By Jen Skrabak, PMP, PfMP
Fifteen years ago, I transitioned from being an IT manager to a project manager for the first time. With this month’s theme at projectmanagement.com being “new practitioner PM,” here are three key lessons I learned while managing my first projects.
When I was an IT manager, I always had projects that were assigned to my department. I loved being part of large projects so much I realized I wanted to do it full-time. So I made a conscious decision to transition to being a dedicated project manager.
Managing a project is truly like being a CEO of your own company—you have authority over budget, resource and key decision-making responsibilities. However, it’s an art, and mastery takes time. These are the three fundamental lessons I learned:
1) Communication is about simplifying and personalizing.
Although we may hear that 90 percent of a project manager’s job is to communicate, the best communication is one that doesn’t contain acronyms, special terminology or techno-speak.
Remember that key stakeholders are often involved in multiple projects. To get their attention, you need to make your communications concise and personal while clearly specifying the action desired.
Avoid lengthy mass emails, and tailor the frequency and channel according to the person. One sponsor told me she gets so many emails that I should schedule a meeting if it’s important. Another sponsor told me he works best with instant messaging if I needed something immediately.
The key is to know your audience and adapt accordingly. My first sponsor meeting always includes finding out how and when he or she would like to be communicated with.
2) Project management is about knowing which tools to use when.
Yes, project management is about processes, knowledge areas and ITTOs (inputs, tools and techniques, outputs), according to the PMBOK Guide. But, most importantly, it’s a menu of available options.
Trying to do everything by the book or insisting on adherence to every single template and tool is setting yourself up for disaster. Assess the needs of the project, and don’t ignore the culture of the organization. You can’t go from zero processes to textbook processes overnight. You may need to start slow by introducing concepts and build from there.
3) Build relationships.
Trust is key. When you’re starting out as a project manager, you’re an unknown, so you need to work extra hard to establish the relationships. It’s important to come across as professional, yet approachable and flexible in order to build confidence with your team, and most importantly, your sponsors and key stakeholders. Regular, relaxed one-on-one meetings, such as getting coffee or grabbing lunch, help to build cohesive partnerships that will pay dividends when the going gets tough on the project.
When I started as a project manager, the focus of my attention was on the mechanics of project management. This involved becoming very involved in work plans, risk/issue trackers, status reports, progress metrics and all those artifacts that form the means by which one manages a project.
What I realized after a number of years (as well as after a few hard learning experiences) was that while the mechanics of project management are important, they are merely enablers for the core activities that truly create a successful project.
I needed to think more about the successful direct and indirect business outcomes that could be created from a project. The attainment of successful business outcomes was what my stakeholders were really looking for, not necessarily the most impressive work plan or status report. This shift in focus become one of the turning points in my project management career.
So how does a project manager, in particular one early in his or her career, make the transition from executing the linear mechanics of project management to producing desired business outcomes? Well, they need to acquire the skills and behaviors that enable business success from projects— hopefully without harmful learning experiences along the way.
Here are four tips for making this transition.
1. Don’t Be Afraid of Business Processes
When I was a relatively new project manager, I spent a lot of time at my desk. This desk time was occupied with working on project management artifacts that if created perfectly would, in my mind, automatically lead to a successful project.
A senior project manager noticed this and encouraged me to spend a fixed amount of time creating project management artifacts, with the remainder of my workweek interacting with stakeholders in the business areas. In fact, this senior project manager arranged for me to work for a few days with some of the employees that were actually executing the business processes that were to be impacted by my project. Those few days of immersion were a great learning experience that it completely changed my outlook on how to run the project.
Today, I still employ the same technique for both myself as well as fellow project managers and team members. Whether it’s working in a retail outlet helping to stock shelves, processing billing exceptions in a call center or spending time in an airliner simulator, the immersion experience is essential to understanding what makes for successful business outcomes from projects.
2. Define Business Success Criteria
Very early in my career, I took what my stakeholders initially shared with me as business success criteria without any subsequent qualification. No surprise that some of the success criteria entailed—“just make it easy to use,” “finish testing by the end of the year” or “do whatever the senior vice president says”—didn’t really indicate a clear path to business success.
As I grew as a project manager, I began to spend more time in the beginning of projects articulating in detail with stakeholders clear criteria for business success. This involved not only understanding current processes by immersion, but also challenging stakeholders on the methods we would use to objectively measure business success. If something cannot be objectively measured, it would be difficult to determine the success of the project.
I also allocated time in the project to build and execute the processes to measure success. By doing so, I had the capacity to create evidence of how the project benefited the business.
