Categories: Best Practices, Human Aspects of PM, Lessons Learned, Mentoring, Project Delivery, Risk Management, ROI
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?