In this instalment of my irregular column chatting to expert project managers, I caught up with Chris Cook. Chris is the author of a new book, The Entrepreneurial Project Manager. It talks about how you can improve your skills to take a cutting-edge approach to project management, as an entrepreneur does in their own business.
How does that work? We’ll get on to that. First, I asked Chris to share his background and how he got into project management.
Chris, tell me about your career path.
Out of high school, I started working for my stepfather’s road construction company. I started as a general labourer eventually becoming a surveyor (of sorts).
I was attending college studying building construction management. After graduation, I enrolled in the graduate project management program at the same university. I was working and going to school. The field and classroom knowledge blended well.
Did you always know you’d write a book?
Five years ago, I was laboring for my stepfather’s company while studying project management in graduate school. I was coming home with dirt head to toe, tired like a dog from the weather and long hours, and I had no idea what the next move was going to be.
Would I stay working for him and maybe take over one day? Would I leave and spread my wings with a larger company to put my studies to use?
While working as an assistant project manager for a different company, a professor from graduate school offered me the opportunity to write a book for a publisher she has worked for. I jumped at the opportunity. Over the past year, I have been focusing on writing the best book possible, learning about the book writing process, and pursuing more knowledge of the project management profession.
Now, I am 1500 miles from home in Colorado having written a book, completed graduate school, and became a PMP®. Only one of those goals was on my mind at the time.
I’m guessing it wasn’t the book! What was the writing process like for you?
I segmented the process into three parts: research, writing, and editing.
The research phase took the longest. Writing notes, picking materials to use, watching hours of webinars and videos, and then placing those notes into designated chapters. I wanted to use materials not only within project management but also outside the project management world.
I tend to look at project managers as leaders and coaches, so I reference sports quite a bit throughout to make the comparison more concrete.
The writing phase was transcribing those notes through a project management filter (in my head) relating coaching and leadership to a project manager.
My goal was to write on a subject then set the computer down. A piece of advice I took to heart was if you still have something to write about, stop writing. Pick that thought up the next day to keep the momentum going.
Editing was the last phase and most excruciating for me because I had to then read what I wrote and become critical. I had amazing people who read my work and gave excellent feedback along the way which drastically improves my writing.
You did a lot of research for the book. What in particular did you do on the subject of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship and outside-of-the-box thinking are often linked. I tried this same approach in my research. Instead of going to best-selling entrepreneurship books that most people read, I attempted to look for outside sources that can be linked similarly.
For instance, I read many coaching and leadership books because a project manager holds a similar position on his or her team. Hall of Fame coaches Bill Walsh and Bob Knight are two of the sources I went to for more information on taking teams to a championship level.
I also applied Stoic and Taoist philosophies because it is important for people who are leaders to understand their personal stances and why they do what they do, or believe what they believe. Making individuals perform for the sake of performance does not inspire or lead to betterment.
However, if you give reasons and data as to why these tasks are essential, the group is more likely to respond positively. “Because that is how it is done” or “this is how we do things” is not a substantial enough answer.
People might think that intrapreneurship is more relevant to project managers working in a big organization. What are your thoughts on that?
Intrapreneurship is a great concept that gives employees the opportunities to use company resources with expansive thinking and testing to innovate.
The first time I came across intrapreneurship was the PMXPO 2016 when Robbie Bach gave a presentation regarding his time with Microsoft and developing the Xbox gaming system. The only knowns Bach had were competing with Sony for the living rooms of consumers and a deadline. Other than that, the project was open ended. Each person became a firefighter coming into work not knowing what fire they would have to put out that day. Even with a $4-6 billion overrun, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer still considered the lessons learned worth it. Bach implemented his 3P framework: Purpose (Pursue the Northstar), Principles (Ground Rules), and Priorities (The Art of Leaving Things Undone).
Watch the video of Robbie Bach’s presentation here: PMXPO 2016: The Xbox Story: Lessons in Leadership, Strategy, and Team Management
Most of the time, people get caught up in the bureaucracy, hierarchy, and rules of an organization that creativity and innovation get lost. A lot of time is spent performing defined tasks and schedules, and before you know it, the day is done, and the train keeps on moving.
I like the idea of finding time to brainstorm, revert to a child’s mind, and be playful with idea creation. Not all ideas are good, but that should not deter someone from shouting them out just in case.
