When I first started out managing projects, I had never heard of psychological safety. It’s a concept I’ve only come across in recent years, and it’s fascinating.
Psychological safety is part of what I would have called a blame-free team culture in the past: the idea that you can talk about hard things without worrying that there would be career consequences for raising challenges.
A report came out from the UK Ministry of Defence at the end of last year on psychological safety in projects, and the report defines it like this:
Psychological safety is the idea that we can be candid and raise issues without fear of reprisal.
The MOD manages plenty of high profile, high stakes projects, so they know a thing or two about how to create empowered teams – and also the consequences of what happens when projects don’t go to plan.
Here are 5 tips from the report that resonated the most with me.
1. Be present
Unsurprisingly, leadership behaviours were found to significantly psychological safety in teams, and if you’ve ever worked with a leader who made you feel like you never wanted to open your mouth to say anything in a meeting, you’ll know why.
The role we have as project leaders is key to shaping the environment and creating a safe space. From the 240+ surveys carried out to inform the report, a key takeaway was to be present in the project environment.
Being visible means there is a route for people to get in touch with points to escalate, progress updates or issues.
2. Reaffirm the direction and goals
The research found that clarity of direction was the second most important factor in creating psychological safety, after the behaviour of leaders, and it’s not hard to understand why.
We feel more comfortable raising concerns if we understand the mission and have a clear direction to follow. Plus, it’s easier to challenge behaviours and tasks that don’t support the mission, because everyone knows that’s what should be pulling focus.
The report concludes that project leaders should continually have conversations about the direction, especially when the context changes, for example economic or political changes.
3. Ask for (and give) help
Over 80% of people who responded to the MOD survey disagreed that it was difficult to ask others for help. However, it also identified that it was harder to ask for help outside of an individual’s specific team.
The lesson for us is that we should build working relationships across silos and up and down the hierarchy to be able to establish trust and respect across the organisation.
4. Create a learning culture
A culture of learning “mediate[s] the relationship between psychological safety and team performance”.
Project professionals can create a learning culture by being open to finding out more from their peers and colleagues, and also through sharing information and lessons learned freely.
5. Recognise individual excellence
I’ve written a lot in the past about how to celebrate team success and making sure to mark project-related milestones. But recognising individual contributions is just as important. Ideally, we should be rewarding contributions as well, so if your company has a staff recognition scheme, it’s time to dust off the submission guidance and think about who you could put forward for an award.
The report says that project leaders should ‘unlock purpose and empowerment to drive value’ which I interpret to mean helping the team see that their work is making a difference.
A recent survey by GetApp, an online research company, sheds a bit of light on what’s really going on with project management software tools – which regular readers will know is a topic close to my heart.
I found the results interesting and here I’ve picked out a few to comment on. Starting with…
More than half of respondents (57 percent) work at organisations with annual budgets of $2k or more for project management software.
12 percent of respondents said their company had $25k or more to spend on software annually. My thoughts here are that the survey doesn’t correlate this to company size. You’d imagine that the cost of cloud software goes up with the number of users, so knowing the budget without knowing what they get for it in terms of project management population signed up isn’t very helpful.
However, this next point is interesting…
91 percent of project managers are willing to spend more for project management software that includes the missing features they need.
I’ve looked at a lot of tools and I have to say that there are similarities between what project management software does. After all, there are only so many ways to record tasks and mark them as complete. What extra bells and whistles you get for dashboards, resource management and so on are all good, but a Gantt chart is a Gantt chart at the end of the day.
So paying more for software that differentiates itself by having something “extra” – well, for many companies I think that is a hard sell.
However, this survey looks like customers will pay for what’s missing. The things they report as missing from the products they are using currently are:
No individual feature was reported missing by more than 12 percent of people, so there wasn’t a clear winner – if that’s the right term – for what is lacking in PM software. Rather, it’s a broad range of features that might not be in the tool you happen to be using.
The researchers draw an interesting conclusion from this, and I tend to agree: software hasn’t caught up with what project managers are actually expected to do these days.
