Project Management

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A blog that looks at all aspects of project and program finances from budgets, estimating and accounting to getting a pay rise and managing contracts. Written by Elizabeth Harrin from GirlsGuideToPM.com.

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False Urgency

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False Urgency

Have you ever worked on a project where when things went wrong, the sponsor was calm and measured, helping you create a map towards a resolution but backing off as required and letting you get on with the work?

That’s great.

The alternative is a much more destructive environment, where pressure from the levels above create a sense that everything has to be done now, even the tasks that don’t actually have to be done now. When things go wrong, that pressure intensifies. The team are pressed to deliver a fix to the exclusion of everything else, or to hit a milestone that has been made up by a senior leader and would never have been committed to if the full plan was understood at the time.

Where does false urgency come from?

False urgency comes from the pressure that is put on a team, group or individual to make a decision. It’s normally – in my experience – the result of some kind of failure.

Something goes wrong, and suddenly the big boss says he wants it fixed by 5pm. There’s no denying it’s a mistake that needs to be fixed, and fast, but the 5pm deadline is false urgency. Wouldn’t it be better to be fixed by 6pm and be right, rather than slap together an issue response plan and do a not-so-good job by 5pm?

The other situation I’ve found myself in is where a senior leader has committed in public – to a client, customer or during a Town Hall meeting – that something will be done by a certain date. And then we, as the project delivery team, have to find a way to meet that date. This false urgency is created by someone who doesn’t have the full information about what work is required and how much effort is likely to go into the project. But once a date is out there in public, it’s kind of hard for it to be extended without someone losing face.

How does false urgency affect people?

False urgency makes people think the situation is out of control, especially as the first deadline whooshes by. I’ve been on teams where we’ve been asked to do something asap, but it’s become clear that the solution – the correct solution – is going to take a bit longer. Suddenly, the fake deadline is swept out of the way. The fake urgency is gone. It feels like that was just a tool to get us to focus, which of course we did. And would have done anyway. We all know the problem needs resolving and that it’s top priority.

That sense of not being respected or allowed to find the solution, the pressure of having to do something just because someone says so, it all goes towards creating feelings of anxiety and anger. I know I get grumpy if I think something is important and someone then comes along and tells me it should be my most important task. It is already – but as a project manager, there’s often not much I can do beyond facilitating the process of issue resolution.

It's also tiring to be micromanaged and to be under the pressure of scrutiny.

The pressure of being in an urgent situation can make people do strange things. For example, looking busy. Busy is not the same as proactive or productive. When the bosses are circling because a client is being affected by a project issue, it’s important to look like you are gainfully employed, even if you can’t actually help the team to code the solution or run the fix or whatever.

There are lots of meetings, often to go over things that you’ve already gone over with other people. There are lots of reports. You end up defending behaviour and progress and explaining why things are taking as long as they are or involving the resources that they are.

How do we avoid this?

Given that false urgency can have such a negative impact on the team, I think it’s important to consider how it can be avoided. Sometimes – such as when your sponsor blurts out a delivery date in a client meeting and you haven’t even finished the estimating yet – you can’t in the moment. You can, however, mitigate the impact with open and honest communication and a bit of negotiation.

Be data-led, keep the communication channels open, be transparent with your sponsor and customer and avoid promising things before you have finished the planning stages. Have you ever been in a situation like this before? If you’re prepared to share, please tell us in the comments!

Posted on: February 02, 2023 08:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Holiday season for projects!

holiday checklist

Are you winding down for the end of year festivities? Whatever that looks like for you, here are 10 things to consider when heading into the holidays.

1. Thank your team

I’m sure you do this all the time anyway, but as a gentle reminder, this is a great time of year to be thanking people for the work they have done over the past 12 months.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money (or any money). A digital card, a message on your corporate internal social network, a thank you in person or on email: it all makes a difference.

2. Thank your suppliers

Suppliers have had a tough year, just like the rest of us. Rising costs and clients who have had to scale back their plans as a result of belt-tightening have made it a difficult economic climate for many, especially small businesses.

3. Organise a celebration

Whether it’s a Christmas jumper day, a lunch out to mark the end of another year and still being together as a team, or simply the option of meeting in person, try to find some time to celebrate what you have achieved this year.

Look back at the projects that the team delivered, or the successes that have happened on your journey in your current project. Find something that everyone can do, so your celebration is inclusive.

4. Remember that payment runs are early

Back to business: payment runs are early in December. Your Finance team might be processing everything a week or so before the normal cutoffs to account for people being out of the office or bank deadlines due to the holiday season.

Make sure you get any invoices or expense claims in on time so you don’t miss out.

5. Be prepared for the change freeze

Your IT department probably has a change freeze planned for the holiday period. This is a time when they won’t make changes to production systems, normally because they are running with a reduced staff due to people taking time off. It might also be because it’s a busy time of year for your business and they don’t want to do anything that would mess stuff up.