The Entrepreneurial Project Manager by Chris Cook is published by CRC Press
In this video I talk about what to look out for when you are hiring someone. It can be expensive to bring people on to the team, so it's definitely worth getting it right first time! Here are some tips for making sure that your recruitment efforts don't go to waste.
In this video I talk about the costs of hiring a new employee. There are a lot of elements involved in hiring and they are all an investment!
Do you manage your projects ‘in the cloud’? It’s the buzzword that has stopped being ‘buzz’ and is now a critical part of being able to operate successfully as a project manager – even if you don’t manage software projects.
Growing up in cold and rainy Hamburg, Mauricio Prinzlau had a semi-legitimate excuse for passing his time in front of the computer as a kid. After a degree in Business Communication Management, he joined the Cloudwards.net team as a managing editor and backup expert, where he's in charge of the cloud backup and storage reviews section.
I asked him what project managers need to know about cloud computing, starting with the really, really basic stuff.
Mauricio, what is 'the cloud'?
The cloud is obviously a very trending topic with a variety of definitions. The cloud leverages computing power and makes it available via the Internet so that businesses, organizations, and even individuals can use the cloud to solve business problems, upload photos, or host a website.
What else do people use it for?
Project managers use it for hosted project management collaboration tools but also other, non-project management apps that they are using in their day jobs or deploying to others.
For example, businesses use the cloud to make operations more efficient and leverage the computing power of servers to store and archive files cheaper and more secure. What used to be a complete on-site infrastructure that needed maintenance, security patches, and staff is now outsourced to cloud data centers that are off-site, thus reducing cost and risk for businesses and organizations.
Outside of work, you probably use the cloud on a daily basis without really noticing it. Facebook relies on cloud infrastructure, iCloud uses the cloud to backup people’s photos, Google Now helps us with day-to-day tasks. And there are many more examples we could come up with where the cloud plays a central role in people’s lives now.
So let’s say I need to back up all my project files. How do you choose the right cloud storage solution for your project?
How do you choose the right car? Just kidding, of course, it is very hard to give a general answer. What do you need the cloud for? Do you have a team of 5 people who need to collaborate and share files? Then you need to look at solutions such as Dropbox or Google Drive.
But what if security is a major concern? Then Dropbox and Google Drive are not an option. Project managers need to look at solutions such as Sync.com, who put security at the forefront of their business model.
Think about what your project teams and organization needs regarding features because it’s easy to overpay for a cloud service that you don’t need.
And what about the projects I might be delivering? Outside of file sharing and back up, what sort of things am I going to be hearing my tech architects talk about?
If you need virtual computers in the cloud to do calculations, then you you might hear them talk about Amazon Web Services because they offer great flexibility and scalability of computing power.
There are other options, of course, and what I would say is, there is no one-size-fits-all cloud. You need to compare features carefully, decide on your budget and then make an informed decision.
Can the cloud or online solutions be a cost-effective way to back up files?
In one word: yes. Online and cloud backup are terms used synonymously because there is not a real difference. Cloud (online) backups are one of the cheapest ways for businesses to get files off-site and protect them from disasters (theft, fires, flood etc.).
There are even services such as CrashPlan or Backblaze, who offer unlimited cloud backup, so they put no limit as to the amount of storage you can send.
Sounds great. Surely there are disadvantages we should know about?
There can be risks associated with cloud storage. That’s why I recommend my clients not to rely on one single cloud with all their data. Data loss can happen even to the best companies, so a fallback (ideally with a local backup) is always best.
Security is a concern if a cloud backup or storage company does not encrypt files before they are sent to the cloud (sometimes called end-to-end encryption). Always make sure you choose a service that supports this feature.
If your company has certain limitations as to the location of where the data is hosted then most companies have to be aware that the majority of cloud storage companies are located in the US. This is not ideal for most European businesses.
Yikes. So much of my project data is confidential. Is it safe to put stuff in the cloud?
It is safe if a) you encrypt files yourself before you send them, or b) a cloud storage service offers local encryption (or zero-knowledge privacy). I would personally recommend Sync.com, which is a Canada-based service, they work in the same way Dropbox does, but with zero-knowledge privacy.
I don’t even know what zero-knowledge means!
