Here in the United States, it’s that time of year again: March Madness. If you aren’t familiar with the phrase, it refers to the annual NCAA men’s college basketball tournament taking place throughout the month. Sixty-four qualifying teams from around the country compete for the national championship.
In a sense, the coaches of these teams act as project managers, managing resources on a schedule to reach a specific goal. They can teach us a great deal about strategic leadership and aligning a project to an organization’s goals.
Because each member of any team in the tournament has different ambitions and desires, it is the responsibility of the coach to figure out how to manage and integrate these competing interests in a way that will lead to a successful outcome. Sound familiar, project managers?
Whether your goal is to cut down basketball nets to celebrate winning a championship or bring your project in on time and on budget, here are a few tips for successfully aligning team members to achieve your organization’s goals.
1. Integrate all members into a cohesive team. Most of the time as project managers and leaders, we want the best available talent on our team. Unfortunately, having “the best” isn’t always a sure route to success. It’s far more important to focus on developing talent into a cohesive team that performs and maximizes its efforts.
This is a challenge that Villanova University’s Jay Wright had to faceafter taking the school’s Wildcats to the 2009 tournament’s semifinals.
After that year’s strong performance, lots of talented players wanted to play for the team. Coach Wright accepted a handful of standout players into the school’s basketball program, and in the following years standout individual talents came to dominate his coaching philosophy.
But more talent ended up delivering worse results. After years of subpar Villanova performances in the NCAA tournament, Wright has returned to his old coaching style, where team and personal accomplishments are aligned. One takes care of the other.
The lesson for project managers: Raw talent isn’t enough. It’s your job to make sure individual team members’ goals align to the project goals as much as possible.
2. Serve the team first.As project managers, it’s easy to forget that we are team members as well. Without the best efforts of our team members, we won’t succeed. That’s why it’s important to put the team first—and to always think about how your efforts can improve the team.
The career of legendary University of North Carolina coach Dean Smithillustrates this point. For example, he created a “coach’s honor roll” to recognize the team-oriented efforts of specific players. When the team flew to a game, he and the team’s assistant coaches always sat at the back of the plane, because cramped seats in coach would be uncomfortable for seven-foot-tall players.
As a project manager, put your team first by making sure you highlight your team’s successes and accomplishments during the project. As much as possible, shield them from the demands of sponsors and stakeholders who may have a particular agenda they are trying to advance.
3. Build connections.Possibly the most successful coach in NCAA basketball history is Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski. One of his great revelations as a coach was the importance of creating connections between team members so that everyone shared in the ultimate goal of a successful basketball program.
As project managers, we often face challenges in this regard because many of our team members may be in different sites, working remotely. Yet you can still do a great deal to foster connections by having group calls, encouraging team members to collaborate on solutions and promoting a culture of inclusion by reinforcing behaviors that will lead your teams to work more closely.
Whether they are in the sports world or other industries, well-run projects generally feature tightly connected team members who put the project goal above themselves, and service-oriented leaders who help steer the team toward the winning basket.
How do you build teams that can achieve your organization’s goals?
By Lynda Bourne
The project management world and the wider business community are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of soft skills. However, as I know only too well from working with clients through my project management consultancy, there’s a big difference between managers being aware of their importance and actually investing in developing the capabilities.
Before most organizations (and individuals) will invest in improving soft-skill capabilities, their value needs to be demonstrated.
A recent report prepared for McDonald’s UK provides a solid foundation for understanding the importance of soft skills to the U.K. economy. It’s likely indicative of the situation in similar economies such as the United States, Canada and Australia.
Soft skills fall into six interlinked sets of competencies, according to a Michigan State University study, “Comparative Analysis of Skills: What Is Important for New Graduates”:
· Communication skills
· Decision-making/problem-solving skills
· Self-management skills
· Teamwork skills
· Professionalism skills
· Leadership skills
To value these skills within the overall economy required some extensive analysis. The overall productivity in the economy was disaggregated into the five drivers of productivity: investment, skills, innovation, entrepreneurship and competition.
The skills driver was then further disaggregated into parts: technical skills, technology skills, literacy, numeracy and soft skills. Soft skills covered the range of capabilities outlined above.
Based on this analysis, soft skills were found to underpin around 6.5 percent of the U.K. economy, and this contribution was expected to grow strongly over the next five years.
The research highlighted that employers rated soft skills above academic qualifications, with 97 percent believing these skills are important to current business success. Worryingly, 75 percent of employers say there is a soft skills deficit within the U.K. workforce.
The report also quotes a range of surveys from the U.S. showing soft skills were ranked ahead of or equal to other competencies, but many job applicants don’t list soft skills in their résumés.
In the U.K., 54 percent of employees have never included soft skills on their CV, and one in five felt they would be uncomfortable discussing their soft skills with an employer.
Deficiencies in the U.K.’s current stock of soft skills were found to impose severe penalties on the economy, causing major problems for business and resulting in diminished productivity, competitiveness and profitability. And over half a million U.K. workers will be significantly held back by soft skills deficits by 2020, according to the research.
Soft skills matter and contribute significantly to productivity. But there is a measurable—and widening—skills gap, and soft skills are underrepresented in skills development initiatives probably because results are hard to measure. Changing this attitude is a major challenge for organizations, business and individuals seeking career development.
How do you think soft skills can be developed?
By Wanda Curlee
Do you ever wonder where project management could take you? Believe it or not, being a project manager is excellent preparation for becoming a chief operating officer (COO).
After serving in the U.S. Navy on active duty for more than five years, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I stumbled into a project management role. I am lucky I did, because it prepared me for many different business roles. I am now on my journey from project manager to COO. The road is not simple, and there have been setbacks, but the goal remains close at hand.
