Project Management

Voices on Project Management

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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with--or even disagree with--leave a comment.

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Viewing Posts by Vivek Prakash

7 Easy Tricks to Kill Innovation on Your Team

Innovation is a natural skill in human beings—that’s how we moved from the Stone Age to the Space Age. The corporate world, however, seems like it’s in a different universe, where everyone wants innovation but appears to be racing to kill it. Here are a few easy-to-use tricks for you to join the race.

1. Focus on the quarter

Make sure you’re not allowing your team to think beyond a quarter. Quarterly results are dear to CEOs. So only focus on the next quarterly result and make sure everyone on your team does too.  

2. Be Impatient

Patience is a weapon of lethargic people. You should never allow it to develop in your team. Any project or idea that takes time to materialize should not be your cup of tea. Let your team members continue to focus on your short-term goals.

3. Keep the team busy

You should be a very strict taskmaster. Check what time your team comes in and leaves for the day, and all the activities they do in between to ensure they are continuously busy in day-to-day activities. Keep their task list overflowing so that no room is left for any free time or “blue sky” thinking.

4. Maintain order

You should lay down strict processes and not allow any deviation at any cost. Teams must follow the process even if it is not required. You never know how a simple deviation could turn out to be an innovation. Explain to your team that doing things differently is the job of other teams!

5. Stay safe

Just in case the above suggestions do not impress you enough, and some little spark in the corner of your heart wants to allow a deviation, let me warn you—they all are full of risks. Risks mean uncertainty that can put your project in trouble or jeopardize your dearest short-term goals. They can even hit your reputation of consistently delivering linear results. You should play it safe by taking the routine paths already proven by others.

6. Don’t listen

Listening will be seriously injurious. If anyone comes to you suggesting a solution to a problem or a new way of doing something, don’t listen. Sometimes, you may be tempted, especially if someone’s sharing success stories. But ignore it all, lest innovation seeps in. If anyone suggests any idea, reject it immediately, giving a very routine reason, such as “it will not work in our project.” You should not give any new reason, otherwise it will appear that you are doing some innovation.

7. Reward only the million-dollar idea

Rewards are precious and should be given to the best of the best people. If a stubborn team member implements a good idea despite all your efforts, immediately point out a flaw in it, ignoring everything else. If this person meets some early-stage failure, that’s an opportunity for you to explain to the team why they should not try new things. Thoughts of rewarding someone should not even occur to you until the idea is recognized by some external agency.

I’m being facetious, of course. My point is that breakthrough innovations are not harder in practice than many seem to think—but our day-to-day responsibilities and deadlines make it hard to step back and change thinking.

What do you think are the most common practices that prevent innovative thinking? How can they be avoided? Please share your thoughts in a comment below.

Posted by Vivek Prakash on: March 05, 2016 10:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (13)

The Team That Skipped the Storming Stage

PMBOK 5th Edition - Hindi Translation Team

The PMBOK 5th Edition Hindi Translation Team Gets Recognition

This piece continues my previous blog posts, “The Techniques That Don't Resolve Conflict” and “The Only Technique That Resolves Conflicts,” which looked at why no technique other than collaborate/problem-solve truly resolves a conflict.

Researcher Bruce Tuckman suggested that a project team generally goes through the forming, storming, norming and performing stages. In this post, I will discuss a team that skipped the storming stage—or, rather, they managed their conflicts so well that they spent most of their time in the performing stage. Fortunately, I was part of the team.

The Project

PMI India took up the task to provide the PMBOK Guide—Fifth Edition in Hindi to promote project management in Hindi-speaking regions. The project initiated in February 2013 and aimed to finish by August 2013 so the new Hindi version could launch at the PMI National Conference in Delhi in September 2013. We had only six months, and the team was yet to be recruited. We had to onboard a translator and form a Translation Verification Committee (TVC) of subject matter experts who were native Hindi speakers with sound knowledge of the PMBOK Guide—Fifth Edition.    

PMBOK 5th Edition Hindi VersionThe cover of the PMBOK 5th Edition Hindi version.

The Team

PMI India already had some volunteers for the TVC. We selected a few names and started interviewing. We also tried to persuade people who were part of the TVC for the Fourth Edition to participate. We intended to select eight people for the TVC, but we settled for seven.  

Challenges

  1. The challenges were many, and the short timeframe was the first. We had to complete the project by 31 August.
  2. The translation had to be simple, easy to read and use the language of common people.
  3. Another big challenge was to find the equivalent word in Hindi. It is very common to find many Hindi equivalents for one English word, but none of them exactly matches the meaning. So you have as many opinions as people on the team. This was the most time-consuming challenge. If not addressed appropriately, it could cause serious delays.
  4. Committee members came from four different cities and could not meet frequently. All had full-time jobs and would verify the translation after work.
  5. One translator was the only team member hired professionally. His pace set the pace of the whole team.

