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
Vivek Prakash
Cyndee Miller
Shobhna Raghupathy
Wanda Curlee
Rebecca Braglio
Rex Holmlin

Recent Posts

The Most Important Project Management Knowledge Area

Hiring a Project Manager? Here Are 4 Tips for Leveraging the Interview Process

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

Hiring a Project Manager? Here Are 4 Tips for Leveraging the Interview Process

 

By Kevin Korterud

 

 

It’s not uncommon, particularly on larger programs, that project practitioners have to assemble a team of project managers. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to hire project managers we know. But quite often, we have to resort to a formal application process.

I get many questions about how to find the right project manager for a role. The process of interviewing and selecting a project manager requires preparation, efficiency and the ability to quickly focus on the skills needed for a project.

Here are four tips for navigating the interview process—and identifying the ideal candidate. 

 

1. Read and Rank Résumés—Before Interviews  

It is essential to prepare for the interviews. Good preparation practices include:

  • Think about the primary behavioral skills as well as industry/technical skills that the role requires.
  • Read each résumé in detail, looking for the desired skill profile.
  • Rank the résumés based on the desired skill profile.
  • Create a list of scenario-based questions that reflect those skills and the desired responses.

 

2. Set the Stage  

Where you conduct the interview can be as important as what you ask. Secure a location that makes for easy dialogue with minimum distractions and supports your scenario-based questions.

The best location is in a program “control room.” These rooms typically have project schedules, metrics, risks and issues displayed on their walls. Having real-time project artifacts as a reference point promotes both active dialogue and the ability to highlight examples related to the scenario-based questions. If a control room is not available, create a temporary one in a conference room where you can tack up project management artifacts.

 

3. Ask the Right Questions

The candidate has probably already gone through an initial screening. So resist the temptation to ask questions that could have been posed before or “dead-end” questions that don’t shed light on a candidate’s project management skills. Dead-end questions include:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Share your strengths/weaknesses.
  • Why did you leave your last role?  
  • Why should I hire you?

Scenario-based questions that bring out the depth and breadth of a person’s project management skills include:

  • Why did you become a project manager?
  • Share some accomplishments and learning experiences.
  • How do you deal with challenging stakeholders?  
  • What are your favorite project management metrics?
  • What techniques do you use to get a project back on track?

 

4. Leave a Positive Impression     

Sometimes a candidate isn’t a good fit for a specific project management role. If that occurs, consider the interview to be an investment in the future—perhaps you will need a project manager with that skill set for a later project. Be sure to stress this to the candidate. If there are other project manager roles open, explain that you will route the person’s résumé for consideration for those roles.

No matter the decision, it’s essential to leave a positive impression with the candidate. A positive impression left with candidates also helps attract referrals to your role.

 

Interviewing project managers can feel like as much work as the project itself. Good preparation, execution and decision-making during the process can help to quickly fill your open project manager role—as well as build a pipeline of candidates for the future.

What techniques do you use to interview project managers? 

Posted by Kevin Korterud on: May 01, 2015 01:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

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

By Jen L. Skrabak, PMP, PfMP

Organizations struggle with selecting the right projects or programs for their portfolios. We see this in project success rates that haven’t increased much beyond 64 percent during the last four years, according to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession® 2015 report). We also see this in the companies that have faded from relevance or been obliterated by the pace of innovation and change—remember Blockbuster, Meryvn’s, RadioShack and BlackBerry?

The challenge is to select the right projects or programs for the right growth, placing the right bets that will pay off in the future. Here are four tips to help you do this.

1. Choose Projects and Programs You Can Sustain.

Know your organization’s current strengths and weaknesses; don’t be overly optimistic. It’s great to have stretch goals, but remember that the benefits of your project have to last.

Don’t forget about culture. Sometimes the primary reason a new project or program result doesn’t stick is that the organization’s culture wasn’t there to support it.

Organizational change management, including a defined communications and stakeholder engagement strategy, is crucial on large-scale projects and programs where hundreds if not thousands of processes may be changing in a short amount of time.

In addition, establishing a culture of project management with engaged sponsors, mature project and program management practices, and strategically aligned portfolios helps sustain projects and increase success rates.

2. Know Your Portfolio’s Upper Limit

Don’t only focus on a portfolio goal such as, “Achieve US$100 million in portfolio ROI in 2015.” Also focus on the portfolio’s upper capability.

The upper limit of your portfolio may be defined by budget, capabilities (skills or knowledge), capacity (which can be stretched through new hires or contractors) or culture (existing processes, organizational agility and appetite for change).

Define your portfolio’s upper limit and the highest resource consumption period and plan for it, rather than the initial ramp. Taking a typical adoption curve for a new project or program, your portfolio upper limit may look something like this:

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Admit Mistakes—and Fix Them Quickly

When we initiate projects and programs, and they’re not performing as expected, how quickly do we course correct, and if necessary, pull the plug? Having shorter weekly or monthly milestones and project durations is better than longer ones.

But are you equipped to act quickly when those weekly milestones are missed? How many weeks do you let a failing project go on, hoping it will get back on its feet, before ending it?

I have seen projects and programs that are not yielding the expected value being allowed to continue. Often, the sponsors still believe in the value of the project, even in the absence of metrics showing financial results. This is why setting clear financial performance metrics and monitoring them throughout development and delivery is so important: they can help project practitioners kill a project quickly if needed.

I once worked for a company that was experiencing 25 percent year-over-year growth for its products. It was a frenetic time of hiring new people, building new plants, and initiating billions of dollars in investment for new projects and programs.

However, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required a new warning on one of the company’s flagship products, its sales dropped 25 percent (US$2 billion annually) almost overnight. Projects and programs in flight were asked to take a 10 percent, and then 20 percent, reduction in their spending while still delivering the planned results. Planned projects and programs were suspended.

While it was difficult, the organization passed the test with flying colors. In part, this was because it didn’t spend time lamenting environmental factors but instead worked to address them—quickly.

4. Measure Your Averages

It’s not about the one big project or program success, but the successes and failures averaged over a period of time (say, three to five years). Don’t just focus on the big bets; sometimes slow and steady wins the day. 

How do you pick the right projects and programs for your portfolio?

Posted by Jen Skrabak on: April 21, 2015 01:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

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)

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

By Dave Wakeman

 

One topic we don’t always consider when talking about sustainability—projectmanagement.com’s April theme—is how to sustain our teams and ourselves. Because the truth is, projects can be difficult. Mental burnout can be a factor in your success and that of your team.

Having dealt with some intense stakeholders and projects over the years, I have figured out a few ways to maintain my energy and focus, as well as my team’s. Hopefully one of these can be helpful to you.

1. Plan Out Your Day: As project managers, planning is drilled into us almost constantly. But we also know that in many cases, our best-laid plans are quickly discarded.

I have learned that one way I can control burnout and stress is by planning out my day. I’m old school and do this with paper and pen. You can use your smartphone, tablet or whatever works best for you. I like to write down the five to seven most important things I need to get done each day and schedule time in my calendar for those activities.

This practice may take some time to get used to, and you may have to work with your stakeholders to enforce a daily plan, but the tradeoff in productivity over time is well worth it.

2. Breathe: A lot is made of taking breaks, balance, meditation and other terms that can come off as too “new age” for some. But the benefits of these practices are so powerful that they’re worth investigating.

Here’s how I slow down and reset myself through the power of breath: Take a deep breath for seven seconds, hold the breath for ten seconds, then slowly release the breath for an eight count. After about four or five rounds of that, I find myself having slowed down enough that I can look at my challenges from a fresh standpoint.

3. Communicate Openly and Consistently: If you have been reading my blog posts, you know I am adamant about the idea of communicating openly and consistently. From a team standpoint, having access to information, feedback and ideas can quickly ratchet down the intensity of a project.

You aren’t going to be able to share all the information you have, but if you are open about what you can and can’t share, you won’t encounter any challenges. Just the opportunity to know that their voices are heard and that they have a forum to communicate can do wonders for your team members.

However, as the leader, make sure you don’t allow your communications and sharing to devolve into negative, destructive conversations about all the challenges of the project.

It is important that you make sure that even the negative issues find some sort of positive resolution, even if the only resolution you can muster is, “I understand that this project is tough. If we can just get through this part, things should get better.”

What techniques do you use to prevent burnout? 

Posted by David Wakeman on: April 15, 2015 08:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

How Portfolio Managers Do What the CEO Says

By Wanda Curlee

In a recent Forbes article, PMI CEO Mark Langley talked about why employees don’t do what their CEOs tell them to on major projects. Mr. Langley said three major factors cause company leadership and other employees to fail to follow the CEO’s strategic lead:

• CEOs are busy and once the direction is given, they are off to the next situation.

• Implementing strategy is difficult.

• Governance is not in place to fulfill the CEO’s direction.

This got me thinking about ways a CEO can use portfolio management as a means to drive direction. 

A robust portfolio management office should be the gateway for the CEO’s strategic direction. Ideally, the CEO would set the strategic direction, and the portfolio manager would take this direction and drive forward. Simple, right?

In reality, the CFO, the business unit presidents and other corporate officers on whose support the portfolio manager depends have good intentions, but day-to-day activities can often take over.

To prevent this, the portfolio manager needs the CEO’s backing and needs to regularly meet with him or her. The portfolio manager also needs to understand the strategy, know how to define the strategy into programs and projects, and stay within the budget. 

Doing all this at once is akin to a conductor’s role with a symphony. All parts of the orchestra must follow the conductor’s lead. If the brass section plays faster than the string section, the music doesn’t sound good, and some listeners would blame the conductor. The portfolio manager plays a similar role.

Just like a good conductor, communication is key to the portfolio manager’s job. The portfolio manager must know how to speak to the various stakeholders to keep them informed and focused in the correct direction to carry out the CEO’s strategy.

A CFO will want financial information and may become distracted if the portfolio manager discusses scheduling in detail. Corporate officers need strategic information, the program manager needs a mixture of strategic and tactical info, and the project manager needs tactical info and an understanding of a project’s business value. The portfolio manager has to communicate at these various levels many times during the day. 

Governance is another key. Governance reviews projects and programs to ensure they meet the strategic goals of the CEO. Those that do not are rejected and are not done. Governance also assists the governance board in determining if the slate of projects and portfolios selected and within the budget allocated are the ones that should be approved. The portfolio manager normally does this for the CEO and presents the slate to the governing board. 

Once the projects and programs are approved, the portfolio manager is constantly evaluating the portfolio to ensure it meets the CEO’s strategic goals and reviewing the company’s landscape for newer projects and programs that may need to be a part of portfolio, based on the same strategic goals. In all these ways, the portfolio manager can serve as the conduit for the CEO’s strategy.

As Mark Langley said, it’s hard work. The portfolio manager is ensuring the right work is done while the project and program managers are ensuring the work is done right. Each has to do their part, and each part is hard. But with all in harmony, the organization will better realize the business benefits for more projects and programs.

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: April 01, 2015 07:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)
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