If your project needs IT changes, talk to them about the dates for the freeze and get your change requests to the CAB (Change Advisory Board) as soon as you can.

6. Do your accruals

If the end of the calendar year coincides with the end of your financial year, you might have to do accruals. This is where you financially account for items that have not yet been delivered but have been ordered, or have been delivered but haven’t yet been invoiced.

Talk to your finance team about what they need from you. In my old job, we used to get a form to complete from Finance that detailed all the info they needed about open purchase orders so they could close the books for the year.

7. Send feedback to line managers

If you have benefited from having subject matter experts on your team, take a moment to send some feedback to them and their line manager about their contribution to your project. That can be included in their performance appraisal.

8. Prep for your end of year review

On the topic of appraisals, if you have an end of year review coming up (ours are often in January), take half an hour or so to document what you have achieved this year so you can reference it in your meeting.

9. Be mindful of other people’s leave

Even if you aren’t taking much (or any) time away from the office, your colleagues may well be. Try to bear in mind their leave dates so you aren’t bothering them with emails during their break.

10. Set your out of office

It’s time to take a break from the office, so update your out of office message and let people know who to contact while you are away.

Now all that is done, you can rest up and enjoy the holidays! I hope you have something lovely planned to mark the end of another year.

Posted on: December 01, 2022 08:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

3 More Skill Areas to Support Your Team With

Last month, I looked at 3 areas where project managers can mentor and support their team members: risk management, task management, and managing multiple projects. Today I’m looking at 3 more areas where I know people struggle – and where project managers are uniquely placed to be able to help them do a better job.

1. Managing scope

Project scope changes regularly – we all know that having a change management process in place is good project management practice. But dealing with constant changes is hard work for the team, even if the right process is followed.

Address this by:

  • Make sure they know what the process is and that changes are likely to happen.
  • Build resilience. For example, talk together about what the impact of changes is going to be before you get a change.
  • Be clear on what is a change and what is a normal evolution. For example, some small document or schedule changes don’t need to go through change control if they don’t have any real impact. Just do them.
  • Keep boundaries: Don’t say yes to everything, and be prepared to push back on change requests if necessary.

2. Scheduling

Project scheduling is more than simply putting tasks in a list. It’s about managing dependencies and the resources to do the work. It’s understanding how to crash the schedule when you need to save some time and what risks that presents to your projects.

As a project manager, you’ve got a great set of skills to help others on the team understand how to schedule their own work. If they aren’t confident at scheduling you can coach them through it.

Address this by:

Help them use the right tools. You can’t build out a schedule in Excel, not a proper one. Get them access to the right software and show them how to use it.

Understand the flow of the project and what has to happen in what order. Help them understand the dependencies and the different ways tasks link to each other.

Make sure estimates are accurate so they are scheduling with data that’s actually going to stand up.

3. Budget planning

In my experience, project managers tend to worry about handling the financial aspects of projects, and that isn’t necessary. If you manage your household budget, the principles are pretty similar! It has also been my experience that we are expected to pick it up as we go. I don’t think I’ve ever had any specific, company-relevant training on how to work with Finance and do project budgeting.

However, junior colleagues or those who haven’t had to manage big numbers before might need a confidence boost and some support with this skill. Especially if they are in the same situation of never having been shown how to do this before.

Address this by:

  • Helping them understand the workings of Finance. Get to grips with what the budget process is so you can share the information.
  • Understand the calendar for Finance, for example, when year end falls and when quarterly forecasting happens. Then they can provide the right information at the right time.
  • Get them set up with the right templates and support. Link them up with colleagues in Finance who can advise.

There are lots of ways we can help colleagues and mentor them; these are just 3 areas that I find come up time and time again. What about you? What do you get asked about the most? Let me know in the comments!

Posted on: July 05, 2022 08:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

3 Skills Areas To Help Your Team With

These days, project teams are expected to do so many different things, from deep dive root cause analysis to making sure that projects align to strategy. As a team, you’re both in the weeds of the project and also trying to communicate the big picture to stakeholders.

Let’s face it, it can be difficult to have all those skills – I mean, have you seen the latest PMBOK® Guide?! Between that and the Standard for Project Management there are hardly any management and leadership skills that a project manager is not supposed to have.

However, we aren’t able to say, “I’m not very good with PowerPoint so we won’t create slide decks for status reporting.” We have to be all-rounders, even if we aren’t very good in some areas, or don’t enjoy those tasks.

Here are 3 skills for project managers that I know from my mentoring work that people in project roles have difficulty with. I’ve also included some tips for how to improve, if you choose to do so. If you lead a team and find your colleagues struggle in these areas, perhaps the ideas will help them.

1. Risk management

Large programmes may have a dedicated risk manager on the team, but if that isn’t you then you’ll have to get stuck in with risk identification, analysis and management yourself. In my experience, there are several areas that people struggle with:

  • Risk identification: making sure it is not a one off exercise
  • Risk analysis: using metrics to quantify the risk instead of just guessing what the impact might be
  • Risk management: defaulting to mitigation strategies or ‘do nothing’ because the alternatives are poorly understood or too hard.

