That was the "wow" moment that had an impact on the rest of my professional life. I'm not recommending such drastic actions, but I felt strongly enough about my experience to take the risk. The moral of my story: Culture shock does not have to be a negative or incapacitating. I used my experience as a source of motivation, introspection and change. 

It led me to a lifetime of researching organizational and national cultures and sharing my experiences of working with multicultural and multigenerational teams.

As a project manager, how have you recovered from culture shock and turned it an opportunity for professional growth? 

Share your thoughts below along with your Twitter handle, and Voices on Project Management will publish the best response as a blog post.
Posted by Conrado Morlan on: May 24, 2013 09:37 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Three Timeless Project Management Rules

We all seem to have our own set of "durable" project management rules. We rely on them again and again to help guide us to a successful project outcome, regardless of the type of project, technology or environment. 

Years ago, I read Kelly's 14 Rules & Practices, which to me made sense for any project. 

Authored by Kelly Johnson, the founder of Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works® for Advanced Development Projects, the rules helped teams on pioneering aircraft projects produce innovative deliverables under budget and on schedule. 

I plucked three from this list and adapted them to apply to my project management career:
1. The number of people connected to the project must be aggressively restricted. For me, it has been quite common to have people seek a connection to a project, especially if it has had a high degree of executive visibility. Project managers who invest in aggressive stakeholder management -- that is, blocking non-essential roles -- have clearer communication in their projects and better-defined roles, which also helps new team members know their role relative to others on the team. 

2. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly. I have been on some projects where the effort put into status reporting almost exceeded the effort put into project activities. Too much in the way of project reporting is just as dangerous as too little. Based on the type of project, the most successful project managers focus on a small number of essential metrics (schedule, budget, milestone, deliverable variances, etc.) that are easily understood by both the project team and the stakeholders.  

3. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed, but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program. It is typical for project managers to host meetings to review prior project spend as future spend forecast. The crucial term in this rule is "what has been committed" to the project, both in terms of funding and resources. Many times, project managers fail to include funding and project resource commitments during a cost review.  

Even though I read them long ago, Johnson's rules still resonate today. This October marks the 70th anniversary of the 14 Rules & Practices. Talk about durability!

What are your "durable" project management rules?

Skunk Works and the 14 Rules & Practices references courtesy of Lockheed Martin.
Posted by Kevin Korterud on: February 15, 2013 08:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)
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