Oh, sorry! There’s a detailed explanation in this article but it’s too much to cover in this interview today, but it’s a way to store your data so that even the storage company can’t get into it.
OK, I’ll look at that later, thanks. How do you balance accessing work files on your work cloud and your personal stuff in your personal cloud, like Dropbox, for example?
Well, for one you could create two different accounts, one that you use for personal and one for business.
Dropbox and other cloud storage service offer business versions with enhanced privacy and collaborative features. For business collaboration, I tend to use Google Drive because my team and I can work together in real time on documents and spreadsheets, but I do not use the public clouds (Google, Dropbox) for very sensitive files like contracts. That’s where I would personally choose a zero-knowledge cloud.
Can you give me a short answer to what do managers need to know about the private/public cloud overlap and how best to manage it so that employees don't put confidential business records at risk?
That’s one of the major problems larger organizations face: the consumerization of the cloud. Employees use Dropbox, OneDrive or Google Drive to share business files. That’s why enterprises need to offer their employees a solution that is as easy to use as the public clouds. We have been working with Autotask Workplace as a solid solution for enterprises because it offers the same flexibility and ease-of-use as Dropbox, but without the security holes. Users can synchronize files (personal or business files) and managers can keep an eye on what gets in and out.
It sounds like an industry that is moving a lot. Where is next for cloud storage - what are the trends that you are seeing?
Cloud storage services do not focus on storage anymore, because, well, some argue that there is no money to be made with storage.
We clearly see a development into intelligent solutions for project and document management. Dropbox has hundreds of millions of users, all using their service in different ways, so in a couple of years, I believe we’ll be seeing a lot of artificial intelligence added to it, which helps us organize information automatically based on our specific business.
Thanks, Mauricio. Any final words?
I would say, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, especially when using the cloud for backup. But also, think about what your project teams and organization needs regarding features because it’s easy to overpay for a cloud service that you don’t need.
Overall, I’m excited to be close to seeing the developments in this industry and am looking forward to more innovative features and services based on the cloud.
Over the years I have interviewed some great project management experts on this blog. Today I want to round up eight of my favourite expert interviews. They are all packed with tips to help you manage the difficult times on your projects. Enjoy!
Jason Westland on budget management processes
“Projects with a high level of risk require more contingency funding. Having said that, some parts of the project may be riskier than others, so consider whether you add contingency to the overall budget pot or to particular tasks or phases. You could, of course, do both, if you are particularly risk adverse.”
Kevin Baker on improving project management culture
“Unified Planning takes the schedule status and the cost status at work package level and then aggregates this up to give the overall picture at total project level, that is the status for the complete aircraft development.”
Wilhelm Kross on risk management
“Making trade-offs, designing short-term compromises, implementing short-term work-arounds and the like, are typical management challenges that seem to be ignored.”
And there's another part of my conversation with him here.
Eric Winquist on reusing requirements
“Organizations that centrally manage requirements respond to change faster and catch errors earlier because they are leveraging requirements that have already been developed and tested.”
Chris Bell on Enterprise Risk Management
“ERM is a scalable, holistic approach to risk management that consolidates and organizes risk information from across the organization into one location so that it may be used for improved decision making. By embracing ERM and creating a risk management culture, organizations can drive business performance, innovation and growth, while protecting company reputation and shareholder value.”
Jon Swain on project management tools
“With everything in one place, senior management can see up-to-date project performance data across the whole organization allowing them to better manage their project portfolios. They can proactively choose which projects to select, prioritize projects particularly with competing or scarce resources, understand the interactions between projects and tie all of these decisions directly back to the company's strategy and goals.”
Todd Williams on cost audits
“When you are determining the cost of internal resources, you need to determine they are performing to expected goals. Are they spending time on non-project tasks or inefficiently getting toward deliverables? They may be salaried and simply billed to your project. In this case you need to be diligent ensuring hours (which translate to money) are spent on completing their work and that these hours are in compliance with industry standards. If time gets excessive you have a problem.”
Rob Prinzo on securing funding for your projects
“Robust budgeting starts with comprehensive requirements. I recommend starting by making a list of all your projects, categorizing the projects based on: size, business function, type, level of funding, effort and organizational impact. Next, determine the dependencies with other projects, funding, resources and business decisions. Once you have your list, categories and dependencies you can start to determine the projected costs for the projects.”