3. Understand Your Industry
In my first few years as a project manager at an insurance company, I took every course on project management I could find (this pre-dated the creation of PMP certification). While I became adept at the mechanics of project management, I had no real foundation of business knowledge for the projects I was leading.
On a recommendation of a senior project manager, I took a course on the principles of the insurance business. This course covered the terminology, core business processes and emerging industry trends. I left the course wondering how all of this was going to apply to running projects.
Within two weeks of taking this course, my supervisor passed along a compliment from my stakeholders how much more effective and efficient I was in running their project. This newfound productivity came from the ability to more easily understand the challenges that the project was intended to address. Little did I know that the industry training was a form of business process immersion.
4. Get Comfortable With ‘Design Thinking’
The concept of “design thinking” originated with companies finding out that while project managers thought they were achieving the desired delivery success criteria of being on time and budget, they were not really producing the desired level of business success from projects. These companies began to explore ways of changing the approach in determining business success for a project.
Design thinking gives project managers several approaches to fully qualify the path to business success by techniques such as charting a customer journey, business process brainstorming, business case creation and creative reframing.
All of this opened my mind to going beyond the traditional boundaries of a project to ensure I was going to both define and execute to true business success.
I sometimes long for the days when I ran smaller, simpler and shorter projects whose goal was typically to finish on time and budget. I could afford to relax a bit and strive to achieve a high professional standard in the mechanics of running a project.
But as our projects become larger, more complex and longer in duration, we as project managers have to delegate some of these activities to other people, so we can get on with the business at hand of producing successful business results from projects.
These four things helped me make the transition to achieving business results on projects. What are some of the things that allow you to do the same?
By Kevin Korterud
After many years of challenges and successes as a project manager, I took a moment to reflect on what made me leave my functional role and embrace project management. While I enjoyed working as an individual contributor with a particular function, project managers seemed to have a unique set of skills that I both respected and envied.
Here are four factors that set me off down the project management road. Hopefully, these insights will prove helpful to people considering project management roles and project managers who might need to re-energize themselves.
1. Projects Allow You To Build Things
When I was growing up, I loved to build models of aircraft, ships and cars. The process of making something interesting out of a disparate set of parts, selection of paints and sometimes vague instructions appealed to me. While sometimes the final product did not look exactly as I hoped, the journey helped build cognitive and visualization skills that made the next model turn out better.
Projects are not unlike model building. You have a set of parts (people, process and technologies), paint colors to select (requirements, communications) and quite often limited instructions from stakeholders on how to achieve success.
However, projects have additional complexities. You need to create the instructions (a project plan), determine who helps with what parts (project work activities) and coordinate when the parts are assembled.
2. The “People Factor” of Projects
As a functional specialist, I began to observe how effectively selecting, engaging and guiding people had a great impact on the project’s outcome. Often, the ability to produce a good team had more of an impact than my individual contributions.
One of a project manager’s most powerful skills is the ability to form and lead a team. While processes and technologies tend to behave in a somewhat predictable manner, people often do not.
As I grew as a project manager, I found that in addition to core project management skills, I needed to also build soft skills. These included: verbal communications, presentation skills, clarity in written communications and more.
In retrospect, working with people on project teams to achieve successful outcomes as well as helping them grow professionally has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my project management career.
3. Projects Yield Visible Results
When I was a functional specialist, I was most commonly tasked with creating and implementing a set of project deliverables. I was rarely on a project long enough to see the complete implementation and final results.
When I became a project manager, I began to see how I was responsible for the outcomes that created visible results. The project’s desired outcomes were more than the successful installation of a process or technology. It had to create a benefit once adopted by the project stakeholders.
The notion of producing visible results from a project can be very exciting. I was once involved in leading several projects that touched on the health and safety of employees. There was no greater professional and personal satisfaction than to complete a project that someday might save someone’s life.
4. Projects Build Personal and Professional Character
We all have days where things go so bad, we think, “If I could only return to my former role before becoming a project manager.” Project managers have to deal with constant uncertainty, a wide range of emotions, a lack of resources, schedule conflicts, missed milestones and more. However, all of these challenges have unintended positive consequences.
I once worked for a project manager who had been assigned to more failed or failing projects than anyone else in her group. It was a source of pride for her that these challenging projects strengthened her professional abilities and her character. By constantly having to work through adversities, she quickly built advanced skills and rapidly developed her confidence level.
In many ways, projects mirror situations we face in everyday life. By learning to adapt to ever-changing conditions, we grow in our ability to deal with difficulties, be they in a project plan or missing the train to work. I found that when I became a project manager, my professional and personal skills grew at an accelerated pace.
So what got you to become a project manager?
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.