Facing and Overcoming the Challenges

After finalizing the team, the kickoff meeting happened on 31 March, 2013. So we had only five months to complete the job. We met the first time to understand each other and set the agenda. We prepared a schedule with our best estimates. It turned out those estimates had us completing the project in October! That was not acceptable, but we decided to start work on the first three chapters and revisit the schedule later. We decided on one face-to-face meeting per month on a weekend and to connect via a conference call in between.

In the first call, we could see what we feared most. There was a lot of discussion to select the right word and sentences, and we couldn’t make much progress.

At the second meeting, the target was to finalize Chapter 1 on the first day, but again there was a lot of discussion about choosing the right word, and we could not complete the chapter. It was a matter of concern now.

We decided to set ground rules:

  1. Based on the skills demonstrated so far, we made two people the final word on Hindi and two others the final word on the PMBOK Guide. In the case of long debates about these two issues, the group would accept what these people decided.
  2. If we could not conclude a word debate in a specified time, we would have an online vote, with everyone voting within three days. The word that had the most votes would be selected with no further discussion.
  3. To maintain quality, we decided on two levels of review. Every team member would do a first-level of review and pass it on to a specified person for the second level of review.
  4. As the project was taking longer than expected, we decided to appoint one of the TVC members to help the translator fast-track the work.

At the third meeting, we lost one of the team members. Before the fourth meeting, another was transferred out of the country, reducing his availability significantly. Now the only way to complete the project before 31 August was to take less time in review. The only way to do that without losing quality was to keep our conflicts in control. Forming the above rules turned out to be the most critical factor. Obeying these rules reduced unnecessary discussion and considerably improved the pace. We completed all the activities by 27 August, leaving two weeks for printing and publishing.

Conclusion

Working on this project, I closely observed how a team can manage its conflicts and focus on delivering the work. The following five factors were most critical:

  1. Form ground rules based on the project’s objectives
  2. Identify skills in the team and assign responsibilities accordingly.
  3. Build a decision-making tool with consensus
  4. Build a process that can deliver quality
  5. Follow the rules with discipline

Do you have a similar experience or opposite to it? Please share your view.

 

Posted by Vivek Prakash on: October 03, 2015 01:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (22)

The Only Technique That Resolves Conflicts

The Only Technique That Resolves Conflicts

This piece continues my previous blog post, “The Techniques That Don't Resolve Conflict,” which looked at why no technique other than collaborate/problem solve truly resolves a conflict. Withdraw/avoid, smooth/accommodate, compromise/reconcile and force/direct are all temporary solutions—they postpone conflict resolution for a later date. Problem solving (through confronting and collaborating) is the only way to settle the conflict for good.

Here are a few points to help resolve conflicts to achieve a win-win.

Separate the Person From the Problem

Normally, people are not right or wrong. They just have different opinions, or want a different outcome than us. There is a fair possibility for an opportunity in this difference. As soon as we start seeing the difference from an angle of opportunity, we reduce our negative emotions, reduce negativity toward the person, start taking an interest in his or her viewpoint and put more focus on the problem.

Respect the Opposite Party

See the rival as a potential ally and friend in this opportunity. Respect him and his views. Genuinely try to help the other party achieve their goal. Persist with this approach even if it is not reciprocated.

Keep the Dialogue Going

It usually takes some time to work through conflicts. Matters do not get resolved quickly or within the time frame we expect. We have to maintain patience and resist the urge to fast-track the decision. Actively explore for a suitable time, engage in a two-way conversation, listen to the other party and express our views. Focus more on the points where we share common ground.

Find the Root Cause

Finding the root cause of the conflict is key to attacking the problem, and not the person. Often the reasons that appear on the surface are different than the real problems at root.

Quite often people cannot express what they really want. We often call this a hidden agenda. Many times, this hidden agenda is not as bad as it appears. For instance, some people do not openly say that they are looking for a promotion, but that’s what they really want. We have to figure out the real need by establishing a two-way conversation.

We also have to look into whether the outcome the other party seeks is a need or interest. Interests are more aspirational, and we can put them on the table. Needs, on the other hand, are basic and therefore nonnegotiable.

Allow Others to Save Face

If the other party comes out clearly on the wrong side or starts losing face, it is not the time to slap. Instead, offer opportunities to save face. Allow the other person a safe way to exit with respect. 

Use the Law of Reciprocity

Reciprocity is the foundation of living together. What we give is what we get. Empathizing and showing acceptance creates an environment of acceptance. If we make a concession, quite possibly the other party also responds. When we realize that the other party has made a concession, we should reciprocate it.

Create an Emotional Link

Emotions are at the core of conflict resolution. Create an emotional link with the other party. We must foster positive emotions such as trust, empathy and acceptance by showing these emotions. Also, we should reduce negative emotions such as anger, fear and frustration. We must balance logic and emotions.

We can find conflicts almost everywhere. The good news is that they can bring more inclusiveness and cohesion in the project team if settled by confronting and not by withdrawing or forcing.