It has been a while since the formal project manager was handed a fully-specified requirements document, and spent their days doing project scheduling, monitoring and control. Today we’re expected to handle a wide range of tasks from budgets to change management and everything in between.
And we need the tools that can deliver.
The amount people are prepared to spend on getting the features that matter to them is set out in the chart below. Most people don’t want to go more than 15 percent more and nearly 10 percent wouldn’t pay any more even if they got the extra features.
The challenge for software vendors is that every PM seems to have a slightly different set of requirements for what they need, at least in my experience. Even within my own business we use multiple tools because it’s easier and there isn’t one integrated product that does everything.
I’m used to it now, so I don’t see it as a problem. In itself that’s a problem! You can’t improve or look for efficiencies if you aren’t open to the idea that there might be some somewhere.
I’m not alone in using more than one tool, as the next survey result shows.
Almost three quarters (74 percent) of project managers surveyed use between two and five total tools for project management.
5 percent of survey respondents say they use over 10! I can’t imagine what they would be unless they have included software like Microsoft Word and email in their list. Perhaps they work with clients who use different products and as freelancers or contractors have to use multiple tools by default as every client has their own in-house specification.
This study seems to show that the situation for project managers today is that they don’t seem to be happy with the tools that are out there. With over 90 percent saying they’d pay for missing features and struggling along using multiple tools there sounds like plenty of demand for project management software vendors to step up.
However, I think that’s a sweeping conclusion to come to from this set of data points. I agree with the researchers that unless project managers have the right tools that help them do the job they are paid to do, we risk project failure (or at least not 100 percent success). But in my experience people are happy to talk about the things that aren’t going so great – and without access to the questions it’s hard to see if they were asked if there was nothing they felt was missing.
I’m naturally sceptical about surveys and I do think the data here is interesting. What do you think?
The survey was conducted with around 200 project managers in the US who use project management software for their day jobs. They came from a wide spread of industries but with a focus on IT and 49 percent of them had the job title Project Manager, with the others being slightly more junior or senior but still in PM-related roles. You can read the whole survey and see all the results here.
According to recruitment company Robert Half, interim project managers are in high demand. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, interim is a bit like contract but generally longer term and more invested (contractors, feel free to call me out on that if you don’t agree!).
The Robert Half team asked 200 UK CFOs and Financial Directors about how they evaluate the success of an interim manager, and it isn’t all about the successful delivery of a project (although that comes in at 34%). I put this infographic together to explain how the survey respondents measure the success of one of their interim managers. They were allowed to respond to several answers, which is why the results don’t add up to 100%, and you can see the full survey results here.
…At least, that’s what a survey by ESI would have you believe.
The funding for PMOs has historically been a bit iffy. That’s not a technical term, by the way. PMOs have struggled to prove their value and there is a cyclic effect when times are hard in business: PMOs start to lose their funding and get scaled back or cut completely. That, according to ESI, is finally changing.
The study of over 900 respondents held earlier this year reports that 49% of PMOs are funded as a corporate overhead. Even the word ‘overhead’ doesn’t do the PMO any favours. I know PMOs aren’t exactly revenue generating but they should be a governance and cost control centre rather than a bottomless black hole of overheads. In fact, where a project is done for a client, and a PMO is part of the deal, 40% of them are funded by the project. So you could argue that the PMO is a revenue centre in those situations. However, the study does not make it clear whether those costs are passed to the client or not. I digress…
Corporate i.e. central funding is a good thing for PMOs. ESI believes that corporately-funded PMOs have a far greater opportunity to mature and to provide a wider range of benefits and services both to projects and the business as a whole.
Funding increases on the way
Enterprise PMOs are optimistic. The report concludes that around 30% of enterprise PMOs thought they would be seeing increased funding in the next financial year, so they must think they are doing a good enough job, growing enough and gaining enough recognition to be worth the extra investment. The ESI pundits report that enterprise PMOs typically have a wider influence and higher visibility than those PMOs set up to support an individual project or programme.
PMOs that are supporting individual initiatives are less optimistic about their future and their funding. This is hardly surprising: if your department has been set up to support a project and then that project finishes, your future is uncertain. You can foresee the end of the project from Day 1 so it is no shock that project level PMOs are a bit more reticent about their future.