To see how project management can help prepare you for a COO role, take a look at this job description. OK, finished reading? Let’s break down the large parts of the description and how they relate to project management.
Lots of similarities
A COO has “overall strategic and operational responsibility.” As a project manager, you drive the project toward the end goal and keep it on track. But you also drive the strategy of the project and oversee its operational aspects. Granted, you are not doing these tasks at the executive level, but you are the COO for the project.
The COO also develops, implements and manages the operational aspects of the annual budget. As a project manager you do all of this—at a project level.
And depending on the size of the project, you may be managing a budget that is far greater than an organization’s. Think about construction of an oil rig, building a high rise, outsourcing an IT department—all of these projects could have a budget larger than an entire company.
Chief operating officers also have to know management operations. Fortunately, this is what you do day in and day out as a project manager. A COO just does operations on a larger scale. But with practice, understanding, and leading larger projects and programs, you will excel at the same skills required to be an effective COO.
Although the job description may not spell it out, many of the soft skills you’ve honed in project management—networking, communicating, leadership, mentorship/coaching and learning from failure—are also required to be a successful COO.
In addition, tangible skills like planning a budget, implementing training, overseeing the project budget and reporting to leadership will serve you well in the C-suite.
A little help from your mentors
As you prepare for a COO role, I’d also recommend finding mentors. Mentors were necessary for my advancement. I suggest finding three of them: one in your chain of command, the second in your organization but outside the chain of command, and the third outside of your organization.
Choose your mentors carefully. Mentors—especially those outside the chain of command and the company—can help you stretch your limits. A mentor can provide suggestions on how to handle difficult situations.
He or she can also provide insight into politics within the organization or how to handle a political situation. Finally, a mentor can provide advice on the next project or program to tackle to put you on the track to becoming a COO.
By Bernadine Douglas
Every team member brings a unique skill set to a project. It’s easy enough for observant project managers to take note of individuals’ varying backgrounds and skills. What’s harder is using different team member talents strategically to aid a project when the going gets tough.
Here are a few tips for practitioners looking to maximize their team’s talents to keep a project on track.
The How. The first step is to get to know your team members. On many fast-paced projects, it may not be easy to find time to have general conversations with people. But if small time slots arise, be sure to take advantage of them. The payoff could be quick: Even during a casual conversation, a team member may share an insight for getting a task done in an innovative way or information about a skill you didn’t realize he or she had.
The What. It’s important to map your team’s skills while keeping potential resource shortages in mind. You want to make sure that one aspect of the project can continue if the point person for that area on your team becomes unavailable. Ideally, you’ll be able to identify a backup on the team with the right skills to step in if necessary. If that proves impossible, you may have to get approval from another project manager in the organization to bring in someone from another project to meet a tight deadline. (This has happened to me.)
The When. Don’t be afraid of being flexible. In a budget-constrained situation, I have had to quickly train a team member on a skill so a project could continue. The key is finding a team member with the availability and willingness to learn on the fly.
Have you mapped your team’s varied skill sets? Have you thought about whom you’d turn to if a highly valuable team member were suddenly unavailable? I’d love to hear your project contingency plans.
If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere right now, you may be dealing with inclement winter weather. That in turn means your local public officials are dealing with how to communicate during a crisis. Project practitioners can learn from them.
Late last month in New York, New Jersey and the New England region in the United States, officials were tasked with preparing citizens for a snowstorm called “historic” before it arrived—but which ultimately spared New York City and neighboring New Jersey. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had to defend the decisionto shut down the city’s subway system due to snow for the first time in its 110-year history.
Similarly, project managers must be aware of the downsides involved with communicating risks on fast-changing projects to stakeholders. If flagged risks don’t materialize, we might find ourselves unable to gain cooperation at a later date.
Here are three communication rules of thumb, each corresponding to a project stage, to keep in mind when you have imperfect information about a project with constantly changing variables—but still must address stakeholders.
1. Plan ahead: One of the first rules of crisis management is to be fully prepared for a crisis.In New York City last month, we saw de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo get out early and explain that the forecast indicated the storm could be the largest in the city’s history. Only 6 inches of snow ended up falling, but the city’s leadership did have a good plan and did effectively prepare the population for the storm.
What can practitioners take away from this? Depending on the type of project you are running, take a few moments to think about how you are going to communicate with your team in case of a problem or uncontrollable event occurring, even if it’s just laying out the steps you need to take on the back of an envelope.
2. Have a clear message:When you are communicating in a variable or crisis situation for your project, you need to have a consistent message, even if you are delivering imperfect or changing information.
Think about how the U.S. National Weather Service issues “advisories,” “warnings” and “watches.” Although some people can be confused by these terms, the service’s definitions of them are distinct.
As a project manager, you may want to put your stakeholder messages into three categories: best case, worst case and most likely case, for example. Choose whichever categories work for your project and clearly define them. Bottom line: Confidently communicate what you know and how it will impact the project and your stakeholders.
3. Review and adapt: Like all good project managers, you likely review best practices at the end of your project. If the project involved communicating in crisis—whether related to weather or a different kind of variable circumstance—it’s especially important to take a few moments at the end to review what worked and what didn’t.
Like the planning and messaging stages noted above, the review doesn’t need to be highly complex. These questions can elicit communications lessons learned:
• How well did my plan allow me to begin communicating early in the crisis?
• Was my message easy for all stakeholders to understand?
• What about my communication delivery methods worked? What didn’t work?
• Did stakeholders respond to my message in the way that I wanted?
These are just three approaches crisis communications. How have you overcome communication challenges driven by project crises or adverse situations in your organization?