Confronting means: Let’s talk, let me understand you first, let’s find out the root cause, respect others and create an emotional connection. I believe any type of conflict can be resolved by confronting, bringing a win to both the parties.

What’s your experience? Please share your views. 

Posted by Vivek Prakash on: July 06, 2015 08:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

The Techniques That Don't Resolve Conflict

A team goes through five stages in a project: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. The success of a project depends on how much time the team spends in the storming and performing stages. If a team leader is good at managing conflicts, the storming stage can be shortened, and the team can gain more time for performing. That significantly increases the chances of success.

Many authors and PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) define five techniques to resolve conflicts: withdraw/avoid, smooth/accommodate, compromise/reconcile, force/direct and collaborate/problem solve.

Aside from collaborate/problem solve, in my opinion all the approaches conclude with either one party winning and the other losing, or with both losing. I think these techniques are intended to achieve results only in the short term, and give no thought to what will happen in the long term.

If you use withdraw or force, one person wins and other loses. The winner might be satisfied, but what about the person who has lost? Will he/she not try to recover losses at the next opportunity? In my experience, if you use smooth or compromise, both parties lose by having to give up something that is important to them.

Let’s take a common example: negotiating price with a vendor. A conflict can arise because you both want a favorable price. Suppose you have the upper hand and force the vendor to settle on a considerably lower price than he or she wanted. Have you resolved the conflict? Probably not.

Since the vendor lost in the negotiation, he or she may try to gain back the lost money by working on the lower threshold of the acceptable range, trying to cut corners in the process or production, or using cheaper material. This will degrade the quality of the deliverable. What you think is a win-lose for you could easily become a lose-lose.

The same thing can happen when you negotiate a salary with a candidate, negotiate a promotion/raise with your report, or settle a conflict between two team members by either forcing one, or asking both, to compromise.

Compromise or smooth are even worse, in my opinion. They are lose-lose in the short term and even worse in the long term. That’s because in compromise or smooth, we often sacrifice important things. Later, both parties keep trying to recover the things they compromised away. They repeatedly negotiate with little takeaway. Lots of time is wasted in negotiations and productivity remains low.

I think problem solving/collaborating is the only technique that truly resolves conflicts. The collaboration focuses on the problem and helps solve it to the satisfaction of both parties—and therefore resolves the conflict for good. It’s easier said than done, of course.

I’ll focus on the collaborate/problem solve technique in my next blog. Until then, please share your views. How have you resolved conflict within your team? What were the results in the short-term and long-term?

Posted by Vivek Prakash on: April 14, 2015 02:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

How To Improve An Underperforming Team Member

By Vivek Prakash

How To Improve An Underperforming Team MemberWhile high-performing team members are assets for us as project practitioners, we struggle with underperformers. Generally, we have two options with underperformers — get rid of them or help them become better performers. The first option is easy, while the second requires hard work, patience and persistence.

However, the unavailability of skilled employees nowadays can make even thefirst option difficult. So helping the team member improve is often preferable. It’s a challenge, but the rewards are great: We not only convert a underperforming asset into a performing asset but also gain power and respect.

I believe that underperformance is more a perception than a reality, more an expectation mismatch than an incapability. For example, a software company might recruit team members mainly based on technical skills like programming. But all software engineers do not work alike, because their background, behavior, style and beliefs differ.

Imagine giving two different but equally capable team members, A and B, the same task. You believe A is more of a planner, while B is action-oriented. Neither approach is wrong. Employee A will create a meticulous plan before starting, while B will work with a broader plan. A’s action will start later, while B will make a couple of course corrections during the work.

If you are a planning person, you might like A, but if you are an action-oriented person, you prefer B. For urgent work, B is suitable; for quality work, however, A might be better. Based on the type of work, urgency, expected outcome and your own nature, you would pick A or B.

So if a team member is not performing well, the reason may not be his or her incapability. What if your expectations were not correctly explained to the employee? What if the employee has no motivation to complete the task? 

To improve someone’s performance, I suggest changing your role from that of a boss to mentor. Why? Because a boss gives further challenges, while a mentor provides support. A boss applies pressure while a mentor tries to find a solution.

People often cannot understand their own underperformance. Providing constructive feedback with a helping hand is the first step. If the employee did not understand expectations well, clarify them. Suggest a reward for improved performance. Money is the lowest award, and you can offer it to anyone. Instead, if possible, create milestones and praise the person for reaching them.

Always try to understand the employee’s natural inclinations. Perhaps the job doesn’t align with his or her natural abilities. Consider another assignment, offer some alternatives and do not ignore the person’s own suggestions.

One more tip: Beware of labeling a person as having a negative attitude. A negative attitude is often created by the environment, an objective mismatch or employee concerns. As soon as the environment improves, objectives align or concerns are addressed, a team member’s attitude will often become positive.

You may have faced a similar challenge in your projects. What was your experience? How did you resolve it?

Posted by Vivek Prakash on: December 20, 2014 01:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (15)
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