Address this by:

  • Making sure the team has regular points where risks are discussed. You can put these on the plan.
  • Giving everyone the tools to analyse risk. Use software. Provide details of what it means to be a ‘low risk’ in terms that are financial, reputational, operational and more so they are not guessing
  • Talk about all the different options available to you and manage actively so risks are reduced, not just put on a list.

2. Task Management

This skill is all about managing your To Do list and making sure tasks have owners. It’s also time management overall on the project, so it encompasses resource levelling and capacity planning so you don’t overload people with too many tasks.

People seem to struggle managing their workload and time, and that leads to them feeling overwhelmed and overloaded.

Address this by:

  • Making sure everyone knows what is a priority task and what can wait. That will help people understand how they should be spending their time.
  • Consider using timesheets to track where time is being spent, if you don’t already use them.
  • Use milestone schedules to draw attention to the next big milestone coming up.

3. Managing multiple projects

These days, most people are managing more than one project. There are still people who lead one large, complex project, but many people are finding themselves running several initiatives at the same time, sometimes with the same resources.

This can lead to each project inching forward at a snail’s pace, lack of understanding about which project should be worked on, feeling overwhelmed as your To Do list encompasses several projects, dealing with conflict between stakeholders, all of whom feel their project is the top priority.

I wrote a book about this exact problem, which came out last month, so check out Managing Multiple Projects from wherever you buy your books if you are struggling with the juggling.

Meanwhile, here are some tips to help.

Address this by:

  • Prioritising projects. Make sure you know and are telling people what priority their projects have so they can apportion their time appropriately.
  • Using software to track actions. I’m a big fan of pen and paper but even I have moved to digital task management to keep track of multiple projects.
  • Time-boxing instead of multi-tasking. Block out time for a project, or for similar tasks across projects (like status reporting) as this is more efficient.

What other skills do you think are key to project management but are actually pretty hard to do? Let me know in the comments!

Posted on: June 14, 2022 04:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

5 Ways to Add Value as a Project Manager

You hear it all the time: “We want our project managers to add value.” “How are you adding value to the organisation?” “I want to spend more time on valued-added activities.”

But what does adding value actually mean?

I’m not a great fan of buzzwords that I can’t explain and turn into practical actions, so I’ve given this topic quite a lot of thought over the years. Here are 5 things I think you can do to add value (in a meaningful way) as a project manager.

1. Team building

Projects are done by people. People make up teams. Groups of people don’t have the same impact as a well-functioning team. Therefore, spending time on team building is worthwhile and will create value for the organisation because you’ll be better at delivering whatever it is you are delivering.

Focus on creating a positive work environment. Think about what people need to get their tasks done. Look for roadblocks you can remove, processes you can streamline. Talk about the blockers and why they are a problem.

And get some fun in there too.

2. Tenacity

Being committed to the team and the job, and the project, is a sure way to add value because it increases the chance the project will actually get done. How many projects do you know of that started but didn’t have the momentum to get across the line? That’s what tenacity will help you avoid.

Assuming you are working on the right projects, the ability to follow through and get the work done is important for making sure your time pays off for the company.

3. Relationship-building

This is such a large topic, which includes resolving conflict, smoothing over awkwardness, being diplomatic while speaking truth to power, respectful challenge and knowing who to connect and when. There’s a whole bunch of soft skills (or power skills, as it is trendy to call them now) that fall into this bucket.

They are important because this is what helps you get work done even when the environment is tricky. The more you listen, the more you understand and the easier it is to get your projects done. You’ll understand more of the business context that lets you make the right decisions that – you guessed it – lead to delivering a higher-value result.

4. Control the process

Governance might not seem like a particularly value-added thing to do, but when you understand and use the processes of project management, you can structure, standardise, save time, automate, compare and improve so much more easily.

If you have a standard approach, however informal, everyone knows what to do and what to expect and that takes some of the uncertainty out of what is normally a pretty uncertain time for people – projects deliver change and that comes with an overhead of having to live with not knowing exactly what the future will look like. That can be an added source of anxiety and stress for the team and wider stakeholder community.

5. Change management

Projects start to feel out of control when change is not managed appropriately, and that’s when stakeholders start to get nervous. You can help your projects be more successful and ‘land’ better with the receiving organisation, if you manage change properly.

That goes for both the process-led effort of receiving and handling change requests as part of your project management work, and also integrating what you are delivering into the business in a way that makes it possible for the benefits to be received as soon as possible, with the least disruption. Benefits = value.

How do you interpret ‘adding value’ as a project manager? I think it could go much further than what I’ve written here. I’m sure there are many other ways of looking at our role and how we can serve our stakeholder communities in the most value-adding way. Let me know by leaving a comment below!

Posted on: March 22, 2022 04:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)
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