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 Conrado Morlan
When I was a portfolio manager, I attended many portfolio status meetings where projects were reviewed and assessed based on their status color. The status color—green, yellow or red—was usually determined by a combination of specific metrics defined by the organization's project management office.
Green meant the portfolio was on track, yellow meant the portfolio could be in danger of not meeting its goals, and red meant the portfolio was in serious danger.
Attendees’ behavior during these review meetings was always the same. To me, it revealed how simplistic or misleading the tri-color status system can be. Portfolios with a green status received no questions from the audience, even when a portfolio manager conducting the presentation specifically asked if anyone had questions.
On the other hand, yellow and red status portfolios produced expressions of surprise and/or contempt. The audience bombarded the portfolio manager with questions and asked for contingency plans to bring back those portfolios to green status.
At times I felt those portfolio managers were being punished for doing their job well. And I always wonder if people had dug deeper into the portfolios with green status, would they still have been so surprised or contemptuous of the other portfolios?
A portfolios status turns yellow or red because a risk turned into a problem or because of internal dependencies like other portfolios or external dependencies like new government regulations. When portfolios are aligned with the organization's strategy, portfolio managers must know all the risks identified in the strategy and assess how those risks will impact the project portfolio.
That’s their job. Furthermore, portfolio managers who create awareness among the portfolio steering committee about risks or external dependencies are being smart. They’re gathering input to decide which projects in the portfolio may need to be postponed, which may need to have their scope changed based on risk and/or internal or external dependencies, and which may need budget cuts or increases.
In other words, a yellow or red status can indicate a portfolio manager’s competence and sophistication, rather than incompetence and stupidity.
As a portfolio manager, how do you avoid surprise and contempt among your stakeholders?
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:
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:
Scenario-based questions that bring out the depth and breadth of a person’s project management skills include:
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?
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?
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:
In reality, you have:
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.