The challenge of resource management
Another interesting statistic from the ESI study is that resource management is perceived to be the thing that the PMO is worst at by the people who actually do the job.
About half of respondents reported that their PMO has been ‘very ineffective’, ‘ineffective’ or ‘neither effective nor ineffective’ at resource management across projects and programmes.
This is a shame (and a surprise). I thought one of the main benefits of a PMO was to handle resource management and make sure that the right people were working on the right projects at the right time. They certainly have the tools and the remit to do that, if they want. Resource management is tough because it’s probably the part of project planning that deals with the vagaries of your people more than any other. There are just so many variables and things that might change. Keeping track of who is doing what when is more than a full-time job and relies heavily on the support and input from the team members themselves. Plus more and more of what project managers do is knowledge work which makes it very difficult to estimate. This is going to continue to be a challenge for project managers and PMOs.
Another resourcing point flagged by the study is the lack of access to team members trained in Agile working practices. More and more teams are adopting Agile but the training and change management aspects of embedding this in the organisation seem to be lagging behind.
And the challenge of recognition
The survey invited participants to say what other people thought the PMO struggled with as well as giving their own assessment. Inability to effectively manage resources was not something that made the top list of reasons why people challenged the PMO.
The main reason for ‘challenging’ (for which I would read ‘complaining about’) the PMO was about the value that it added to the organisation. In other words, people saying that it didn’t add any value to the business. That’s not really a surprise. Executives have struggled to see the value of the PMO for some time and it’s only when you have a programme of quick wins and a high profile about the work that you do that the value of a PMO is clear. And even then you won’t always win over the detractors. There will always be someone who says project managers should just get on with it.
PMOs provide a valuable role within a company and the regular ESI studies show the changing landscape of the global PMO. It will be interesting to see if we are still hearing the same complaints and complements about PMOs in a few years.
I’ve spent a lot of time going through the PwC Global PPM Survey recently and there are lots of things in there that project managers can take away. The most important message – and this won’t come as a surprise – is that “the PM community needs to brush up on the basics.”
They give some statistics to support that:
That last statistic troubles me, because risk management is not a one-off activity. You can’t set up a risk log (on my other blog I have a free risk register template) and expect it to manage itself or expect the project’s environment to remain static to the point that no other risks manifest themselves during the life cycle. Risk management has to be a regular, ongoing activity.
Getting the project management basics right
The survey says:
“PMs can improve their performance in getting the basics right and help Executive Teams deliver programmes of change. Many of the improvements that can be made are basic PPM processes and should be part and parcel of every programme but are frequently not done well or are not done consistently.”
This is what I consider the basics.
First, set your objectives. Have a clear goal and a line of sight to that goal. Everything is easier when you have total clarity about what you are trying to achieve because every decision you make supports the journey to get there. (It also makes it easier to do point 3 below.)
Second, regularly measure progress. Apparently this is not always done in all programmes, although why you would invest in a programme of work and then not bother to check anyone is actually working on it is beyond me.
Third, have a process to manage changes. According to PwC’s maturity assessments, almost half of programmes don’t have established processes for managing change.
Fourth, build in time to reflect. You can’t do a good job when you and the team are stressed and under pressure. You need a moment to catch your breath, consider alternative solutions, work out what’s round the corner (be it positive or negative) and review lessons learned so you don’t make the same mistakes over and over again.
Fifth, manage your risks. Risks that aren’t managed cost you money. Risks that aren’t exploited miss you opportunities. Everyone needs a Plan B because you can never be too prepared, especially when you have a lot of time and money tied up in delivering transformational change.
All of these are basics, but they don’t need to be unwieldy or fully documented to be done well. The most important thing is talking about them. As the survey authors write:
“Whilst reviewing a risk register or ensuring a benefits tracker is up to date need to happen, what is most important is that the conversation around a particular risk is had with the right people to drive mitigating action.”
What other project management practices do you consider to be ‘the basics?’ Let me know in the comments below.